Leading Amidst the Techlash: How Digital Leaders Can Build a Better World For Everyone

by Aug 1, 2019

The backlash against technology — the techlash — has started.

In the last year, society has grown more worried about the downsides of digital technologies. The ethics of artificial intelligence, threats to privacy, weakness in cybersecurity, the dominant power of platforms are all matters of concern. Society as a whole has become far more wary.

But I believe that with responsible leadership and the active involvement of the business, technology, and policy communities, we can build a better society and a digital world we all want to live in. It will take intentional strategies and a commitment to managing technology for the benefit of society, and not letting technology control us.

The Center for Digital Transformation at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business is leading the way in educating today’s business leaders. And the Road to Reinvention conference, held annually in March, is where we gather to exchange ideas and learn from each other.

The most fundamental lesson is that every company must think like a software company.

I said that in 2015 at the first Road to Reinvention conference, and the same thing is even more true today. The economy is becoming far more knowledge driven. Yet, knowledge that isn’t codified in software doesn’t scale. With digital platforms forming the core foundations of business, all companies are codifying knowledge into software. As a result, software investment is a key driver of economic growth today. And research now shows that companies that invest in proprietary software — the type of software that distinguishes companies — actually allows them to compete better, allows them to win.

A useful analogy from the world of biology is DNA. DNA is what defines humans. It makes human beings who they are and guides what they do. In today’s digital economy, software code is the DNA of a company. Software is what prescribes how a company operates; it differentiates one company from another.

Who will win in today’s digital economy? Technology is abundant, but companies never win with an abundant resource. What companies actually win with is a scarce resource — and that resource is intangible, almost indescribable. It’s business vision. The vision to know how to enhance our company’s value proposition with digital technologies, the unique knowledge required to deliver on the value proposition that differentiates us from our rivals, the technologies we should invest in, the problems we should focus on, the innovation we should prioritize, the processes we can digitize so we can actually take advantage of technology.

All of this comes together to create a roadmap to the future. That’s the intangible resource.

New knowledge is no longer going to be restricted to the domain of humans conceiving of theories. New knowledge will be created by data driven models, driven by machine learning systems. It’s a matter of time before machines can outthink humans, perhaps not in all domains but certainly in many. Society will have to grapple with the question of how humans and machines can work together in such a world.

And we have to be watchful because society has increasingly gone on autopilot. The books we read, the movies we watch, the people we date, the restaurants we eat at, are all determined for us — or at least influenced by — code. Some people call this surveillance capitalism where it’s a capitalism that resides on the data that is derived by tracking people. We have to ask ourselves the question: is this the society that we want?

And we have to be watchful because society has increasingly gone on autopilot. The books we read, the movies we watch, the people we date, the restaurants we eat at, are all determined for us — or at least influenced by — code. Some people call this surveillance capitalism where it’s a capitalism that resides on the data that is derived by tracking people. We have to ask ourselves the question: is this the society that we want?

We’ve also learned over the last few years that many AI systems can be quite biased, depending on the input data they are given. We’re not going to get to a successful future if we don’t have trust in the platforms and we don’t have trust in the data. The really valuable progress will happen when we can trust the systems.

We can do better. We must rethink the system design. We can design a system that works for everybody.

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Technology is incredibly powerful. But we must put people first. How can we help humankind?

Let’s build a world we can be proud of. Let’s build a world we want to live in.

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