What Is the future for work in a world of uncontrolled war and exponential AI?

Latest opinion piece by Mark Hillary

How do we make sense of the world and how fast it is changing? I can remember buying a book called ‘Faster’ way back in 1999. It was the American science writer James Gleick talking about the exponential change taking place at the turn of the millennium.

Now it feels quaint to look back at the nineties and imagine that we thought things were moving quickly back then. We didn’t even have social media or smartphones yet people were worried about the pace of change.

‘The Widening Turn’ by Stephen Loynd is the Faster for 2024, but with added geopolitics and technology. Stephen is well known to the sourcing and CX communities globally as he is the founder of the American analyst firm TrendzOwl. He has also been a frequent contributor to the CX Files podcast that I host with Peter Ryan.

Stephen is a deep thinker and his approach runs contrary to many modern trends. As most of the world turns to TikTok to get their news in 10-second chunks, Stephen is hunkering down with Dostoevsky and wondering which lessons from the past can be applied to our hi-tech future.

His book is centred on change and innovation, but it features two important angles. First is the increasing divide between the ‘west’ (focused on the US tech and defense industry) and China. The second is the extremely rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what this means for our global economy.

Both of these changes are enormous and this is why Stephen’s book deserves an audience. He is suggesting that we need to think beyond soundbites, beyond political parties and lobbyists, and beyond hashtag campaigns and slacktivism. The world is changing fast and there may be some surprising casualties if we don’t prepare for it.

China doesn’t have a democratic system of government, yet things happen. High speed rail can be contrasted with an ambling Amtrak. An entire society that has moved beyond plastic credit cards can be contrasted to people writing cheques in Walmart. A complete dominance over global solar power technology and modern battery technology can be contrasted with an auto industry that would like a return to the good old days in Detroit.

The US has democracy and freedom and citizens can start companies that become popular globally, such as Amazon, Apple, and Meta, but it is increasingly likely that we will see two schools of thought – possibly even walled off from each other as the ‘Great firewall of China’ already censors internet users in China today.

Stephen’s other point is the general misunderstanding around the social consequences of artificial intelligence (AI). The froth of media coverage has largely focused on the jobs that tools such as generative AI will be taking. Who needs customer service support employees when AI can handle all those customer questions? Do we need a Universal Basic Income because so many jobs are about to vanish?

Most of this commentary is just noise.

Stephen’s analogy looks back to Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who planned and led the first ever circumnavigation of the world in 1519 to 1522. In fact, Magellan himself died in the Philippines in 1521, but his crew completed the journey the following year.

This journey proved that the earth was a sphere, that it was possible to travel between continents both by travelling east and west. This mission connected the world and created commercial and cultural links that remain today. Nobody at the time could imagine what it would mean for a human to be able to travel to any location on earth.

This is our present dilemma with AI.

Today it is an extremely powerful tool when applied to individual tasks. There is no general AI system that can equal the human brain for learning or understanding, but maybe it will come as quantum computing creates new technical possibilities?

The reality today is that we can show a toddler a few photos of a cat and then show them a new photo of a cat that they have never seen before and they will say ‘cat.’ AI systems need to process thousands of images to learn tasks that are simple for infant humans.

But, as Stephen’s book suggests we are still in the foothills of discovery. The launch of ChatGPT at the end of 2022 was the equivalent of learning that the earth is not flat. Now we must use our imagination to consider what we can do with this knowledge and these abilities.

As we do so, we must also be aware that Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ is a concept that is itself over. Technology will be intertwined with geopolitics in a future that may involve unexpected trade wars, cold wars, and even military wars.

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