Richard van Hooijdonk: “We already live in a mixed material and digital reality”

Renowned trend analyst Richard van Hooijdonk told RBC how the pandemic will accelerate the change in business structures, what skills leaders need in the face of uncertainty, and why science fiction should be a compulsory school subject. Written by Sergey Lebedenko
Industries: Interviews

About the expert

Richard van Hooijdonk is a trend analyst from Dutch, futurologist specializing in the impact of technology on life, work and business processes. He explores issues related to robotics, drones, autonomous transportation systems, the Internet of Things, virtual reality, etc.

RBC At the international conference Beyond Tomorrow, held online at the end of 2020, you made a presentation on crisis management in business processes. Please clarify: is it possible to effectively restructure the processes in the company during periods of turbulence comparable to the current crisis?

R.v.H. One of the consequences of the current crisis will be the bankruptcy of many enterprises. One of the reasons is outdated structures. Today’s corporations are structured in many ways similar to the enterprises of the sixties of the last century: the boards of directors, secretly from workers and middle managers, make decisions that then have profound consequences for the entire company. But such a business organization cannot be prepared for crises like this one. After the pandemic, we will begin to observe changes in business structures: decisions will be made more openly, bosses will be taken by managers accountable to employees, who may lose their places if their decisions harm the interests of the company.

It is necessary to understand that turbulent times require the development of soft skills and the ability to manage in conditions of uncertainty, and these are exactly the skills that the management of many companies today lacks. It is just a significant part of these firms that are suffering losses today.

Big businesses such as General Electric, Coca-Cola, Time Warner and other multinational corporations are also not gaining ground. But we can observe a manifold increase in the assets of companies related to online sales and rental of real estate: for example, the net asset value of Airbnb in 2020 increased immediately to $ 35 billion, Amazon – to $ 500 billion, Uber – to $ 68 billion. with a “digit” only benefit from the current situation.

“States are good at fixing crises, but bad at predicting them”

RBC Why did only a few visionaries, like Bill Gates, predict the danger of an impending pandemic, and so few investors sponsored research that could prevent this situation? What needs to be done in the future for investors to invest more in science and medicine?

R.v.H. I agree that earlier there was not enough investment in such scientific research. But it is not only and not so much the reluctance of entrepreneurs to invest in medical developments – it is thanks to sponsored research that we are already living longer today and can count on more effective treatments. Another problem is the slowness of the state bureaucracy. And now we are talking not only about the control and supervisory authorities, but also about the police, medicine. Nowadays, states are generally good at fixing crises, but they are poor at predicting them.

RBC Futurologists talk a lot about how robotics or the fight against crime will develop, but quite a bit about one of the most pressing problems – global warming. Meanwhile, climate change could threaten a catastrophe in the coming decades. What should be done to prevent the threat?

R.v.H. Here it is worth deciding who is responsible for global warming and who exactly is taking measures to stop this process. As statistics show, most of the harmful industries that contribute to the rise in global temperatures are concentrated in India and China. On the contrary, decisions taken at the EU level will significantly reduce the contribution of European countries to global warming in the near future: by 2030, carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by about 55%.

In short: we need to think like Tesla, that is, not focus on ready-made solutions, but think about innovative ways of developing technologies. For example, it is quite realistic to make renewable energy sources the main one in the next 20 years, including, by the way, using the power of space energy. Russia is now also actively engaged in this issue.

RBC Earlier, you talked about new forms of control and terrorists using drones for their own purposes. But governments have also been actively using drones for a long time and control many aspects of our lives, which was especially evident when the world was isolated. What needs to be done to prevent an Orwellian scenario from happening in the future?

R.v.H. Indeed, the future of technology may also threaten truly Orwellian prospects. That is, we will most likely be able to pay for goods and services by simply bringing our face to the reading camera, but in the same way, with the help of CCTV cameras and our metadata, governments will be able to follow our every step. How can this be prevented? Here you can draw an analogy with robotics. In the next 40 years, artificial intelligence can potentially replace humans in 75% of jobs. But the fact that this is possible does not mean that it will be so. In the end, it is up to us to decide whether robots will replace us or not. So it is with drones patrolling the streets and other technologies in the arsenal of the authorities: do we, citizens, want to be watched in this way?

