Gerd Leonhard explores the technoscientific advances that are massively influencing our present and will influence our future. The Swiss futurist focuses on near-future insights and is considered a leading voice on topics ranging from accelerating technologies (artificial intelligence, robotics, the “Internet of things”) to social media. In 2015 Wired magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential Europeans in technology and innovation. He is the author of several books, the most recent devoted to Technology vs Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine. He hosts the web-TV series TheFuturesShow and is CEO of TheFuturesAgency, an international network of futurists. Gerd is also an accomplished guitarist and composer.
“Our children won’t drive, won’t write, and will have jobs that don’t exist today. We shall see more changes in ten years than in the past three centuries.”
Four words sum up futurist Gerd Leonhard’s presentation at the 8th Forum de la Haute Horlogerie in Lausanne: no technology, no future. Leonhard’s message supposes we are able to broaden our mind to such a possibility; most of all it asks that we urgently redefine the relationship between man and machine. “We already know our children won’t drive their cars themselves, that they probably won’t know how to write, and that they will very likely have a job that doesn’t even exist today. And when I say ‘our children’, I’m talking about a future taking place a few years from now, not next century. We are on the cusp of technological changes that will evolve at an exponential rate. Anyone still reasoning in linear development terms is doomed to failure.”
A look at the biggest companies by market capitalisation drives the point home. In 2006, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Microsoft, Citigroup, BP and Royal Dutch Shell took the top six spots. Now only Microsoft and ExxonMobil remain, joined by Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook, all tech companies. “Oil is being replaced by data, petrol is being replaced by intelligence,” Leonhard observed. “Today’s new ideas revolve around virtual reality, the internet of things and blockchains. It’s food for thought, particularly when you consider that by 2023 we aim to build a computer that has the capacity of a human brain. Better still, by 2050 one single computer will have the same capacities as every human brain on the planet. In this context, we can’t ignore the ethical issues, knowing that the most important vectors for change involve artificial intelligence and cognitive computing. To take an example, just look at what’s going on right now with the human genome, and the promises of eternal life this implies.”
Already, our daily and working lives incorporate products and services based on automation (driverless cars), augmented reality (3D glasses and headsets), virtual reality (Amelia, the digital customer support officer at Scandinavian bank SEB), and connected data networks (instantaneous media), all of which can be largely managed from a smartphone. “Things and processes are themselves becoming intelligent,” notes Leonhard, adding that “a wealth of applications exist, whether in the public sector, in business, or the consumer world. By 2025, virtual reality and augmented reality applications will be worth an estimated $35 billion in the fields of health, engineering, real estate, education, the military, video games and leisure. The immediate consequence is that the future will no longer be a mere extension of the past. And given the technological developments taking place, we can rest assured that anything that can be digitised or automated will be. In a word, I’d say the next ten years will bring more change than the past three centuries.”
In return, anything which cannot be digitised or automated will likely gain in value. Hence Gerd Leonhard’s warning against thinking like a machine. “A giant such as Ikea, for example, launched an entire recruitment campaign saying it was looking to hire “why-sayers”, people who didn’t allow themselves to be boxed in by convention. As we can see, the power of technology is greater today than nuclear power. What matters is that we apply technology to human, even humanist, goals. As Einstein so rightly said, “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Steve Jobs believed in the same principle when he said it was in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough, and that it must be married with the liberal arts and the humanities to yield the results that make our heart sing. Personally, I’d like to conclude by saying we have no other choice than to embrace technology, but we must also take care not to identify with it!”
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