Should we be worried about AI stealing our jobs? Are the democracies of the world really under threat?
How will these trends influence South Africa?
These were among the burning topics of 2023 explored by futurists Dion Chang and Bronwyn Williams of Flux Trends at a recent event called “Rise of the Machines, and the Great Unravelling.” The event was hosted by the entrepreneur-support platform Heavy Chef, whose CEO Fred Roed, told the crowd that futurists are “two of the smartest people in any room”.
“As many connections as the human brain”
Dion reflected on the storm of excitement that followed the launch two months ago of the latest version of ChatGPT, the text-generating chatbot offered free by the non-profit company Open AI, which was co-founded by Elon Musk.
Suddenly, many of us could use tech to do a little – or even a lot – of our work for us, be this generating ideas for an essay, writing an academic article, or even composing poetry. The tool is on rollercoaster growth chart: this version has 175 billion parameters; the next version, Chap GPT4, will have 100 trillion – “the same number of connections as the human brain,” observed Dion.
This could constitute a tipping point for the creative capacity of Artificial Intelligence ( AI).
However, it might not make humans beings redundant: the World Economic Forum recently predicted that while AI will take over 85 million jobs by 2025, it will also create 97 million new jobs.
Giving further reassurance, Bronwyn observed that AI is backward-looking. It can only use the information already created by human beings, rather than create entirely fresh perspectives. Also, its output is “mid-tier” − at the centre of the bell curve of human achievement, rather than at the beginning or cutting edges.
“There’s plenty of room to be human at the top and the bottom (of the bell curve),” she said. “If what you do is solving people’s needs, you’re going to be just fine.”
This was in reassurance to a question from a musician in the audience who admitted he was “very scared” that AI would make him redundant – a fear that might echo in many of our hearts.
You’re paying to be tracked
Keen on your luxury devices? Take care. The data that your smartphone and fitness watch distribute about you can be accessed by governments, your neighbours, stalkers and even domestic abusers. In fact, it’s tracking you as effectively as the apps or GPS ankle monitors used to monitor prisoners on parole and immigrants awaiting their hearings, “except that you’re paying for it,” said Dion wryly.
Ours is an era of surveillance: governments are increasingly tracking their people, with sinister intent. In previous years, we heard that the Chinese government was using tech to identify people breaking Covid-19 lockdown regulations. Now the authorities in Iran are using facial recognition to identify people who are not wearing the hijab, so that they can easily be arrested, or worse.
It can happen in the workplace, too. A presentation at the World Economic Forum this year showed how bosses can use EEG devices to track their employers’ brain activity and check whether they are concentrating and whether their workload is too heavy, or light – in effect, treating people like machines.
“The problem with treating us like machines is that we start to behave like machines,” said Bronwyn.
This leads to work-to-rule behaviour or many people quitting, as employees start to push back.
Employers have a choice: to manage people like machines, “or start to focus on things that matter, like meaning and passion, and getting people to actually buy in to where we are headed as human beings.
“I would suggest this might be a slightly better way to go.”
TikTok – your child has the “opium” version
Dion served up a “spine shiver” for parents: Did you know that there are two versions of the app TikTok? The one offered to Chinese people is dubbed the “spinach” version, while the “opium” version is available to the West.
The difference was described by Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, in a recent interview on the TV show 60 Minutes. The “spinach” version of the app shows patriotic and educational videos to Chinese children, with a time limit of 40 minutes for children under the age of 14. The opium version provided to the West has kids hooked on videos of indiscriminate quality, with no time restrictions whatsoever.
TikTok, which has surpassed Google and Facebook in popularity, was produced by Chinese company Bytedance, and while the Chinese government doesn’t control the app, it has influence over it.
No small surprise, Harris said, that in a recent survey, Chinese youth typically aspired towards the career of astronaut, while American youth wanted to be influencers.
Climate extremes: island moves to the metaverse
Ours is an era of “permacrisis”, with multiple and interwoven threats to our social fabric and personal well-being.
