Slow down to speed up: Harnessing the power of exponential tech

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We are on the verge of a systemic shift driven by technology, says journalist and author Azeem Azhar, and it is having repercussions for our wider society, including our institutions and politics.

Azhar’s book, The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society, looks at the speed technology is evolving and how it is fundamentally changing the world. In the latest Tech Fit 4 Europe podcast, he talks to Microsoft’s Casper Klynge about how this rapid evolution is affecting our society and institutions.

Azhar explains how the current technology revolution is quite different to any revolution that has gone before – largely due to what he calls the compound effect, where modern technologies are exponentially increasing in power year-on-year.

“There are a number of differences between today’s technologies and the previous ones,” he says. “But one of the key differences is the idea that today’s family of general-purpose technologies are what I call exponential technologies. That means that they improve [by] at least 10% every year on a compounded basis… And that 10%-plus improvement adds up very, very rapidly.”

Making the most of the opportunities this exponential change creates, Azhar explains, means acting now to close the gap between technology’s potential and where our regulations and institutions currently sit.

“The institutions that guide and normalize everyday life have not been able to shape the direction of the technology,” he says. “Nor have they been able to adapt themselves for the new realities of that technology.”

1. How institutions can adapt to the exponential changes they face

A fundamental difficulty in closing this ‘exponential gap’ is baked into the structure of our institutions, which so often resist change or are slow to adapt, Azhar says.

“By their name and definition, [our institutions] are meant to stand stock still,” he notes. “And so, by their design, but for other reasons, they don’t adapt to the realities of the new potentials that the technologies provide.”

This gap between the opportunity that technology offers and the institutions that underpin our lives can create friction, Azhar continues. “That gap… is the thing that helps us understand the number of aggravated, angry, friction-loaded conversations that all seem to point back to technology.”

2. Striking the balance between flexibility and setting boundaries

Some of the pressures that are created by exponential technologies cross borders. Others are much more local, creating challenges for towns and communities. Because of this, there can be a difficult dynamic and a fractalization of where the power needs to reside, Azhar says.

Overcoming this power dynamic is possible, however, and an example of this can be seen with the EU’s approach to technology regulation. The bloc is united in recognition of the need for a strong regulatory framework to support and shape technology. And Azhar points to these European efforts with optimism, noting that they are striking a good balance between being flexible and setting regulatory boundaries in relation to AI and data privacy in particular. When regulating complex areas like these, it is important to clearly articulate values and understand the influence technology has on them.

“You can create optimistic futures. I think one of the things you have to do is understand how technology is interacting with the wider society and the political forces at play, so that you can ask the right questions and take the right interventions.”

3. Complex problems, complex answers

The shift driven by exponential technology means the relationship between governments, technology companies and society has evolved.

There are some complex questions to be answered over the control and use of technology, and how we can shape exponential change.

“The control mechanisms of society that we rely on don’t function,” Azhar says, adding that the exponential reality we are in requires a lot more stakeholders to engage with the complexity and challenges we now face.

But this is not a matter that governments alone can decide – we need technology companies at the table too. Azhar gives the example of digital infrastructure – certain technologies have become so ingrained in our daily lives that the companies that own them effectively form part of the public infrastructure. And when it comes to issues like cybersecurity, we need the input of these large technology players in order to stand a chance of fighting back.

“The question is, what does the institution that brings all these people together need to look like?” Azhar asks. “And what is the relationship between the nation of Denmark, or the nation of the UK, or the EU, and these other companies? Because they are more than just suppliers.

“They have a fundamental role that is about their capabilities, their decision making, the fact that they may have more information about what’s going on than the national governments whose citizens may be impacted by this. It’s genuinely a brave new world that requires some very close discussion.”

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