Inspiration was tempered by deep concern throughout Techonomy 2017, our annual retreat with business leaders, policy makers, and advocates that took place in early November in Half Moon Bay, California.
This year’s theme, “The Convergence of Man and Machine,” unleashed a mind-bending vision for the near future—and with it an equally intimidating set of accompanying ethical, legal, and policy questions. Top business leaders, including the CEOs of Aetna, Autodesk, Campbell Soup Company, and Verizon, joined engineers and policy experts for two days of often challenging discussion. It may have been our most intense and provocative conference ever.
It’s clear that for every recent tech breakthrough—whether in artificial intelligence, robotics, tools to improve health, data management, and energy—society and business also need to evolve our integration, our calibration, and our regulation. At the moment, advances in tech risk increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots and diminishing personal privacy. As a result, government is paying ever closer attention, and the threat of intervention looms.
These breakthroughs, combined with the seemingly unchecked primacy of Facebook, Apple and Google now pose some of the most important questions that entrepreneurs, business leaders, and government officials face.
“Technology can be a force for good, but only if good is your goal,” David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy’s CEO, said as he kicked off the event. The words hung over the retreat as panelists and attendees debated the potential for good from emerging technologies versus the knotty issues they raise.
The first order was simply to come to grips with the current state of human-machine interfaces. Mary Lou Jepsen, founder of Openwater shared a jaw-dropping view about how close we may be to brainreading-driven telepathic communication. Justin Sanchez, from DARPA, shared moving video of a hardwired motor-and-sensory interface that allows otherwise-handicapped people to use their brain to control cybernetic extremities, “feel” touch on an artificial hand, and even fly multiple video planes at once. Vyomesh Joshi of 3D Systems shared examples of 3-D printed human implants that are already changing lives and which he predicts will soon become commonplace.

Benjamin Bratton, Mary Lou Jepsen, Tessa Lau, Rohit Prasad and David Kirkpatrick give a glimpse into the convergence of man and machine. Photo credit:
Paul Sakuma

In so many ways, the distinction between what is human and what is artificial blurs with each new discovery. And while these advances hold enormous promise for creating new markets and improving the human condition, it is imperative to think through the ethical, legal and socio-political impact of such game-changing capabilities. Striking that balance is essential to preserving our humanity and securing the economic benefits of convergence. As Dr. John Kelly, who oversees all of IBM’s work in research and cognitive computing, argued, humans working in partnership with machines will always beat a human or machine working alone.
We have seen the impact of technology and the business models surrounding it outracing ethical concerns in the rise of fake news, the ubiquitous influence and control of content exercised by Facebook, Apple, and Google, and the related question of data ownership as a civil right. In the Sunday afternoon panel discussion “Reckoning with the New Hegemonists,” RBC Capital Markets security analyst Mark Mahaney, Simulmedia CEO Dave Morgan, and University of Alabama law professor Joyce Vance debated the prospect and wisdom of restraining these tech titans: How does government regulate innovations it doesn’t sufficiently understand? How does society decide policy when we often only appreciate the impact of a new technological powerhouse after the fact?
Such questions get even more complicated when one considers data ownership. Breakfast colloquys, breakout sessions, and main-stage sessions wrestled with the urgent contemporary question of whether data ownership should be a civil right. And if it should, how can it be retrieved from companies that already monetize consumers’ data in ways the customers can’t even see? There is a groundswell movement underway to better understand, articulate and defend people’s rights to data privacy and allow them to determine for themselves how the data they generate is captured, sold and used. A highly motivated tribe of techonomists were on hand to share their diverse efforts to tackle this issue, including Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Molly Turner, NYU School of Law’s Lawrence Norden, Code for America’s Minnie Ingersoll, FiscalNote’s Tim Hwang, Scripps Translational Science Institute researcher and author Dr. Eric Topol, Consumer Reports CEO Marta Tellado, Nicolai Publishing’s Christiane zu Salm of Germany, and Uber attorney Sabrina Ross.
It is a topic with global sociopolitical ramifications, as well. Techonomy 2017 explored numerous growing social threats, including the rise of nationalistic AI and data stacks, the unseen data warfare that extends beyond mere nation-state hacks, and the fundamentally unsecured nature of our IoT and consumer device infrastructure. Despite an articulate and balanced discussion of China’s perspective with C-SKY Microsystems CEO Xiaoning Qi, the subsequent closing panel discussion with Mark Anderson of Strategic News Services, BAE Systems’s Peder Jungck and Rebecca MacKinnon, from Ranking Digital Rights at New America, made it clear that we face much risk in the systems we rely on today to run our physical, financial and commercial infrastructures. That means that even as we hope to build the next generation of digitized cities and social services, we face the severe risk of cyberattack and malign interference.
The very fabric of trust in the internet is at stake, and innovators, business leaders and policy makers must come to grips with that immediately, before the economic promise of digital business and IoT evaporates. How can we reverse engineer trust in these systems? Where are we exposed most, and how do business leaders plan in the face of what is sure to be a continued pattern of devastating breaches? And what can be done now to protect the next generation of economically, environmentally and socially transformative innovations?
On a more uplifting note, we also saw inspiring examples of socially-minded business and community leaders who recognize the importance of doing well by doing good:
GE Vice Chair Beth Comstock and PSP Capital Partners Founder Penny Pritzker, the former Secretary of Commerce, spoke about the never-ending work of digital transformation for both businesses and governments, but also reminded us that employment itself is a form of social empowerment and personal fulfillment. In our push toward automation, we must always ask ourselves, what is the best and most rewarding use of a human being’s time? They were among many on stage who argued against the concept of a Universal Basic Income as society’s response to advancing automation.
• Campbell Soup Company CEO Denise Morrison shared insights from her brief and unsuccessful interaction with the Trump administration, but focused primarily on the importance of embracing agricultural innovations responsibly to make sure the world can healthily feed as many people as possible. Her guidance: Transparency in processing food creates trust and results in more people eating well safely.
Cisco’s Executive Chairman John Chambers issued both a warning and a call to action to help the U.S. once again become a startup nation, arguing that we’ve lost entrepreneurial leadership to countries like France, China, and others. He wants to see every state in the U.S. become a startup state.
• Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam shared his enthusiasm about the economic and sociopolitical promise of 5G wireless networks, which are just now beginning to be deployed. He emphasized the importance of connecting the entire United States. The new 5G systems can radically reduce the cost and efficiency of offering everyone in society access to information and computing power, he argued.
• Autodesk’s new CEO Andrew Anagnost spoke of both the economic and ethical obligation of embracing automation, reminding Silicon Valley in pungent language that it serves people, not the other way around. But he also expressed optimism about the job-creating potential of automation, noting that even if individual projects can be done with less labor, the world will need technology in order to build 1,000 buildings each day for the next 33 years, which will be required if we are to properly house an expected 10 billion people.
• Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini reminded us that consumers more than technologies disrupt (and can save) health care. He, too, made news, with his vision for an Apple Genius Bar approach to consumer health. He also reminded us of the enormous inefficiency we could eliminate with this approach: 50 percent of Americans now have a chronic health condition, and they consume 86 percent of the $3.2 trillion national healthcare expenditure.
Techonomy will continue to explore these issues both in our editorial work and at our live events next year, May 8 to 9 in New York and back at Half Moon Bay in November 11 to 13. And to give ourselves and our community of businesspeople and technologists clarity about the purpose of all this, we are structuring our conversations increasingly in relation to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals for the world in 2030. In this fraught moment, we need to ensure that in our own work, too, good is our goal.