Chancellor's Lecture, Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia (August 2, 2017)
Good evening. It is great to be back at Swinburne University. I'm honoured to deliver this year's Chancellor's Oration, and I'm grateful to Chancellor Graham Goldsmith for inviting me to take a break from the campaign trail to join you.
As you can imagine, it has been very busy. My campaign staff and family are full on these days doing what family members and campaign staff obviously do – meeting with Russian intelligence operatives.
I promise that will be my last political joke.
But it's good to be an ex-Diplomat every now and then.
My remarks tonight are actually on a serious subject.
They are focused on five great technology-driven challenges that confront western democracies: Automation, Education, Climate, Cyber, and Self-Governance. And so, because these are difficult, serious issues, I intend to devote the full 140 characters needed to solve them all.
If you need the twitter version – here it is. “I believe technology can and will solve many of these problems. But not by itself. #Swinburne”
My point tonight will be a straightforward one. Technology and government need each other more than ever. But in too many western democracies, they have fallen out of sync. And this is dangerous.
Technology and government
To appreciate the challenge, I need to begin with how government and technology ordinarily work together. Ideally, government does three things. First, it creates an environment where innovation can actually happen – through free minds and free markets. Second, it identifies the areas that actually need a technological solution and it creates incentives for scientists to take these on. And third, because every invention has good and bad effects, Government works with industry to deal with the unplanned negative effects of new technologies.
Today, all three of these functions are showing signs of strain.
Western Democratic societies succeed at innovation because we allow scientists to think freely, travel easily, associate as they wish, access capital, and rely on laws that protect their ideas from theft or being squelched. This is why eight of the top ten countries for patents are Western Democracies. Freedom is the fuel that propels the great engines of innovation. So when government attempts to block research into controversial subjects, it breaks a bond that keeps technology and policy in harmony. When the government simply asserts that climate science is a hoax and ignores its findings, when it tries to ban the study of stem cells, when it suppresses research showing that vaccines do not cause autism -- it breaks the bond of trust necessary for government and industry to partner.
Likewise, we depend on Government to identify what society needs, as opposed to what it wants. Capital markets do a good job focusing on what society wants. For example, there is apparently a big demand worldwide for messages and photos that disappear before your parents can see them. But there are needs that only government has the scale and purpose to fund.
Some of the greatest achievements of the past century were direct results of government identifying a social issue that needed to be solved. Government called for a DARPA-net as a back-up system after a nuclear attack. This lead to the creation of the ARPA-net, the internet, the world wide web, windows, videoconferencing, google maps, siri, the cloud, and GPS.
The Government needed to ensure that the U.S. did not become vulnerable to Soviet control of space. It established NASA. This not only put a person on the moon, but also it created the partnerships that built our satellites, and mobile technology, LEDs, artificial limbs, heart pumps, water purification, solar panels, even gortex.
Today, we need government to set market signals in a number of areas -- to reduce our carbon output, increase our food production, protect water sources, stop pandemics, and protect our nations from cyberattacks. When Government cuts basic research funding; When the Government does not tell the market what technologies are most urgent to extend and improve their people’s lives, then technology can go off in less productive directions. As a friend of mine put it, “They promised us flying cars, and instead we have 11 new ways to send cat videos.”
Finally, Government needs to help deal with the unintended consequences of new technologies. The technology that created nuclear power provided a way to fuel the world and end a global war, but it also created the means to destroy the planet.
Great scientific minds like those here tonight are rarely focused on the ultimate use or effect of the technology as they are creating it. Nor should they be. Doing that would only limit their imagination and ability to discover other uses. You invent the lightbulb to replace gas-lamps, and then you see what else people might want to do with it.
In successful societies, government helps technology achieve its best uses and avoids its worst. This is good for everyone. Even the most beneficial and essential things on earth -- like water – can kill you. In the right quantity, water sustains your life. In the wrong quantity, it will drown you. The same is true of course with carbon.
When government commits to de-regulation for its own sake – when it ignores the potential negative effects of new technologies – it risks disaster and a backlash against valuable technologies.
Now these divides have been with us forever. But they are more urgent today, because as Western governments have dithered or failed to fulfill their role, the technological revolution has accelerated.
For the past two decades, while technology has been moving exponentially, government has responded linearly. Or not at all. As a result, in most of the great democracies today, we have run-away technology and walk-away government.
