Humans are living in a coded reality, doing a dance that is the interface between technology and humanity.
This was the view of Professor Benjamin Anderson (right), Executive Chairman of The Da Vinci Institute. He asked delegates at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference to imagine a technology enhanced, human-centred university – and society. The conference was co-hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).
Themed The Engaged University, the conference was the largest of its kind in South Africa, with over 140 participants (speakers and chairs) and almost 2000 delegates.
Professor Anderson, who spoke during a breakaway session of Universities South Africa’s World of Work Strategy Group sub-themed Universities and the new Technology Moment and Society, was sharing ideas around the construct of technology and humanity. He asked questions around the Algo/Androrithmic dance, and how that plays into the technology and humanity interface.
Technology enhanced human-centred universities
“We need to ask: what is out there?” he said, adding: “What are the underlying constructs of a technology enhanced human-centred university?”
He carved his theories into bite-sized segments:
- A Coded Reality: “We have become much more aware of reality being a coded reality, where everything is appreciated and has value. In a coded reality we are not worried about power struggles; we are not concerned with what is more important or less important. We are not playing one academic field or discipline off against the others. We accept that anything and everything is appreciated, and has value. That is what a technology enhanced human-centred reality of the world shows me.
- Limited Human Interface: “We, as a people, tend to overthink, to overdo, to over-respond. But one of the underlying constructs (in this coded reality) is that we do not need to do this to the extent we have done it in the past… I can imagine, with limited human interference as a requirement, you and I can do much more. We can have more time out, we can see more and reflect more on what can be done and what is possible and not be so hooked into our jobs. This applies more so to us academics. We don’t have to be so singularly focused on our discipline that we can’t see that our discipline is part of a coded reality of multiple other disciplines.”
- Increased Energy Flow: “the matter of increased energy flow that this technology enhanced human-centeredness may bring – particularly energy flow around agreement and disagreement versus social interactions. We can continue as we are doing now, with a coordinated energy flow stream where there is somebody in the centre who orchestrates everyone around them, tells them what to do and makes them feel important. That coordinated energy flow is still possible because it’s not necessarily wrong, just restrictive. But you can move to wider engagement where the flow between agreement and disagreement, and the social interaction becomes more open ended and collaborative.
“We hear universities talking a lot about collaboration; but I find that those are often built around individuals. One person drives that collaboration, then, when they pass or leave, those become stale and lose energy flows as they are often built around an individual. Third energy flow pattern is a cooperative pattern, where we are all knowledge workers in a circle and where our only intention is to give, with no expectation to be powerful or to hear how beautiful and wonderful our contributions are. No. We are part of a knowledge system where we each have the intent to share. I can see what I can give, and you can see what you can give and, collectively, we cooperatively engage. So, the increased energy flow may be a combination of the coordinated collaborative and cooperative patterns. But at a technologically enhanced human-centred university, the ideal of cooperative engagement where students and colleagues and community workers become equals provides great opportunity for the Engaged University.”
- Open Spaces: “a notion of interconnectedness that relates to the discussion around cooperative engagement”. Through interconnectedness we become aware of just how much we are part of something that is much bigger than that which we are. “This interconnectedness is not just in terms of humans, or the human relationship with technology; it’s about the whole cosmic reality. How aware am I that I’m part of something bigger and something beyond just being a human? To what extent are you and I, as academics of a beautiful space called the university, aware that our brain has the capacity to go beyond time, and beyond linear engagements?”
The dance between technology and humanity
He defined these four constructs as “critical underlying constructs that the development of technology with people has made possible for us.” Professor Anderson said he was already seeing some of this happening but asked how this could be taken further.
In addition to the underlying constructs, he talked about the megatrends that, as he put it, “require a dance between technology and humanity”. Regarding trends that had been emerging over the last 10/15 years he said: “There are things out there that should be in here, things that we should already be a part of – especially in the context of an emerging 5th Industrial Revolution, where the dance between the Algorithm and the Androrithm, the technology and humanity, is becoming un-negotiable, and non-negotiable.
“Let’s look at digitisation. We have known, as academics, and as businesspeople, the impact of digitisation on everything – music, logistics, banking, healthcare… We already see in some of those digitised contexts how technology and humanity are playing, dancing together. In some ways we are still not getting it right because we still have an emphasis on one and not the other.”
Technology moves closer
He described what has happened as “mobilisation” – where technology is moving closer to us. People had desktops that became laptops that became devices that fit in our hands, then our wrists and are coming to our faces.
Professor Anderson asked: “How are we going to dance with the technology as humans? Think of screenification, how we went on interface revolutions – from paper to screens to telephone calls to video calls. Who would have imagined that we would globally engage the way we are, with such ease and comfort, even two years ago?
“Disintermediation is an important megatrend in my world because it’s about cutting out the middle-man. Do we academics consider, with this technology, what the possibility of disintermediation for universities is? Will society need the university as it is?” He said there was room for discussion around what CoViD-19 had shown in this regard, saying that disintermediation was already happening. He cited all the infrastructural developments people had invested in, like buildings and other facilities “that constitute the university of the past”.
“Now, there may not be a need for that if we really want to do the dance between technology and people.
