OPINION | Balancing the perils and promises of technology

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Technology is making some things obsolete says the writers. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
Technology is making some things obsolete says the writers. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

We need to be prepared for the "tsunami of technology" that is coming at us with great speed, write Michelle Esau and Shaun Pather.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has been part of our discourse for a while now, but the global pandemic has intensified the reliance on technology within our organisations, our educational institutions and even our homes.

Much groundwork has been laid to prepare the systems and models required for this integration of technology into our daily lives, but we should do more to consider the ethical and moral implications of how it is being applied. We have to think about how we retain talent and preserve the essence of human contact, while embracing the innovation and convenience technology promises.

There is a Utopian notion that technology provides an opportunity to enhance the way we live, work and think. Yet, many conceive of it as a springboard for self-enrichment and self-gain, at odds with the end-goal of enriching, empowering and enabling citizens across socio-economic groups, class, gender, race and ethnicity.

Data has undoubtedly become the new global currency, and leadership has an obligation to behave ethically when there is so much power at hand. Now more than ever, leadership needs to take responsibility for the way artificial intelligence is harnessed within their organisations, and be held to account if there are inequalities in its application.

It would be naïve to assume that technology proffers advancement without some level of bias.

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As Dr Rachel Adams, Senior Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa noted at the University of the Western Cape’s Fourth Annual Archbishop Lecture Series held online recently, that artificial intelligence (AI) reflects the world in which it is produced. It is not simply a neutral tool that can solve problems and make our lives easier.

Technology comes with its own inherent bias, mirroring the organisational culture in which it was generated. To minimise this risk, companies should conduct impact assessments on technology to gauge how their technological systems will affect the rights of those who engage with it.

The race is certainly on to adopt technological innovation in a rapidly evolving world – but often this comes at a cost.

Artifical Intelligence 

Many organisations lack the maturity or insight to adopt technology in a manner that is ethical and effective. Regulation in South Africa to date has been perfunctory, dealing mostly with electronic communications and the rollout of broadband.

The focus has been mainly on networks and Information Technology, and more recently on the digital skills required. While many countries have regulations in place for the use of Artificial Intelligence, South Africa is still in a wait-and-see holding pattern, with businesses operating in a regulatory vacuum.

This means that ethical dilemmas such as collective responsibility versus individual rights – the power of one individual to influence the opinion of thousands, with a single social media post, as an example – are currently unresolved. As leaders, we need to be prepared for the "tsunami of technology" that is coming at us with great speed. The role of government in ensuring our safety and privacy, during this information age, cannot be underscored.

So how do we hold leaders accountable in this brave new world of AI and technological innovation? Dr Divyah Singh, a certified ethics officer, and executive director of Globethics.net South Africa, says ethical leaders will always take accountability for their actions. They will hold themselves accountable, "because they want to".

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Leaders in a digital era must remain mindful of the essence of what makes us human. Lockdown has highlighted how technology can greatly enhance our lives and work, but it has also shown that it just as easily deprives us of human connection. Companies, therefore, need a shared value-driven direction for the adoption of new technology to balance the ethical dilemma of promoting innovation without losing human talent.

Organisations, including universities, need to develop human talent that cannot be replicated by a machine. They need to be conscious of nurturing young leaders who have a sense of the world and are interested in their communities, as well as sustainable and inclusive growth. If this opportunity is missed, we run the risk of allowing for the emergence of a “useless class”; deemed as one of the greatest perils of technological innovation.

It is also imperative to "mind the inequality gap" associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution as machines substitute for labour.

Implications of technological innovation

Just as jobs will become obsolete, the technological revolution will also create new industries. Leaders need to make sure that their staff is adequately trained and skilled so that everyone will benefit as industries evolve.

The change starts at the top, with leaders who consider the ethical implications of technological innovation. As organisations plot their digital course, measures must be in place to ensure that these plans are also inclusive.

Technology has a profit imperative that should not be ignored – it is, after all, essential for the growth of the economy – but it should not be applied without integrity and morality. The digital era requires robust leaders, with strong moral compasses, to balance the perils and promises of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And as responsible citizens, it is incumbent on us to hold these leaders accountable.

- Professor Michelle Esau is Dean of Economic and Management Sciences, University of the Western Cape and Professor Shaun Pather is Professor and Chair: Information Systems, University of the Western Cape.

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