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Of Men and Horses: Welcome to the Future

You don’t have to be a fan of Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 movie “Metropolis” to realize that the role machines will play in our future has had the capacity to fill us with fear and fascination in almost equal measure for coming up on a century now.

We hear so much about Artificial Intelligence and cognitive computing, let alone jobs that will be automated and careers that will die out, that it seems just a short step from here to a dark and dystopian vision of our future.

All of which made the presentation at the tenth anniversary event of the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Hungary by futurist Gerd Leonhard so refreshing for its optimism. Leonard was speaking via a skype link (he was in Frankfurt, on his way to India), but as a metaphor for how technology can help, that was a pretty good start.

Not that Leonhard is in any way naive about what lies ahead. As he puts it: “It is important to use these tools [technology] carefully… if not, things will not end well for us.” We need to adopt a global way of thinking and a global set of ethical principles he said. Perhaps the most concerning thing he said was that most governments “are ten years behind the curve on these issues, and this is all coming in the next five years”. I generally prefer not to put too much faith in governments, let alone exponential faith.

But Leonhard even had an answer for that most disturbing of thoughts: are we the horses of the digital age? If, as he says, most of the jobs in the next 10 years have not even been invented yet, what should we, what should our children, study? The answer is the one thing that sets us apart from machines; our emotional intelligence, our humanity. Creativity, imagination, and playfulness are all beyond machines. “The future is better than we think; we do have to give people more credit,” he said.

Two final thoughts about the BCSDH anniversary, as we did not have room elsewhere in the paper. Firstly, as it does each year, the council has produced a set of guidelines to help companies meet both the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals and its own Action 2020 program. This year the focus is on sustainable employment. “The labor market has been changing at an accelerating pace, and there is no company in Hungary which is not affected by these changes,” said Attila Chikán Jr., chairman of the organization. The recommendations are three-fold: 1) Create employment systems which fit the life status of individuals; 2) Promote lifelong development; and 3) Support the career paths of women.

Secondly, the BCSDH really does follow through on its own manifesto. The leftovers from the lunch were collected by the Budapest Bike Maffia (sic) for distribution to the homeless. Better yet, at the reception desk, guests were asked where they had come from and by what mode of transport. The event was planned to be carbon neutral, which means trees are to be planted to offset its footprint. As Irén Márta, BCSDH managing director explained, more than 40 Hungarian fruit trees are to be planted at local schools, thus providing food, shelter and clean air for years to come.