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For the first 250 metres it all goes well. I am in Singapore, in the back of a prototype driverless car, gazing at the other side of the road. Then our car decides to veer slowly into the path of the oncoming rubbish truck.
Our emergency driver lunges for the wheel, yanks us back to safety, then tells me the game plan. This isn’t a vanilla driverless car, he explains, it is a do-it-yourself driverless car, made with off-the-shelf technology, and the goal is to get it on the road as fast as possible.
But the car, which works a treat for the rest of the day, is only step one. Step two is to fully automate Singapore’s economy. Step three is to put all citizens on universal basic incomes. Step four is to use facial recognition technologies to close off the city to unwanted foreign migrants. It is a straight line, in other words, from the technological to the economic to the social, then the political.
If the 2010s were the decade of the unicorn — the mythical beast of the $1bn tech start-up — the 2020s appear poised for a unicorn stampede. With Timandra Harkness, the co-presenter of our BBC Radio 4 show FutureProofing, I have spent the past three years scanning the horizon for what is coming in terms of disruptive technologies. The cupboard isn’t bare: eggless synthetic biology scrambled eggs, stem cell rejuvenation, weaponised nanobots, the colonisation of Mars, passenger-bearing mega-drones and brain-to-brain communication systems.
Across disparate fields, from artificial intelligence to robotics, from 3D printing to nanotechnology, from genetics to quantum computing, a pattern is emerging: technological developments are starting not just to accelerate but to amplify one another.
They are poised to reshape the business landscape. The core capacity we are going to need to survive, says Astro Teller, the so-called Captain of Moonshots at X, Google’s research unit, may be dynamic stability — the velocity to stay upright.
But as the rubbish-truck economy of Henry Ford’s fossil-driven mass production starts to yield to the age of the algorithm, what is the impact on business and society? Where does this rollercoaster look like it is going to take us?
My hunch it is not just speed that matters, it is direction. If technology is not the answer but the amplifier of intent, there is a primary question we have to answer: What are the problems we are looking to solve?
It looks like there are two different directions emerging. We have the option to prize artificial over human intelligence, to deploy technology in a centralised model that solves for shareholder value at the expense of jobs, that automates — according to projections by University of Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne — 47 per cent of US and UK white-collar jobs by 2035.
This would hit national balance sheets with the double whammy of lower tax revenues and surging welfare costs, and set the stage — with increased inequality and the perception of an economy no longer working for the many — for broader support for challenger populist movements.
But there is also another option: to do the opposite, not to replace human intelligence but to augment it. Go back 1,000 years and the means of production was the land, and the barrier to entry was the wall. For the past 200 years the means of production has been the factory, and the barrier to entry the capital to own it. But with this new set of technologies, from APIs, the cloud and open data, to the sharing economy and micro-printing, the barriers to entry are dropping fast.
The potential is there, to unlock a new wave of cognitive surplus and put power in people’s hands to drive innovations across the challenges that confront us, from distributed solar energy to data-driven banking for the unbanked, from 3D-printed ultra-low-cost housing to sensor-based micro-irrigation for drought-resilient agriculture.
What does real boldness look like for me as we head into the 2020s? It is boldness not just of execution but of intent.
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