Introduction and data overload
The rise of the robots, the weakest link, artificial intelligence and a 15-hour week were among some of the things techradar pro discussed with Dave Coplin, Microsoft’s very own UK-based futurologist, otherwise known at Redmond as a "Chief Envisioning Officer". In fact, he’s probably one of very few of his breed (98% of results for Chief Envisioning Officer on Google are for Coplin).
The ponytail-sporting CEO describes himself as a technology alchemist, a human revolutionary and an inventor of pretentious job titles. At Ingram Micro’s Cloud Live event, a tech B2B happening where laughter is a rare occurrence, his appearance onstage complete with rapid-fire quips and well-rehearsed one-line sentences, drew the sort of response that a stand-up comedian would get from an audience.
Indeed, it’s certainly true that the pompous job title doesn’t reflect the personality of the man. Coplin comes across as being a down-to-earth person. "I am a naive optimist", he replies when asked to describe his life as a futurologist, "but a realist one", he is quick to add.
"I believe everybody should be able to make a positive contribution to humanity," adding that, "companies should inspire people". Futurologists focus on the vision, the bigger picture, and put aside the issues associated with using technology. Technology has accelerated, amplified and, very often, pushed some problems like cyber-bullying or terrorism far higher up the agenda.
Technology however is not the cause of these problems. "Taking smartphones from your children won’t remove it [the bullying]", Coplin observed. In that case, it merely moves it to another medium. And working as a futurologist for a for-profit organisation like Microsoft doesn’t have to be at odds with charting the future from a non-commercial perspective. "Making money doesn’t have to be a bad thing," he said.
Doing good and inspiring people to do just that is particularly important for Coplin, especially, he adds, in a world where the importance of machine learning and big data is growing, changing the very fabric of some of the most important aspects of what makes us human, and as a group of individuals, a civilised society.
His 2014 book about the rise of the humans, rather than the machines, and how we, as human beings, can outsmart the digital deluge, painfully highlights one point – that more and more data is produced either by human beings or by machines, with much more being generated by the latter (Ed: Blame it on IoT and big data).
Companies, he stressed, are in the middle of that data deluge, either as initiators or recipients. Unfortunately, Coplin added, companies are more accustomed to the old way of doing things, one that focuses far too much on efficiency rather than effectiveness, the process rather than the outcome (a means to an end as opposed to achieving the end in itself).
That mind-set dates from 200 years back, he remarked, and it was born at a time when the industrial revolution changed the DNA of society. Many of us are still obsessed with maintaining rules and processes that date back from a bygone era. "We still work like Victorians", he quipped, "we must inspire organisations to evolve".
"Companies that don’t grasp the nature of data, won’t exist; data is the fuel of your future." Employees will be pivotal to the change – empower them to deliver and make a difference, espousing the mission of the company. But Coplin warns that it’s not about productivity or efficiency.
A nurse who can deliver record numbers of flu jabs in an hour would be efficient but the care provided would be absolutely abysmal. No, he said – the focus of businesses should be on effectiveness, a cause he’s championing everywhere he goes.
Digital transformation and job fears
As the move to the ‘gig economy’ – and with it the inevitable effectiveness drive – looks inevitable, it brings home some uneasy truths. Jobs will be lost and people in the middle are likely to be affected the most by the changes. "The market will need to respond and grow," he notes, just like it did decades ago.
Chain/mass production and division of labour caused thousands to lose their jobs. Fast-forward and the new wave of mass job extinction is likely to be caused by machine learning and artificial intelligence.
A number of well publicised surveys and reports have recently highlighted the uncertainty facing millions of workers in the so-called knowledge-based industries over the next decade.
Being good at what machines can’t do well could be the way forward, with the perfect blend likely to involve both parties (humans and machines) working together. That could necessitate radically changing the way we work as well as making entire segments of our economy more creative.
Take GDP for example: It fails to track digital transactions effectively which means that an economy that innovates and embraces the virtual paradigm could end up having a lower GDP because of the way it is calculated.
Then there’s productivity. Removing the time constraint and the 9-to-5 regime becomes essential in a world where being flexible is the rule. That also implies rewriting the rulebook and grasping the differences between efficiency and effectiveness.
Ironically, the biggest challenge of them all is the human being. Because people are reluctant to change, they are often the main obstacle to digital transformation – at every level. Solving the employee engagement problem is at the centre of this conundrum and this can be achieved by connecting staff with the purpose of the organisation.
And while we haven’t yet bowed down to our AI overlords (that, Coplin reckons, may happen in a quarter of a century), machine learning will play an ever-increasing role in our lives.
Hundreds of millions of us now interface on a daily basis with a virtual assistant (Cortana, Google Now or Siri), producing petabytes of data every day, and those people will come to expect the same from businesses they work in, pilling more pressure on the decision makers.
- Also check out: Great tech innovators: Futurist Ray Kurzweil