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Big Ideas

The Right Questions

What should smart executives be asking about the future?

by Minda Zetlin

Summer 2017

As a leader, you answer difficult questions every day. How do you balance the need for security and stability against the need for ever-faster innovation? How do you find the talent you need, and if you do manage to hire that talent, how do you make sure they’ll stay? It’s up to you to determine priorities, even when every new initiative seems urgent and important.

These are vital questions, and answering them drives your organization forward. But there may be bigger, even more important questions that you never have time to consider amid the crush of day-to-day challenges. These unasked questions may determine the future of your organization for decades to come. How do you find the time to give them the thought they deserve? And if you do find the time, how do you know which questions to ask?

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In his new book The Great Questions of Tomorrow (TED Books, 2017), David Rothkopf—visiting professor at Columbia University; visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment; and CEO of the Rothkopf Group, a media and advisory firm—argues that as a society we are failing to ask (let alone answer) the right questions. It’s a bit like making people take off their shoes before boarding a plane because of a single, failed shoe-bombing attempt, he says. We’re reacting to what we’ve learned about the past instead of striving to understand the future.

In our current era, asking big questions is itself an urgent task. “Every so often in history, every couple of hundred years, there are technological changes and social changes that outstrip the ability of institutions and belief systems to keep up with them,” Rothkopf recently said in an interview. “It forces people to go back to the fundamental questions that really define society and life.”

None of the great questions about our society and our future will have quick answers. But the first challenge is asking the right ones.

With that in mind, here are a few very big questions facing business and technology leaders right now that will become more urgent over the next few years. This is not a complete list; but it should serve as a starting point for considering the big implications of the work we all do—because the future is always closer than we think.

1. Is internet access a human right?

A recent report by the United Nations found that 47 percent of the world’s population uses the internet, with that usage varying widely among countries. For example, more than 98 percent of the population uses the internet in Iceland, but only 2.2 percent of the population uses it in Niger.

But this is changing rapidly. The UN report noted that 84 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with mobile broadband service. “Most countries in Africa have high cell phone penetration, and conversion from non-smartphones to smartphones is growing very rapidly,” Rothkopf says. “I think the biggest story of each and every year for the next decade or maybe two is that every year on this planet, several hundred million people will come online who weren’t online before.”

That’s already happening. A year ago, just over 43 percent of the world’s population was online. That means that in 12 months, about 4 percent of the world’s population—or 300 million people—got on the internet for the first time. If the UN achieves its goal of getting 60 percent of the world’s population online by 2020, by the next decade there will be almost a billion more of us on the internet than there are now.

The other half of the world coming online will be the biggest change the world has seen since at least the Industrial Revolution.”–David Rothkopf, author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow (TED Books, 2017)

“The other half of the world coming online will be the biggest change the world has seen since at least the Industrial Revolution,” Rothkopf says. “But I believe this may be a bigger change than the Industrial Revolution because it will involve so many more people.”

“The biggest impact here is access to knowledge, which means education,” says Jacob Morgan, futurist and author of The Employee Experience Advantage (Wiley, 2017) and The Future of Work (Wiley, 2014). It’s easy for people in developed countries to take access to knowledge and education for granted, he says—but imagine trying to live without those things. “A connected world means an educated world; a world of more opportunities, more entrepreneurs, more people who can share ideas; and a world where the opportunities to work become global.”

Considering the massive good that will come from wider internet access brings up a related question: Should such access be considered a human right? Rothkopf notes in his book that Estonia, Finland, France, Costa Rica, Greece, and Spain all have laws or legal decisions asserting that internet access is indeed a right, at least to some degree.

A more connected world is also a world in which more lives can be saved. “There are parts of Africa right now where in the past they starved because they couldn’t get the right nutrients into the field,” Rothkopf says. But now, drones fly over the field and take pictures that distant botanists can analyze to determine what fertilizers are needed, and then they use an overnight service to deliver those nutrients so that crops can grow and more people are fed.

For poor people in remote areas, one of the biggest advantages of connecting to the internet is simply being able to pay for stuff. As of 2016, 2 billion people in the world remained unbanked, with the nearest financial institution miles away and no easy way to traverse the distance. Mobile banking, which is spreading particularly quickly in Africa, solves that problem by letting people use smartphones to make deposits or payments.

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The UN’s planned increase in worldwide number of internet users by the next decade
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The internet should be considered a right, akin to water and electricity, says Robb Hecht, adjunct marketing professor at Baruch College in New York, New York. “Governments should definitely go down that road, so people can trade and connect with employment and education.”

Expanding internet access will also mean many more people sharing their views, concerns, and convictions than ever before. “There will be increasing numbers of people who will demand rights and services from the government,” he says. “As people gain connectivity—assuming they’re in places where communications aren’t censored—their voices will be heard.”

What does this mean for business? One consequence is that the market base for many products will grow dramatically. Another is that even more customers can—and undoubtedly will—make their opinions known, according to Nichole Jordan, national managing partner of Markets, Clients & Industry at consulting firm Grant Thornton. “From our point of view, growth in connectivity is an enormous jump in the number of customers,” she says. “When we talk to companies, the fact that so many users will be joining the new digital community has led to renewed focus on customer-centricity.”

In many industries, she adds, companies are building platforms that will allow them to stay connected to customers 24/7. “They’re using the power of the communities being created for customers themselves,” she says. “It’s really at customers’ own preference. If they want to be more educated about a particular offering, or how to use a particular technology, it’s on demand for them.

