Our 3 takeaways from TNW Conference 2021

Recently, our digital minds Lisa Nevejans, Joeri Vanpoucke and Sander Van der Maelen went on a field trip to The Next Web Conference 2021 in Amsterdam. It was the very first business event they’ve attended since March 2020. Various speakers shared their views on deep learning and the future of technology. What did they learn from them? And, more importantly, what were their takeaways?

Takeaway #1: The future is scary smart

Artificial Intelligence is getting smarter and smarter, which is great. It makes a range of processes, and thus daily life in general, a lot easier. Just think of Waze's sophisticated route planner, which steers traffic in the right direction to avoid traffic jams. Or the healthcare sector which is improving in virtually every aspect of the industry, from robot-assisted surgeries to safeguarding private records against cyber criminals.

Unfortunately, every medal has two sides: While AI is now still present in rather smaller and separate projects, this will soon not be the case anymore. Once multiple processes and products will be coupled, AI will start making more and more decisions on its own, making itself smarter and smarter with every decision until its intelligence will surpass human intelligence.

That’s why it’s important that algorithms learn from the best human behavior possible. In essence, we need to raise AI as good parents, making sure that once it’s old and wise enough to stand on its own feet, it will want to take care of its parents instead of turning against us. Today, we’re already seeing some downsides of AI’s learning in an imperfect human world:

  • Algorithms that help with recruiting and do the first selection of resumes, start showing the first signs of discrimination.
  • Algorithms that decide to show us only content on social media that matches our interests and world view, start boosting misinformation and create an echo chamber.

This was clearly a hot topic at The Next Web: both Mo Gawdat, the former Chief Business Officer at Google, and Keith Sonderling, the Commissioner of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, shared their views on how to approach AI: Should we come up with industry standards, a government regulation, leave it to personal preferences and choices or come up with a mix?

Takeaway #2: Brace yourselves for 'the digital afterlife'

Perhaps a bit morbid, but those who’ve watched Black Mirror know that ‘the digital afterlife’ is a topic that lingers ... Stefanie Schillmöller, Death Trends Expert & Innovation Strategist of Good Grief, and Charlotte Wiedemann, Journalist of Friedlotse.de, made us aware of what it might look like.

Let’s come straight to the point: Are you fully aware of the fact that your data will live on, long after you're gone? What happens if you have an accident tomorrow? The next month, Facebook might prompt your friends and family to post a ‘happy birthday’ message - as if you’re still active. And it doesn’t just stop there. What will happen with your emails, your computer files, your picture library stored in the cloud, your smartphone ... ? Just imagine the digital legacy you leave behind.

The question is: What should happen to your digital assets when you die? Because they are personal belongings too. Even more, they could contain important information about you that might interest or harm the people you leave behind. And it even goes one step further: they could be used to recreate a deceased person as a hologram, deepfake, voice message ... Therefore, it’s important to protect your digital assets. These speakers suggested to start writing a ‘digital’ will, where you give an answer to the following questions:

  • What platforms do you want to continue to exist on?
  • Who do you trust with the task of closing down certain platforms?
  • Who do you trust with all your digital passwords?
  • Do you want your data to be used to recreate you as a hologram, deepfake, voice message ...? And if so, on which specific moments in life (family weddings)?

Something to ponder upon, right?


Takeaway #3: The hustle culture & the burnout generation

Brian Elliott, VP of Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in the new digital-first world, talked about their latest findings: More than ever before, flexibility gains the upper hand. But due to the absence of boundaries within that flexibility, there are more burnouts across all levels of the organization.

During the pandemic, we had to combine work and life more than ever. With our children at home and improvised home offices, flexibility was a must. And a lot of people hopped on the opportunity that arises with that flexibility. The digital nomad movement, once started by writer Lauren Razavi, is now more alive than ever. More and more people are actively choosing a nomad lifestyle, where they can work from wherever they want, whenever they want. However, now that we’re slowly going back to normal, many jobs require physical presence at the office every once in a while, resulting in companies asking their employees to be physically present for a minimum of days per week. So, people who had a taste of the freedom that came with this flexibility during the pandemic, are now having a hard time adjusting again. Their workings days are jam-full with meetings, which means they can only get actual work done after-hours. And this stressful pattern can lead to an inevitable burnout.

Next to that, a lot of employees also feel the pressure of 'the hustle culture', a culture in which they always strive to be a better version of themselves, while never feeling satisfied or accomplished. Since the pandemic, people are never able to completely shut down, because their private and professional life got mixed up so badly.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for this issue. According to Brian, the solution could lie somewhere in between:

  • Today, the flexibility to work from home is key in the war for talent. People should be able to work from home if they feel more productive there. And office spaces should be used for co-creation and productive workshops and meetings. It’s up to management to define the rules and to set an example of how one can achieve this.
  • Managers should focus on actual results, progress, and learnings instead of giving employees the feeling that sending late-night e-mails or being present at the office long before and after the manager arrives is important.
  • And people think about what they really want and decide for themselves if their company can give that to them.

A topic for conversation, for sure!

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