Technology that could fundamentally change what it means to be human: Q&A with Futurist Shara Evans

Shara Evans

In the lead-up to the World Business Forum, Industry Moves talks to featured speaker and futurist, Shara Evans, who takes us on a journey into the future of technology. We find out about advancements that will not only affect the workplace of the future, but also what it means to be human. Shara tells us that she believes we have already lost the battle when it comes to maintaining online privacy and that much of what we see in sci-fi films will become a reality within the next 5-10 years. From automation of the workforce, to digital immortality, this Q&A will both fascinate and terrify you.

Shara Evans

What initially sparked your interest in the technology space?

I grew up in the USA and when I was a little girl, before I was old enough to read, I used to watch Astro Boy cartoons which sparked my interest in science fiction. I looked at all the giant robots and mad scientists who wanted to destroy the world - and here's little Astro Boy wanting to fight evil and help people - and there was something about that that really resonated with me. I have a very clear memory of watching the television with a doodle pad next to me and trying to figure out how I could fit a rocket jet into the heel of my little shoes.

I wanted to help people and I thought that law and politics would be a good way to do that because even though I was interested in technology, there weren't any realistic career opportunities for young girls growing up in that time. So, I ended up studying political science and it wasn't until my senior year at university, when I started working with an early statistical analysis computer program, that I discovered I had a real aptitude for computer science, logic, math and technology.

I was running for public office when I had just turned 21 and was on the cusp of trying to make a decision about whether I should continue with law and politics or if I should pursue grad work in this new thing called 'computer science'. I decided that if I won the local election then I would continue along the law and politics path, and if not then I would venture into the world of technology. I ended up losing by ten votes, it was one of those 'Sliding Door' moments, and I changed my entire career pathway from there.

In your opinion, what are the main digital threats that large organisations should be concerned about within the next 5-10 years?

The biggest threats right now are security, privacy and ethics. These threats will still be present in 5-10 years but they will come from things we can't even see. For instance, looking at a 7-year horizon, it's very likely that many people will be using a technology called Smart Contacts, which combines augmented reality, glasses, cameras, video recording and biosensing for health care, into a transparent contact lens. Imagine being in a board meeting and not knowing that someone is actually taping a video recording through these Smart Contacts.

On the medical side, there are some really interesting applications of this technology like auto-focusing lenses, so you wouldn't even need glasses anymore, or if you're a diabetic you could test the insulin levels in your body from chemicals in your tear ducts, or detect early signs of glaucoma. These are things that are happening in research labs right now.

On the 10-year horizon, there are other company threats that people might not yet be thinking about. One of them has to do with artificial intelligence, and an extrapolation of where we are already at today.

We're going to see interfaces built into all kinds of devices and they will have highly sophisticated natural language processing, but what most people don't think about, even today, is that in order for these AIs to "wake up" and react to you when you say, "Hey Siri" or "Okay Google", they have to be always listening for their keywords. What most, if not all, of these companies are doing is retaining and transcribing these recordings, using them in all sorts of different ways - and in some cases selling your data to third-parties.

Even I, as a cyber security expert, had issues trying to turn off Siri (and keep it off) on my new Apple Computer - Siri kept popping up asking to be switched on! I ended up downgrading my new Mac to the Sierra operating system because of this and other issues with the latest OS. I see that as a huge privacy risk to both me and my clients because wherever our computers go, there is a potential to record anything around us.

From a company perspective, you can imagine how risky it could be if all of your devices are recording everything. These programs are hosted by third-parties and you have no idea how that data is being used, where it's being collected or how easy it would be for someone to use an AI 'weapon' to hack into that audio stream unbeknownst to you or your company.

Shara Evans

Which industries do you foresee as being the first to be totally automated?

People ask me this question regularly, they say: "Which industry will go 'full robot' first?" I don't think we're going to see an industry with no humans working at all, but one of the industries that's already heavily invested in robotics is warehousing. Companies like Amazon have automated warehouses and there is a lot of investment in AI techniques that can give these robots even more capabilities.

There's a subset of AI called 'deep learning' wherein a robot (or AI) can teach itself by feeding them information to help them perform a task that they haven't been physically taught. Another interesting development in robotics is something called 'reinforcement learning' and 'imitation learning', where you have a human in the loop who is helping the robot to do specific tasks. For example, in warehousing they might use virtual reality control systems to show robots how to pick up and handle certain items that are delicate or difficult to carry. These human trainers are using their bodies to pilot these robots.

"From a company perspective, you can imagine how risky it could be if all of your devices are recording everything. These programs are hosted by third-parties and you have no idea how that data is being used."

Robo-advice has already been implemented within the finance industry and is seen as a major disruptor. Are there any technologies on the scene that you feel could also become major disruptors for those working in finance?

In the finance sector, a lot of people spend their time crunching numbers in spreadsheets, a lot of what they do is quite repetitive and not very creative. That's something that is very likely to be automated sooner rather than later and the people doing those jobs need to take the time that they've spent on these repetitive tasks and start applying them to more creative uses aligning with their intellect and industry knowledge.

