A Dialogue with the Digital Leaders of Tomorrow





On August 18, Stellar Capacity’s founder Claudia Olsson was invited to give the opening talk for Hyper Island’s entire 450-student class of 2020 during the vision week portion of their annual foundation course. In it, she shared a glimpse of the exciting technological possibilities that lie just around the corner which will profoundly impact and change our economy and society. She also reminded them of the importance of leadership and people-centric skills when navigating and guiding the disruptions caused by these future transformations.


Claudia received many relevant questions from the engaged and curious students on subjects revolving around future technology and governance, as well as the skills necessary to build a career in the times ahead. Since these questions were posed by some of society’s future digital leaders, we selected some of the most recurring themes that were addressed and summarized the questions and answers for the purposes of clarity, in order to share what the digital leaders of tomorrow are thinking about today.


Thank you very much students of the Hyper Island class of 2020!


Question:


How can we address concerns about technological development endangering important social values that we have, like privacy, human rights, and democracy?


Answer:


As technological development transforms our world and society, it can often feel like it is doing so in a way that challenges our values and our priorities. We must keep in mind that this transformation is not driven by the technologies themselves but our human interaction with them. Therefore, if we as a society want to bolster the values that we find important, we must plan as early as possible for how these potential deployments and developments in technology can impact us so we can better prepare ourselves to minimize the undesirable consequences.


Technologies are global in nature and so we need to think about their impact not just at the local or regional levels, but the global level as well. Coordinating the potential impact and usage of future technologies at a global scale is by no means easy as our different political systems, cultures, viewpoints and even religions point us in different directions on many issues. This becomes especially evident when we discuss how our personal data should be handled, for example how we should weigh the interests of the individual against the benefits for the collective. We can see a version of this debate unfolding in our discussion on how we should implement COVID-19 tracking technologies around the world.


Although we are far from achieving consensus on how these new technologies ought to be used, what actions can we take in the meantime? Two concrete strategies that we can consider are:


1. Work with future scenarios, learn from the many different alternative futures, and understand what we need to put in place today to ensure best positive outcomes. Doing this requires courage as some scenarios might seem too futuristic, so we need to train our brains to explore possible futures too.


2. Ensure that both public and private decision makers and actors are transparent with how technology and data is used. Being able to bring into the open how these tools are being used will ensure greater scrutiny and accountability from our decision makers and will enable individuals and groups to take more informed decisions about their own data.


One alternate path that we can potentially take is to simply refuse and resist any technology that we think might affect our values negatively. But we need to keep in mind that technology always interacts with, and is never independent from, human motivations, behaviors, needs, and wants. It is this interaction which produces the results that impact the world today. Technology isn’t the message, but the messenger. Now, it’s true that we can resist technology or refuse to use it, and in this way shoot the messenger, but I feel that a better way would be to see how we can use this messenger to carry the messages that we want to deliver instead. In other words, we can use technology to encourage the behaviors that build a better society and create better motivations.



Photo by Ali Pazani


Question:


How can we ensure that technological development and its resulting benefits are widely shared by the whole society and not contribute to increased social and economic segregation?


Answer:


One view of technology is that as it advances it will naturally decrease inequality by democratizing access to opportunities. Individuals world-wide will have access to knowledge, networks and employment in the global online job market, and high barriers to entry in many markets will decrease as local entrepreneurs can either sell their goods online through platforms, or market their skills globally. Technology has certainly also increased the living standards for people world-wide with great advancements in medicine, in the ways we provide education, and in our infrastructural development. At the same, however, we’re clearly seeing in the last decades a growing disparity in wealth and access.


I personally don’t see technology always living up to its promise of being a great equalizer, and it’s true that there is a risk that the large benefits that result from applications of emerging technologies, such as AI, robotics, and even synthetic biology, will not be widely shared. They might even end up increasing rather than decreasing social and economic inequality, both within countries and between regions in the world, especially if larger corporations or start-ups with significant backing are able to invest in, for example, artificial intelligence, enabling them to increase their productivity a thousand-fold or to fully dominate a market. If the differences grow too large, it will be hard to reverse or address the inequalities afterwards. Recognizing this risk means that we should explore ways to ensure that the inequalities don’t grow too large.


One concrete thing we can do to minimize the gap is to maximize the opportunities for everyone to get access to the skills that they need to grow and update themselves to the continuously evolving technological environment. Technologies and policies that promote low or no-cost internet access and robust 5G network deployment will be vital in ensuring that everyone is able to access the necessary training, skills, and education to develop in the new industries of the future. At the same time, we need to rethink and reorient our school system to emphasize the need for lifelong learning by lowering the barriers to education and giving support to people who look to retrain and upskill.


On the global level, between the more and less developed countries, we should emphasize the importance of knowledge transfer as development aid in addition to existing monetary and material aid, as well as bolstering the technical infrastructure that is necessary for the knowledge transfer to successfully take root. We know that having a strong technological and scientific knowledge base is essential to creating durable and robust industries that are competitive and can drive a real rise in living standards and decrease poverty overall. It may also be possible for developing regions, with the correct investment in infrastructure, knowledge building and development, to leapfrog the more developed countries in certain new technologies.