The head of Google X, Astro Teller, would fit right in here at Swinburne. He is the grandchild of two Nobel prize winning physicists, and a leader in artificial intelligence. And his name is Astro. I asked what his greatest concern is about technology, he said this. “Technology is moving too fast for society to keep up, and we can't slow this down.” Elon Musk – the visionary behind Tesla, Solar City, SpaceX, and the Hyperloop – has warned that if we fail to strike a balance between government and the AI industry, we do it at humanity’s peril.
Archimedes said that with a long enough lever, he could move the earth. Today, the lever of technology has grown so long, that something as simple as a ride-sharing app can change the world. Massive disruptions that would have taken years now occur within months. Overnight, we’ve become completely dependent on things that didn't even exist for us 15 years ago -- iPhones, Google Maps, the cloud.
Where disruption was once unusual, now it is the norm and it’s happening faster. Every year there is some massive new disruption. Every year there’s a new massive theory of disruption: “the digital economy,” then “the social network”, then “the Internet of things”, then the “sharing economy,” then “big data”, then “machine learning.” This past year's buzzword was “singularity.” The eventual fusion of humans and our creations into a new species.
My generation and older can't even figure out how to operate their our own tv sets, anymore. And even the students in this room – people who grew up with tech and are devoted to it – are struggling. Odds are that most people here tonight can't keep up with their texts and snapchat, let alone their email, voicemail, facebook, instagram, and twitter accounts, each day.
So government is not the only one having trouble keeping up. But for government, the consequences of falling behind are far more catastrophic.
We have not had this type of disconnect between government and society since the last great economic revolution from 1880-1920. It was actually very similar to what has occurred today. In 1880, the invention of the electric light and a workable internal combustion engine both occurred in a 3 month period. These produced a dizzying number of new technologies -- Cars, airplanes, the telephone, phonograph, motion pictures, elevators, skyscrapers, x-rays, electric machinery, consumer appliances, highways, suburbs, supermarkets, all created in that 40-year burst. It overwhelmed people and governments. The effects may sound familiar. Popular unrest especially in Europe and East Asia, xenophobia, isolationism, deadly pollution, violent protests, and the emergence of authoritarians and demagogues around the world. All of this culminated in two world wars that brought humanity to the brink. We don’t want that to happen again.
But the early warning signs are already here.
The combination of runaway technology and walkaway government is destabilizing nations and rattling our political systems. Unless governments like ours become as innovative as our people in doing their function, then our planet, our people, and our principles will suffer. This is not a prediction. It is evident in capitals around the world.
As the writer William Gibson who coined the term “cyberspace” said: the "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed." Yet.
We don't have to imagine the effects of automation in producing labor unrest. I've visited Elon Musk’s Tesla factory where robots perform most of the work, the Amazon warehouses where eventually the only living creatures will be the guard dogs and the people who feed them. The Macca's where machines take the orders and soon robots will flip your burgers. Factory jobs, warehouse jobs, retail jobs are disappearing, and in a few years the same fate awaits anyone who makes their living driving a bus, a truck, a cab, or a forklift.
We also don't have to look to the future to see the impact of change on job training. Since the 1920s, the U.S. has been training people for an industrial job that would last until their retirement. The new digital economy doesn’t work that way. Today, workers trained under that old system have stagnant incomes, inadequate savings, and concerns that their children will fare even worse. They feel angry, scared, and left-behind. They want to turn back the clock and put up walls to make it all stop.
We also I don't have to peer into the future to see how resisting or hampering new energy technologies threatens people's lives and livelihoods. I just have to go to Florida to experience climate change. There is sunny day flooding -- tidal flooding -- already in Miami Beach. Wildfires that used to average 5 days now average 52 days in the West.
We don't have to watch a science fiction movie or go to a power plant in Ukraine to witness Russian hackers trying to unseat democratic governments, or criminal networks holding hospitals full of sick patients hostage. A technology-enabled crime wave is happening now in the U.S.
Finally, we don't have to imagine the impact on the foundations of democratic society that all these changes have brought. Donald Trump is the President of my Country. The UK voted to leave the EU. Authoritarian leaders have gained power in the Philippines, Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, and they've made in-roads in every other democratic election this past year.
