Q&A with Prof. Tim Unwin (Part 2): Next Big Things

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  • 2018•12•10

    The advancement of technology shapes the society and the world that we live in today and in the future. In this article, Prof. Unwin gives his insights on some thought-provoking issues about the future of ICT for development.


    It is often said that technological innovations will disrupt jobs and employment. What is your view on the future of work?

    Indeed, technologies have historically frequently been used to change the balance of power between labour and the owners of capital.  What is happening today is actually little different in principle from the changes that took place when factories were first built using new technologies dramatically to increase labour productivity.  The fundamental interests of capital are the same, although the speed and scale of the changes being developed are now very much faster and greater than has ever occurred before.  I therefore fundamentally disagree with those who argue that it is the technology that is somehow causing these changes.  That is an instrumental view of technology, seeing it in some way as having power of its own to restructure society.  Instead, what matters is understanding the interests that underlie the creation of these technologies.  Who is developing them, and for what reasons?  We need to highlight these interests so that everyone can see and understood that technology is merely a means to an end, rather than the cause of these changes.  So, of course jobs and employment will continue to change, as they have always done, and capital will continue to devise new ways to exploit labour.

    It is, for example, possible to imagine many different kinds of scenario for the future.  One of my favourites is that owners of future machines will pay tax to some external entity (the successor of nation states), that will use this to give digital income tokens to humans (no longer citizens) who will not have to labour at all. Humans (if they can still be called such) will then be able to use these digital tokens to “choose” (well not really, because their implants will guide them to predetermined choices) which machine products they wish to consume, thereby enabling the machine owners to realise their profits (machine owners might themselves be machines).


    What areas of ICT4D research that you think need more attention and exploration?

    The implications of technological innovation for the future of work are seen as being one of the most important issues of our time.  Yet, within a quarter of a century we will look back and see them as not really having been at all that important.  This is because by then our children will realise that we have quietly slipped into the sleep of becoming machine humans or cyborgs.  At first, we will happily have received digital implants within our bodies, and very soon thereafter we will realise that machines can actually do virtually everything that we now do, but do it very much better.  At that point, we will ask what humans can still do better than machines, and then begin adding the human parts that can do this for the machines.  There are huge ethical implications of such scenarios.  Thought experiments designed to explore the rapidly changing interface between humans and machines are one of the most important research issues that we need to address, and on which we need widespread public debate.


    Who are the most important players in society that can maximise the potential use of ICT for development and what should they do?

    This is another tough question!  Let me answer it by paraphrasing a story (The Three Questions) told by the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.  A king went to a hermit to find out the answer to the most important questions of life.  He expected simply to be told the answers, but instead he finished up working for the hermit for a long time. Eventually, through his experiences with the hermit, he discovered the answer to his questions: the most important time is the present, because it is the only time when we have any power; the most important person is the one with whom one is, because you never know if you will have dealings with anyone else; and the most important thing is to do that person good, because for that purpose we are created.

    So, on this visit to Macao and mainland China, I have visited people from many different types of organisation: those working in a civil society organisation (the Fuhong Society) doing amazing work with people with disabilities; researchers at Shenzhen University, and at Peking University’s Campus in Shenzhen, doing great research on aspects of computer science and international relations; senior management at Huawei’s HQ in Shenzhen; those doing research at the United Nations University Institute in Macau; and various other people as well.  All of them are important.

    I hope I have done them some good.  I am in no place to tell any of them what they should do, but I would encourage them all to use their skills, knowledge and expertise to help empower the poorest and most marginalised through the use of ICTs. Perhaps the most important person I have met so far, though, was the Filipina waitress in the hotel at which I am staying.  She had been a schoolteacher in the Philippines, and in her spare time had also taught children with disabilities.  Yet, she came here to Macao to serve in a menial job in a restaurant so that she could earn more money…


    What are the biggest challenges that the world needs to mitigate and adapt to, in light of the rapid technological advancement? Any insights on how to mitigate and adapt to those challenges?

    At last an easier question!  Let me just highlight two challenges. The first, and currently most important one, which has run throughout everything I have said in this interview, is to ensure that all use of ICTs in and for development is truly inclusive; that it empowers those with disabilities, street children, refugees and women in patriarchal societies, as much as it does the rich and powerful. Good governments and international organisations have a key role to play here through appropriate regulation and policies that ensure inclusion.  We also need a fundamental re-orientation of development policies, particularly relating to ICTs, so that they focus on reducing inequalities more than they do on economic growth.

    My second challenge concerns how we address the fundamental ethical questions around the type of cyborgs that we wish to be in the future.  Do we want our children, and their children, to become part-machine and part-human?  Do we want the definition of human to include being part machine? Do we want to allow the addition of human parts to machines?  Who will determine the future character of machine-humans? How we address these questions, and the answers that we give, are probably the most important ones for the survival of our species. They are certainly far more important than issues of climate change or the future of work.  They are not just questions of science fiction; they are real, and they need to be discussed now.  We need a widespread global and inclusive public debate on them.  The UNU Institute in Macau is well placed to address such needs and help us to develop global policies and solutions to them through the wider UN system.


    For those who are interested in working on ICT for development, what type of organisations should they keep an eye on?

    I have been hugely privileged to have worked in, and across, many different sectors: universities, government departments, international organisations, civil society and the private sector.  ICT4D, for me, is therefore fundamentally about bringing together insights from all of these different perspectives.  It is about crossing boundaries, not only between academic disciplines, but also between entirely different sectors.  This, though, can be challenging and lonely, because one can never feel completely at home – obeying the disciplinary or sectoral institutional “rules” and structures of any one type of organisation – but I feel strongly that only by doing so can one begin to gain an understanding of the real issues and challenges of ICT4D.  Hence, I would strongly recommend that all people working in this field should try to get as much experience as possible of different perspectives in the field – although I recognise that this can be extremely difficult.

    Start-ups, bilateral donors, UN agencies, social enterprises and civil society organisations are all good entry points.  However, for me, the most important starting point is learning from, and understanding the needs of, our poorest and most marginalised brothers and sisters.  I had the immense privilege of starting my career in development in the mid-1970s by working with a wonderful Indian scholar, Sudhir Wanmali. I had the opportunity to spend an amazing time with him in what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand in eastern India, working in rural areas with some very poor and marginalised rural communities.  Learning from him and them ensured that I was grounded in a better understanding of the needs of the poor; they taught me that poverty is about inequality rather than merely economic growth!


    Professor Tim Unwin is the UNESCO Chair for ICT4D and a member of the UNU Institute in Macau International Advisory Board. Prof. Unwin’s research is concentrated on ICT4D, focusing especially on the use of ICTs to support some of the poorest and most marginalised people and communities.

    Read Part 1 of the Q&A. Watch Prof. Unwin’s Interview on Macau Local TV Channel, TDM

    Twitter: @TimUnwin | @UNU_CS