Network Society: the coming socio-economic phase transformation

The world is headed for a big transition, says David Orban, entrepreneur and Singularity University faculty member, speaking at a London Futurists lecture in London on February 6th.

“Technology created humans,” he says. “And we continue to use reason to advance technology for humanity’s benefit.” But the key to the future wellbeing of society lies in practicing open science and having an open society, he says.

David Orban
David Orban

Historically we are always “shackled to moral norms by limitations of technology” he says. For example we had child labour because our technology wasn’t good enough to run industrial revolution mills without them. We had slavery because our agricultural and engineering techniques were running behind our economic development.

Now we destroy the environment because it is deemed necessary in order for economies to grow and citizens to consume. Once these ills become untenable, necessity drives alternatives, he says.

Widespread social and cultural change only happens once a robust technology platform underpins them

The networked exponential technologies which are coming next are going to profoundly disrupt the Nation State, he argues.

Solar panels are a good example. When people put solar panels on their roofs they make lots of small decisions, each of which doesn’t cost much. When the State makes energy decision for the country it is done by one big, long term centralised project (think Hinkley Point). The opportunity to call the future wrong is vastly more in the second case than the former.

Another example is 3D printing. This can stop waste from centralised manufacturing getting it wrong but distributes power to the consumer.

And growing food hydroponically in the basement of apartment blocks, reduces waste by bringing food production close to the consumer, using exact quantities of nutrients and light and heat, and growing year-round.

And there are lots more examples, he says:

  • Health sensors keeping people healthy
  • MOOCs educating people wherever they are
  • Crypto currencies reducing the cost of transactions and challenging the power of the banks
  • Even Airbnb competing with security agencies through “a self-reinforcing reputation system which expels from the network if breached”

All such examples are inevitably portrayed as passing fads, he says, but they are in fact part of unstoppable trend.

In this environment exponential technologies lead to exponential uncertainties, he says. There is great value for those whose get it right.

The next trillion dollar companies are being born right now

What has to happen next, he argues, is for computers to be allowed to make decisions by themselves. The world is rapidly become too complex and fast-moving for humans to be the only decision-makers. The LHC, for example, throws away 99% of data itself because it knows it is of no value and the human scientists would become overwhelmed. “Self-driving cars need to make their own decisions.”

Dumb machines must lose and smart machines must win

The idea that it is essential for humans to have the last word was fatally undermined when Andreas Lubitz decided to deliberately fly Flight 9525 into a mountainside, he says. “Planes must be able to disobey and save their passengers.”

But for computers to make decision we need to make them moral. We have a “cosmic responsibility to adapt and face our challenges” he says. We need a global network of ideas which can evolve scaleable solutions. First there will be a science of morality then we will need to engineer morality into our machines. It is, he says, inevitable.

The promise of the fully networked society is great, but the outcome isn’t a given.  “It is up to us whether this phase transition will be peaceful or not”, he says. The current levels of inequality will be just the start unless we meet the challenge to change society so that everyone can enjoy the coming benefits. “We cannot continue vilify the unemployed as we do now,” he says, because in the future we all will be unemployed.

David Orban is an entrepreneur, a member of the Faculty of, and Advisor to the Singularity University, and the Founder of Network Society Research, a London based global non-profit.

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