The future is already there. It is just not evenly distributed. Yet.
So this is why our topic is urgent. We have the advantage of seeing the mistakes that led to a depression and two world wars. The question we need to ask is what can and should we be doing together -- technologists and policy-makers -- to address this imbalance. Where do we need to focus on harnessing technology for good, and not let it overwhelm us. There are five for us to consider tonight.
Automation and employment
First, let's start with automation and its impact on labor. Let me say from the outset, I think AI is a good thing. I'll give one example. Self-driving cars. These are a great advance. They can reduce accidents, save us from needless deaths, injuries, and property damage, reduce traffic, give us more leisure time, reduce stress, and improve our quality of life. Believe me, as an ex-Ambassador, life is better in the backseat of the car.
But that isn't how you look at it if you drive a bus, or a cab, or a truck. You see a machine taking away your livelihood, and leaving nothing in its place.
Historically, whenever one set of jobs goes away, another whole new set are created to replace them. Assembly line jobs replaced farm work. But not right away. Blacksmiths, horse-breeders, stables, manure removal services largely disappeared, after the car was invented. Not all of those jobs were replaced right away. Eventually, many more jobs though were created to build cars, and asphalt roads, traffic signals, auto insurance, repair shops, and traffic cops. Even then, the lag caused great unrest.
This time it could be even more challenging. AI potentially could permanently eliminate the need for some broad categories of unskilled human labor across many sectors. Any work that is dull, dangerous, or determinable can be done by a machine. It is inevitable that a high-skilled person who can operate a robot, or a 3D printer will displace the mid- and low-skill jobs of several people who can't. But a lot of lawyers work, and bankers’ work, can also be done better, faster, and cheaper by a super-intelligent machine.
The Government needs to get out ahead and send signals about the jobs of the future, and how we are going to prepare workers for them. We need to work with the private sector to reassure the public that they will still have work in the era of automation; that people who currently drive trucks will still have a purpose.
I’m confident that we will create many new jobs. For example, our nations will need to be focused on building large cyber police forces. Every new domain needs security. Just as shopping malls, apartment buildings, and office buildings spawned an industry of private security guards, cyberspace will require larger public and private police forces. Government and technologists can set that signal now and begin training people for those jobs.
Even more broadly, government and industry should focus on promoting jobs in the fields that machines simply can’t do: be human. While machines can relieve us of most dull, dangerous, or determinable work, they can’t fulfill the need for a human connection. Machines can’t raise our children, care for our aging parents, bring comfort to ailing neighbors, resolve conflicts. These skills will be properly valued in a new economy. Today, we don’t train, support, pay, or even give titles to the people who do most of this work. And yet these are emotionally skilled people who we entrust with our most challenging problems -- a son who is an addict, a brother who is abusive, a daughter who is depressed, a mother who has lost her memory.
The government can invest funds in technologies that assist this massive sector of society, that allows them to be compensated properly for their work, that can produce a different kind of labor force, and a healthier society. We could focus more resources on training people to do the things that people alone can do -- resolve disputes, restore mental health, nurse, teach, investigate, explore, imagine, and provide the human touch. Imagine paying people as much to do this, as we currently pay for them to mine coal, or guard a prison.
Government and technology together can build a powerful labor force that draws upon the greatest human strengths and produces a more humane society. An emotional economy.
This brings me to the second challenge. Because we will work differently – we will also need to educate ourselves very differently.
Successful societies have always adapted their training to be competitive in a new economy. When our countries were simple agrarian societies, we provided free K-6 education in a one-room schoolhouse to ensure a trained workforce. The industrial revolution came and we moved to K-9. Then a second industrial revolution, and we moved to K-12. With the post-war economic boom we moved to free or low cost higher education. Today, we are overdue for another great shift in education to meet the digital revolution.
We are all going to live better, longer, and more productive lives, with multiple careers. I was with some futurists recently. They don't agree on much, but one thing that they all agreed upon was that the first person to live to 150 has already been born. We don't know who it is. We only know that if he’s male, he'll likely be buying Viagra for 75 years. [Don't laugh, it could be you]. You may want to save a bit more for your retirement.
But there's a serious point. Normal work lives may need to last 70 or more years. But as technology accelerates, our university training may barely be sufficient to last 10 or 15 years. We may need to educate and re-train people for six careers over a lifetime.
