Just over 200 years, in November 1816, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a novel which was published in London two years later.
The book was written during a dark and cold summer in the beautiful Diodati villa in Cologny, a couple of miles from Geneva. Not everyone knows that this book has a subtitle: “The Modern Prometheus,” referring to the Titan who, according to Greek mythology, had donated the discovery of fire to men and was therefore punished by Zeus.
Frankenstein was written during the first Industrial Revolution, a period of enormous changes that provoked confusion and anxiety for many. It asked searching questions about man’s relationship with technology: Are we creating a monster we cannot control, are we losing our humanity, our compassion, our ability to feel empathy and emotions?
These questions have, 200 years later, become even more relevant. The World Economic Forum is located just a few steps away from the Villa where Frankenstein was written, and its messages still resonate. The theme of our Annual Meeting in Davos last year was the Fourth Industrial Revolution which, in the words of our founder and Executive Chairman Professor Klaus Schwab, has the potential to “not only change what we do, but change us from within.” The latest breakthroughs in technology and medicine make the gap between man and machine ever narrower.
The question for today becomes: in the fourth industrial revolution, with revolutionary and disruptive changes in the digital, physical, biological spheres, are we transforming into who we want to become? I think we should keep our focus on two components. The first relates to our abilities and behaviour to manage the complexity of these changes. The second, our ethics, our moral compass, is closely linked to the concept of responsible leadership, the theme of Davos 2017.
Starting with the first, our “capacity”, I do not refer to the technical skills but to a broader and deeper concept. Jobs that cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence will be essential components of character elements such as judgment, empathy, critical thinking, positive attitude, entrepreneurial spirit.
The complexity and ambiguity of the world around us means no one will ever have all the answers: it means that we must individually develop system thinking, contextual intelligence, the ability to know how to connect the dots, in a context that might appear like a painting that might appear confused, if not downright scary.
I believe that we will remember 2016 for a long time. In my view it was an annus horribilis in many respects, yet one loaded with lessons if we are prepared to pause and listen. However, even the best capacity to be able to connect the dots may not be sufficient. We must learn to work together, to build trust, a key component of success in organizations and between individuals and groups. We need to rethink and redefine both the principle of leadership, from “I know it all” to coaching, equipping people with sound judgement and responsibility, a moral compass and intellectual freedom.
As Einstein reportedly said, “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics”. Computer programmers have always “given” orders to the computer (coding). Since the late 50s we have known that computers have learning capabilities, called machine learning, through deep learning: this process is both fascinating and terrifying.
There is no clear distinction between “us” telling the computer what to do and “they”, the computers, obeying. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, computers learn and lead us on to make choices without us being conscious of it: think for example to our purchasing choices on Amazon, guided precisely by algorithms and machine learning.
Machines also reflect back our biases: in the run-up to the US election, experiments showed that the algorithm associated certain characteristics with the candidates based on their gender. So we cannot delegate ethical choices and our moral responsibilities to algorithms, we cannot think that computers give us the opportunity to escape from our responsibilities, our choices, our freedom.
And if we use our contextual intelligence to connect Frankenstein, Industrial Revolutions, Artificial Intelligence, and our own moral compass, we will realize that, as artists, we shall write, paint, sculpt and play out our own choices.
- Paolo Gallo
Over the last 30 years, Paolo Gallo has been Chief Human Resources Officer at the World Economic Forum in Geneva; Chief Learning Officer at The World Bank in Washington DC; and Director of Human Resources at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development in London.