WebSummit – Brave new world, old problems


This week is happening in Lisbon the major event in Tech. With fifty-nine thousand attendees and one thousand volunteers involved in the organization the three days while it happens is a continuous buzz. Wherever you look in the four pavilions plus a whole stadium, where the center stage is, something is happening. If it’s startups pitching to the judges from VCs or a big CEO launching a new product. It just doesn’t stop.

On Monday the opening happened to feature a special guest, Stephen Hawking, and I was lucky enough to be there. And the message was clear as he repeated many times: AI can be the best thing or the worst thing to ever happen in the history of our civilization, we just don’t know. Those are the words of the physicist, not mine. Together with the warning his request, together with the other speakers present that night, was that people are already working on solutions to the problems that might come.

What is the main problem in their opinion? We already saw it in several Sci-fi Movies as Ex Machina, Blade Runners, and Matrix. We create machines that are smarter than us, and they end up outdoing us. They take over our jobs, our world, and even our life’s. Very dramatic, right? But right now the main subject is all the jobs that will probably go missing. The Secretary-general of the United Nations, who was also on the opening night, gave a concrete example. This one is not in the far future. Right now the profession that employes more people in the United States is drivers. And what happens with self-driving cars? You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to guess this one.

But what a lot of people fail to mention is that this already happened to us before. Remember the industrial revolution that your secondary school teacher loved to talk about? Yes, most of the people lost their jobs in factories to machines which could do it faster and cheaper. Now, please don’t assume that I am saying that because it happened before nobody will suffer. Back then a lot of people were affected, and right now people will suffer again if we don’t act before it is too late. And that time before it’s too late is now. So what have we learned from the industrial revolution?

During the industrial era what changed wasn’t just jobs or productivity. The whole world changed. Like most people, before it was farmers, people had to move to the cities to earn money. Suddenly cities became monumental, then the government had to adapt, the buildings had to adjust, and even the family structure and social interactions changed. AI promises to bring just as a profound change in our society. So what we learned is that yes, change is coming. And there is no need to suffer if we are in control of it.

The solution during the industrial era was to create a new kind of job, and we can do the same now. We can even bring some jobs back from those times, as I wrote in this article. And no, not all of the new jobs have to do with tech. A lot of them are creating jobs or jobs that require a truly human touch, to create a human experience. Solutions don’t rely only on jobs as we know it. A lot of areas of the world are investing and piloting basic income. By 2020 one billion people will be freelancers, not employees. The idea of a full-time job is also refuted continuously. So maybe the request to solve the problems coming from tech, don’t rely on tech, but in the system this technology is being created to serve.