In order for our children to have ready-made answers to the coming technological challenges, we must pay attention to the development of the humanities, discuss ethical issues. One of the effective tools would be the creation of ethics committees at government agencies and NGOs: thus, decisions would be preliminarily discussed for their ethics.

“The evolution of technologies is far ahead of their comprehension by society”

RBC What modern scientific research impresses you the most?

R.v.H. Nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence – they are advancing so fast! It seems that we have released the genie from the bottle – we can say that we already live in a mixed material-digital reality.

RBC What developments or technologies scare you?

R.v.H. Today, the most worrisome is that governments (and also companies) are not in control of algorithms. Decisions to use them are made on the basis of insufficient knowledge. Officials and employees decide based on the outcome of algorithms and the human factor is turned off. The lack of supervision of algorithms also causes me great concern. The old world cannot supervise the new world. 

Also deepfakes, which are technologies that allow fake videos to be edited and distributed through the viral effect of social media.

Cybercrimes threaten infrastructural instability: Today, entire cities can be cut off from electricity through cyber attacks. As I mentioned earlier, it is necessary to create ethical councils at large organizations – already now their lack is fully felt: the evolution of technologies is far ahead of their comprehension by society, hence the new threats. It is also not conducive to development that the bureaucratic apparatus in most countries is completely unprepared for new challenges and cannot adapt quickly, which we see in the example of the current coronavirus pandemic.

RBC Apparently, the predictions, popular back in the 1980s, that soon mankind will create a strong AI and begin to actively conquer space, were premature. But even at the beginning of the past decade, no one could have foreseen Brexit or the election of a person like Donald Trump as president of the United States. In this case, can we predict anything with certainty at all?

R.v.H. Yes, in the 80s, we expected that in 10-15 years we would begin to colonize Mars, and robots would replace us in positions that required the execution of monotonous hard work. But it turned out that there is a significant time lag between the development of ideas and technologies and their implementation. Even so, we cannot say that the same space industry has fallen into a stupor: SpaceX and Virgin rockets are already successfully making repeated take-offs and landings. If earlier only government structures like NASA decided which technologies would develop, now such decisions are made by private companies.

The problem is that the Earth’s resources are not infinite. Scientists predict that in 500 years the Earth will become practically uninhabited, and we will have to look for a new shelter. So there is no need to worry about investments in the development of space travel technologies: we cannot help but develop them, our existence as a species depends on them.

RBC Our era can hardly be called peaceful – right now there are more than forty wars in the world. How will the problem of armed conflicts be resolved in the future?

R.v.H. Not, I’m afraid. Well, except that in the future, wars will be fought remotely: there will be fewer deaths, but material damage – higher (remember at least the same example with cyber threats). Let’s not forget about the threat of space war, which is a terrible possibility to paralyze the infrastructure of entire states by destroying satellites.

“We must make the future our constant concern”

RBC Do you think we are really on the road to the transhumanistic utopia that Yuval Noah Harari talks about in his book Homo Deus?

R.v.H. The development of technology opens up interesting prospects for our species. Technologies for implanting hearing aids directly into the cerebral cortex are already becoming available. Samples of eye implants are being created, and about two hundred people around the world have already implanted brain chips with which they can control robotic prostheses.

That is, one should not think that transhumanistic utopia is a fantasy: technology is just a matter of time. Moreover, in 600 years or so we will be able to completely upload our consciousness to the cloud, and this is exactly the core of our personality: knowledge, experience, memories, emotions. If all this is digitized, material shells, that is, our bodies, will not be needed at all.

As for me, I already wear two subcutaneous implants and in two years I plan to implant a chip in my brain.

RBC What needs to be done so that we can more effectively anticipate future changes?

R.v.H. We must make the future our constant concern. Organizational changes take seven years on average, which means we no longer have time to gradually respond to the effects of the pandemic, rising global temperatures, and so on. That is, we must act now.

In addition, research into the future and science fiction must become compulsory school subjects, and visionaries must be an integral part of the team of any organization, so that we can ensure sustainable technological development and anticipate unexpected threats.

Thanks to SAS Institute Inc. – the organizer of the Beyond Tomorrow conference – for assistance in preparing the interview.

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