• A somewhat counterintuitive idea says that technology can make us better humans by providing greater job satisfaction, shoring up our limitations, developing better leaders and deepening our connections to others. 
  • One of the most important lessons for business leaders is to create a personal connection with technology so they can get comfortable with it and apply it to their business.
  • It’s no longer enough to just be forward-thinking and innovative; we also have to insist on ethical, sustainable, inclusive progress from the get-go.

When the words humanity and automation get thrown around in the same sentence, it often results in a heated discussion about how technology is harming society. But there’s also the somewhat counterintuitive idea that technology can make us better humans. Lately, that idea has grown in importance, as technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are being used in the battle against the coronavirus, COVID-19, helping diagnosis and the development of potential cures and vaccines. 

This idea of human-tech partnership is so multifaceted that the topic was the focus for a program on Humanising the Autonomous Enterprise at PwC’s 2020 Emerging Tech Exchange. Participants not only discussed how technology can improve the human condition, they also tested it out. Can virtual reality soft-skills training help managers be better prepared for difficult conversations with employees? How does leading-edge research and development — using haptic gloves, exosuits and smart robots — expand people’s capabilities and make their jobs easier and safer? How can algorithms analyse the human voice to reveal certain characteristics or behaviours? (This research, that Exchange panellist Rita Singh and Carnegie Mellon University is now applying to people likely to have COVID-19).1

Questions like these aren’t easy, but it’s imperative for business leaders to keep pushing forward if they want to realise technology’s full potential. Here are some important ideas surfaced by the Exchange panellists.

1. Focus on
human needs

Mary Shelton Rose, PwC US Vice Chair,reminded executives though they might have thought they were at the Exchange to talk about tech, the real focus was people. “No business — no matter how good it is — can be sustainable unless it is anchored in human needs,” she said.

Continuing that thread, Scott Likens, PwC Emerging Tech Leader, introduced the concept of Human X: using technology to evolve the human experience, rather than negate it. He sees this happening through the right combinations of technology, used in a thoughtful way. 

One example is extended reality (XR), the fusion of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, along with artificial intelligence. More effective (and cost-effective) training is already taking place through XR, but that is only the beginning. XR can help prototype and build new products more rapidly, and enable data to be looked at in a different way, to spot trends, gain insights and answer questions. Creating simulations of the physical world will allow it to be visualised in three dimensions. 

This relates to another converging technology: digital reflection, building upon the digital twin concept of creating a virtual model of a product, process, organisation or even city. “We’re getting to the point where we can create a virtual representation of the real world,” Likens explained. “This is powerful: We can test a decision within virtual reality or augmented reality to visualise the consequences of that decision in a very safe way. This lets us, as leaders, experiment without actually affecting our business. Since we can see the results immediately, we can make decisions faster.”

2. Build a culture
of collaboration 

Keeping human needs at the centre of technology development requires teamwork. Michael Baccala, PwC Labs’ Chief Strategy Officer, emphasised how executives could take their first-hand experience with emerging tech and apply it to their businesses, while also addressing their professionals’ needs. “Everyone is concerned about IP [intellectual property] and technology advancement,” he said, “but, at the same time, it’s really difficult to hide all that in one insulated place. You have to give a little to get more.” The point is that sharing — rather than hoarding — information is key to success.

For Ramona Pierson, PwC’s Head of Product and Innovation, human-centred technology requires radical collaboration. She believes in harnessing the collective power of many individuals and organisations to solve seemingly impossible challenges — something she brought to life through the compelling personal story of recovering from an 18-month coma, which led her to use technology solutions to benefit humanity. Pierson is working on a tool to help executives to understand the capabilities of their workforce to better target learning and recruiting that meets the needs of the business. The project starts with gathering data — some 18 billion points — that Pierson has drawn from public sources and from colleagues who want to tackle the skills challenge for their own organisations, educational institutions and other groups. “If we learn and work together, we can actually create new innovations and learn faster,” she said.

3. Make it
personal

One of the most important lessons for business leaders is to create a personal connection with technology so they can get comfortable with it and apply it to their business. Exchange attendees had a chance to do that in the hands-on Next Tech Studio. They also shared their views on where they were placing bets on tech and what most concerned them about those investments. Of the emerging tech trends they explored, automating trust through technologies like AI was seen as most important over the next three years. When asked their biggest challenges to moving forward with emerging tech, the executives’ top three responses were a lack of skills (51 percent), data challenges (37 percent), and lack of budget and organisation support (34 percent each).

4. Ask the
hard questions

Human-centricity, collaboration and personal exploration aside, it wasn’t all rose-coloured glasses at the Exchange. Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist and Executive Director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture, raised key issues related to the ways technology is weaving itself into the fabric of our lives. “We need to understand how these technologies are influencing us on a deeper level in order to assess if this is a world that we want, if we’re going in a direction that we agree with, if we want to actively co-create this future state that we all keep talking about,” she explained.

One issue is the idea of data abundance: Being surrounded by so much information is new to us on a societal level. There’s a new kind of stress that comes from living in an information ecosystem that has no beginning or end. Harfoush asked: Do you need more data, or do you need more time to stop and think about what the data you currently have in your organisation actually means for your strategy?

Another key area of discussion was ensuring that our tech decisions align with our values, a topic we first began exploring last year. It’s no longer enough to just be forward-thinking and innovative; we also have to insist on ethical, sustainable, inclusive progress from the get-go. 

Build the future
you want

Harfoush’s call to leaders to be thoughtful in their approach to technology set the stage for going forward: “There has never been a better time to decide whether there is a discrepancy with the future you want to build and the future you are envisioning.” The key message here, is for leaders to stop, take your time and, importantly, be human-centric in these decisions and designs.

 

contributor Chrisie Wendin

Contributor

Chrisie Wendin

Chrisie is an editorial director for technology at PwC US.

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