• As we enter the new decade technology will dominate.
• Artificial intelligence (AI) will change how we live work and play.
Our relationship with technology has always been one of optimism, suspicion, caution or even regret.
For example, the invention of the automobile in the 1920s was heralded as the answer to horse-drawn carriages that filled streets with dung, noise and congestion.
The automobile was at one point a much-celebrated replacement of horse-drawn carriage. Not anymore. The tailpipes of automobiles are now a source of dangerous air pollution in large cities like Delhi, Shanghai, Mexico City and even here Nairobi and Kampala. Urban traffic gridlock undermines connectivity and efficiency in many developing country cities.
Moreover, the carnage from automobile accidents is orders of magnitude greater than anything one could ever imagine from horses. In the same way we have decried the blight caused by smoke-belching factories, which have produced goods and services as well as jobs that have moved hundreds of millions into cities.
Fast forward to the present time. The internet and the cellphone are perhaps the most defining technological inventions of our time. At some point, we considered social media as singularly liberating. Especially the capacity of social media to bring people together for a common cause. This was the dominant perception during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Not anymore. We think of social media as a vortex of fake news and propaganda, which now threatens to undermine the foundations of modern democracy and individual privacy. Politicians in Kenya and the United States have manipulated voters using social media platforms such as Facebook. Parents are mortified by what they imagine their children might do with their smartphones.
As we enter the new decade technology will dominate. Artificial intelligence (AI) will change how we live work and play. The pace and scale of this change will be enormously accelerated by the ubiquity of 5G and the implosion of internet of things (IOT). Think about how baking will change as major banks transmute into technology firms.
Life, as we know, will change. And there will be losers. There will be push back and revolt against some forms of technology to the extent that they take away jobs from people or jeopardize privacy. The anxiety we feel is not new. Throughout the history of the industrial civilization our apprehension about society’s capacity to harness technology for universal common good.
Inevitably, technology is attended by unforeseen outcomes or consequences. Technology is disruptive and often leaves creative destruction in its wake. But the short-term costs of technology must not distract us from the long-term benefits of technology. Cars have become safer and more efficient since they were first released on the road back in the 1920s.
I am mindful that the internet can enhance knowledge. The internet is also dense with undesirable, corrupting content. But a smartphone in the hands of a child can enable transformative learning and understanding. The IOT can enhance efficiency and productivity, as well as advance human wellbeing.
Good or evil, technology by itself has no agency. We, human users, make choices about technology, which define good or undesirable outcomes.
Alex O. Awiti is Vice Provost at Aga Khan University. Views expressed here are my own.