2. What is our future relationship with AI?

Without thinking much about the larger implications, we’ve already handed over a wide range of decisions to artificial intelligence (AI), a dynamic most industries are embracing because it brings obvious benefits. “Merging human and machine intelligence can solve a range of problems, from day-to-day operational functions that everyone performs all the way to curing cancer, living on Mars, solving world hunger, and stopping human trafficking,” says Angela Zutavern, coauthor of The Mathematical Corporation: Where Machine Intelligence and Human Ingenuity Achieve the Impossible (PublicAffairs, 2017). “This human-machine partnership can also help us make decisions on where to invest and where to spend resources,” she says.

What happens when artificial intelligence begins to rival human intelligence? Most AI experts agree that this will happen; they disagree only on when. The year 2040 is an average of their predictions. Creating artificial intelligence means teaching machines how to learn, which includes teaching them how to improve their own thinking. At some point, they’ll learn to improve themselves faster than humans can improve them, and then their intelligence will grow rapidly, a phenomenon called the singularity.

If this all sounds like science fiction (specifically D.F. Jones’ The Forbin Project from 1966), it’s worth noting that Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk have all raised concerns about what will happen when AI gets too smart. Indeed, if artificial intelligence gained access to all the data on the internet and decided to turn against humans, the potential results are too awful to contemplate.

We’re definitely going to see humans and AI become more like one, so you can extend your skills and compensate for any disabilities you may have.”–Jacob Morgan, futurist and author of The Employee Experience Advantage (Wiley, 2017) and The Future of Work (Wiley, 2014)

But that’s only one scenario. Some experts pose a different question: As AI becomes more intelligent, more capable of acting on its own, and possibly even self-aware, should it have rights and perhaps responsibilities? Early this year, the European Parliament voted to accept a report that suggests giving advanced AI and robots a form of electronic personhood, akin to the legal personhood accorded corporations. The idea is to create a legal framework that can govern relations with AI in the future.

And what if AI has feelings? “Right now, we can’t imagine AI having the empathy or emotions a human would,” Hecht says. “But there are some AIs that are sympathetic because they’ve been designed with that algorithm.” He says he can foresee a time when the memories, writings, and experiences of a person are uploaded into AI. If the person has died, will those memories and thoughts deserve protection?

“Should a ‘being’ with a human-like capacity to process the world be treated like a human and have rights?” Morgan asks. “These are some of the many ethical questions we are trying to figure out.” Although current concerns revolve around privacy, security, and job displacement, he says, “all of these things have profound implications for our future because the decisions we make now will impact what our future looks like.”

3. What happens when humans become integrated with machines?

Musk has argued that we are all already cyborgs—our smartphones and computers are extensions of ourselves but our interface with them, by keyboard or voice, is atrociously slow. He’s doing something about that by backing the brain-machine interface startup Neuralink. “Over time, I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” he recently told an audience in Dubai, UAE.

Facebook is at work on the problem as well. At its F8 conference this spring, Regina Dugan, head of the company’s Building 8 R&D group, announced that the company had assigned 60 scientists and engineers to work on technology that would let users type words simply by thinking them. Dugan, who once led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), says this capability is closer than we think. Some paralyzed people already have the ability to type words by moving a cursor through an onscreen alphabet, thanks to implants in their brains. But Dugan says her team aims to create a brain typing interface without invasive implants, using sensors that could read activity in the speech center of people’s brains as they think the words they want to type.

That’s just one example of human-machine integration. “We’re definitely going to see humans and AI become more like one, so you can extend your skills and compensate for any disabilities you may have,” Morgan says. “You’re going to see melding of humans with technology. We’re seeing that a little bit today with robotic limbs, contact lenses with augmented reality built in, and implants. Today, there are already people with RFID implants in their palms, allowing them to be recognized and open locked doors, he adds.

For an employer, these developments raise a host of complex questions. If you’re hiring, say, an engineer, should you give preferential consideration to candidates who have had their capabilities enhanced, or even make it a job requirement? Conversely, should you avoid hiring enhanced job candidates who might be able to record everything that goes on around them or otherwise take advantage of more-than-human abilities?

“There are ethical issues, philosophical issues, social issues. Issues about data privacy and security and who owns the data that’s created,” Morgan says. “How much technology do we want to put into ourselves or on ourselves? How far do we want to go with this?”

That last question is central to every discussion of our technological future. Asked how technology might reshape our lives in years to come, Morgan replies, “It depends on the technology you want to look at and how far you want to look.”

Looking Ahead

It’s easy enough to imagine a world where humans have given boring, stressful, or dangerous tasks to robots and AI, as is starting to happen now. Self-driving cars would take us where we want to go, probably more safely than if we were driving ourselves. Nano-bots that we swallow in capsules could deploy into our bloodstreams and fight disease.

Or, we can imagine a world where AI is out of control, where technology allows governments and companies to collect massive amounts of data about ordinary citizens and use it as they see fit, and where everything from front doors to cars to human brains is vulnerable to hacking.

“Technology is an amazing tool that can unlock any opportunities we choose to point it at,” Morgan says. “But it is still just a tool. We need to make very conscious decisions about what types of technologies we want to build, how we want to use them, and what kind of a world we want these technologies to help us create.”

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