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It’s easy right now to feel put-upon by the tech-driven pace of change. Those of us in both the private and even public sectors are often subject to a parade of Silicon Valley technobabble, constantly shouting things at us such as “Robots are displacing us!” and “Move fast and break things!” and “Disrupt the Disruptors!” In other words, the Future is upon us and we must rush headlong into it or be caught flat-footed.

Themes and conversations taking place

What I heard instead at Techweek 2019, what my team heard, was tonally quite different. We witnessed themes and conversations taking place that were far more nuanced, thoughtful, and prudent than what may come across in the various futurist hype machines that bombard us every day. It was a refreshing dynamic.

Are we innovating for the best, or is it the Wild West?

Take for example a panel on Standards and Emerging Technology held at MBIE by Standards New Zealand, entitled “Are we innovating for the best, or is it the Wild West?”

The panel drew experts from academia, the public sector, and the private sector — all of whom made cogent points about new technology and regulation, among them:

  • It’s incumbent upon us to understand what a tech phenomenon actually is before we start regulating it. Not understanding and then acting impulsively can have adverse consequences on everything from markets to free speech.
  • Principles-based standards are preferable to obligatory regulations, at least to begin with.
  • Sometimes regulation is needed. There is certainly value in adhering to international regulatory standards, but then it becomes a matter of squaring them for a New Zealand-specific context.

Considered responses to technological change

What the conversation signalled was a common desire for considered and deliberate responses to the rapid technological change around us, rather than slap-dash solutions that may have unforeseen consequences. All panellists had seen the effects of rushed decision making in their careers and agreed that, even in the digital age, patience is indeed a virtue.

If an expert human cannot perform a specific task, then neither can AI

We witnessed conversations beyond just regulation. Many of the sessions were deep-dives into the tech itself. A human-centred design session at Springload headquarters illuminated a point about artificial intelligence (AI) that’s important but not stressed nearly enough: if an expert human cannot perform a specific task, then neither can AI.

The designers at Springload argued that we must become comfortable with the phrase inspired by Greek Drama “Don’t rely on a God from the machine [Deus Ex Machina].” It conveys the fundamental idea that our creations will not solve all our problems.

More likely it will force us to learn to work alongside our creations, which is a far more realistic portrait of the future than simply robots replacing us. Humans and machines already do everything from perform surgery to play chess together, so it stands to reason that the realm of collaboration will expand.

Specific technology may not be the answer

More importantly, sometimes specific technology may not be the answer in the first place. Perhaps no moment summed up this idea more than when Jessica Manins, Chief Creator at Mixt VR/AR Studio shared some advice that she often gives to her clients. On a Techweek TV event (Innovation that’s good for the world), she advised against trying to shoe-horn new technologies into business as usual, simply for the sake of doing so.

“Be creative,” she cautioned. “Don’t try and force the technology to fit though. Maybe VR/AR isn’t right — it definitely often isn’t.” After years of hearing various tech evangelists rave about how their bailiwick is the solution to everything, this was not only refreshing to hear, but necessary. It takes just as much forward thinking to realize when a megatrend is not the solution as when it is. Hopefully then the best solution will be discovered more quickly.

Reflections

While it may not make for some attention-grabbing headlines, the reflective tenor of some of these Techweek conversations were a breath of fresh air, and one much needed in an age where big tech firms are on the backfoot and having to answer for past indiscretions. With any luck, we will carry these reflections with us into this future that is meant to intimidate us so much.

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