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Are We Innovating Too Quickly?

Has the speed of change meant it's uncontrollable?

5Apr

There are many threats that we face in 2017, the rising spectre of far right politics, huge economic inequality, global warming, corruption, and any number of more localized issues. When we look at these kinds of phenomena we look to our leaders to try and think their way out of them, to bring forward some kind of innovative solution to the problems the world currently faces.

However, could it simply be that our innovative thoughts and projects are the very things that have brought about these problems in the first place? Are we innovating too quickly for us to control the negative elements?

There are some compelling arguments to suggest that it is the case. A recent PWC report claimed that because of the innovations within AI, 38% of jobs in the US could be lost to the technology by 2030, which will represent the biggest change in the workforce in living history. It is going to cause a significant challenge for every country around the world and we need to be looking for ways to solve the problem.

It is is not only going to be an issue for the manual labor jobs that most people associate with automation, but in a huge variety of roles including those that require critical thinking and creativity. It is a crisis that the International Bar Association found in a recent survey, where they believe that ‘legal frameworks regulating employment and safety are becoming rapidly outdated.’ This represents a real issue for governments and companies across the world, because without this kind of rock-solid framework in place, innovative companies are going to be able to take advantage to increase profits.

For instance, a German car worker costs more than €40 ($42.50) per hour compared to between €5 and €8 for a robot. A robot can also work 24/7, doesn’t require employee benefits, and will never need to take annual leave. Without the legal frameworks in place to protect jobs, the fastest moving and most innovative companies in this space can save around 87% on their wage bill in factories whilst also increasing productivity, which is clearly going to be an incentive for company leaders.

Governments around the world need to do something to make sure this doesn’t devastate their economies, with some of the ideas being thrown around including a human quota, high taxation on companies, and even a universal wage for everybody paid from the high taxation of companies utilizing AI to replace workers. Each of these ideas have considerable flaws, but governments need to have this a top priority in the next 5 years to avoid the worst happening.

The issue with this isn’t that governments aren’t aware, but simply that they generally have more pressing things to concentrate on. In the US there is a huge partisan fight around the very foundation of what the government should represent, in Europe they are dealing with Brexit and challenging economic environments, and these two elements are impacting almost every country around the world. Thinking 12 years ahead simply isn’t an option when it is difficult to predict what’s likely to happen in the next 12 months.

Also innovation is happening more quickly than ever before thanks to both an increase in the number of people with the opportunity to spend the time coming up with new ideas, the competition from other companies, a dramatic improvement in technology, and global communication. We are only just seeing governments begin to catch up with the decade old data revolution and even now few have robust policies in place to allow them to effectively police data use. We have even seen governments exploit vague data laws for their own ends, with the NSA and GSHQ scandal from the early 2010s clear evidence.

Our current system of government, with snail paced processes trying to keep up with the latest innovations that seem to change every day, simply isn’t designed to cope with change happening this rapidly. It is down to this inaction that many of the issues we currently face have been allowed to continue, climate change came about because governments were too slow reacting to the threat, economic inequality came about because governments didn’t recognize it was happening until it was too late, and this inequality and frustration is what has given rise to far right politics.

The innovations that have allowed these things to take place were technically at fault for these situations, but were generally implemented with the best intentions in mind. If we think about industrial farming, one of the single biggest contributors to global warming and habitat destruction, it was an innovation brought about to increase the global yield of food. AI stems from big data, which was created to allow people to make better and more informed decisions, not to ultimately take their jobs. Both are examples of innovations that happened quickly and that governments were either unwilling to change because of their benefits or unable to control it because of the speed development.

We have found ourselves in a situation where innovation is the end goal of almost everything we do in business and society. It has brought about the greatest achievements in history, but at the same time has also inadvertently created some of the world’s biggest mistakes. Innovation is an essential part of what we do, it is the lifeblood of evolving businesses and making people’s lives better, but unfortunately the necessary frameworks that should be in place to help keep it in check are made by those who’s ability for innovation and disruption is severely limited. We need to think our way out of this issue, which ironically means we need to use innovative thinking to think our way out of our current innovation issues.  

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