Life & Science

Entering the Hybrid Age

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Ayesha Khanna is founder and director of the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group focused on emerging technologies and their policy and economic consequences. Together with her husband Parag Khanna, she wrote the book "Hybrid Reality – Thriving in the emerging human-technology civilization." DLD spoke to Ayesha about what a hybrid age might bring.

The ideas you and your husband wrote about and some of the research areas of the Hybrid Institute can be kind of frightening – a world governed by robots rather than inhabited by humans. What does a hybrid reality mean to you?

One has to be cautious. One of the reasons why I created this Institute was to spread awareness and to start a discussion about the fact that there is certain inevitability about technology in society, and its increasing sophistication. I wasn’t the first one to think about this, Ray Kurzweil wrote a book about it! But I really wanted to put the focus on cities, governance, international relations – things, that a couple of years ago, people really weren’t thinking about in relation to technological advancement. There was both reason for optimism and pessimism, because there was the potential that if we don’t think this development through consciously, technology might overwhelm us. We have to realize that the man who understands technology better could manipulate the common man. And on the other hand - just to focus on the dangers would be wrong. We wanted to take a balanced approach, to create a kind of positive activism towards technology. This was necessary because we’ve made the mistake to think of technology as a set of tools. We don’t think of technology as something we coexist with, we think of it as something we use. And if we think of technology as a tool we don’t think we can do something about it. In our work we try to say that it’s necessary to have a sense of guiding the technology we use, whether you’re an entrepreneur or philanthropist. So I think there is not one answer to the question: should we be afraid of technology - because it’s about what we make of it.

ayesha khanna

Does awareness of the hybrid age mean to be more in control of technology then?

I would call it guidance rather than control because if you look at technology as a partner in life, control is not the right way to think of it. It’s important for people to realize that technology can help us to improve our lives if - as a society - we think about technology carefully, we can guide technological developments and make them social in nature.

Can you give an example of a sign for the hybrid age that we can already see in today’s society?

The reason we call it hybrid age is because technology is a trend that is becoming more diffuse in our society. We’re entering a human-technology civilization, and from a socio-technological perspective we use technology in almost every aspect of our lives without even being conscious of it. I study cities a lot, and if you think about a city there’s hard infrastructure like roads and bridges, but there’s also soft infrastructure, which is about social space and personal information. Improving the soft infrastructure is as important to improving living standards as the hard infrastructure. Just that our privacy is a much more sensitive topic and we have to be more careful with regards to technology. The fact is that our cities are all hybrid now, any country that uses smart management systems like CCTV cameras, has hybrid cities. In one way “hybridity” is everywhere, and all information is screened, which makes life easier in many ways. On the other hand it is essential to think about what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be allowed with regards to technology in our private space. Another important issue, that the Hybrid Institute looks at, is the role of robots in a hybrid society. The increasing use of robots in social situations, like robots that care for the elderly or children, raise important ethical questions.

And what about the economic implications of robots? In the past higher economic productivity also meant higher employment rates. Increasingly robots and high-tech are substitutes for the workforce.

The automation of jobs is something we should be worried about because robots are going up in the value chain. We need to change the whole education system so that we can equip students. I started a new company that specifically looks at how mid career employees can change their career path and be skilled for an automated industry. This is about mobility. I think productivity will increase and employment will go down, but that doesn’t mean that new companies or industries won’t come up, or that ambitions need to be lost. That’s part of what I dislike about the whole conversation on technology. We don’t have enough trust in our society and individuals. It’s the job of parents, teachers and politicians to be proactive in adapting to changes in technology, because we will need people who are versatile in skill and interest.

As we’re getting closer to DLDwomen13 – can you tell us about your ideas on how the hybrid age might change a woman’s place in society?

It’s such an interesting debate about what women can do and can’t do! I think the hybrid age will allow women to be on one level with men. Not only because women can take more advantage of technology, as it allows them to work from home, but also because we will see more and more women participating in the global workforce. The hybrid age will democratize access to the productive society. And by the way, I think we can rely on women to be quite sensitive to how technology can be used to improve our society.