‘Nowhere close to machines replacing humans’: Tech author David Moschella

A rendering of an unorthodox electric vehicle called ‘Origin’ being developed by GM's Cruise subsidiary.

A rendering of an unorthodox electric vehicle called ‘Origin’ being developed by GM's Cruise subsidiary.   | Photo Credit: AP

In his latest book Seeing Digital, the writer addresses the questions and concerns we have regarding technology in the 2020s

Often we are forced to adopt new technologies. For instance, it would be tough to stick to a New Year’s resolution of staying away from WhatsApp. Even if we are ready to renounce its many benefits, our nature of work might not allow us its disuse. Due to the constant mutation in technology, it is near-impossible to always be aware of the implications of its use. When we put together the reports of thefts, manipulation and surveillance of data, and this compulsion of using and difficulty in understanding technology, an ominous prospect presents itself.

David Moschella, however, says, “The upsides of technology innovation far outweigh the downsides.” In his latest book, Seeing Digital: A Visual Guide to the Industries, Organizations, and Careers of the 2020s (SAGE India) — a product of a decade’s research — he allays unfounded alarms regarding technology and attempts to present an outlook, especially for the next 10 years.

Edited excerpts

Can you decode the title?

The reason I called the book Seeing Digital is because it uses a highly visual style. The most obvious aspect of this approach is the picture per page format. I also strove to make each chapter, and even each page a standalone source of value. It has been gratifying that so many people have noticed this, and that this visual and componentised way of writing has proved especially popular with readers for whom English is a second, or third, language. As one reader said: “It is great that I can open any chapter or page, look at it, and start using it.”

The phrase digital transformation is oft-repeated in the book. Can you describe it?

For more than a decade, large organisations have been migrating to cloud computing, software-as-a-service (SaaS), and other internet-based services. But the global technology community now anticipates a much more powerful wave of change, based upon various combinations of smart products, machine learning, industry-specific business platforms, algorithmic processes, robotics, self-service, data-driven operations, and new forms of value creation. Taken together, these capabilities provide a vision for transformed, 21st-century organisations that look much more like today’s digital giants than the traditional global firm. While such transformations are certainly not easy, it is hard to over-estimate the potential of these changes.

We saw the rise of social media in the last 10 years. How will it change in the next 10?

Looking back over previous technologies, such as word processing, email, e-commerce, and search, we see that they haven’t changed all that much over the years, and thus in 10 years, Facebook, for example, might not look all that different than it does today. If there is one area I would like to see change, it would be for specialised communities, especially in health care, to become much more powerful sources of research and actionable knowledge. This vast societal potential remains largely untapped.

David Moschella

David Moschella   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

As the changes in technology have become rapid, how can our educational institutions structure their programmes to make sure that the lessons they teach aren’t outdated?

While there is always room for improvement, I think our leading schools do a pretty good job teaching computer science. Where they must do better is in applying digital technology to every other educational field — be it science, math, history, literature, government, or the social sciences. Building digital into just about every form of training is the best way for societies to broadly prepare their students for the future.

Is it the case that technology is growing so fast that we aren’t quite sure of how to handle it? For example, we have invented self-driving cars. But have we worked out all the complications that might arise out of them? If there is a fatal accident, who do we hold accountable?

One of the key messages of the book is that, in many areas, the pace of technology change is not accelerating, and that many new technologies such as self-driving cars, blockchains, virtual reality, bots et al, are actually being adopted more slowly than personal computers, smartphones, and the internet itself. This relatively slow pace will give us more time to prepare for these important developments and the new ethical issues they create. Facial recognition is perhaps the big exception, as this technology has developed quickly, and is generating many complex challenges.

While today’s deep fake technologies clearly present similar new forms of risk, the impact of Cambridge Analytica in the US elections was actually much less than is often reported. It was not the decisive issue in the US elections.

What developments in AI do you predict for the 2020s?

In recent years, many people have talked about how software is “eating the world”, as software has often redefined the way markets and industries work. But looking ahead, data will increasingly eat software, as machine learning turns data into action without the need for specific software programming. It is a fundamental change and innovation.

Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to target US voters was among the important talking points last decade. Is there a risk of something like this happening on a much bigger scale in different parts of the world?

There are always risks with new technology, and at various times, newspapers, radio and television have all been used to shape public opinion, in sometimes undesirable ways. While today’s deep fake technologies clearly present similar new forms of risk, the impact of Cambridge Analytica in the US elections was actually much less than is often reported. It was not the decisive issue in the US elections.

Mass surveillance programmes have already started in some parts of the world. Is there a possibility of this transforming into some kind of a digital dictatorship?

Many nations are certainly looking at following China’s lead in imposing much stricter national controls over social media, and the era of a largely open, global internet is passing, at least for now. The US, Europe and China all seem to be moving in different directions. It would seem that the internet will increasingly resemble each nation’s overall culture.

Do you foresee any kind of resistance to technology because of the threat of machines replacing humans?

As I say in the book, the benefits of technology are real and here today, while the fears are almost entirely speculative. We are nowhere close to machines replacing humans in vast numbers; nor are we close to a generalised machine intelligence. Someday, we might well reach these points, but until we get much closer to it, I think it should be full speed ahead. As it has in the past, the upsides of technology innovation far outweigh the downsides, which is why Seeing Digital is basically a book of sustained optimism.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 12:18:30 PM |

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