Can Innovation drive us into digital slavery?

At the height of the fallout from the Credit Crunch, I launched a new airport lounge venture called SLOW. The concept challenged conventional business thinking by creating a brand that championed ‘slowness’ in the hubbub of an airport. It was like putting Guinness into a McDonalds.

November 29, 2017

Initially it was a tough sell to our two backers – FNB Bank with two of its core values being ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’, and British Airways/Comair whose whole business was built on speed. However the SLOW Lounges were an instant hit with customers and nearly a decade on, they have become an icon of luxury and aspiration.

What’s interesting about SLOW is that it flies in the face of the current innovation and tech boom. Every new start-up proclaims that they improve our lives by eliminating yet another piece of friction, saving us time and removing the need for us to think and do. The assumption is that this makes us happier.

Friction free risks

This friction free world we are creating has three big consequences for humans. Firstly it makes us less resilient. The credit crunch illustrated the danger of frictionless financial markets. When something goes wrong, the impact can spread unpredictably far and wide. We have yet to experience a supply chain crunch when the shops stop being filled ‘just in time’ and we cannot buy food just when we want to eat it. We have not yet experienced an internet crunch. Imagine just a few days without all our phones or computers. We’d struggle to communicate (no social, no text, no telephone numbers), no iPay, no Google Maps and so on. Some people do choose to have digital free days but they plan for this and everyone around them continues to live their normal lives. As we depend evermore on machines to run our world, the importance of a backup plan to enable us to cope if they fail becomes more critical. Just as banks and corporations have disaster recovery plans to protect them if the worst happens, we as consumers and families need to the do same. With human nature however, it will take an event to occur for us to realise this. If or when it comes, let’s hope it is big enough for us to notice but not big enough to hurt us. Then there will be business opportunities to provide services to help us in our tech-free hour of need.

Automating Ignorance

Secondly, this frictionless world makes us more ignorant. While we may be developing our ability to multitask and research, more automation and artificial intelligence will threaten skills that today we take for granted. Autonomous cars may eliminate the need for us to drive, translation tools may eliminate the need for us to learn other languages. Computers and phones have already wiped out most handwritten communication. In the future, the combination of speech recognition, video and virtual reality may remove our need to read. We should be careful that we retain important skills so that we are not overly dependent on technology. Just as pilots must do a quota of manual landings so that autopilot technology does not make them rusty, and school children are still taught times tables rather given relying on calculators, we need to make sure that the avalanche of cognitive automation that is about to hit us does not wipe out important human skills and knowledge.

Brain with printed circuit board (PCB) design and businessman representing artificial intelligence (AI), data mining, genetic programming, machine learning, deep learning, neural networks and another modern computer technologies concepts.

Innovating out of our control

Finally our desire for frictionless lives threatens our freedom. Already we have quietly given up huge quantities of intimate personal details to large organisations in return for an easier life. With the vast knowledge that it has amassed, Facebook claims that if you ‘like’ just thirty things in your profile, its algorithm can predict your preferences and behaviour better than your best friend. We have already handed over destiny of some parts of our lives to machines. Umpires defer to Hawkeye to determine the results of big tennis matches. Computers that have modelled the recent cases from the European Court of Human rights can produce an 85% match against the human judgements. It will not be long before they will appear in courtrooms as ‘Hawkeyes’ for judges. Analysis of X-Rays using AI based medical diagnosis is now being implemented in hospitals. In politics, websites now recommend to voters who they should vote for through ‘quizzes’ – just one site ‘’ notched up over 1.1m users in the 2015 UK election alone. Facebook could easily provide a similar service using the information it already has. It could then offer a helpful service to electronically log your vote (to avoid the hassle of going to a polling station). If they then were to introduce a feature to automatically recommend and log your vote, suddenly the future governance of our nation becomes determined by a machine. In three simple steps, we would have created the end of democracy.

Step forward or back

As innovators we have a responsibility to recognise whether removing friction creates a real benefit or a long term risk to society. When we design a new piece of technology we have a duty to ask ourselves, for every piece of friction that we remove: what is the risk if the technology fails? What human skills could we lose and does it matter? And finally, what power are we ultimately giving away to the machines to those who own them?