Gerd Leonhard on the digitisation of the economy

Interview with Gerd Leonhard

“Total digital transformation is unavoidable”

Anybody who is not participating in the digital transformation today will be swept away. That’s the opinion of the future researcher Gerd Leonhard. Why it is worthwhile to have faith in human abilities such as curiosity, emotional intelligence and critical thinking.

Jörg Rothweiler

Mr Leonhard, the whole world is talking about the digital transformation. When will it become a reality?

Gerd Leonhard: It’s already going full steam ahead. We are at the crossroads. Transformation is taking place everywhere, technology is expanding exponentially. The Internet of Things, big data, fintech, blockchain, artificial intelligence – Industry 4.0 is happening right now. Nearly every bank is setting up robo-advisors, the major mineral companies are leaving the oil business behind, major industries are undergoing a seismic shift.

What does this mean for companies?

Technology is developing extremely fast. New platforms are constantly emerging that create new models, rules and realities. The challenges are enormous – as are the opportunities. Currently, everything is focussed on efficiency. Automation, robotisation and virtualisation are being used wherever possible. Humans get in the way. They are slow and expensive and stand in the way of greater profits. Repetitive, non-cognitive work will be the first to disappear.

How are companies getting fit for the future?

They have to have an inquisitive outlook and be prepared. The intelligent approach is to think and act in a hybrid manner. To continue what works well today and at the same time to reorientate the company for what is coming. Whoever makes neither the time nor the space for this will go out of business. Traditional television and radio broadcasters are sadly missing out on this change to a great degree. And I think that at least one of the major German car manufacturers will not survive this shift.

Which technologies will have a critical impact in the coming years?

Artificially intelligent machines that can “think” and learn and are capable of natural language understanding. They are blurring the boundary between technology and humans. They will understand us, answer complex questions and be able to translate perfectly. There will be new interfaces for this, such as voice control and brain-computer interfaces. Driverless electric vehicles and solar energy will establish themselves at great pace. In addition to this, predictive analytics will soon work perfectly. The question is if we will believe in this, or if we should.

Gerd Leonhard

Gerd Leonhard is the founder and CEO of “The Futures Agency GmbH”, futurist, strategy advisor, keynote speaker, future consultant and author. Now living in Switzerland, he was born in Bonn on 17 April 1961 as the son of a forester and lived for many years as a jazz guitarist and Internet entrepreneur in the USA.

“Digital transformation presents many opportunities. It also poses ethical questions.”

Gerd Leonhard, founder and CEO of “The Futures Agency GmbH”, futurist, strategy advisor, keynote speaker, future consultant and author

Shouldn’t we?

Total digital transformation is unavoidable. Anybody who doesn’t realise this could soon end up being irrelevant. However, it’s not just technology that’s important here, but ethics, values, meaning and context. One important question will be: “What do we want to hand over to the machines? And what don’t we want to?” Lie detectors with face and emotion detection already function perfectly. In the USA, computers can predict the probability that released prisoners will reoffend better than judges. And many HR departments today rely on software to find the right candidate. However, trusting an algorithm has many hidden dangers, such as discrimination. Or that somebody never has the chance to get a job. In the USA, thousands of people are on no-fly lists and have no idea how they ended up on them.

I’ve never heard about that...

Very few people know about the impact digitisation is already having today. In the foreseeable future, we will be able to see just what is possible – and it will be hair-raising. People analytics, the first genetically modified human, spare parts for humans cultivated from pig organs – this will all come about without a doubt. In ten years some machines will have an IQ of 50,000 and the processing power of a computer will be a million times what it is today. Data is already the new oil. Data volumes in the cloud will not only explode, the data will be consolidated and analysed. And this global brain will at some point lead to the first data Fukushima – for example if the health data (including DNA analyses) of 100 million people “falls out of the cloud”.

What will happen then?

Then, at the latest we will have to decide what should be digitalised and automated and what shouldn’t be and who controls this “data oil”. Regulation of this is long overdue. The power of the technology and the media groups – or rather their platforms – is enormous and mostly uncontrolled. In the USA, corporations are working under the emergency laws introduced after the 11th of September 2001 and in China they work with a complete disregard for privacy. Europe is falling into the chasm opening on both sides.

What has to change?

We need to ask ourselves who is to take on the future role of “Mission Control for Humanity”. Currently this is most definitely in Silicon Valley! It is therefore the task of politicians and companies to find the correct balance between humans and technology and to provide data protection in this new age of intelligent machines. We need greater control as users and consumers and a new code of digital ethics.

And if this regulation works out – what does the future hold?

Our whole lives will be transformed. But simply wanting greater efficiency is to miss the bigger picture. Then we will have reached a new stage – rehumanisation. We will be hyper-efficient and completely networked. Data usage will be like water, hardware will become software and software will become intelligence. Many things that are currently becoming ever more expensive – healthcare, education, energy – will ultimately be possible to provide more cheaply. 90% of clinical studies will take place in the cloud, solar energy will make oil irrelevant. Education will also be different – more holistic, more sustainable and less expensive.

“The more tasks that technology takes over, the more important human skills such as emotional intelligence will become.”

And will we become transparent citizens without a job?

No. The future is more than a linear progression of the present and humans are not machines. We might be inefficient, slow and expensive but we can do many things that a machine will never be able to do (hopefully). Skills such as social and emotional intelligence, innovative thinking, critical thought and creativity will help us to advance. We have to make the most of these talents. Efficiency is not everything and many things that are regarded as disruptive today will be critical in future. Companies would be well advised to take note of such abilities in their employees today and to promote their use. And we should all think about which of our capacities cannot be automated and which skills stand out as these will be vital in our personal future.

So everything will be OK?

As I often say, the future is better than we think – as long as we manage to use technology without becoming machines ourselves. Protecting our humanity and privacy is central to this. I would go as far as saying that we will have to pay for this one day. Being offline will be the new luxury. Privacy is a human right. It is only in our private sphere that we have secrets, coincidences, discoveries and free will. These are what makes us human and what lifts us above machines.

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