This will be a sea change. For 100 years, we have trained people to work in one 35-year career, then retire for 7.5 years, and then die. Training was designed to prepare us for a single career that would last our full working life. This no longer works.
We will need to need to start training young people not just in a skill, but in how to learn new skills, and to adapt across multiple disciplines. Universities may become less a way station for youth, than a life-long subscription service, with frequent retrainings.
Our nations accomplished a similar shift a century ago. We shifted from nations where over 80% of jobs had been in rural family farms, to one in which more than 80% of jobs were in urban and suburban industries. The challenge for government and industry is to see this new future and prepare our workers to succeed in it.
The 3rd great challenge is to align government and industry on climate change. A century of industrialization led to unprecedented greenhouse gases being trapped in our atmosphere. As a result, during a period that should have experienced global cooling, we have had a rise in ocean temperatures and other climate events.
As technologies lift hundreds of millions of more people out of poverty and into the middle class, these emissions and effects will only accelerate. Middle class people consume more, travel more, eat more proteins, and need more energy to support all of this.
So mitigating climate risk now, is crucial for our nations. It's not just the things I've mentioned, fires and floods and other extreme weather events. It is the elimination of water tables and water shortages. These in turn produce mass migrations, mass illness from famine and food contamination, water-borne illnesses, viral epidemics, pandemics, and other challenges. New technologies in life sciences, transportation, and energy can solve these. But not without Government.
Again, we need to set the right market signals. We can create incentives to avoid carbon producing activities. In California, we have adopted one of the most aggressive cap and trade plans in the world. It captures the actual cost of carbon to our state, and makes the markets factor in those costs of carbon emissions.
We can also use technologies to deal with the effects that carbon emissions will continue to have.
The challenge for us is purely one of political will. We can keep pretending that coal is the solution; or we can embrace, incent, and demand new cleaner technologies.
The Fourth Challenge is cyber. Technology has created a miraculous new domain. Virtually anything that can occur in the real world can now occur in the virtual world. It is a testament to the technological genius of human minds.
But the internet was never designed to be secure. The world wide web's developers hadn’t planned for this to carry our nations' critical infrastructure. They’d designed other closed networks for those sorts of secure communication. The web was designed as a public space like a library or phone book -- a replacement for phone trees, and card catalogues, and faxes.
It was only the breath-taking innovation of tech minds that changed this. Revolutions in processing speeds, transmission, data storage capacity, and encryption technologies made it possible for all of our critical resources to thrive on this vulnerable platform. This is a perfect example of run-away technology. Innovation and industry simply got too far out ahead of Government, without appreciating all of the risks.
As a result, we are vulnerable. Our private financial systems, our communications, our transportation, energy grids, water supplies, command and control, and even our voting systems all are exposed. It wouldn’t even require a Die Hard style shutting down of all of our critical systems. Cyber attacks can already be deadly. Hackers could hijack our cars and planes remotely, or cause trains to crash. A terror network could incite riots by wiping out a population’s access to their bank accounts, or causing a lengthy black out.
Again, democratic governments and technologists need to partner here. There are things we can do in the short term -- develop better security technology, increase law enforcement, establish international agreements on crime and conflict in cyberspace. And potentially even a longer term effort. We might, for example, decide to build a new, second internet. One designed to be secure from the outset. There are already companies working on this with blockchain technologies and satellite networks.
The quest to make the cyber-domain secure may be our next great moonshot. But only if Government and technologists team up to do this together.
This brings me to our final challenge. Self-governance.
We expect that any technological change will be disruptive for some groups. Even lighthouses were controversial. Whole communities had formed on rocky shores to scavenge shipwrecks, and lighthouses were bad for business. They fought lighthouses the way any incumbent industry fights a new technology.
But the threats to our democracy caused by technological disruption are different this time. This time it goes beyond incumbent industries or special interests. This time, it has started to shake the very foundations of what it takes to be a democracy.
Democracies depend on trust. The only reason I can drive home tonight is because of the trust I have in other Australians. I know tonight that there will be people driving 100 kilometers an hour in deadly hunks of metal who could kill me simply by sliding across a small yellow line. But I trust that they won't. I believe that they love their life as much as I love mine, and that they will obey the laws the same way that I do. If I didn't believe that, I’d never be able to leave my home.
