For a Better Future, Mind the Gap

We all know the rate of change is increasing. And while that's exciting it's also important to remember that the faster the future arrives, the bigger the gaps it creates. The first is a distribution gap. I was reminded of this during my recent trip to South Africa, where high tech advertising billboards loom over potholed roads and tin shacks. The future doesn't arrive at the same time everywhere and that's unfair. The prospect of intuitive computing for example, suddenly seems less appealing when you imagine it in the hands of overpaid development consultants in a third world country where most people live on less than $3 a day. Not all technologies are inherently democratic. We should focus on those, like 3D printing and solar, that are.

The pace of change is also outstripping the ability of regulators to keep up. This leads to a regulation gap. As a well-known Australian lawyer recently pointed out to me the problem is that this allows the private sector free rein. And while private companies can be great for innovation, the public interest isn't usually their first priority. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of personal data, where the tech giants have been so good at capturing the value of property that really belongs to us. Regulators are hopelessly outgunned here (Apple vs FBI anyone?). By the time they catch up and pass legislation ensuring we get paid for our data and content, the tech companies will have moved on to monetising our genetic codes or AR behaviors. 

And finally, there’s a perception gap. Not only do we extrapolate in a linear fashion when we should be thinking in exponential terms - we’re also inherently bad at assessing risk. We're busy worrying about things we can predict and which we understand, such as disease epidemics, environmental degradation or economic crises. But the really risky stuff is non-linear, and inherently unpredictable e.g. emergent artificial intelligence, climate change tipping points or illegal human germline editing. The big threats of the 21st century are not the same ones we faced in the 20th century. We need to start building institutions that are fit to tackle them. 

We should be optimistic about the future. There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about what’s happening around the world. But it’s also important to mind the gaps, because there's also still lot of work to do.