If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, 2021 was the “wake-up call for extreme weather” due to climate change, and last year gave even more proof of it, with events including the extent of the flooding in KwaZulu-Natal, observed Dion. We’re starting to see more climate change insurance start-ups arising. This is a strong opportunity to entrepreneurs, “because climate change is not going to go away, it’s just going to get worse.”
In more climate-related news, Fiji is trying to relocate most of its populace from the low-lying areas likely to be engulfed by rising seawater, and the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu is building a digital version of itself in the metaverse, in a bid to preserve its history and culture.
Democracy under threat
Of the 104 democracies in the world, 52 are now considered to be eroding, a huge increase from 12 a decade ago, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has reported. Meanwhile, non-democratic countries like Afghanistan and Belarus are becoming increasingly repressive.
Inequality is growing around the world, with lamentable results for our ideologies: a survey found that 52% of people across 77 countries agreed that having a strong leader unbeholden to legislative structures or election outcomes is a good thing. We’re seeing the rise of populism, and attempted coups have occurred in countries including America, Brazil and Germany.
“Unfortunately, this is a real bell-weather for South Africa, the most unequal country on the planet,” Dion observed. Essentially, democracy rests on the notion of equality between citizens; when there is poor service delivery, citizens start questioning the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and the status quo becomes more fragile.
Meet the solution makers
Of course, and as always, there is hope. Flux Trends has been tracking Generation Z for some time and observes that some of its “social justice warriors” are now entering politics, bringing new perspectives and fresh energy. “It’s interesting to note they are doing this earlier than the Millennials, because of the social justice parameters,” observed Dion.
They include 23-year-old Emma Theofelus, a Namibian MP and Deputy Minister of Information, Communication and Technology; Maxwell Frost, the first Gen Z politician to gain a seat in the House of Representatives in the US, and Jaylen Smith, the 18-year-old mayor of Arkansas City.
Our children really are our future.
Flux Trends will lead an “immersion tour” later in the year, to enable interested members of the public to meet some of these Gen Z solutions makers. “If you want to join us, please do,” said Bronwyn.
On ostriches and activists
There are four options in responding to the threats we face, observed Bronwyn. We can put our heads in the sand like an ostrich, ignoring the problems, as South Africans tend to do. “We’re very, very patient people.”
A similar approach is to choose loyalty, continuing to pay our taxes and do what is required of us, but nothing more. A third is to use our voices and agitate for change, as many inspiring people are doing around the world. They include Daniel Gottlieb, who has set up the organisation Maximum New York to clean up the city; Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang, part of the “g0v” (gov zero) civic hacking project which gathers ideas from citizens and then persuades government to implement these; and South Africa’s former Business Day editor Songezo Zibi, who wrote the book ‘Manifesto’, “which we should all read if we are entrepreneurs in South Africa,” said Bronwyn.
In this book, Zibi reminds us that democracy means governance of the governed: we should actively and frequently participate in the process, rather than simply vote every few years and then hope for the best.
Many South Africans are participating in fixing our problems, from filling in potholes themselves to building roads and setting up electricity generation projects, Bronwyn observed. “Yes, they’re paying twice for the same service and it’s not fair but they realize that if they don’t fix it it’s simply not going to get fixed.
“This question of participatory democracy means that no man is an island. We can retreat behind our high walls, gates and armed guards in a neo-fuedal way, if we are wealthy enough – or we can see how we might work together at a local level to fix the problems around us.”
Businesses: favouring resilience over efficiency
How could businesses best respond to the “permacrisis”? They could prioritise resilience over efficiency, to ensure they survive through multiple challenges. An example is the CEO of Nintendo, who recently declared that despite the financial pressures, he would not lay off staff as this would demotivate the remaining staff and increase the chances of his company failing.
“I think he’s a great lesson to think about when it comes to how expectations change our behaviour, which shapes our future,” said Bronwyn.
South Africans are experiencing serious difficulties, but if we choose to emigrate, “we’re taking our talents and investments from this country, and in the process of trying to save ourselves, we are increasing the odds of our society right here not succeeding.
“There are a lot of positive things going on out there, but we have to believe it if we are going to make it,” she concluded.