What we can learn from the Human Experience

On 18 January the World Economic Forum published a far-reaching research project.

It named this project Globalization 4.0 – The Human Experience.

In its own words, this was, “An original survey research project with more than 10,000 respondents across 29 countries that comprise 74% of the global population.”

The project asked people questions on six different themes:

  1. How do we save the planet without killing economic growth?
  2. How do we make sure technology makes life better not worse?
  3. Can you be a patriot and a global citizen?
  4. What should work look like in the future?
  5. How do we create a fairer economy?
  6. How do we get countries working better together?

The results give us a good picture of how different countries view these themes. So, let’s take a look at what the research discovered.

To avoid information overload, we’ll just concentrate on the total, Western Europe and North America’s answers. If you want to look at the report for yourself, you can find it here.

Over 2018 a major theme that emerged was the backlash against big tech. I covered this in part three of my five key tech trends for 2019 series. But what do people around the world think of it?

Here are the World Economic Forum’s results.

Question:

Which comes closer to your view, even if neither is exactly right?

“Most technology companies want to make the world a better place” OR “Most technology companies only want to make money”.

Percentage saying “Most technology companies want to make the world a better place”:

Total – 51%

North America – 40%

Western Europe – 39%

So basically, less than half the people in Europe and North America think technology companies want to make the world a better place.

I think that result is quite telling. And overall, the world is 50-50 on whether tech companies are only out for money.

It would be interesting to see the results if we could go back in time and ask the same question of the same people five years ago, before the big tech backlash really began. I would imagine big tech would have come out a lot better.

Question:

Would you say that technology does more harm or good in society?

Answers:

Total:

Much more good to somewhat more good – 48%

Equal good and harm – 39%

Somewhat more harm to much more harm – 13%

Western Europe:

Much more good to somewhat more good – 43%

Equal good and harm – 42%

Somewhat more harm to much more harm – 15%

North America:

Much more good to somewhat more good – 41%

Equal good and harm – 45%

Somewhat more harm to much more harm – 15%

So overall a pretty positive result on whether technology is good for society. So it seems that although people are 50-50 on whether tech companies want to improve the world, they tend to agree that the technology itself is a good thing.

However, as you’ll see in the results of the next question, this is probably because people don’t think they will be replaced by a robot anytime soon.

Question:

How much of what you do in your job do you think could be done today by a robot?

Answers:

Total:

Almost all to most of it – 22%

Some of it – 28%

Not very much to almost none of it – 50%

Western Europe:

Almost all to most of it – 19%

Some of it – 20%

Not very much to almost none of it – 61%

North America:

Almost all to most of it – 21%

Some of it – 24%

Not very much to almost none of it – 55%

While 50% of people don’t think they could be replaced by a robot, it’s the people at the other end of the spectrum I find the most interesting.

Around one in every five people at work around the world right now believes they could be replaced by a robot – today.

That really is quite a shocking statistic.

But if we think about these numbers a little deeper (sorry today’s issue is pretty numbers heavy, isn’t it?) we can see that only around half the people who believe they could be replaced by a robot think that technology does more harm than good.

The answers to these two questions strike me as a huge contradiction.

Either the respondents are incredibly altruistic, or they don’t think their jobs are really in danger of being replaced by robots.

Or maybe they look at all the good technology has brought us – longer lives, improved health, more comfort, less poverty starvation and disease – and still think that overall it is a good thing. Even if it is going to take their jobs away.

However, when we look at the answers to the next question it becomes clearer.

Question:

Supposing that you are still working, how likely are you to be doing the same kind of work in 5 years that you are doing today?

Answers:

Total:

Extremely likely to very likely – 60%

Moderately likely – 24%

Slightly likely to not at all likely – 16%

Western Europe:

Extremely likely to very likely – 63%

Moderately likely – 24%

Slightly likely to not at all likely – 14%

North America:

Extremely likely to very likely – 61%

Moderately likely – 23%

Slightly likely to not at all likely – 17%

The slightly likely to not very likely corresponds much closer to the percentage of people that think technology is a bad thing for society.

So maybe it’s more that a lot of people think their job could be done by a robot, but most of them don’t actually think it will happen.

In fact, most people seem to believe that they will still be doing the same job five years from now as they are doing today (assuming they are still working).

But as the International Society for Technology in Education points out:

In many industries and countries, some of the most in-demand jobs didn’t even exist five or 10 years ago — and the pace of change will only accelerate.

It would be great if this research was carried out every year, so we could see if people’s responses change as time goes on.

Even so, just taken as a snapshot of world opinion in 2019, it is very interesting. And it goes along with a lot of what Nick O’Connor wrote in his book, The Exponentialist. A lot of his book is dedicated to how changes in technology will affect our working lives, and how you can prepare. If you haven’t read his book yet, you can pick up a free copy here.

And as I said, you can see all the results from this survey for yourself here, if you’re interested.

I also think it is telling how different news organisations reported these same survey results. Between Huffington Post, Wired, and a number of others, you can see totally different narratives emerge.

Just as with any news story, survey or study, the same evidence gets reported on very differently by different organisations.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Technology

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