Something that is already happening is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and that is where you take those repetitive tasks that humans do with a keyboard or a mouse, and use AI techniques to automate those tasks. This might be answering e-mails, moving data around and, at some stage, it might be doing full corporate audits. That's a little bit in the future, but RPA will have a profound impact in the finance industry and many other white-collar professions.

"Much of what we see in science fiction movies will be mainstream in 5-10-years' time."

How will the introduction of AI affect the human workforce?

What we're going to see is humans and robots working side by side. People will still have a role to play, but as AI and robotics get more sophisticated the human roles will start to change. There will be a lot of new 'human' jobs in the future that will be born from technology, such as a smart home handy person who can make all your gadgets talk to each other or a robot repairer.

AI trainers will also be very important because they will conduct the reinforcement learning, and will make sure that we're using the right data sets and that the conclusions are ethical. What most people don't talk about with AI, is that as you are building these bigger and bigger neural networks, not even the designers know exactly how or why decisions are being made by the AI software. There are going to be a lot of people who will be involved in looking at the outputs and ensuring that they are ethical.

Looking at AI assistants - such as Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa - currently, they all have the same sort of personality and voice, but I can see that there will be a whole new job category for people who design personalities for digital avatars. People will want to customise their little digital helpers, just like we do with all of our other software.

Shara Evans

How do you think society's relationship with privacy will change over the next 5-10 years as social media becomes more embedded into both our personal and professional lives?

I think we might have already lost that battle. The amount of information that people put online is just unbelievable, combined with the information that is being mined without people's express consent and sold to third parties, the latest being the Facebook scandal. People are so addicted to the convenience and "fun" of social media that they don't think about the larger ramifications, or they think about it in terms of "well I have nothing to hide, or I'm not doing anything wrong."

But it's not about that, it's about things that you want to keep private. I know a lot of business groups that use Facebook's 'Private Group' feature and they think because it's private that no one has access to that information. It's true that you can't join the group as a civilian but I'd be very surprised if this information didn't fall into all the rest of the information that Facebook collects.

In a business context, people share a lot of personal and confidential information on social media platforms without thinking "who else might have access to this?" either by design, a data breach or a hack. People put their birthday, address and all sorts of information online. They are just asking to have their identity stolen.

What do you think the workplace of the future will look like?

I still think that we're going to have desks and computers for some time but we're going to see a lot more natural language voice interfaces built into all sorts of things, including our computer software. AI will be woven into almost every piece of software we use, whether we know it or not.

We're also going to see a lot of augmented reality interfaces, that is being able to see digital information that is superimposed onto the real world. Where that is going to hit a mass market juncture is when these augmented reality glasses become cheap enough and comfortable enough for people to use for long periods of time. One of the makers of augmented reality glasses has even suggested that in a few years' time, we won't even need computer screens, we will just have virtual screens that will pop up.

Personally, I don't think that will be a reality for quite some time because the glasses just aren't comfortable enough.

Looking further into the future, I can see that we will have technologies integrated into our bodies too, which I think will start with the Smart Contacts. There are multiple reasons why you might use something like this; the technical benefits as well as the medical uses mentioned earlier. Much of what we see in science fiction movies will be mainstream in 5-10-years' time.

"People put their birthday, address and all sorts of information online. They are just asking to have their identity stolen."

As part of your upcoming talk at the World Business Forum you're posing the question, in the future "what will it mean to be human?" Can you give us a little taste of what we can expect from this discussion?

I'll be talking about advances in the world of MedTech and taking technology into our bodies. Smart Contacts will be the first step, but there is also a lot of work going into brain machine interfaces. Imagine thinking something and having an impact on the real world, that's the type of technology that's being worked on now.

There are a number of ways this could happen. It might be an implant, or a nanobot that you inject into your body to give you augmented intelligence and medical benefits. It may be something like, Neuro Lace, which is a science-fiction term that Elon Musk, and other researchers, have picked up on, where they are looking at having a layer above our neocortex that allows us to interface directly from our brain to the world wide web. There's also the potential for people to move into a digital reality, using something that's very light-weight, or perhaps in your body, that allows you to project into a digital world where you can look and feel however you want and interface with people anywhere around the world.

There are people that are already looking at ways for us to upload our brain - our thoughts and patterns; the essence of who we are - into computers, so we can in effect have immortality. Of course, this begs the question of 'the soul' and its purpose. If you made a copy of the things in your brain right now, would that really be you? These are interesting and philosophical questions that we're going to have to think about as a society. Can we continue to live on in our digital replica after our physical bodies are no longer there?

This could all be on the horizon and will fundamentally change what it means to be human.

Industry Moves is a supporting partner of the World Business Forum, which will be held on the 30th and 31st of May 2018 in Sydney. Industry Moves' readers can use the promo code IM10 when purchasing their tickets to receive a 10% discount. Click here for more details.