In 1999, the co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, wrote a book titled “Business @ the Speed of Thought.” The technologist dared to look into his crystal ball and predict how the internet and tech trends of the late nineties would help society evolve and create a very different future.
Gates seemed to channel his sixth sense to speak of a brave new digital world where was engrained in every aspect of our lives including the rise of price-comparison sites, mobile devices, instant payments, personal assistants, the internet of things, online home-monitoring, social media, and even live sports-discussion sites.
Business student Markus Kirjonen probably described the foresight best when he wrote that Gates’ forecasts turned out to be eerily prescient. The speed of technological change has been phenomenal over the last 20 years, but we seldom stop to look back at how far we have come.
For example, a video from the “The Today Show” in 1994 that shows Bryant Gumbel struggling to understand the concept of the world wide web and asking, “What is the internet, anyway?” highlights just how far we have come in a relatively short amount of time. It also highlights that while most people were struggling with the notion, Bill Gates was a visionary in every sense of the word.
Upon further reflection, I wonder if future audiences will look back at our current levels of fear and misunderstanding around cryptocurrencies or Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a similar vein. Here in 2018, Bill Gates offered his insights about the future of AI and how it will impact society.
Gates believes that AI could represent an opportunity to pave the way for an economic revival. In an interview on Fox News, Gates spoke about rather than focusing on fewer jobs, maybe we should rethink our current roles and lifestyles. What about longer vacations for employees, and a redirecting of positions to refocus on helping the elderly, working with children with special needs, and reducing the class divide?
If we can actually produce twice as much as we make today with less labor, the purpose of humanity is not just to sit behind a counter and sell things, you know? – Bill Gates
The above statement is a profound one from Gates, and one that is at the core of what entrepreneur and mathematician Chetan Dube set out to do with his company IPsoft, whose AI agent Amelia is built exactly with the intent of relieving humans of mundane tasks like ‘sitting behind the counter and selling things’ in order to pursue higher order accomplishments worthy of humans such as creating new industries, new economies and new jobs.
Gates also believes that If society can make all the food, homes, and consumer goods it needs, workers should be allowed to relax and focus on other interests. Once again, he echoed the sentiments of other leaders at the World Economic Forum when he hinted that it’s not the technology, it’s educating and retraining people with new skills that must take priority.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges ahead. Gates also warned that “In case of adjusting and having a safety net that works so people can get retrained, it will get challenging,” and he also advised that “Change will be faster in these next 20 years than it’s been before.”
The common-sense approach offered by the Microsoft co-founder further illustrates that it’s people, not technology, that is crucial to the success of failure of the so-called digital transformation. Without buy-in and embracing of culture change, many will feel like they’re sinking. Businesses also need also to take their responsibilities seriously and bring everyone along for the ride.
Reassuringly, these sentiments were also echoed by chief executives at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. When CNBC asked CEOs about the future of work and what effect AI will have on labor markets, many of the answers were quite refreshing. Bill McDermott, chief executive of SAP, said the future of work was one of “augmented humanity.”
It’s not about technology replacing people, it’s about technology augmenting people and creating wealth and prosperity… so the uncertainty is clear, people don’t know what’s coming, so we need to take the people with us, we need to make sure we educate and train people. – Ulrich Speisshofer, the chief executive of ABB
Bridging the digital-skills gap and ensuring people in and outside of the office are educated on the benefits of the inevitable digital changes ahead are crucial in removing fear from a massive culture change.
Mark Weinberger, chief executive of EY, also told CNBC how he instructs students in universities: ‘You are going to have a job that doesn’t exist today, using technology that hasn’t been invented yet, to solve a problem that we don’t know what it is yet.’ For these reasons alone, it’s easy to see why so many have fears based on uncertainty.
The days of clocking in and out of the workplace and sitting at the same desk for 40 years are already gone forever. But is that really such a bad thing? A life of constant learning, evolving, and adapting to the world around you certainly sounds like a better life than sitting behind a counter and selling items. Maybe Bill Gates will be proved right again.