Diversity, technology and humanity

In the wake of the Christchurch attacks, some important debates have gained a louder voice: debates that have the power to shape how we move into the future.

Valuing diversity in our communities is the big one and challenges us to question the lenses through which we view the world, particularly if those lenses are framed with white and/or male privilege.

From an enterprise perspective, the power of diversity is well documented. McKinsey’s 2017 ‘Delivering through Diversity Report’ (based on data from 1,000 companies in 12 countries) linked diversity at executive level with profitability. Those in the top-quartile for gender diversity were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. The comparable figure for ethnic/cultural diversity was 33%. Diversity fosters out-of-the-box thinking, leading to new ideas, products, services and customers.

This analysis looks narrowly at profitability as the key measure of success. However, good business is no longer just about the money. There is increasing pressure for it to have a ‘doing good’ factor and that requires input from multiple perspectives to avoid the problem of well-intended (but poorly-informed) decisions going awry.

It would be nice if – for all the right reasons – diversity becomes a non-issue; a given. But change in this area is slow. The McKinsey study registered a mere 2% increase in gender representation (to 14%) and a paltry 1% rise in ethnic/cultural diversity (to 13%) in the subset of companies that were surveyed in both 2015 and 2017. In New Zealand, our senior leadership table figures are stronger for gender balance (although still well short of equal) but dismally fail to reflect our increasingly multicultural society.

There is clearly a long way to go and forward-thinking organisations need to develop a deliberate strategy to get there and to disrupt the traditional hierarchies of decision-making.

Cleaning up the social media cesspit

The other aftermath issue is the role played by technology. The actions (or possibly more to the point non-actions) of social media giants in relation to the events in Christchurch brought this simmering pot to a boil. Regulation has moved up the agenda.

This is not usually a welcome word in the innovation space and it was interesting to see Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith go beyond the collaboration message of his initial blog to say “We need to recognise that the law, regulation and governments have an increasing role to play.” (Source: Radio NZ and later reported here). In a distinct about face from previous statements, Mark Zuckerberg has also decided it’s time for government intervention. It will be tricky territory to navigate. The law – particularly in representative democracies – will struggle to keep pace with technological change. Zuckerberg has claimed he will be adding 3,000 more moderators to a team of 4,500 to attempt to control violent content uploaded by its two billion users but there are doubts about Facebook’s commitment. “If the company was serious, it would switch off Facebook Live immediately while it worked out how to...implement automatic tagging of all videos uploaded to the site so that any which slip through the net can be found and removed swiftly,” said commentator Paul Brislen.

Increasing investment in AI and machine learning will be part of the solution but hand-in-hand with that must come increasing investment in people; in diversity.

It’s a human problem

Ultimately it’s not purely a technology problem, or a legal problem; it’s a human problem. Humans design. Humans click. Humans share. Humans make decisions to place profits above people and planet. The potential of technology to exacerbate our ability to discriminate, divide and spread discord is an issue we have to face as AI develops at pace. We can do our utmost to legislate and moderate the problem out but is it realistic to expect AI to behave better than we do ourselves? We are a deeply flawed species in charge of creating a new intelligence.

The challenge lies in escaping our bubbles. This is not a new issue but one now complicated by the digitisation and commercialisation of our information sources. How do we as consumers of content increasingly curated by technology, get fresh input? How do we evade the algorithms that persistently serve us more and more of exactly what we like? We need the opposite of this comfort food. We need to be pushed into unfamiliar corners, exposed to new perspectives. We need regular injections of random.

Macron commented following the release of France’s AI strategy: “…This huge technological revolution is in fact a political revolution…if you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilisation, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution…The key driver should not only be technological progress, but human progress.” (Source).

The critical question is who determines what human progress looks like? Evolving humani-tech needs many, diverse views around the table. Go back to those stats on decision-makers and let’s figure out how to get from here to where we need to be.

Explore unconscious bias, the human/technology interface and human potential in the digital age through our Master’s of Technological Futures and/or our Future of Work MeetUp group.


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