How do we address the consequences of emerging technologies?

12 Nov 2020

Image: Domhnaill Hernon

Speaking at Future Human, Nokia Bell Labs’ Domhnaill Hernon predicted that 10 emerging technologies will take hold of the world by 2030 and asked the question: what effect will this have on humanity?

The future is filled with possibilities, particularly in the tech space. Every time society seems to get a handle on one type of technology, there are several more emerging technologies around the corner to be considered.

But what effects do all these emerging technologies have on society? This is what Domhnaill Hernon concerns himself with as head of experiments in art and technology at Nokia Bell Labs.

Speaking at Future Human at the end of October, he discussed a time a decade ago when 4G mobile connectivity and online social media platforms collided.

“Out of this collision of these two emerging technologies just 10 years ago, we’ve had a global pandemic of digital loneliness and a global pandemic of fake news,” he said. “A big question I have about the future is, what happens if 10 or more of these emerging technologies collide? What profound implications might that have for the way we live and the way we work?”

‘I think the fusion of art and technology is a very strong leading approach to take if you want to consider our humanity in these future technologies’

Current emerging technologies include 5G, machine learning, augmented reality, quantum computing, blockchain and robotics, which lead to other tech developments such as autonomous vehicles and digital twins.

“I have a prediction that in 2030, about 10 of these technologies are going to take hold in the world,” said Hernon. “So, if digital loneliness and fake news – to name just two negative consequences – came out of the combination of two emerging technologies just 10 years ago, what might happen with the combination of 10 of these technologies in 10 years’ time?”

Bringing arts into the mix

Hernon said a critical part of the work he does at Nokia Bell Labs is thinking about how the potential negative consequences of emerging technology might be addressed before they become problems.

“Now, there is one possible solution, at least in my experience and through the work that I currently lead, and that’s with a combination of art and engineering and science to humanise technology.”

He showed the Future Human audience a number of examples where emerging technologies are left completely up to the technologists, compared with if artists are brought into the mix, giving the potential solutions more humanity.

These included artist Fei Liu, who is investigating how to build emotional connections between humans and technology; Lisa Park, whose work focuses on physical contact in the virtual world; and beatboxer Reeps One, who essentially used a beatboxing digital twin with which to collaborate. Reeps One showcased this project at Inspirefest 2018.

Hernon said he believes there’s an incorrect narrative around humans versus machines. “I don’t think it’s the right way of looking at this at all,” he said. “How can you take the best of humanity with the best of technology, bring them together and leverage and build better things for humanity by bringing these two worlds together?”

He added that, instead of thinking about how technology can replicate or replace humans, he’s more concerned about how it can enhance humans and their creativity.

“From my perspective, I think the fusion of art and technology is a very strong leading approach to take if you want to consider our humanity in these future technologies.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic