We need new thinking, research, ideas, and strategies, for ensuring advanced technologies are harnessed to ensure a better future for as many people as possible. And we need them fast!
This is, by any measure, a procrastination post. I’m supposed to be writing a commentary on advanced technology transitions for a prominent journal, and I’m stalling.
It’s not that I don’t know where to begin — I know where I want to go with this commentary, and what I want to say in it. It’s just that, as usual, I’m struggling with that first step of cutting through the cerebral fog as I get started on a more formal piece of writing.
So I thought I would start here and hopefully dissipate some of that fog.
Over the past 20 years or so I’ve been working at the cutting edge of transformative technologies, and exploring ways of ensuring that the benefits substantially outweigh the risks as they are incorporated into society.
In each case, the communities of experts and practitioners I’ve worked with have learned that successful technology transitions take an incredible diversity of expertise, understanding, perspectives, and partnerships. Yet it often feels that, with each new wave of transformative technologies, there’s a tendency to metaphorically re-invent the wheel as different groups and communities try to ensure their success.
This is now playing out with AI and Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, where well-meaning advocates for societally beneficial innovation seem blissfully unaware of lessons learned from past technology transitions, and how to harness and build on these.
This, perhaps, isn’t surprising. In a world where we’re deluged with new knowledge, information, ideas, and perspectives on a daily basis, it’s near-impossible to cut through the noise and join the dots in coherent and informed ways. But it’s also not helped by a lack of coordinated research, learning, and thought leadership, around advanced technology transitions that is highly visible, highly accessible, and highly relevant to navigating emerging challenges.
It’s not that the pieces of the puzzle aren’t there — many of them are. There’s a wealth of expertise around transdisciplinary and multi-sector approaches to mapping out the challenges presented by new technologies, and ensuring that the societal and economic benefits far out weigh the risks. Yet much of this is buried in academic research, or within disconnected communities and initiatives.
If we are to successfully navigate technology transitions that include AI and AGI, as well as quantum technologies, advanced human augmentation, gene editing, the metaverse, and many more, we need greater coherence and relevance around how we combine existing understanding and generate new ideas. And we need to make sure that this is highly legible and accessible to people who increasingly need guidance and insight into navigating technology transitions that could end badly if not handled well.
This is where the concept of Advanced Technology Transitions makes sense as an integrated and transdisciplinary focus of research and scholarship, as well as a domain of thought leadership; an area of critical education, learning, and skills development; and a platform for mobilizing expertise for positive societal and economic impact.
So far, none of this level of coherence has been visible around LLMs. In fact, we’ve seen a plethora of well intentioned, although sometimes uninformed, ideas circulating—with decision-influencing conversations being driven by advocates who often have a very rudimentary understanding of complex technology transitions.
This wouldn’t matter so much if this was 30, 50, or even a hundred years ago, where the pace of innovation tended to allow enough time for things to even out in the end around risks and benefits (at least, to a certain extent). But this is 2023, and the pace of innovation is beginning to vastly outstrip our ability to find solutions to emerging problems using conventional thinking and established approaches.
Instead, we need unconventional approaches to unconventional challenges if we’re to successfully navigate advanced technology transitions. This will depend on new and joined-up ways of thinking that are not constrained by outmoded ideas or disciplines, but rather combine knowledge, ideas and insights in transformative ways—including ensuring that the arts and humanities (as well as areas of understanding that don’t have neat disciplinary labels) are as much a part of the mix as the social sciences, and science and engineering more broadly. It will also mean ensuring that relevant expertise and understanding are accessible, legible, and meaningful, to those who could benefit from them. And it will require having the agility to respond to new challenges with speed …