The American biologist E.O. Wilson observed of the modern world that we are “drowning in information, while starving for wisdom”.
As a technologist, this sentence sits uncomfortably with me. I believe in the power of technology to improve lives, bring people closer together, remove barriers, give everyone a voice and create possibilities.
Technology, especially the always-on communications sort that companies like my own have played an active role in developing over the last century, often means that information finds us, rather than the other way around.
And we’re not always equipped to cope with it - to filter it, make sense of it and use it in a way that’s helpful, not overwhelming. It sometimes feels that humans need to grow a new sixth digital sense to add to our original set.
There are, undoubtedly, reasons to be concerned about the impact of our information-driven society regarding the way that we, as humans, interact and relate to each other, exemplified by the growing awareness of “fake news” and the use of social media to manipulate elections.
They raise big questions about whose voices we should listen to. How do we differentiate between objective truths and subjective opinion? Has our obsession with easy-to-digest factoids reduced our ability to analyze and critically assess the information we receive?
These are all legitimate, sensible questions to be asking.
Research this year found that 95% of teens in the United States now have access to a smartphone, and almost half say they are nearly always online. Worryingly, 25% believe that the impact of these technologies is largely negative, reflecting many of the concerns that we, as adults, have about the world we’ve played a part in creating.
But here’s the thing. It’s not possible to uninvent mobile phones, or the internet, or optical fibres. And, really, would we want to? Because for every new issue that our connected world throws up, there are 10 reasons why our lives are enhanced, improved and enriched by technology, especially communications and IT.
We’re more connected to each other than ever before, and technology has given us more power as individuals than at any other time in recorded history. A single person’s perspective can be read by millions, winning hearts and changing minds worldwide. Over the last decade, social channels have played an active, even pivotal, role in popular uprisings against authoritarian or abusive regimes; they’ve helped provide recognition, publicity and growth to millions of small enterprises, lifting people out of poverty; and given oppressed or ignored minorities a chance to be heard by politicians and journalists across the globe.
For many of us today, that technology is commonplace. It helps us to be there for the things that matter – our friends, our family, our passions. It brings people together in ways that were inconceivable a few generations ago. Technology has shrunk the world, and I believe that while we mustn’t blinker ourselves to the challenges this brings, they are far outweighed by the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
We only have to look at the medical field. Using modern high-speed networks, doctors are now able to consult with patients in their own homes, taking information feeds from connected heart monitors, blood-pressure machines and oxygen sensors; there are emerging technologies that can measure your heartbeat by simply looking at you through a webcam.
BT recently conducted a trial with King’s College London and Ericsson on how doctors using “haptic” gloves can control a robotic arm via a high-speed 5G network to perform diagnosis, maybe even surgery, remotely. This may be some way from being robust enough to use outside the lab, but today’s science can become tomorrow’s reality.
Even in the home, technologies are playing an increasingly important role in making our lives easier. This may seem a trivial example, but a few weeks ago during a meeting, a colleague received a video call, not from a human being, but from his front-door bell. He was able to chat to a delivery driver face to face, remotely unlock his front door using a wifi-enabled lock and ask the driver to leave the package inside. Now imagine how important these technologies could be to you if you had vulnerable or elderly relatives living some distance away who might need vital supplies delivering.
A lot has been written about the so-called internet of things, artificial intelligence, and machine-to-machine communications; devices talking to each other and working together to improve our lives. I’d be the first to admit that we still have a long way to go to maximize the impact of these applications. But I believe that they have the potential to be transformational. For me, it’s less about connected fridges and remote-controlled toasters, and more about air sensors, traffic sensors, automated remote maintenance and instrumented parking spaces. Because when the world is connected, it can give us the insight to make informed choices.
I wholeheartedly agree with another of Wilson’s observations, that “the world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely”.
Yes, technology can create a haze of white noise and information. But it also has the potential to help us cut through and make sense of that haze, empowering us in ways that we never understood were possible. It might take us a couple of generations to grow our new sixth digital sense, but the positive power of this information will help us empower the powerless, inform the uninformed, and become a force for peace and prosperity.