Does tech make our lives better? Will technological advances put us all out of a job (and is that a bad thing?), what role should, or more pertinently could government play in marshalling the forces of technology for good, and does tech make us more, or less sociable?
These and a myriad of other deep-tech, AI, VR, and AR related philosophical and real-life dilemmas were put under the spotlight on Tuesday night at an event held at Bloomberg, organised by Force Over Mass, the early stage investment company that positions itself as “bridging the gap between Venture Capital and Crowdfunding through its unique, fully transparent, technological investment solution.”
You’d be hard pressed to find an early stage fund that examines the future of tech and what it all means for us as a species as meticulously as Force Over Mass.
The get-togethers the company, led by CEO Martijn De Wever, CMO Theo Osborne and COO Filip Coen, throw seem almost touchingly earnest at times, especially when we consider that, like all investment funds, FOM’s success is likely to be judged on the returns it delivers to its investors as opposed to its contribution to the establishment of the technological singularity.
Still, if a FOM portfolio company does end up saving humanity or curing cancer then it would be churlish to complain, and there is much to be admired about their support for the futurist community, and ability to bring its figureheads together. Quite simply, in our view, it makes FOM better than rival Tech VC firms that do not do this kind of thing.
FOM has made 38 investments to date, De Wever told the HT last night, and has been “extremely busy”. Investments include innovative mapping solution What3Words, Online verification company Veridu, FinTech payroll assistant DoPay, and e-commerce marketplace Portr.
But as is their wont (and who can blame them if London’s start-up eco-system has failed to send a Deep Mind their way yet) FOM were looking to delve far, far deeper into the ramifications of the unstoppable rise of the robots last night and assembled a panel with brains the size of planets – plus George Osborne.
Forgive our little joke there. Osborne may have seen this as a rare opportunity to speak in front of a more sympathetic audience than he might find on the average Question Time panel as he gets back on his political horse, but he spoke eloquently about how he believed governments were not best placed to control the flow of technological innovation – far better to outsource development to companies that do that sort of thing.
Once a Thatcherite…but it is an interesting point – how can you plan for long term societal changes in such a short term environment when decisions made by one party are overturned every 4-8 years when the next party assumes power – and Osborne illustrated it, as well as other government-related issues such as the haplessness of any government in the face of being tasked with solving a practical problem, with some colourful metaphors.
The British Government could come up with no sensible solution to the proliferation of “horseshit” that stank out London’s streets in the nineteenth century, for example, try as they might – until they were eventually bailed out when somebody invented the motor-car.
Phew. Nice for a government not having to be doing the bailing out for a change. How times have changed.
Osborne also explained how he felt that the UK’s doctors and lawyers are not about to resign themselves to losing their jobs and livelihoods to robots designed by the kind of geeks and dreamers they doubtless used to bog-wash at school, and that we can expect to see them fight – fight for the democratic system their ancestors fought so hard to give them as their legacy – fight for the principles of free trade – fight for a political system that gave us the means to invent new technologies in the first place.
And Osborne, reminiscent (to this blogger) of Peter Mandelson declaring that he “was a fighter not a quitter” after winning back Hartlepool merely 5 months after the Hinduja scandal forced him out of office, was in a fighting mood himself.
He’s not anti-tech, not at all, but he isn’t anti-democratic either and he is not ready to be dictated to by the “techerati”, with their gig economies and their self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, he seemed to be saying.
And Techies tend to forget that often, the biggest obstacles to technological progress are influential people saying things like “no”, “shut up”, and “know your place”.
At one point, trying to explain that it’s people who vote, not machines, (note to self – is machine voting an investable start-up idea?) and therefore the labour force will hold sway over robots for now at least, he declared, seemingly in solidarity with Mandelson, “all the votes are still with labour!” Someone should remind him it’s not 1996 anymore. An Osborne / Corbyn alliance would certainly be interesting to watch, although it’s hard to see them sharing a train carriage together.
Indeed, Osborne only just stopped short of raising a clenched fist and uttering a rabble rousing “who’s with me? Perhaps he would have done if he had not had to leave early to collect an unspecified award.
If it had been for taking debates about technology in a thoroughly unpredictable yet enjoyable direction, he would have deserved it. Gorgeous George isn’t ready for the knackers’ yard just yet.
Anyway, we digress. Joining Osborne on the panel, chaired by David Wood, Chairman of London Futurists, were Calum Chace, author of several books about tech including ‘Surviving AI’, Steve Dann, Founder & CEO of Amplified Robot, David Singleton, responsible for Google’s Android Wear division, Anne Lise Kjaer, Futurist and founder of Kjaer Global, and Anders Sandberg, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University. Again, FOM deserves acknowledgement for bringing such a brain-box panel together.
Each was given 3 minutes to outline their respective positions on the future of technology, and none disappointed.
Very briefly, for Ollie Gaymond, the pervasive influence of tech is evidenced by the number of technological items we use and rely on in our daily lives – there was a time you could list the two or three gadgets you owned – now, every appliance has some element of tech, and just wait for the internet of things to truly take hold.
For Steve Dann, VR is the “surprise package” – in ten years’ time we may find ourselves “living mostly in VR” – and that is nothing to be concerned about, rather something to look forward to, according to Dann.
Anne Lise talked about disappearing jobs – and their replacements – which have not even been invented yet, whilst reminding us that we must put people at the heart of every decision we take about the future direction of tech.
Sandberg scoffed at our pre-occupation with the “big predators” – when it’s the disease bearing mosquitos that are the real problem. If we don’t respect the study of technology and its ability to act as an early warning defence mechanism, we’ll only have ourselves to blame when we are all crushed by a meteorite or wiped out by a disease we should have learned how to identify and manage.
And finally Calum Chace pointed to self-driving cars – “humans doing a machines’ job”, and wondered what will happen when millions of blue collar workers – Uber drivers, estate agents, lose their jobs. They won’t be happy about it, and they will mobilise, although it’s hard to predict what form that will take.
Which brings us back to Osborne’s point about white collar workers refusing to lie down and be dictated to by machines. They won’t necessarily, Osborne et al countered Calum Chace, revert to a state of “playing, exploring, and having fun.”
They kind of like things the way they are.
All the above of course barely scrapes the surface of the arguments that were put forward, accepted, rejected, dissected, and put back together again, with the audience’s help, to create a Frankenstein’s monster of a conclusion that it would be hard to quantify, but sort of seemed meaningful and more or less correct at the time.
The Q&A was a lively affair, but for brevity’s sake let’s return to a question one exasperated audience member posed. Where should we invest our money?
If you like your tech palatable, with a human face, and yet quietly disruptive, FOM’s portfolio seems like a solid place to start.
For a roomful of futurists, it was a surprisingly circumspect evening in many ways. But as George Osborne would no doubt tell you, that’s no bad thing.
And it’s certainly what you want to hear if you’re looking to use the SEIS and EIS tax breaks Osborne revamped and made relevant again to make pragmatic investments with a touch of techie risk attached.
You may or you may not end up backing the next Google. At the very least you won’t be bored and you might learn something.