When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440, he could never have imagined it would lead to the wildfire-like spread of the Reformation 80 years later. Similarly, few at Microsoft could have anticipated that the inclusion of a humble ‘Start’ button in Windows 95, the go-to menu for more than 20 years now, would usher in a revolution in home computing and forever change the global economy.
For Stephen Elop, Group Executive, Technology, Innovation and Strategy at Telstra, planning for the ‘unintended consequences’ of disruptive technologies is the responsibility of industry leaders, even if these are “very hard to predict”.
“It’s not just ‘Isn’t machine learning cool?’ and ‘Look what I can do with artificial intelligence’,” he says. “We have to take accountability for the totality of the impact of what we’re doing, as leaders in the industry.”
Speaking at Telstra Vantage™ 2017, Elop explored historical and modern examples of technology’s unintended consequences, from humanity’s first domestication of plants through to 2017’s hack of customer data from credit-reporting agency Equifax.
One of his most clear-cut examples was Microsoft’s AI-powered “Tay” chatbot, which was shut down only 16 hours after launch when a coordinated effort by Twitter users taught the bot racist and sexist epithets.
It’s examples such as these that Elop says make it so important for leaders to inspire their organisation to ask the hard questions, including “What are the possible negative outcomes of this new technology?” and “What steps can I take to prevent unexpected outcomes?”.
“You can’t just blindly pursue a new piece of technology. Every bit of technology is the outcome of how it is used, and as creators of those technologies we have to be thoughtful about those outcomes. For me, the bottom line is intentionality.”Stephen Elop, Group Executive, Technology, Innovation and Strategy at Telstra
Of course, unexpected consequences don’t just stem from headline-grabbing, disruptive technologies. For storied enterprises with legacy systems, keeping up with the times by moving to a hybrid cloud solution, embracing employee mobility or deploying a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system can send huge ripples throughout an organisation and its customers.
Without appropriate consideration, these changes can unintentionally impact an organisation’s cyber security, customer experience, data collection and operational efficiency.
With this in mind, it’s every leader’s responsibility to build an organisational culture which goes beyond just developing point solutions and seeks to understand where new technology fits within its broader context.