10 Turning Points: Why It’s Time to Lean Into The Opportunity of the Innovation Age

As my hydro-charged electric vehicle drove me to Seattle last week, a series of news stories suggested that we are living in a new era. Like American politics, we appear to be about three years into a new epoch shaped, in part, by two human-made forces: artificial intelligence and global warming.

This new innovation age (the one that comes after the 40-year information age) is being powered by code that learns, and is fed by data from billions of mobile devices, sensors and cameras.

Like AI, a few people were talking about the climate crisis back in the 60s, but it became prevalent in global media in the last few years as freak storms seemed to hit one after another, compounded by sea level rise and a hot planet.

The following are 10 signs we’re in a new age—a new economy and a new ecology. These shifts are not exclusive, but they are representative of this new era. More than trends, these turning points suggest it’s time for an operating system update—including new mental models and new ways to share the planet.

First, the good news.

1. AI for good. Aside from global warming, AI is the most powerful change force humans have ever created. While disrupting every sector of the economy and posing new threats, AI offers the opportunity to solve many of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Leading this movement is AI for Good, a United Nations initiative focused on beneficial use of Artificial Intelligence (see a report on their May convening). The #AIforGood cause is also boosted by a growing number of nonprofit advocacy organizations, including Future of Life Institute, Open AI, and the AI Family Challenge.

Schools are getting on board with the help of nonprofit organizations promoting AI-powered contributions: AI4All powers after school programs for youth; AI4K12 helps schools prioritize learning

“The European Union has carved out a ‘human-centric’ approach to AI that is respectful of European values and principles.” A new report from the European Union makes recommendations for “designing, developing, deploying, implementing or using AI products and services in the EU.”

The guidelines are an early attempt to corral AI and related technologies for social good. With this fast-moving tech, policymakers are likely to be chasing the bots. As in privacy, the EU is leading the way.

2. Recognizing global warming. After a decade of squabbling over data, there is widespread recognition that the planet is warming and that there will be serious consequences for all of us. The climate crisis is ecological—as the Cambridge Center for the Study of Existential Risk reports—and biological (see new UN report). But it was the global weather extremes of the last few years made it painfully obvious to nearly everyone.

The good news is that the crisis has registered and we know what to do. More than 80% of parents in the U.S. support the teaching of climate change. The bad news is that we don’t have much time.

Millions of young people walked out of school last month to protest political inaction on the climate crisis. In the new age of Gretanomics, a nod to young activist Greta Thunberg, economists and politicians are increasingly called to consider sustainability with growth—a big win for the #StudentVoice and #ClimateAction movements.

3. From quarterly profits to stakeholder value. “Capitalism as we know it is dead,” said Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at the 2019 TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

“It is not just about making money. It has to be more than that.” Benioff suggested the focus should be a company’s stakeholders–employees, customers, and community—not just shareholders.

Similarly, in August, the Business Roundtable outlined a modern standard for corporate responsibility, one that redefines the purpose of a corporation to promote ‘an economy that serves all Americans.’

The report illustrated that creating value for stakeholders, when managed strategically for the long term, can benefit shareholders as well as employees and the community.

These statements may be too early to call it a trend, but it may be a turning point that will change how business leaders are taught and judged.

4. Half connected. More than half of the nearly eight billion of us on Earth are connected to the Internet—an important turning point achieved only a dozen years after smartphones were introduced.

Adding the next four billion people to the Internet is the biggest learning opportunity in history.

It has the potential to grow middle classes and thrust vulnerable economies to new levels of competitiveness and abundance. Improved infrastructure will connect people to global markets and support more location-independent knowledge work, enabling more people to have control over their careers. Increased connectivity will continue to democratize access to learning, markets and governance.

5. Autonomous delivery. Food and retail goods are being delivered by autonomous robots in San Francisco. Autonomous shuttles are delivering passengers on a closed course in Atlanta. There are more than 1,400 self-driving vehicles being tested in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

Amazon recently ordered 100,000 Rivian electric delivery trucks. The shift away from internal combustion engines and toward assisted and autonomous vehicles is underway. We may be a decade away from widespread open road use of autonomous electric vehicles (given setbacks like a pedestrian death in 2018) but they hold the promise of safer, less congested and more sustainable cities.

And now for five disconcerting turning points.

6. Rise of synthetic content. A new report suggests that ‘sophisbots,’ sophisticated online bots able to emulate human behavior and interact with us seamlessly, are running rampant on social media. That could be great for customer service, but a powerful weapon for those interested in spreading disinformation.

A new site offers access to 100,000 pictures of synthetic people. That’s going to kill the stock photo business. Add AI-written stories and you have fully synthetic news items—even full websites.

So called ‘deep fake’ videos that circulated this spring were simple overdubs. Recent advances in AI systems make it possible to generate fully synthetic video with constructed personalities.

