July 31st, 2018
Editor’s note: This article is a condensed version of a speech Caesar gave at Singapore’s Smart Nation Innovations Week Opening Symposium on June 5, 2018.
Humans have invented technology to help themselves and each other for centuries. While we often refer to technology as the shiny, new innovations like self-driving cars or voice assistants, its breadth is much more than that. Technology also includes the things that are so bound up in our daily lives that we have stopped thinking about them as technological innovations—things like language, clothes, and shelter.
Despite technology’s pivotal role in human history, our response to breakthroughs is often to hesitate because we fear potential harm. But the world doesn’t stand still for anyone. As the past has shown, each of these technological breakthroughs presents another opportunity to improve people’s lives, and we need to embrace each of those opportunities.
The move online has opened up access to opportunity
Between 2000 and 2017, the number of internet users grew by 10X—from 360 million to 3.6 billion people. This massive migration online is causing an explosion of economic opportunity across the world.
Something as basic as an internet connection can mean the chance for a higher education, a new job or improved skills. In India for example, every month more than 8 million people use Google’s public Wi-Fi program, Google Station, to get online and access job training material or educational resources. Shrinath, a railway porter in Kerala, used the free, high-speed Wi-Fi at his public transit station to study for and eventually pass the entrance examinations to the Kerala civil service—a feat that would have been much more difficult if Shrinath hadn’t embraced the internet.
The shift to digital has transformed businesses
It’s also opening up opportunity for businesses big and small. With access to online platforms, companies have more ways to reach customers and grow. And every business can benefit from digital tools, even the most traditional ones. Hai Sia, a 40-year-old family-run seafood wholesaler in Singapore, for example, was a largely face-to-face business in a bustling fish market. Today, they’ve reached new customers with digital advertising and other digital tools like YouTube videos that show the company’s work.
Technology isn’t just about digitizing existing businesses—it’s also creating new kinds of entrepreneurs and industries. Look at YouTube creators, who run businesses that were born on an online platform and that could not have existed before the internet. GO-JEK, a startup that started as motorbike-hailing company in Indonesia, has facilitated the emergence of a new type of business with their food delivery service: allowing home cooks to become restaurateurs. Freed from the costly requirements of renting a restaurant space and hiring staff, people can run profitable businesses right from their kitchens at home.
AI is the next big leap
Every major shift in technology has transformed how we live and work. In the early 1980s, the PC revolution made computers part of people’s lives and changed how we work. In the 1990s, the internet transformed how we find information and opened up the new economic opportunity. Then, in the mid-2000s, smartphones brought all that knowledge into our pockets. Now AI is the next frontier.
What excites me most about the shift to AI and machine learning is watching what younger generations are doing with the technology. Teenagers are using AI to create programs that more accurately identify plant diseases and even detect breast cancer. If our kids can use technology to conserve the environment and fight cancer, imagine what we humans can do if they use AI as one tool among many to improve citizens’ lives.
As we continue to explore what benefits AI can bring, we need to lean into this shift rather than shy away from it. After all, the world would be a very different and much poorer place today if our ancestors had given up on fire or language or the wheel. The reaction to technology we don't know how to use well isn't to stop innovating. The right reaction is to work harder and innovate even better so we can make technology work for everyone.