Is technology limiting our humanity?

Battle of Ideas festival 2015, Sunday 18 October, Barbican, London


From Big Data to the driverless car, we seem to live in an age of dizzying technological progress, which many hail as a ‘new industrial revolution’. Robotic intelligence is becoming so advanced that many warn machines could take white-collar jobs within a generation, while computers are moving ever closer to passing the Turing Test. Meanwhile, smart technology is increasingly marketed as desirable for reducing the capacity for human error: Google’s developers note that most accidents had by their driverless car are caused by other drivers. Global companies such as IBM are involved in designing purpose-built smart cities, such as South Korea’s Songdo, which can manage the climate and water supply or respond to citizens’ movements in real time.

While much of this seems cause for celebration – liberating us from banal tasks and informing our ability to make choices – others sound a note of caution. Wall Street’s ‘flash crash’ in 2010 was allegedly caused by ‘spoofing’ technology tricking automated trading systems into believing a share crash was taking place, wiping over £500 billion off the market in a few minutes: an example of the real-world impact of entirely virtual activity. It similarly remains unclear how the driverless car would respond to systems failure or pedestrian behaviour. Architect Rem Koolhaas raises the concern that cities where citizens are ‘treated like infants’ with no ‘possibility for transgression’ are not necessarily desirable places to live.

Is it troubling that innovation seems so concerned with eliminating human failure or has that always been the aim of technological development? Is humanity facing its ‘greatest existential threat’ from today’s robots, as Tesla’s Elon Musk warns? Does the ‘new industrial revolution’ mean a welcome transformation in how we interact with the world or a limitation of our capacity in act waywardly and unpredictably?

Dr Tom Chatfield

writer and broadcaster; author, Live This Book! and How to Thrive in the Digital Age

Dr Norman Lewis
director (innovation), PwC; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Juliette Morgan
C&W Tech Global Lead – London Head of Property – Tech City UK

Andrew Orlowski
executive editor, Register; assistant producer, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

Dr Paul Zanelli
chief technical officer, Transport Systems Catapult

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive