Existential Challenges of the Second Machine Age

Friday, 01/07/2016

We have the rare fortune to be witnessing a massive turning point in the history of humanity, the so called “second machine age”  or “fourth industrial revolution” . Are we conscious of the impending challenges, or are we marching forward, blissfully unaware of how today’s decisions are already shaping the future?

 

Contributor: Dr. NIKOS MYLONOPOULOS
Associate Professor of Digital Business

Outlet: Business Partners

 

We have the rare fortune to be witnessing a massive turning point in the history of humanity, the so called “second machine age”(i) or “fourth industrial revolution”(ii) . Are we conscious of the impending challenges, or are we marching forward, blissfully unaware of how today’s decisions are already shaping the future?

Awe-inspiring innovations make daily headlines. Self-driving cars, ambient home devices and robotic social companions redefine our daily routine. Advanced prosthetics, DNA editing and the 3D printing of human organs transform our concept of medical treatment. From factories and warehouses to legal firms and hospitals, advanced technologies are taking over jobs, supporting fears of a world without work(iii) . Technology promises a bounty of benefits, while challenging established norms. Where are we headed?

The exponential pace of technology exceeds our ability to grasp the magnitude of change. Like Jules Verne in the first machine age, a growing Science Fiction filmography explores some bizarre yet not too distant ideas such as computers displaying emotion, genetically engineered human species, a humanity in permanent vacation. At the same time, leading scientists express concern over the existential threat from artificial intelligence(iv) . If we can create machines to be better than humans, and bio-engineer humans to be as good as machines; if we can abolish work and conquer disease, then what does it mean to be human?

Instead of attempting philosophical theorizing, let’s observe everyday experience. We are so excited to share on Instagram the fleeting moment of a sunset, that we forego the timeless immersion of our senses to the colors and smells, the eerie silence, as nature goes from daylight into darkness. Notice how popular musicians perform live concerts in front of a present-absent audience attending via their smartphone screens. If you don’t share the concert or sunset on social media it’s like you weren’t there. Long before the advance of the robots, the lived human experience gets reduced to digital data(v) . How do we restore humanity if technology is the overarching value system guiding all aspects of modern society?

Without foregoing the urgency of investing in engineering skills, we must heed Martin Heidegger and re-emphasize forms of knowing that eschew algorithmic processing: “what is essential in the discovery of reality happens not through science, but through […] great poetry and its projections”(vi) . If art is our gateway to the ineffable truths of human experience, who can prevent the dystopian futures of Science Fiction?

Business is de facto the most powerful institution in the world today. Therefore, the responsibility resting on the shoulders of business leaders is enormous: whether they realize it and accept it or not, their choices have a profound impact on the future viability and wellbeing of humanity. This is why top Business Schools make a point of enriching their MBA and leadership development programs with education on the arts.
As paradoxical as it seems to follow a course on corporate finance with another on theater, the existential challenges of the second machine age will be answered in the boardroom as much as in the academy. To be able to rise to this challenge, business leaders must be prepared to look at the bottom line and much further beyond.

Footnotes:

i. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee, “The Second Machine Age”, W.W. Norton & Co, 2016.
ii. Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, World Economic Forum, 2016.
iii. “A World Without Work?”, World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2016, https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-forum-annual-meeting-2016/sessions/a-world-without-work/
iv. Nick Bostrom, “Superintelligence”, Oxford University Press, 2016.
v. Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not A Gadget”, Penguin 2011.
vi. Martin Heidegger, “The Essence of Truth” (1930), Bloomsbury, 2013.