Are we ready?
In recent weeks, I have had conversations with my son Sebastian and my brother Philip about the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on society.
The digital revolution and (AI), which were once thought of as “the future”, are already here and playing an increasing role in our lives.
AI is transforming society as much as, if not more than, any revolution that ever came before it.
The Guttenberg revolution of the fifteenth century saw the printing press create new generations of literati.
It reduced the power of the Catholic Church’s monopoly of information.
It led directly to the Age of Reason that led to new systems of thinking and governance. It was followed by the Industrial Revolution that saw the emergence of manufacturing, the collapse of feudal society and the migration of millions from villages to cities.
The growing prosperity was accompanied by hardships for many as people gave up their agriculturally based subsistence economy to seek more freedom and employment in exchange for living in tenements and learn how to manage machines.
Modern governance was at a nascent stage and was not prepared to adapt and develop social welfare systems and policies to address the challenges of rapid urbanization.
Today we face a similar challenge.
Examples such as Uber and Lyft, show how digital platforms have created massive disruptions in the transportation industry basically redefining competition and quality of service from the previously moribund taxi industry.
Adapting to disruptive technologies is something that many of us will have to address as digital platforms become more prevalent and affect how we do business and earn a living.
These tectonic transformations could result in massive social upheavals that will affect us all. Leading this revolution and developing the policies that will help manage the massive transition that we are undergoing is the main challenge facing our political and private sector leaders as well as each of us as individuals.
They will enable entrepreneurs create the new economy with new systems and products.
There are few better examples than that of two business visionaries: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
They lead two of the world’s most valuable companies today.
And both have succeeded by turning the past into the future by revolutionizing it.
Elon Musk has turned the automotive industry upside down.
He has brought data management into the car industry adding to and constantly evolving the user experience.
Teslas are basically a computer on wheels offering a future where even as the basic elements of the car remain the same, they could well be enhanced by software that can be programmed remotely and updated instantly.
Like a computer, the car is linked to a data management system that allows it and the system to learn as it goes — when one Tesla meets a challenge or an obstacle it is reported to all others instantly, making the individual car a link in a data system that is global in scope.
The car is thus in a constant learning mode and many of the bells and whistles that are currently static and permanent options in most cars could be enhanced or changed remotely without changing the vehicle itself.
Through Tesla, Musk is developing a new business model for a century old product and is thus revolutionizing the automobile industry.
By incorporating technology to his vision, he is revolutionizing an existing industry.
He could now choose to sell the basic car as one would sell a computer and then lease the digital content much as Microsoft currently leases its Office products today.
Thus, through services, a Tesla could become a constant revenue generating product rather than a one-time sale. People will own the physical car but would in effect lease the operating system, adding or removing attributes as they wish.
Another visionary who has turned retailing on its head is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Amazon has used technology to simplify and amplify shopping bringing millions of products directly into homes everywhere.
Five years ago, Amazon acquired Whole Foods, a major U.S. food retailer.
Many people thought that Amazon’s main purpose was to add groceries to the long list of products that it currently offers clients.
However, since then, Amazon has developed technology that could eliminate both cashiers and line ups.
It records the purchase of each article as the customer puts it into the shopping cart and then charges the client’s credit card automatically upon leaving the store.Time is saved, no transaction is required with staff while enabling clients to pick and choose items such as fresh produce personally and not leave this to a third party.
Each store can then provide clients with a more rapid shopping experience and no lineups at the cash register.
Will this be the model for Whole Foods as well as for other brick and mortar retailers?
Can it be extended to say energy companies who could bill clients automatically for gas with no need for cash or credit cards — through the car or cell phone which transmits the transaction and bills the client?
The possibilities are endless.
Both men are visionaries, and like the visionaries before them such as Bell, Marconi, Edison, Ford, Gates and Jobs, they are shaping the future.
Their ability to think outside of the box, or simply to change its parameters, is resulting in many improvements to our economy. Their ability to attract the capital necessary to start their businesses coupled with their skill to sell their vision through years of operating losses created the base from which they could build their businesses.
At the same time, their ownership of the company that they run gives them a distinct advantage over more traditional organizational models that require much longer lead times to initiate and implement radical change in order to respond to shifts in technology or in consumer preferences.
The fact that both Bezos and Musk are pioneers in private sector space travel is also no coincidence.
The space race of the sixties radically accelerated technological changes, and both leaders are geniuses with the track record and financial clout necessary to leverage and apply technology to these capital-intensive projects.
Many competitive business models are also changing as a result of their success and the efforts of other entrepreneurs. These create new opportunities for people to earn a living through higher paying technology related jobs.
The survival of many companies depends on their ability to create and harness an entrepreneurial vision throughout the organizations while adapting the mindset to better incorporate evolving technology needed to remain competitive.
This need for established businesses to change, adapt and incorporate the creative use of technology into corporate culture underscores my conclusion that we are living through a quiet revolution even though many might not realize it.
Managers and workers everywhere in most all industries will need to develop new skills or seek new careers.
Who will coordinate the retraining of these workers so that they can integrate successfully into the new economy?
Most elected officials are not as familiar as they need to be with many of the challenges posed by this digital revolution and AI. Their focus is usually on the next election while the challenges posed require long term planning and action.
Governments must develop the necessary national and international institutions to create the massive retraining programs required to address the impact of AI on current employees while also educating citizens on the need to adopt new mentalities and abilities to meet the future head on.
At the same time, public education systems in most countries must address the lack of curricular focus and pedagogical strength needed to provide students with the tools required to flourish.
The private sector already participates in this new economy, investing in the technology and training required for its employees to manage new systems and techniques.
But it must also work directly with government to develop the educational architecture that so that students can develop the skills to manage the new technologies and be better prepared to enter the work force.
One way for the private sector to establish good governance models is to partner with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to reach those in need of training and support.
Some, like Friendship Bridge in Guatemala, supported by the private sector, are planning to provide women of limited means with access to technology. The objective is to train them to use technology as a tool to enhance their ability to earn and manage money.
Others advocate governments setting up training programs for affected workers who would repay the costs if and when they obtained jobs in their new sector.
It is this type of innovative thinking that can help many around the world to adapt to the evolving technological economy regardless of their socio-economic situation. Government, civil society, and the private sector can work together to create the knowledge base and synergy required to meet and manage the challenges ahead.
Former President John F. Kennedy once said that the Chinese word for crisis is composed of two letters – one signifying danger and the other opportunity.
This is the time for all sectors of society to come together and create governance models in which all play a role. Absent this, AI will continue to create fear and uncertainty, and this will affect us all.
Eduardo is a former deputy spokesperson for Ban Ki-Moon.
He is an expert in public diplomacy.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CEIM. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion. The content on this site does not constitute endorsement of any political affiliation and does not reflect opinions from members of the staff and board.