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Now that the pandemic is mostly in the rear-view mirror, it’s easier to take a second look at what we sped past in the last couple of years. Without doubt, the pandemic created the biggest shift towards more automation, faster digital transformation, and exponential leaps in robotics and artificial intelligence. Estimates around investment in robotics and supply chain automation hovers around the $250 billion mark for just 2023. And the global adoption rate is set to increase to 70%+ by 2025.

So, when you have this level of automation, you can be sure that there will soon be a slew of people whose sole task will be to manage this ever-growing non-human workforce. Are you ready to manage a group of robot assistants? Not sure if you’re aware of this, but the pandemic-fuelled isolation and digital transformation has led to the rise of robot-dependents – people who feel emotionally connected to chatbots or robots. I’m not kidding. This is a real thing. How quickly did robots transition from anxiety-inducing entities to familiar everyday support systems that bring a sense of calm and safety? 

When you think about it, autonomous robots range from innocuous chatbots to the Roomba to even aerial drones. There are more of them around than many of us can comprehend. They’re no longer the stuff of science fiction, but increasingly ubiquitous objects that deliver significant value. They no doubt improve the speed and accuracy of routine operations and add efficiency while working alongside humans. They’re increasingly deployed in dangerous situations like nuclear plants or to track and diffuse land mines. Judging by the speed of things and how every organization is glued to scaling, it won’t be long before bots are life companions. Now imagine encouraging, criticizing, or mentoring bots. We’ll soon have to develop language, etiquette, and protocol around all this. Let’s begin by translating eye rolls.

Now fast forward to the reality of contactless delivery and automated transportation, and suddenly we need to figure out how to reengineer our roads to accommodate for their increased presence around us, especially in cities. It’s only a matter of time before driverless cars and delivery robots will be jostling for road space alongside bikes and scooters. Are city planners thinking about this? Typical to technology, automated vehicles (AVs) will make some jobs redundant and create some new ones. Today’s truck driver or Uber driver will have to transition to an AV specialist. Someone who manages automated vehicles and customer service in Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) offerings. New roles will emerge like AV Service Mangers, AV Deployment Specialists, AV Technicians…. Can you see where this is going? The good thing is, AVs will also make mobility more equitable and accessible. Think of seniors, people with disabilities, even children will have greater access to independent transportation. And let’s also consider the potential drop in road accidents – if things go as cited. Removing human error from road accidents can have a significant impact on everything from life to insurance costs. What about parking lots? Dare we hope that they’ll turn into green spaces within cities? Especially since AVs can drive themselves to their own pens.

Among the most compelling lessons of the pandemic is the impact of artificial intelligence (AI). Estimates suggest that over 50% of companies accelerated their AI adoption plans because of the Covid crisis. And Big Tech has clearly doubled down on this in the last few years. From a marketing perspective, the hope is that AI is going to help us narrow in on the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ in terms of people’s behaviour. Speculation, of course, is very high with large language models like Open AI’s ChatGPT. Even though ChatGPT can scan the entire internet in a matter of seconds, it cannot (yet) connect outlying dots to create a fresh perspective on a human insight. So, I doubt very much that Copywriters are about to disappear. But the potential for AI to iterate and optimize copy in bulk digital ads, and add personalization, can be a real game changer. Ad tools like Meta’s Advantage+ lets AI choose audiences and creative assets, and Google’s Performance Max decides how to distribute the ad spend across its properties. So, if targeting and audiences are going to be taken care of by AI, what else will the age of automation bring?

Another quick glance into the rear-view mirror throws up one of the most talked about fallouts of the pandemic – information epidemic. Especially the dubious kind. No one seems to know if the information they’re consuming is indeed true or factual. Things got so bad the World Health Organization held its first ‘Infodemiology Conference’ in 2020. Misinformation and disinformation are by no means restricted to scientific or health-related topics. Indeed, technology has helped to weaponize information. Disinformation thrives in societies where systemic inequality and deep-seated discrimination is rampant. When everyone is a content generator, it’s easy for bad actors to twist misinformation (someone who got facts wrong accidentally) to disinformation (creating false information). In today’s environment where people are ready to jump to the nearest conclusion without much thought or debate, it undermines some basic principles we collectively accept and agree upon. It’s scary to think how easy it is to tear apart any society with disinformation, immaterial of where it is. Ultimately, trust will be the most valuable asset anyone, individual, or organization, can have. And if you haven’t guessed it yet, pro-truth influencers are a thing too.

Which brings me back to the question – who then has the responsibility to ensure trustworthiness, inclusivity, and sustainability in our breakneck speed for technology triumphs? Thankfully some people across the pond are taking this a bit more seriously than the rest of us in North America. A European Commission initiative aims to reimagine, reshape, and re-engineer the internet and it’s called the Next Generation Internet (NGI). It funds innovative research to develop a safer, more transparent, and inclusive internet for all. Wishful thinking? I hope not. 

Despite the handwringing, there’s no doubt that technology will move faster than people, or policy. So, where should the guardrails be? And who gets to decide that? And where’s the crystal ball that can see what’s in store? When we started playing (ice) hockey no one thought about the need for helmets. In fact, it took about a hundred years before helmets were mandated in hockey. How long do we wait before we get protection from the trauma of technology?