All of these constructed content capabilities spells trouble for the 2020 election. “How we deal with the future of synthetic content will define the nature of ‘truth’ in society, which will ultimately define everything else,” said OpenAI’s Jack Clark.

7. Full surveillance society. The rapid increase in the number of cameras and drones in many places means a growing number of us are living in a full surveillance society. And with recent improvements in facial recognition, it’s pretty easy to track your movement.

Protesters in Hong Kong began wearing facemasks to avoid facial recognition systems. Last week, in an emergency order, the government banned wearing facemasks for the purpose of avoiding recognition.

The City of San Diego uses a network of thousands of sensors installed on streetlights to collect data in an attempt to improve traffic and safety. Opponents recently called for the city to end the data collection to prevent police from using data and video to target certain populations. For similar reasons, the City of San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies.

As more powerful AI and surveillance systems are developed, “there are going to be a multitude of conversations about how ‘intelligent’ we want our civil infrastructures to be, and what the potential constraints or controls are that we can place on them,” Clark explained.

8. Rise of killer robots. The pinpoint drone strike that interrupted half of Saudi oil production (and Aramco’s IPO) suggests that nothing and no one is safe with drones and autonomous weapons. With sophisticated drones being built and flown by high school students, the movie War Games suddenly seems conceivable in real life.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is an NGO formed to counter the threat of machines gone bad. The campaign, backed by Tesla’s Elon Musk and Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman, seeks to ban such machines—but it’s going to be hard to stay in front of this threat.

9. Income inequality. The longest economic expansion in US history made the rich richer. A big jump in 2018 created the largest income gaps in modern history. The AI-powered innovation economy is accelerating the aggregation of wealth to the biggest companies and the richest people. This doesn’t end well.

Anger about accelerating income gaps fueled the rise of populism, which resulted in a tax cut that made it worse). Increasing frustration will continue to collide with the climate crisis as low-income communities become the most impacted.

10. Unmanageable Complexity. Perhaps the most vexing least recognized challenge of our time is the extraordinary complexity of natural and manmade systems and their unexpected collisions.

Cloud computing, massive data sets, and code that learns makes systems so complex that it requires live experiments and simple proxies to try to understand how they work—more plainly, people that manage complex systems don’t understand them. As a result, expect more unexpected consequences: more derived bias, more hacking, more compound events.

“The 21st century will be defined by our attempts to come up with the right learning systems to intelligently and scalably constrain the machines we have created, said Jack Clark.

These turning points suggest we need to update our working assumptions and mental models, to reconsider what it means to be human, what our role is in society, how we think about enterprise goals, how we govern ourselves, and how we share the planet.

Implications of the Innovation Age

In this new era everyone is exposed to more risk—more upside (so it is easier to make a big difference) and more downside (with more threats and displacement). Everything is more complicated requiring more humility and more design thinking (a structured problem-solving approach beginning with empathy research).

This new era requires new a new set of assumptions about how things work and new approaches to leadership, learning, and governance. Seven implications include:

1. Agility. These complex issues call for agile government—public responses that reduce risks and share the benefits of new capabilities (see The Age of Agility from America Succeeds).

2. Sustainability. Given the increasing severity of the climate crisis, every person, organization, and community needs a sustainability agenda (including mitigation and adaptation).

3. Support. We’re in for a period of unimaginable social and economic turbulence. It’s time for local and regional governments and philanthropies to double down on youth and family services.

4. Learning Ecosystems. Every person, organization and region needs to get smart—to skill up, learn more and build new capacities faster than ever. In the long run, learning is the economic development agenda. New pathways to emerging employment opportunities (like the 25 business- and college-connected high schools in Dallas) are key to smart cities.

5. Digital Literacy. The rise of ‘sophisbots’ and synthetic content demands that we learn and teach digital literacy and critical consumption starting in fourth and fifth grade (when many students receive their first smartphones).

6. High School. High school education should be less about memorizing dates and formulas and more an introduction to pressing issues of our time and an invitation to contribute. Encountering complexity and seeking to make a difference on the local version of a global problem might be the best form of preparation.

7. Facilities. Anyone planning new learning facilities should consider the anywhere, anytime learning opportunities afforded by viewing the city as the classroom and increasingly accessible transportation.

Evidence of the new era is everywhere you turn. It’s time for politicians and corporate leaders to take the long view—the inclusive view, the sustainable view.  It’s time for community conversations that lead to better support services and learning opportunities for everyone. It is time to lean into the promise of the innovation age.

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This post was originally published on Forbes.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


A nice article but slightly misleading on the fact front - smartphones have been around for more like 15 years. Please don't make the mistake of thinking Apple was the first, for if you do your research you will find that they are virtually never first at anything (they are more about refinement).

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