License article

Creative Innovation asks: are we ready for the age of acceleration?

When electric car and space travel entrepreneur Elon Musk told a gathering of US governors in July that the field of artificial intelligence required stricter regulation, he was swiftly criticised by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

"People who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios, I just, I don't understand it," Zuckerberg told a live video Q&A. "It's really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible."

Up Next

Student survivors speak out

Video duration

More World News Videos

Alarmist or realist? A few predictions about the future

Creative Innovation Global are encouraging investors and innovators to think exponentially: expect the unexpected. But, some of their predictions seem outlandish. Here are a few.

Only days later, a story circulated that Facebook had shut down two AI robots, Bob and Alice, which began communicating with each other in their own language.

If the tale of Bob and Alice seemed to illustrate Musk's point, it was soon questioned on specialist websites. But the very technology that has connected us to such unprecedented amounts of information has also given our dystopian nightmares new and powerful forms. Should we fear what the future holds?

In just a week's time, innovators and scientists from around the world will converge on Melbourne for Creative Innovation 2017 (Ci2017), where they will be joined by figures from the corporate world and chief scientist Alan Finkel. Watching a video round-up of predictions to 2025 from last year's event certainly isn't for the faint-hearted. Consider the following statements:

  • "By 2025 the share of tasks performed by robots will rise from 10 per cent to around 25 per cent across all manufacturing industries."
  • "We may become indistinguishable from robots. We are already showing signs that we trust robots more than we do humans."
  • "Will privacy exist anywhere?"
  • "By 2027 computers, AI and robotics will automate and replace between 40 and 60 per cent of jobs."
  • "Today more than 1 billion people experience water scarcity, by 2025 3.5 billion will."

When Ci2017 organiser Tania de Jong and her husband, investment banker and philanthropist Peter Hunt, visited me to talk about these issues, I couldn't help but wonder aloud: what on earth do politicians and business leaders say to you about visions like the demise of work?

"Well of course some people have their heads in the sand," Hunt replied. "And public servants aren't really empowered to make decisions about these sorts of issues. As for politicians, they are well aware that this unnerves people, so they don't want to talk about it.

"Malcolm Turnbull began his prime ministership with the innovation statement, but when the reaction was negative that just got dropped."

When even the masters of the capitalist universe - such as London-based Australian hedge fund manager Michael Hintze - feel technology breathing down their necks, it's surely something the rest of us might wish to talk about.

"At the conference, we have interactive technology that we use to track people's reactions to what they're hearing," de Jong tells me. "When we ask them at the beginning of the event, 'do you feel your job is at risk?', they usually answer no. But that has often changed by the end.

"The problem is that while this conversation is happening in small rooms, it doesn't seem to reverberate beyond them."

Hunt insists that we simply cannot afford another great Australian silence, this time about our economic future.

"People will say to you that this sort of change has happened before, with the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy," he says. "But this is different, because what we are replacing is not muscle power but cognitive capabilities.

"As one technologist recently put it to me, with AI replacing some jobs and enhanced connectivity seeing other jobs outsourced to lower-cost jurisdictions overseas, what is the investment proposition for hiring a person living in Australia?"

One of more than 40 featured speakers at this year's conference is Neil Harbisson, the "cyborg activist" whose approach to his own body is breaking down our understanding of the difference between humans and machines. What if the Australian workers of the future find themselves competing not only with humans in other places for work, but with machines that increasingly expect to be accorded rights, a situation Isaac Asimov tried to imagine in his story The Bicentennial Man?

Hunt and de Jong believe that sustained leadership at the political level is needed to address such questions in the form of a "Future Commission" made up of leaders from education, business, wider society and government. Hunt points for a precedent to Singapore's Committee on the Future Economy, but says that any Australian body would need to be "transparent, pragmatic and accountable" as well as being independent of government.

You get the feeling that in addition to being a place to discuss such issues, Hunt and de Jong might see Ci2017 as a sort of prototype for this proposed body. There is something of the evangelist about both of them.

Looking selfishly into my own future, I ask them if they think it is really worthwhile teaching our children to code?

"In the short term, anything that makes people more flexible in terms of employment is a good thing," Hunt says. "But in the long term I think the teaching of such skills to human beings is probably doomed."

Gulp. Once again, I find myself veering off into dystopias. (At another point, when I asked about what a society without work for millions of people might look like, Hunt asked me "have you ever seen the movie Rollerball?".)

But then de Jong injects a note of hope: "What we need to look at is training kids to be inventive and entrepreneurial, to be problem solvers."

"That's right," Hunt chimes in. "Once upon a time a person could think up a niche product but they could never afford to distribute it themselves. Technological change means that that same person can now market their idea globally.

"For generations school has been about preparing us to work for someone else. What we need to discuss is education that allows us to create our own jobs."

Can we start soon enough?

Creative Innovation 2017 Asia Pacific - "Human Intelligence 2.0: Thriving in the Age of Acceleration" - runs from November 13-15 at Sofitel Melbourne. To register go to