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Will digital be the death of us? was the title of our second 20:20 digital debate, held on Halloween at the Pavillion Dance, Bournemouth. Following feedback from our first debate in March, we slightly switched tact on the event format and decided to hold our latest installment during a lunch hour, and focused on a topic that was more polar in its opposing arguments.
We were delighted so many of our local marketing community could come and join us, and provide such positive feedback.
The speakers certainly provided a lively, and compelling case for each side of the debate, giving our attendees exactly what was asked for -- both sides of the story, and two very different perspectives on the world.
Rob Belgrave: a man passionate about the digital community, a believer that there has never been a more exciting time to work in tech.
Nigel Gwilliam: a latter day Cassandra, cursed to utter prophecies of doom which no one believes (until it’s too late).
Before the debate started, each member of the audience was asked to show their current feeling towards whether our digital future will be bright (yellow) or dark (blue) - the feeling was very much towards a positive outlook… let’s see if it had changed by the end...
First up was Rob Belgrave, CEO of Wirehive who had possibly the easier* task of promoting a positive outlook.
*I say easier because most of the room was already in his camp...but by no means did he rest on his laurels, there were still dark siders to convince, and optimists to reassure.
As with both speakers, in order to understand where we’re heading we have to look back to appreciate where we have come from, and often patterns and cycles emerge that help us make sense of what is happening now, and could happen in the future.
Rob focused on the Renaissance period. A time in our history filled with discoveries, new inventions, revivals and growth - all positive associations and behaviours.
Centred on this period Rob drew our attention to how technology could work in harmony with us, how it could be used for the greater good and prosperity, and enable us to take responsibility for our actions for the better.
Technology allows us to be more ethically minded, to take matters into our own hands and participate on a larger scale than our surrounding neighbourhood.
His view of AI was that, if used in the right way, it could help us become better versions of ourselves - pushing us to improve, offering new ways to learn, and challenging us to think/act differently.
He introduced us to The Juvet Agenda and organisations like New Citizenship Project, enterprises focused on enabling and empowering people to get involved, to challenge the status quo and to shape our society for the better (and benefit of everyone) with technology very much at the heart.
There was the mention of robotics and machine-learning from the perspective of tasks and unskilled labour. And a future where if a robot could practice surgery more consistently (and to a good standard) than a human, why wouldn’t we prefer them to conduct procedures?
He concluded by referring to people that are inspiring a new generation, that are encouraging others to believe they can innovate and make a difference, even if like Simone Giertz they use humour in conjunction with technology to haphazardly achieve it.
His language, his examples, his delivery was all very much in the land of optimism, of opportunity and of good. If we’d have left it there everyone would have been sold on our future being a prosperous, attractive and utopian one.
BUT, it’s Halloween, it’s a debate, and every element of Rob’s argument could have a dark side... Enter, Mr Nigel Gwilliam, Media & Emerging Technologies Consultant for Wingman Consulting, and the bearer of doom and gloom.
References to worldwide threat assessments; invasions and conquerings which have brought extinction to species and loss of life; and the massive problem of climate change and rise of acid in our oceans; were all used to set the scene for Nigel’s haunting tale involving technology.
Nigel made a chilling remark that may haunt many on All Hallows’ Eve: “Whoever leads in AI will rule the world” - currently that race is being led by the Chinese, who saw the AI vs Human Go experiment as their Sputnik moment (a point where people realise that they are threatened of challenged and have to redouble their efforts to catch up).
He centred much of his argument on the issues of power and control, of Russian propaganda and fake news that is controlling our interpretation of the world, and disrupting the West.
Similarly he introduced us to the runaway objective function - the ability to excel at something, but in its application there is a blinkered obsession, a creation of extremism and a worrying blindness to consequences and peripheral impact.
Most powerfully he used the remarks made by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, that it’s biggest competitor isn’t Amazon or HBO, but sleep! The loss of which (sleep) could shorten your lifespan!! How is this acceptable in the pursuit of commercial gain?
There was also the mention of Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg’s obsession with engagement being the ultimate goal, which in turn led to fake news and the wrong sort of engagement.
He ended his argument with four summary points which sum up his talk perfectly
Our tech has f**ked the planet
China with be an AI hegemon
Russia judo flipped our asses
Billionaires are mainly bastards
The only thing left to say on the subject was his talk unquestionably left us with a sense of foreboding that there’s an evil hand at play…and we’re all f**ked!
For the sanity of the human race, the votes were still predominantly in favour of the bright side, there were a few switchers who possibly due to a greater sense of fear, and especially fear of tyrannical powers rising, more than a sense of hope, were persuaded to reassess their opinions.
We cannot thank our speakers enough for the powerful, polarised debate that I’m sure will spark many further conversations over the weeks to come.
Watch this space for our next debate topic.
For those who attended and are interested in hearing more from Rob Belgrave, his podcast, entitled ‘Alexa Stop’ is available to download.
Nigel Gwilliam makes an appearance on episode: A comprehensive campaign of interference
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