In short, while the risk exists for emerging technologies to exacerbate inequality, the technologies by themselves don’t dictate this outcome. Technologies are neutral in this regard, but we must recognize that because technological change doesn’t respect borders, we need to tackle the effects of this at a global level.



Photo by Josh Hild


Question:


How can Europe contribute/compete with other leaders around the world when it comes to AI development, especially since Europe has stricter laws regarding privacy and data usage, such as with GDPR?


Answer:


As part of the Industry 2030 High-level group for the European Commission, I worked a lot with this exact issue. The report published by the high-level group, A Vision for the European Industry until 2030, outlined several advantages that Europe already possesses which can help build up a strong and competitive AI industry: we have many of the world’s top research institutions as well as researchers working with AI. In Sweden, for example, organizations such as the Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program (WASP) funds projects that work on cutting edge development of AI systems and components, but they also research important topics like AI safety and how to encourage trust in AI. European wide initiatives, such as the Horizon 2020 program and the “Digital, Industry, and Space” cluster of its successor Horizon Europe, established by the EU Commission, have also been launched to promote AI research in cooperation with institutions, both academic as well as industrial research driven, all around Europe. This is an important step in creating the necessary deep clusters of AI research and development that will be able to scale up the rate of progress and create an environment of accelerated innovation that will be competitive worldwide.


The EU as a whole is also a world leader in many industries, such as health care, education, mobility, and advanced industrial manufacturing. These provide a fertile field where AI innovation can be cultivated and encouraged to create even more of a competitive advantage for European firms and organizations. The EU’s common market and the integrated nature of these industries create opportunities for AI developments to incubate, scale up, and mature rapidly, thus making them competitive at the global level. In addition, initiatives such as standardization of EU policy and guidelines towards promotion of open data in industries may create a more nourishing data environment for AI development, refinement, and growth.


One interesting perspective that’s highlighted in A Vision for the European Industry until 2030, is that by focusing on centering new and emerging technologies such as AI around the important human values that are integral for every European citizen, such as wellbeing, good working conditions, social cohesion, healthcare, mobility, achievement of Sustainable Development Goals and so forth, it can create more trustworthy systems that are more competitive. The European Commission has also released in 2019 an Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, which aims to highlight the importance of, among other values, transparency, human agency and oversight, privacy, non-discrimination, and accountability. These developments can ensure that the AI systems developed in the EU are done so in a trustworthy way that promotes confidence in the general public that its creation and deployment would not contravene the important values of our society, thus potentially giving a competitive advantage to these systems.


I would argue, however, that these initiatives are not enough. We still need to focus a lot more on building relevant skills, developing centers of excellence which push the frontier of AI research, and engage both larger companies as well as the SME sector in Europe in exploring and adopting artificial intelligence. At the same time, the public sector systems which we’ve built in many European countries provide exactly the right launchpads for accelerating initiatives in digital health, digitally enabled learning, and world-class elderly care, to mention a few of the sectors where AI can be truly impactful. We need to be brave in defining a vision forward as well, and not only be a strong follower but instead a leader in technology development and adoption. This will require significant rethinking and redesign of many of our current systems - both funding-wise but also with regards to regulation and organization, European competitiveness in the AI field will rely on our ability to collaborate in order to scale up the innovations that are produced. We’ve come a long way but there’s still a lot to do!



Photo by Ștefan-Andrei Ferencz


Question:


What should I do if I am strong in power skills but don’t have a lot of the in demand hard skills? Is it possible to build a career on having power skills alone, or should I prioritize learning some in demand hard skills?


Answer:


One of the sources which we think gives a good indication of in-demand skills in the world right now is LinkedIn’s skills mapping. In LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, they list out the top five “soft” skills that are the most important to have, namely creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence. To us, however, these “soft” skills could equally be called power skills, as they are key in successful human interactions, conveying ideas well, and helping us to thrive in the jobs and careers of the future. This isn’t to say that the “hard” skills are not important or relevant, but the way we see it, the more power skills you have, the better you would be at acquiring hard skills such as UX design, cloud computing, or even AI development, which the LinkedIn report also highlights. This is because learning, cooperating, and experimenting are vital ways to obtain new knowledge and skills.


So called “hard skills” are of great importance to learn as well - a basic knowledge of programming will help you with systems analysis and complex problem solving also in other situations. For me, my engineering degree has been key in being able to understand the impact of technology on society. It has also helped me with a foundation of mathematics and terminology which has helped me to understand new technologies and developments faster.


Even if not everyone wants to or is interested in pursuing a full engineering program, I would certainly recommend learning at least a foundation for programming, for example by taking shorter modules online. With that as a base, you will be able to better understand new technological concepts and innovations as they come along and will also sharpen your analytical abilities.


Do remember as well that learning is a lifelong endeavor. What skills you have today by no means determine what skills you may have in the future. You set that path for yourself! If you would like to learn more about these topics and stay ahead of the cultural, organizational, and technological changes that are being brought about by digitalization, make sure to sign up for our Stellar Executive Program. You can find more information here and feel free to contact our program advisors if you have any questions!



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