Thursday, September 24, 2015

3 Predictions

Three predictions from my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015 at the University of Auckland.

Title of the Talk: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

I thought it would be an interesting challenge in this context to make a few predictions about connectivity.

Prediction #1: Off-line will become a legitimate space where one can go without apology or fear of retribution.  By this I mean that switching off a connective device, or not checking email, or even leaving your smartphone at home will increasingly be considered an acceptable option.  We have heard of ‘digital vacations’ and no phone use during meals.  I believe we will see more of this behavior at least by some individuals and groups in the future.

I was recently heartened to hear of a friend’s young son leaving for a school trip to Japan and leaving his mobile phone at home.  The school had learned the fundamental principle of experiential education, that the best experiences are those that are felt and lived directly.  I was impressed by the school, but the best part of that story was that this young man understood and willingly left his smartphone at home, asking simply for an old-fashioned digital camera to take pictures.  (I imagine there were still lots of selfies.)

Prediction #2: Machines may take some jobs, but not the best ones.

Despite the current fear of artificial intelligence, a thoughtful and creative human with a decent machine will still outperform the best supercomputer in the world.  This has been proven in the Watson vs. human chess competitions.  The supercomputer, IBM’s Watson, can beat any human on their own, but a human with a rather average computer can out-perform the supercomputer (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014).
‘Computers are not useless, but they’re still machines for generating answers, not posing interesting new questions.  That ability still seems to be uniquely human, and still highly valuable.  We predict that people who are good at idea creation will continue to have a comparative advantage over digital labor for some time to come, and will find themselves in demand.  In other words, we believe that employers now and for some time to come will, when looking for talent, follow the advice attributed to the Enlightenment sage Voltaire: ‘Judge a man by his questions, not his answers’ (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014, The Second Machine Age, p. 192).

Prediction #3: Sh*t will happen. Perrow’s observation of ‘normal accidents’ in complex systems suggests that we can expect connective breakdowns and security breaches on more or less a regular basis, with the possibility of major systems meltdowns. This is because the Internet is a complex system and though adaptive measures are in place, things are going to break from time to time. Having said that it’s normal won’t make living through such episodes any easier.

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