OUTreach/ Machines or Humans

Photo by Geralt on Pixabay.

Photo by Geralt on Pixabay.


Manila, 6 March 2019 — Will Machines or Humans lead development in the 21st century? Here is what 107 aspiring diplomats thought.

The scene was the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, known as Asia’s oldest university that is still in operation. Established in 1611, it has been offering education for 408 years.

It was here that 107 aspiring diplomats from the Philippines and Indonesia came together to learn new negotiation skills in navigating some of the toughest global issues we are addressing today, mixed together in a heady cocktail of artificial intelligence (AI), the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and the future of work.

The University of Santo Tomas was founded in 1611.

The University of Santo Tomas was founded in 1611.

They kicked off with the question who will lead development in the 21st century. Will it be the Rise of the Machines or the Humans? Hold your breath for a moment to see how they voted.

After a tour of the SDGs and their central importance to global development planning today, and of the modern definition of leadership and how it can be exercised today, the discussing shifted to the skills that will become redundant in a world of work that is increasingly infused by tech, including AI.

Around the world, countries are struggling to cope with these changes and manage the impact of rapid AI introduction on jobs, the economy, and society at large. In Manila, the emerging leaders realized that these immense challenges are faced not only by governments, but also by businesses, organizations (including educational institutions), communities, and by individual workers, including, importantly each of them individually. Each of these actors should learn, unlearn, and adjust their roles.

The example of the recent unrest in France, created by the yellow vests movement, has shown us that governments can, in fact, act fairly quickly to start listening and unlearning on a large scale—through nationwide town hall meetings—in order to come up with new solution strategies for these complex issues. In the media, President Macron was shown to be modeling the way by participating personally for hours on end in such meetings, with his shirt sleeves rolled up as if to signal that he was ready for change.

The need to open our minds for new paradigms was also underlined in The Guardian interview Could Robots Make Us Better Humans, where Marcus du Sautoy, a professor at Oxford University, argued that the rise of AI “should inspire hope as well as fear.”

In that vein, the emerging leaders in Manila realized that technology is both a disruptor and risk for the future of work, and an enabler of a revolution in how leaders can make changes happen on a scale that is unprecedented in history.  

Perhaps that prospect inspired the Dalai Lama to turn to the youth with his recent call for change, in his book A Call for Revolution: A Vision for the Future. Watch him make his unusually-worded appeal in this clip where he explains that our mindset should change.

This vision for change is new, as it should be.

The old paradigm of 90% followers being led by 10% leaders, mostly those holding positions of executive authority, is hopelessly outdated to address today’s global and local challenges. We need leaders to stand up at all levels.

The reality that many governments, organizations, and businesses are still led in a predominantly top-down manner without empowering the workers to engage and contribute to change, underlines why this revolution is both important and urgent.

The 21st Century Leadership Revolution is calling you.

The 21st Century Leadership Revolution is calling you.

The 21st century leadership revolution offers a chance for transformational change at a large scale, supported by technology. As has been the case throughout history, this can be used in healthy and unhealthy ways.

Here is a sample of the questions pondered by the emerging leaders in Manila:

  • How can we influence revolutionary change if the government doesn’t listen? 

  • Wouldn't AI only widen the gap between developing and developed countries? 

  • How can modernization help integrate culture in realizing the promised world of the 21st century? 

  • How to deal with the ethics in introducing the new technologies?

  • Is the rise of machines the real problem, or the carelessness of the humans? 

  • Should lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) be banned or not? Should the technology that governs nuclear missiles and silos be updated? 

  • Are the recent right-wing movements going to affect how technologies such as AI or automatic weaponry, will be used? 

  • And, on another note: how should we manage intimacy in human relationships if the future would welcome robots and consider them as a human being as well? 

Like I mentioned, it’s a heady cocktail of tough issues that these emerging leaders chose to practice their negotiation skills on as aspiring diplomats.

The session wrapped up with an understanding that while roles of the different state and non-state actors matter, so do the voices of individual leaders, at all levels. Supported as never before by technology, they can make their voices heard, individually and together in caucuses and lobby and advocacy groups, where they are. They can influence and make changes happen.

If the 21st Century Leadership Revolution is calling for more leaders to join, at all levels, what skills and values should drive positive changes?

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Here is the take of the emerging diplomats on important 21st century leadership skills, with compassion at the center, just like in the Dalai Lama’s call for a revolution of humanity and compassion. And just like the philosophy of the Thomasians at Asia’s oldest university, putting compassion at the heart of change.

So what was the take of the aspiring diplomats on the question they started with? Here is the result.

Two third of the participants saw a Rise of the Humans lead development, whereas one third thought the opposite, that the Machines would lead. The battle is real then. And our view of leadership matters greatly. Putting and keeping humans at the center of the development agenda in the 21st century is a challenge. Yet, as we saw, there are more opportunities than ever before for leaders at all levels to make positive changes happen, with the support of technology.

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Summing up, to make positive change happen in the 21st century leaders, we need to invest in building three interdependent skill sets, of leadership, sustainability, and tech.

You’re welcome to write me if you have any questions.

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