RIO – Since coining the term “podcast” in 2004, Briton Ben Hammersley has written books on digital disruption and has established himself as a sought-after speaker and consultant on topics such as cybersecurity, innovation and trends in the world of work.
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From his apartment in New York, Hammersley spoke to GLOBO, via videoconference, about the future and also hot topics of the moment, such as the power of social networks, something that was highlighted this week with two events: the Facebook crash, Instagram and WhatsApp and the testimony of a former employee of Mark Zuckerberg’s conglomerate in the US Senate, where she compared the platforms to the tobacco industry.
Are you in favor of greater regulation of social media by governments?
Regulating the things people say on social media is the beginning of a dangerous path. If we defend censorship of those who tell lies about Covid-19, it will be easier for politicians to insist on censorship of those who criticize them. Once the censorship technology is in place, it can be used for anything.
Do you advocate leaving everything as is?
There is something wrong with most people accessing information from a very small number of digital platforms. The algorithms used by Facebook and YouTube to recommend content seem to prefer harmful themes. It would be healthier — literally, in Covid’s case — if the platforms themselves regulated the way they promote and suggest content.
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There are many cases where the Facebook system has actively distributed disinformation, which has resulted in Covid deaths, genocide and hate crimes.
Do you believe that there will be some kind of state regulation on artificial intelligence (AI), which is powered by data?
Yes, but not for the reasons we think about it today. There is a beautiful speech that says we should have ownership of our data. There is actually information you may choose not to share, for example your name, age, beliefs and political leanings.
But that’s a very small amount. You cannot be the exclusive owner of data about something you bought in a store, for example. The establishment is also part of this transaction.
Most of the time, AI today is understood as machines capable of predicting what will come next. In practice, it’s more like a big cross-data sheet than these magical ideas that the digital giants will be able to get hold of our individuality and unravel our secret desires.
Many people believe that algorithms make impartial decisions. Do you agree that they also have biases?
Yes, algorithms are designed and developed by human beings and are not free from bias, prejudice and personal beliefs. This can be very bad and I believe there will be regulation. Technology has been used to make decisions, such as granting or not bank loans, for example.
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Companies must be able to explain how and why a decision was reached, and it must be appealable. Technology companies are beginning to realize that they need to have ethics experts.
Many predictions point to an innovation boom this decade—notably because of huge investments in science and technology. Do you agree?
The next big innovation will always be bigger than the one before. So, on the one hand, it’s true. If you think about the changes in the world between, say, 1890 and 1920, it was huge. Between 1930 and 1960 or 1960 and 1990 were also unbelievable changes.
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Today we talk a lot about technology, but the inventions of penicillin, airplane, washing machine, birth control pill, air conditioning and refrigerator have changed the world much more than the emergence of videoconferencing. So we won’t be the only people who have lived in a time when things have radically changed. Will we have innovations in the next few years at a level equivalent to that of the plane? Hard to say.
What changes would be capable of a major transformation?
There is a nuclear fusion reactor being built in southern France (the largest in the world, dubbed the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or Iter, for its acronym in English) that is close to becoming viable. Once we have that, we can take seawater and turn it into electricity. If it does, it will completely change the world overnight.
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We will have the infinite source of electrical energy. With it, we would remove carbon from the atmosphere and, suddenly, fossil fuels would become useless. When you talk to the scientists involved in the project, they say it would be possible in ten years.
What else can radically change in this period?
When we have scalable quantum computing capable of cracking the cryptography known by the acronym RSA, which is widely used on the internet, it will be an exciting day. This is likely to take place within the next ten years and could have huge side effects for businesses and people alike.
There are already cybersecurity companies building quantum computing-proof cryptography and starting to implement it.
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Do you put climate change in your short-term scenario?
Yes. It takes the sea water to heat up for hurricanes. On America’s West Coast, near Los Angeles, it’s still not hot enough, but it’s warming up. In the next 10 or 20 years the temperature will rise enough for hurricanes to hit the beaches of Los Angeles — and that promises to be quite devastating.
What will the future of work look like?
When a company today asks an employee to return to the office, it is also asking him to spend time in traffic, go back to wearing shoes and spend money on expensive lunches. The companies that do the most interesting things today are the ones that don’t want to go back to the world just like they did before the pandemic.
Talents will prefer companies with a flexible work regime. The suffering imposed by the pandemic made many people reevaluate their lives and began to prioritize the family, mental health, the essentials. Life is very short, isn’t it?