9 min read

The ongoing World Economic Forum meeting 2019 has seen a vast array of discussions on political, technological and other industrial agendas. The meeting brings together the world’s foremost CEOs, government officials, policy-makers, experts and academics, international organizations, youth, technology innovators and representatives of civil society with an aim to drive positive change in the world on multiple facets.

This article will focus on the talk ‘Computing Technology at a Tipping Point’ that was moderated by Nicholas Carlson from Business Insider with a panel consisting of Antonio Neri, president and Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Jeremy O’Brien, CEO of PsiQuantum  and Amy Webb, Adjunct Assistant Professor of NYU Stern School of Business. Their discussion explored questions of today’s age, ranging from- why this is an important time for technology, the role of governments in encouraging a technological revolution, role of the community and business in optimizing tech and the challenges faced as we set out to utilize the next generation computing technologies like quantum computing and AI.

Quantum Computing – The necessity of the future

The discussion kicked off with the importance of Quantum computing at the present as well as the future. O’Brien defined Quantum computing as “Nothing short of a necessary tool that humans need to build their future”. According to him, QC is a “genuinely exponentially powerful technology”, due to the varied applications that quantum computing can impact if put to use in the correct way – from human health, energy, to molecular chemistry among others.

Webb calls the year 2019 as the year of divergence, where we will move from the classic Von Neumann architecture to a more diversified Quantum age. Neri believes we are now at the end of Moore’s law that states overall processing power for computers will double every two years. He says that two years from now we will generate twice the amount of data as generated today and there will be a major divergence between the data generated and the computation power. This is why we need to focus on solving architectural problems of processing algorithms and computing data rather than focussing on the amount of data.

Why is this an exciting time for tech?

O’Brien: Quantum Computing, Molecular simulation for Techno-Optimism

O’Brien expresses his excitement in the Quantum Computing and molecular simulation field where developers are just touching the waters with both these concepts.
He has been in the QC field for the past 20 years and says that he has faith in Quantum computing and even though it’s the next big thing to watch out for, he assures developers that it will not replace conventional computing.  Quantum computers can be used in fact to improve the performance of classical computing systems to handle the huge amounts of data and information that we are faced with today.
In addition to QC, another concept he believes that ‘will transform lives’ is molecular simulation. Molecular simulation will design new pharmaceuticals, new chemicals and help build really sophisticated computers to solve exponentially large problems.

Webb: The beginning of the end of smartphones

“We are in the midst of a great transformation. This is an explosion happening in slow motion”.
Based on data-driven models she says this is the beginning of the end of smartphones. 10 years from now, as our phones retrieve biometric information to information derived from what we wear and we use, the computing environments will look different. Citing an example of MagicLeap who creates spatial glasses, she mentions how computable devices we wear will turn our environment into a computable space to visualize data in a whole different way.

She advises business’ to rethink how they function;  even between the current cloud V/s edge and computer architectures change. Companies should start thinking in terms of 10 years rather than short term, since decisions made today will have long term consequences. While this is the positive side, Webb is pessimistic that there is no global alignment on the use of data. On the basis of GDPR and other data laws, systems have to be trained.

Neri: continuous re-skilling to stay relevant

Humans should continuously re-skill themselves with changing times and technologies to avoid an exclusion from new jobs as and when they arrive. He further states that, in the field of Artificial intelligence, there should not be a concentration of power in a few entities like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and others. While these companies are at the foremost while deciding the future of AI, innovation should happen at all levels. We need guidelines and policy  for the same- not to regulate but to guide the revolution. Business, community and Government should start thinking about ethical and moral codes.

Government’s role in Technological Optimism

The speakers emphasized on the importance of the government’s’ involvement in these ‘exciting times’ and how they can work towards making citizens feel safe against the possible abuse of technology.

Webb: Regulation of AI doesn’t make sense

We need to have conversations on optimizing Artificial Intelligence using available data. She expresses her opinion that the regulation of AI doesn’t make sense. This is because we shift from a group of people understanding and implementing optimization to lawmakers who do not understand technical know-how. Nowadays, people focus on regulating tech instead of optimizing it because most don’t understand the nitty-gritties of a system, nor do they understand a system’s limitations. Governments play a huge role in this optimization or regulation decision making. She emphasizes on the need to get hold of the right people to come to an agreement ,“ where companies are a hero to their shareholders and the government to their citizens” .

Governments should start talking about and exploring Quantum computing such that its benefits are distributed equitably in a shortest amount of time.

Neri: Human centered future of computing

He adds that for a human centered future of computing, it is we who need to decide what is good or bad for us. He agrees with Webb’s point that since technology evolves in a way we cannot think of, we need to come to reasonable conclusions before a crisis arrives. Further, he adds that governments should inculcate moral ethics while adopting and implementing technology and innovation.

Role of Politicians in technology

During the discussion, a member of the European Parliament stated that people have a common notion that politicians do not understand technology and cannot keep up with changing times. Stating that many companies do not think about governance, human rights, democracy and possible abuse of their products; the questioner says that we need a minimum threshold to protect human rights and safeguard humans against abuse. Her question was centered around ways to invite politicians to understand tech better before it’s too late.

Expressing her gratitude that the European Parliament is asking such a thoughtful question, Webb suggested that creating some kind of framework that the key people on all sides of the spectrum can agree to and a mechanism that incentivises everyone to play fairly- will help parliaments and other law making bodies to feel inclusive in understanding technology.

Neri also suggested a guiding principle to think ethically before using any technology without stopping innovation.

Technological progress in China and its implications on the U.S.

Another question that caught our attention was the progress of technology in China and its implications on the US. Webb says that the development of tools, technologies, frameworks and  data gathering mechanisms to mine, refine and monetize data have different approaches in US and China. In China, the activities related to AI and activities of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are under the leadership of the Chinese communist Party. She says that it is hard to overlook what is happening in Chain with the BRI (Belt to Road Initiative), 5G, digital transformation, expansion in fibre and expansion in e-commerce  and a new world order is being formed because of the same. She is worried that the US and its allies will be locked out economically from the BRI countries and AI will be one of the factors propelling the same .

Role of the Military in technology

The last question pointed out that some of the worst abuses of technology can be done by governments and the military has the potential to misuse technology. We need to have conversations on the ethical use of technology and how to design technology to fit ethical morals.

Neri says that corporations do have a point of view on the military using technology for various reasons and the governments are consulting them on the impacts of technology on the world as well. This is a hard topic and the debate is ongoing even though it is not visible to the people.

Webb says that the US always had ties with the government. We live in a world of social media where conversations spiral out of control because of the same.  She advises companies to meet quarterly to have conversations along this line and understanding how their work with the military/ government align with the core values of their company.

Sustainability and Technology

Neri states that 6% of the global power is used to power data centers. It is important to determine how to address this problem. The solutions proposed for the same are:

  • Innovate in different ways.
  • Be mindful the entire supply chain—>from the time you procure minerals to build the system and recycle it.
  • We need to think of a circular economy. Consider if systems can be re-used by other companies, check parts to be re-cycled and reused.
  • We can use synthetic DNA to back up data – this could potentially use less energy.
  • To sustain human life on this planet, we need to optimise how we ruse resources- physical and virtual, QC tool will invent the future. Materials can be built using QC.

You can listen to the entire talk at the World Economic Forum’s official page.

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