Our future innovations need to be more like Iron Man and less like the Terminator, says Bas Burger, CEO of BT Global Services. It’s an apt comparison: the rapid evolution of technology offers us great power and potential, but it must be correctly harnessed.

The good that such developments can bring across a multitude of applications was in evidence during discussions at the MIT/Forbes and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) event Mastering Business 4.0™ with AI, IoT & Data Analytics, at the 2020 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. Its power to augment our lives was central to a panel session that delved into the future of leadership in an increasingly digital era.

The focus must be on developing technology – be it through AI, IoT, blockchain or elsewhere – that provides solutions and complements how people live. For businesses, well thought-out technology can bring greater productivity, sitting alongside workers, enabling co-creation and boosting collaboration.

“If you hear your job is to be automated, it’s likely you’ll be unhappy,” said N Ganapathy Subramaniam, Chief Operating Officer at TCS. “But if you take care of the creativity and productivity your work requires, and we help you learn the skills by which you can automate the repetitive elements, that will improve your role. You’ll feel good about it, which will create a better quality of life overall.”

N Ganapathy Subramaniam, Chief Operating Officer at TCS.

Education for augmentation

A key question, though, is what the strategy for this augmentation should be. Julie Bishop, former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, highlighted that an emphasis on retraining and reskilling, rather than replacing people with technology, will be key. This will ensure we are supporting students by helping them gain the skills they will need for the jobs of the future.

This disruption in training and education will require a greater partnership between government, business and the private sector, she added. And changing expectations mean the employees, leaders and consumers of the future will have a different mindset, which technology also needs to be able to address.

“Future generations are going to expect and be inspired by greater examples of unconditional leadership – that is, the decisions taken and the benefit beyond just the immediate interests of the company or government. And, in fact, the benefits spread beyond that interest across a whole community, or indeed, across the planet,” Bishop said.

Panellists debate the power of innovation in leadership.

Fair for all

Digital innovation can, however, risk widening the divide between the haves and have-nots unless specific steps are taken to boost inclusion. 

As Richard Haythornthwaite, chairman of Mastercard, put it: “Our job right now is actually to provide technology that makes life more secure and convenient for people in the transaction world. But at the same time, as a company, we recognize that if we exist on the wrong side of society in a multipolar world, we’re toast.” 

To use technology for good and accelerate what it can do for us will require close collaboration, BT Global Services’ Burger believes. 

“Companies must work together and share information. Technology companies need to open the kimono,” he said. “Because the only way we can ensure this technology is used for good is by making sure the few that want to abuse it are stopped. And we need to make sure that all the people that want to use it can.”

Richard Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Mastercard

A matter of trust

But the panellists were also clear that there are hurdles to overcome in order to make these technology advances.

For many, leading those issues is the matter of trust. Increasing numbers of connected devices, and developments like quantum computing on the horizon, throw up new challenges. And cybersecurity will be key to making sure everyone can benefit as this technology becomes increasingly pervasive.

“If we want technology that we can truly make use of to make our society more efficient and all stakeholders happy, the most important thing to focus on is enabling people to trust it,” said Burger. “In order to do that, you need to look at cybersecurity. So you need to make sure that, whenever this technology is used, it’s secure, it’s being enabled for everybody – not only the happy few.”

Education, of course, goes hand in hand with trust – showing people how technology can be used for good, but at the same time making sure there is an awareness of what we need to watch out for.

As with Iron Man, technology’s true superpower lies in augmenting human abilities and finding solutions to our problems, rather than replacing us altogether.

You can keep up to date with our coverage of Davos through our live blog, here.