At this year's CogX conference, the tech industry sets its sights on getting the next ten years right.

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CogX Festival

The fifth annual CogX Festival devoted to transformational technology took place last week in London’s Kings Cross and also virtually, delivering a glimpse of our hybrid ‘phygital’ future.

Claiming to be the first hybrid event of its kind, it boasted three physical and 15 virtual stages, not to mention 5,000 in-person attendees alongside a 100,000-strong virtual audience in an impressive feat of event logistics.

1,000 speakers across the 18 stages wrestled with this year’s theme: “How do we get the next ten years right?” and many of this year’s talks reflected the inherent tensions between the benefits and challenges in tech. A great enabler, tech has also concentrated power and influence in the hands of a few. But thanks to emerging exponential technologies, could that be set to change?

Here’s our round-up of three emerging trends from this year’s festival. In some respects, they point to the potential for a more equitable and democratic era in tech, but major human and ethical challenges remain.

Democra-tech

The decentralization of technology platforms and spaces is helping to level the playing field in science and creativity and provide safe spaces online for minority communities.

It is now almost trite to point out the pandemic’s role in highlighting inequalities, but a fascinating discussion titled “Indiana Jones & the Variant Trackers” offered a fresh take. In the session, Professor Sharon Peacock, who leads the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), a global pioneer in identifying and sequencing new variants of SARS-CoV-2, called for the democratization of access to sequencing technology and data.

Peacock explained that understanding pathogen genomics remains a highly specialized field requiring deep expertise, thus creating inequities in access to important data that can help fight SARS-CoV-2, as well as other transmissible diseases like Ebola. A solution may come in the form of a black box that will generate results that could be understood by anyone without genome analysis expertise. Such a solution, used in tandem with AI, would level the playing field in fighting transmissible disease and “could completely revolutionize the way we understand pathogen genomics.”

Tech is also helping to level the playing field in the world of fine art. The sale of digital artworks via Blockchain-based non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is creating a major buzz. Panelists at a session entitled “NFTs and the Future of Digital Art” discussed the potential of NFTs to drive value for artists and creators by negating the need for traditional gatekeepers and middlemen.

Masdak Sanii, the co-founder and CEO of the global online youth art community Avant Arte, believes NFTs could have a transformative impact by decentralizing the industry as well as tackling “the opacity that is baked into the system.” Sanii also perceives the potential for NFTs to democratize art ownership, providing “an entry point for thousands and thousands of people who have never considered themselves art collectors, to become owners of a cultural object,” alongside ushering in a new era of transparency for the artists themselves.

At the “Queer Tech: Designing for Diversity” panel, Phoenix Andrews, policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, described how LGBTQIA and other minority communities are “bending” online spaces to better suit their unmet needs. According to Andrews, “minorities can be oppressed more on the ‘big open internet’ and therefore queer people and people of color are going back to smaller spaces or side spaces or private chats in order to get power back.” While gay and queer Twitter exist, Andrews pointed out that they are not particularly welcoming places, especially for the trans community. Describing the phenomenon of queering spaces, Andrews pointed to the example of Discord servers, which have been embraced by queer communities for chatting and information sharing. 

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CogX Festival

Building New Worlds

The metaverse is coming—and it has the potential to deliver much more than just fun and games.

In a fireside chat called “Portals into the Metaverse,” Robby Yung—CEO of Animoca Brands, a unicorn and global leader in blockchain gaming—posited that the gaming experience is ripe for democratization thanks to Blockchain and NFTs. Yung describes gaming metaverses today as a form of “fiefdom or theme park” where we can play, but we can’t own anything. But, says Yung, “with NFTs, assets can be owned by users, thereby giving users a reason to invest their time and money.” The future, he says, is all about decentralisation. “Gaming has historically been defined by distribution platforms—the console, PC, web, mobile. The shift to less centralization opens up opportunities for smaller players to thrive.”

Herman Narula, cofounder and CEO of the multiplayer worlds start-up Improbable, spoke eloquently of the wider opportunities and benefits of the metaverse in his session “From Here to the Metaverse.” Even now, gaming environments command huge audiences because they deliver “deep fulfilment,” said Narula. “Games really give people a sense of agency and ownership over the worlds that they create and an ability to really expand themselves, which we know correlates with really positive psychological outcomes.”

