This is first of a series of thoughts grown from a presentation I gave this week at Cambridge University. Officially, it’s my take on the three critical factors for building successful companies, careers and lives. In reality, I’ve been dying for an excuse to introduce Robocop, Spiderman, StarWars, The Matrix and Guns & Roses to this blog, and with this series, think I’ve finally done it! If you enjoy the below, do watch for the other posts in this series – Future Gazing and the Importance of People.
In 2048 Man and Machine will merge. This event will be called singularity.
As much as I love (I mean really, really, love) 1987’s Robocop, the reality of the merging of technology and biology has moved on significantly. Back then, Hollywood would have us think humans would become more and more like machines. The current thinking around the merging of Man and Machine is actually the opposite. The current vision for ‘singularity’ in 2048 is that machines will actually become more and more human.
For evidence of how we’ve already progressed along the path of merging man and machine, just look at what we’re already doing with mobile and kinetic devices.
Looking ahead to 2048 though, the realisation of ‘singularity’ will be when technology mirrors and moulds around real life and ultimately enhances man’s mental and physical capacities. A new superspecies will emerge.
I completely subscribe to this thought and work towards it, but I didn’t come up with it. Nor did the writers behind Robocop. It was Ray Kurzweil.
Ray’s an inventor and author. He’s an IT developer who played with optical character recognition systems, electronic music technologies, music synthesizers, and speech recognition. His most famous book, “The Singularity is Near”, challenges some traditional world views and predicts that in 2048, man and machine will merge. If you haven’t already, read it.
So let’s take Ray’s view, as I do, for 2048. With the merging of man and machine – or singularity – will come an incredible upheaval. Not surprising, right? Just look at the struggle we had to transition from an industrial to knowledge society and economy. And then imagine the world views and societal mores that singularity will challenge…
– Are humans finally taking the place of god as the creator and taker of life?
– Will machines replace humans and slowly invent us away once they invaded our bodies and our minds?
– Will we spend more time living in a virtual reality instead of the real world? Do we therefore need to care about nature per se or is that just a distraction on our journey?
– Will we be always connected and therefore always tracked?
– What institutions will we need, if any? The educational system, the health system, the governments as we know it will be all obsolete.
There will be many outcries – some joyful, others painful. But there will also be practical things to consider.
– Death: If no longer caused by old age, illness or infirmity. Can and when does a person decide they’ve had enough and die?
– Population control: How many people can the planet cope with? Can only a certain amount of people have kids? If so, who can procreate and what’s the selection process? When do we introduce it?
– Societal structure: Which institutions will we need? If any at all? What’s happening with education? What’s the value of education if everything you need to know can be inserted in a microchip? Are we all thinking about this already?
To my mind, singularity – and indeed most technology and its deployment – isn’t only about science. In fact, the science is almost the ‘easy’ part! There’s also has a moral and ethical dimension. And to deal with this we each need to know what we stand for and believe in. As we know from Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Which sets me up neatly to introduce the first of my three critical factors for building successful companies, careers and lives: Ethics.
Why do I see Ethics so tied to personal and professional, not to mention organisational success?
Simple. Ethics define how you behave, what you do, what you tolerate, and what you believe is right and wrong. And not only what you do, but also what you don’t do. (Just take the riots in London this week and the decisions so many people made. To Loot, or Not to Loot … )
In many cases, the decision not to act or to go with the flow because: “No one else did anything.” “I was told to do it.” Or “That’s the way the system works…” is just as impactful as taking action.
It is the responsibility of each of us, in whatever our positions and with whatever our influence, to strike the right balance between power and responsibility. You always have a choice. Always. This is freedom. Always take decisions that increase the number of choices.
Heinz von Foerster, a scientist combining physics and philosophy and one of the architects of cybernetics, says that we are defined by the answers we give to questions that are not decidable. For example: How did the universe start? Is there a god? What happens after death? Answering these questions defines who you are and what you stand for, both personally and professionally.
I can’t speak for your personal lives (!), but professionally, we all face ethical dilemmas in day to day business life.
The questions we face at Jobsite, for example, are: Shall we charge job seekers? Or are they too vulnerable? Who owns data they give us? What can be done with it? Data for me is a really great point – because many people hide behind permissions instead of thinking about the ethical dimension here.
Like many other businesses, on the one hand we have advertisers paying us, and on the other hand job seekers using us for free. While it could be quite easy just to cave into every demand for the money paying customer, we passionately believe we have a responsibility to look after the rights of the job seeker, not only for the longevity of our business, but for all our customers and also for the wider society.
I strongly feel it’s not enough to be driven solely by the bottom line. A responsible and sustainable business must consider the wider consequences of their business approach and actions. An old school, game theory approach of win-win is not enough.
To my mind, ethics are part of the DNA of a successful business and it will be ethics that guide the desire to always look for, and define, the approach that delivers a win-win-win (company – customer – society) – always.
So how do you define your ethical stance? Or to put it another way, how do you define who you are and what shapes how you approach your business, your career and indeed your life?
For that, I go back to Heinz von Foerster, whose most important question for me was: Are you an inventor or are you an explorer?
– An inventor is part of the universe and can therefore invent it. Everything he or she does has an affect on this world.
– An explorer sees the universe as a world that is organised around principles that he or she can’t influence, but can only observe and look at.
So which are you? And how is that evidenced in your company? Your career? Your life? In these times (with riots, corruptions, hacking) and on this verge of finally making the move from industrial to knowledge society, with new business models everywhere, it’s important that we re-discover and re-assert ethical dimensions to everything that we do as they will build the backbone for and will be crucial when defining the next stage.