Digital transformation must be balanced by humans and ethics

CommunicAsia Show Daily

Digital transformation isn’t just about technology - it’s also about humans, and telcos need to find the right balance between the two in order to successfully transform. 

That was the message from Gerd Leonhard, futurist and CEO of The Futures Agency, during a keynote at the morning plenary of the CommunicAsia2016 Summit on Wednesday. 

Leonhard said that digital transformation is being driven by technology trends such as exponential connectivity (i.e. the Internet of Things), big data, intelligence (intelligent assistants and AI), and man-machine convergence. 

An example of the latter is the rise of the smart device as an external brain, and the cloud as a global brain. “This is changing how we interact with computers - we touch them and speak to them,” he said. “We’re seeing increasingly powerful combinations of man-machine convergence. The machine sits in the cloud and does all the work for you.” 

While this creates all kinds of new service and app possibilities, and creates efficiencies, it also impacts humanity in ways that raise ethical issues that can’t be ignored, from loss of jobs via automation to AI making non-emotional decisions about those jobs, for example. 

“Technology is exponential, humans are linear. Technology will grow exponentially faster but you will not live exponentially faster,” he said. “Technology has no ethics, but human societies demand it. So we have to figure out how to use technology without becoming the technology.” 

This is something everyone in the telecoms/IT value chain has to look at seriously, he said. “The purpose of business isn’t efficiency - it’s making customers happy. “All these algorithms and AI have to be balanced by ethics - it’s not a yes-or-no choice, but you need to find the balance between them.” 

Leonhard stressed that he’s not a pessimist about the future of telecoms. “I think the future is a brighter place than Hollywood makes it look.” 

However, he said that while we shouldn’t be afraid of the coming digital era, we should approach with caution and think seriously about who is in control, who enforces the rules, and who consumers ultimately trust. “It’s time to take responsibility. Security, moral standards, rules and ethics become crucial as everything becomes connected.” 

Leonhard also advised telcos to abandon their old business models. 

“Think about the auto industry - in the future we will share more cars, rather than buy more. So they won’t sell cars - they’ll sell mobility,” Leonhard said. “In the same vein, telcos can’t sell traditional telecoms services. Networks and infrastructure was a good business model when it made sense, but the future is adding value with services, experience and platforms.”

Ultimately, Leonhard concluded, the key to digital transformation is this: “Be on Team Human, not just Team Future. Team Human is about humanity, emotions, intelligence, and purpose. Be aware of social contracts. Embrace technology but don’t become technology. And spend 5-10% of your time thinking of what will be next, not what is.” 

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