Improbable is currently focusing on building ‘densities’ in mass participation games, such as their recent Scavengers event which brought more than 4,000 gamers into the same game world experience. Yet according to Narula, the company also has one eye on how a metaverse can be pointed at practical problem-solving in the real world. Narula believes that the metaverse can “democratize ownership over complex ideas” by creating models or large-scale simulations of real-world systems. “We can give the general public a disease model of COVID and just let them play with it. It can be a powerful tool for education and collaboration,” he explained.

With just weeks to go before the delayed Tokyo Olympics get underway, one session posed the question, “What will the Olympics look like in 10 years’ time?” The answer, it seems, lies in the metaverse, but with one caveat: physical sport is here to stay, said the panel—at least until the virtual world finds a way to replicate its drama and jeopardy.

Yet the future looks set to bring the drama to a much wider audience than the privileged few who can afford to be in the stadium. Speaker James Dean, CSO at ESL Gaming UK, paints a picture of a future in which leagues and broadcasters will aim to engage audiences far beyond the stadium, in a metaverse blur of physical and digital: “Not only will you be watching and viewing within that metaverse as if you’re in that space, but you also be able to compete. If a goal has just been scored, you could walk up to a virtual goal and kick the virtual ball and see if you can do the same thing.”

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CogX Festival

Disrupting the Workplace

Work continues to experience dramatic disruption as we transition to a digital economy, with the development of artificial intelligence spelling more turbulence ahead.

A fascinating conversation between leading AI scholar Professor Kate Crawford and the tech entrepreneur and author Azeem Azar brought to light the power and wealth of asymmetries within the AI industry itself. Crawford, who calls these asymmetries, “a real point of concern,” drew a stark comparison between the handful of “engineers on basketball salaries” and the thousands of “ghost laborers” who carry out routine work for low pay that is often falsely assumed to be performed by machines. Crawford suggests we need to pay attention—not just to who benefits, but to who is harmed by this imbalance, suggesting that it is “the most marginalized populations who are bearing the biggest cost” as power and wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands.

AI was of course predicted to be a liberating force in the workplace, freeing people from mundane tasks so they could focus on more fulfilling work. But panelists at a session entitled “The Amazonian Era: Gigification of work,” argued otherwise.

Anna Thomas, cofounder and director at the Institute for the Future of Work (IFOW), painted a dystopian picture of the workplace in which behavior is increasingly controlled by technology. Thomas pointed to three pernicious influences: intrusive surveillance tech (like headset monitors that track eye movements, fine-grained location data, or biometrics) that define work through the lens of what can be captured; algorithms that set a furious task pace that is increasingly tightened (such as British online retailer Ocado, which apparently requires workers to pack 500 bags per hour); and finally, digital nudges and interventions that incentivize workers to reach goals.

Thomas called for new digital rights for workers and pointed to the Accountability for Algorithms Act proposed by IFOW, which urges businesses to assess and respond to adverse impacts of technology on their workforces.

While the outlook may look bleak for workers, the fightback begins here, with a decidedly analog solution. In an inspiring session called “The Future of Work is a Scam,” Tricia Hersey, the self-styled ‘Nap Bishop’ and founder of The Nap Ministry, shared her philosophy that rest is a human right and a disruptive means of resistance to the encroachment of ‘grind’ culture.

“Rest is resistance” is her rallying cry, which calls on workers to reclaim power in the form of a simple nap or rest. “The first step to reclaiming agency is connecting back with the body,” says Hersey. “Capitalism has told us our bodies don’t belong to us; they belong to the system. The lifelong rest practice reclaims your body as your own.”

Hersey’s advice to businesses? Create jobs that serve people. And start implementing systems of care for employees built on humanity and justice, because she believes, time’s up for grind culture. Citing recent figures published in the New York Times that suggest up to 40% of New Yorkers plan to resign from their jobs, Hersey says: “Since the pandemic, the gig is up—people have seen behind the scam. 9 to 5 is over; working from the office just because you want them to is over.” Could the balance of power in the workplace be tipping? Perhaps, if we all take that nap.

Main image courtesy of CogX