Transformations go beyond change and innovation
“Then there are transformations, where something becomes something else, where it’s beyond change and innovation.”
Professor Anderson gave the example of car manufacturers repositioning themselves for the future as Mobile Manufacturers. “What is the transformation discussion? I’m curious to know if we are going to become something else? Or will we just tweak it, staying in our comfort zones without changing too much?”
Transformation, the professor said, was beyond change and beyond innovation. He introduced the concept of “intelligisation”, where we go from being disconnected to being connected by sensory networks and global device grids.
He said: “You might know of the computer that mastered the Chinese game of Alpha Go. How? Because it understands its surroundings without being tempted, without being influenced negatively, thereby taking a more correct course of action to solve the problem.
“People argue that we need the human face, the human interruption and the human interaction. How are we going to dance with this? What do I learn from Alpha Go? Am I curious? Do I understand what I can learn? I go to a mentor to tell me how I can become more emotionally intelligent. Well, what do I learn from Alpha Go?” Automation, the professor said, is all about the hyper efficiency of humans with machine learning.
He added: “It does not need to be that academics lose their jobs, or feel less important. The question is how to become hyper efficient. Computers – think Google Now and Google Home ¬– are now anticipating our needs.”
These, he said, were a few examples of megatrends.
Framing the Algo/Androrithmic dance
Considering the grounding constructs as well as the megatrends, a group of academics at the Da Vinci Institute have developed a conceptual framework to try to facilitate this Algo/Androrithmic dance.
“I will only say that we are trying to build a relationship between the management of technology, the management of people and the management of innovation within a systemic context. And if we do that within a frame you get a more aligned, more engaged and more agile work environment. If the Engaged University in this context can therefore develop the relationship between the human interface and the management of innovation, we will really go far to facilitate an Algo/Androrithmic dance for the future.
In a post-presentation discussion, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Engagement and Transformation, at Nelson Mandela University, Professor Andre Keet, challenged some of Professor Anderson’s assertions.
Professor Keet (left): “With regards to the tension in the logic of the Algo and the Andro, given the fact that you present the coded reality in such a totalising way, how would that dance be possible?
“If you are not softening your argument on the totalising of a coded reality via technological advancements, that dance would be an impossible one given the place where humanity is now.
“I’d like you to consider that the tension is not framed in such a stark way that makes the logic of your proposal an impossibility. Even with all those megatrends that you are putting forward, of course you would like to argue for the interface between innovation and the human, but one will have to make the logical jump between that coded reality and the context of the human.”
Professor Anderson: “I think the notion of a cooperative engagement, in my experience in both the academic and business world, is foreign to both contexts. We have not done well as a people to cooperatively engage. So, if we can do the dance knowing that we are indeed falling over our feet, we may step back and say how can we rejuvenate this algorithmic engagement.
In a cooperative space, there is no motive for capitalism per se. There is a motive for what the people in the knowledge network decide is meaningful. Ideally in the cooperative space there no preconceived notions of what would be the nomenclature. I think that is why conversations like these are good. How ready are we to appreciate that we all, in the corporate and education world, have not served the public good in a way we could have? How can we enhance that? We believe the dance between technology and humanity provides us with the great opportunity to accept all the things that we could not achieve, but hopefully achieve them in a different way.”
Respondent, Mr Phila Sithole (right), Acting Head PC 4IR PMO: Department of Communications and Digital Technologies raised questions of his own around what was needed to integrate with the cyber space.
Sithole: While agreeing that the world as we knew it is no more, he asked: “Do we currently define the world we are going into in the context of how we are going to work, how we are going to learn and what the future of our kids will look like? The answer is no. If you look at the past few years, were you able to predict where we’d be today?”
He agreed with Professor Anderson’s assertion that it was not possible to define what tomorrow holds. “But we can prepare for the future in the dimensions in which we are able to define the space we find ourselves. On the algorithmic dance, we as humans have struggled to dance with nature. How then can we dance with technology?
“Have we been able to live in harmony with nature? There’s a common thread about where we find ourselves in 4IR; how can we dance with technology? Our nature puts us on the defence; tells us we’ll not be able to manage the future of work, we will be displaced, technology will take over. We’ve been at odds without our environment. Technology has the upper hand. It defines how we do things, how we commute, order our food, socialise and how we learn.”
Sithole said there was a great role for universities in that “they need to be engaging with business, community, government, to be at the centre of defining the context in which we need to live.” One of the key reports for 4IR, going forward, he said, is that South Africa will be a global competitor, inclusive, have a shared economy with technological capability and production capacity that is driven by the people harnessing 4IR to propel the country forward in its socio-economic development.
“We need our country to have an inclusive economy – where we define our destiny, not technology,” he said.
In terms of opportunity, some of his questions wondered if humans have control over the future of our work saying this presented an opportunity to “define our true aspirations as the human species; our true individual talents to the true environments that we want to live.
“We don’t want to live where work doesn’t bring us joy and harmony. We don’t want to be caught in a cycle.” Mr Sithole believes environmental protection should be key, along with economic focus.
“We need to make sure technology drives our economy to make us competitive. We’ve not done well in basic education. With the advent of 4IR we can come together to ensure accessible education for those who want to be reskilled. Universities are key to ensure we are able to define human centred spaces.”
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.