Nothing will corrode those fragile bonds of trust that bind democracies together faster than the corruption of the truth. If people can be convinced that their fellow citizens aren’t like them, that they are dangerous, do not respect the law, and don’t deserve the same treatment, there is no common basis for trust. If the truth is whatever you want to believe, then eventually there is no truth, and you believe only those who agree with you. Every demagogue, every tyrant, knows that the quickest way to destroy a democracy is through lies and propaganda.
Consider Vladimir Putin's and Russia’s effort to undermine democracy. They’re principal weapon was fake news sites. They deliberately worked to confuse American voters into believing up is down, and black is white. That real news is fake, and fake news is real.
We’ve created a communications technology that contains the seeds for our own destruction if we were not careful. For decades, beginning with cable news, we’ve let news balkanize. Every viewer can pick a news service that reinforces their prejudices. Social media compounded this, because its algorithms ensured that you'd be fed only stories that reinforced your biases and beliefs.
Smart phones have taken this even further. Suddenly every person with an internet connection is a journalist and publisher. Before the traditional media have even heard about a story, people are blogging it, uploading images to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and effectively creating their own version of events.
And so we have the phenomenon that at one point over 40% of Americans believed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It did not matter that President Obama was born in Hawaii, and that his birth had been duly recorded and reported in the newspaper for all to see. Bloggers created this lie, sent it around at the speed of the internet, and news channels covered the "phenomenon" as if it were actual news. If anyone on earth recognized the power of this phenomenon, it was the chief evangelist of this “birther” claim, Donald Trump; the person who would be the next President of the United States.
Today some substantial portion of Americans believe Michelle Obama is a man dressed as a woman. Look it up. Even more believe that climate change is a hoax, that airplane vapor trails are a government conspiracy to spread chemicals to humans, that vaccinations cause autism, and that toilets in Australia flush backwards.
In this environment, where facts are ignored, and people choose the “facts” that support their world view, is it any wonder that a substantial number of voters believe even the most outlandish claims. That the President can claim that it wasn't raining when it was. That his crowds broke records when they didn't. That millions of people cast illegal votes when they did not? That no one knows if the Russians had anything to do with hacking the presidential election. That climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and the entire scientific community.
This has produced a dangerous rot in our ability to do anything together. It is what my friend Michael Rich calls -- truth decay.
Some of the disturbing political debate we see in our nations today is a reflection of this. When people are scared, they are vulnerable to lies. And People are scared. People are scared that they can’t keep up. They are scared that all of their vital information is in a space that can be hacked. They are scared that our nations could be attacked through the internet. That their children won’t be able to succeed. They are afraid that their jobs will disappear virtually overnight and oceans will rise and that the world will move too quickly for them to catch up. In a period of fear like this, it is comforting to believe whatever helps your cause, and to blink away everything else as “fake news.”
The challenge for leadership among government and scientists today is to reverse that urge towards fear and distrust. This is the time for us to work more closely together than ever to produce technologies that can debunk lies at the speed of the internet, to hold liars accountable, and to restore a basic respect for scientific fact.
If we are going to deploy technology wisely -- to sustain life and improve the quality of life -- then we need leaders with technical skills, leaders who understand technology, to advance technologies that can debunk lies in real-time. And we need them to enter public service, because we need a government that is nimble enough to accelerate along with business.
So let me finish by putting forward my own vision, because it is a hopeful one. I believe we can do this. That with collaboration between our sectors, we can send a new signal.
The technologies that are running away right now are great technologies. Like the great technologies of the 1880s, if we adapt and harness them, our nations will again end up on top. Done right, for the first time in human history, we can move to a world that is liberated from dull and dangerous work, from activities that cause us stress without producing much value, and from lives extinguished before they achieved their potential. People will be born who could not have been conceived. Birthdays celebrated by people who would have been buried. Families reunited across generations. People will fall in love across vast networks. Air can be cleaned. Our universe and our oceans revealed. These technologies will advance the central purposes of our work here on earth – to extend and improve human life.
Harnessing that technology does not require a miracle or some new discovery. It requires nothing more than us.
Elbert Hubbard said “One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” It is up to us, now, to be extraordinary.
I have faith you will, Swinburne. And may God bless us all.