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July 9, 2021updated 12 Jul 2021 3:11pm

Why automation calls for socially aware tech leaders

At Tech Monitor Live, a CIO and a futurist discussed how the advance of automation requires greater consideration to the human impact of technology.

By Pete Swabey

The adoption of automation will require organisations to manage the human impact of technology more explicitly, and technology leaders must become more socially and ethically aware. This was one conclusion from a recent discussion at Tech Monitor Live with IT leader Sabah Khan Carter and ‘hands on’ futurist Elena Corchero.

Awareness of the human impact of automation

Along with cloud and data, automation will be one of the key focus areas for technology leaders in the next 18 months, said Khan Carter, who until recently was CIO at UK publisher NewsCorp. While virtual and augmented reality, 5G, and quantum computing are on the horizon, “I think that the adoption of those at a mass scale and the ability to commercialise are some way off,” she said.


[Register to watch the full session from Tech Monitor Live on demand]

As automation progresses, leaders will need to have sensitive discussions with employees about how it will impact their lives, said Corchero, a futurist by training and now director of emerging technology at NewsCorp. It will be crucial to emphasise that automation removes tasks that most people don’t enjoy, she said, allowing them to focus on more engaging work that human beings are better at doing.


This sensitivity to the human impact of technology will only grow in significance, Khan Carter said, as automation replaces long-established social behaviours. She pointed to the example of retail banking, which increasingly takes place online. This may be more efficient but some of the social value of bank branches – the conversations that customers would have with staff and each other – has been lost, Khan Carter explained.

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“We are automating so much that we think we’re making it more efficient,” she said. “But we’re actually taking away something from the interaction. What are we going to do to create online communities or physical communities to replace all the efficiency we introduced?”

We are automating so much that we think we’re making it more efficient. But we’re actually taking away something from the interaction.
Sabah Khan Carter

Khan Carter believes that organisations will need ‘social product managers’ who consider and manage the impact of technology on employees, customers and other stakeholders. “I’m really, really becoming very passionate about these roles,” she said.

Cochera agreed that understanding the holistic impact of technology will require dedicated personnel, be they ‘human technologists’, ‘ethical technologists’ or ‘technology philosophers’. “It’s a full-time thing to look at the whole impact [of technology] today, because there is not only the ethical side, there’s the environmental side [too].”

This ability to anticipate the social implications of technology will also be vital for technology leaders, Khan Carter added. “For leaders in technology, what’s going to become more important is actually being very grounded and being able to think about the social impact, the ethical, the moral, the legal [impact], bringing different functions together. ”

Diversity of data, minds and models

Understanding technology from all perspectives will require diversity, Cochera explained – diversity of thought, of data, and even of analytical models. “I don’t think we talk enough about that,” she said. “I compare it to when you go to a doctor and you want to have a second opinion and you might go to a completely different doctor. We [should] test our databases with different models as well.”

One positive outcome of the shift to remote work, she said, is that it makes diversity of perspectives easier to achieve, as cross-functional teams are easier to convene virtually. “You can have multidisciplinary teams now easier than before because you’re working online. It’s one of the benefits that we should just try and retain as we move back to the office, especially large corporations,” she said.

She also predicted that innovation will accelerate in the wake of the pandemic, as old habits have been broken and people have become used to change. “The pandemic has leapfrogged everybody into the future.”

[Register to watch the full session from Tech Monitor Live on demand]

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