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Interview with Gerd Leonhard and his New Book TECHNOLOGY vs. HUMANITY
Gerd Leonhard   Aug 23, 2016   Ethical Technology  

IEET Managing Director Steven Umbrello interviewed futurist and author Gerd Leonhard about his new book, Technology vs. Humanity.

A Short Introduction

As digital disruption spreads way beyond music and media to embrace the whole economy and society, futurist Gerd Leonhard delivers his most incisive volume yet, targeting the coming clash between Big Tech and the species that used to be known as Sapiens. Wherever you stand on the scale from nostalgic Luddite to goggle-eyed Geek, Technology vs Humanity will wake up your inner human to the thousand unguessed shocks which are about to change life on planet Earth forever. From robots outside to nanobots inside our biological systems, from mass redundancy to digital obesity, the challenges coming will make the entire industrial evolution to date seem tame and harmless. Which side are you on? Time to wake up and decide.

Steven: What inspired you to write this book?

Gerd: Over the past 5 years I have spoken at so many events, executive retreats and conferences where people have shared their concerns about how powerful technology is becoming in our world and their lives, how many opportunities are arising but also how little we are prepared for this truly exponential development in most of the key challenges / opportunities such as AI, human genome editing, nanoscience, geo-engineering etc.  I started to get many requests to speak about challenging topics such as digital ethics and on what will happen to humans in a truly exponential world, and so this debate started to grow into a major theme.  In fact, I think that how technology changes humanity and what we need to do to 'remain human' or how far we should evolve, or not, will become a huge topic in the very near future. Yet I certainly hope it will not amount to a bitter conflict between humanists and transhumanists! 

But clearly, technology has gone beyond ‘4’ i.e. the pivot point in almost every sector of our society  (computers, communications, media, transportation, medical, energy… you name it) . Its forces - what I call the megashifts - are now also becoming combinatory and interdependent  - a tidal wave of both opportunities and challenges is coming towards us, and we will urgently need better stewardship in all aspects of how humans overlap with technology.

How far should we take this (because there will be literally no limits within 25-40 years).

Steven: Your title seems ‘oppositional’, posing humanity against technology. How did you come up with the title? 

Gerd: It's meant more as a provocation than a warning or a prediction. I actually believe that our future is more likely to be a kind  'exponential humanity' on-top of 'exponential technology' - but we must urgently agree on what we (don’t) want, and come together, globally, to make this a solid reality. The biggest challenge will be that we can't allow Silicon Valley (or the Chinese version of it) to become the 'mission control for humanity'. There are larger things at stake than profit, growth, consumption and GDP!

The most powerful companies around the world are now the global platforms and data-companies investing 100s of Millions in AI, the cloud, software, robotics and quantum computing. It’s no longer the oil companies that run the world (see stat 'the age of tech' attached) - but none of the new guys are taking this responsibility very seriously, yet – and that has to change. 

Currently, it might appear that technology and humanity are still making a pretty good team (i.e. technology and/with/for humanity) even though I would say there's probably already a 10% concern / discomfort -rate e.g. people worrying about privacy, surveillance, abdication, addiction, machine-thinking, digital obesity, the filter bubble that destroys the value of media, and so on.  However, the thing to remember is is that just as technology is literally entering into warp-drive in terms of what is becoming feasible (pretty much anything), all those unintended consequences, thorny issues and externalities will grow exponentially as well - and they are certain to eat away at some of those very fundamental things that actually make us human, such as free will, meaningful, personal and unmediated relationships, mysteries, mistakes, inefficiencies and serendipity. Sure, first software was eating the world (Andreessen, 2011) but soon software ('machines') may start cheating the world as we start giving it to much power, anthropomorphize way too much or start forgetting things that actually define us as humans (such as speaking other languages which may no longer be needed once everything can be translated real-time by machines whispering in our ears).

The dilemma is, of course, that we don't want to hamper or stop the progress of technology (even if we could) but we certainly should make sure that all that technology still serves us i.e. that it still contributes to human flourishing rather than its own. We will therefore need a pretty ingenious mix of precaution and proaction (a good chunk of my book is about that, too). We will need wisdom not just information or knowledge. 

Technology has no ethics (and I don't think machines, robots and AI should be equipped with it, either - even if that was actually possible) - but human societies depend on it. In fact, ethics, values, purpose, believes and all that 'ephemeral stuff' is what makes our lives worth living. It is the embodied and holistic view we need to prosper - as the nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman likes to say “we think with our bodies not our brain”. 

So as far as the title of the book is concerned, the worst possible outcome could be that our future truly becomes 'us vs them' i.e. technology slowly but surely reducing and squashing humanness by putting some magic tech in its place. An app for happiness! Always connected to the global brain to take full advantage of superhuman powers! Never age! End death!

Some early examples of this trend includes how Facebook has already distorted the meaning of the words 'friendship' or 'like' or how Tinder has turned many age-old dating/mating rites into a bunch of sweeping gestures. Sure, you could argue that there's nothing really wrong with either, at this point, but imagine what happens when these issues also grow exponentially: in 6 steps from '4' to '128' -- not 10 ! What will happen if machines do EVERYTHING for us, when our neocortex CAN connect to that Global Brain that Google, Facebook, Alibaba, IBM et al are already building? 

Steven: Is there a central message or philosophy in your book that you want all readers to grasp?

Gerd:Yes, there are quite a few... but here are 3:

a) we should embrace technology but not become it - because by becoming technology i.e. 'transcending humanity' as some singularity / post-human pundits are already proposing, we would actually be downgraded not upgraded. Echoing what Bobby Kennedy said about GDP, in the 1960s, I think that 'data and machines measure everything around us except that which makes us human'. Equally, technology will indeed make just about everything smarter (think smart phones, smart cities, smart homes, smart cars, smart farming etc) while us humans are apparently becoming dumber as we give / cede / merge / abdicate authority to machines that decide where we eat, who we hire or fire, who to kill (autonomous weapon systems) or when to change our baby's diapers (yes that was 2013!).  

b) we need to invest as much in humanity / humanness (what I like to call androrithms) as we do in technology because otherwise we may be creating a world that becomes a very large, powerful and possibly recursive machine before we know it. Why should all investments go towards taking humans out of the equation? What about the truly human skills that we need to nurture safeguard?

c) Technology is not what we seek but how we seek – this is an important distinction that we should never forget, or be led to forget as some vendors seem to keep trying (the ‘Hello Barbie’ cloud-connected smart-doll makes a perfect and rather entertaining example here). But then again, technology has always been very lucrative when it is successful at having us ‘forget ourselves’ 😉 

Steven: What books or papers have most influenced your writing of this book and its content?

Gerd: Well, I read a lot of books, newsletters and online essays (see a list of current highlights at, so, to just name a few:  The Glass Cage (Nicholas Carr),  The Circle (David Eggers),  Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus (Douglas Rushkoff), What do think about machines that think (John Brockmann),  The Future of Business (Rohit Talwar * I contributed a chapter to this one),  An appeal by the Dalai Lama: ethics are more important than religion, Who rules the world (Noam Chomsky), The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)  - you can see my public kindle books here - more of my influencers as listed in the book are below. My GetPocket recommendations are here. If anyone wants a feed of my best findings... subscribe to my newsletter.

Steven: Was there anything you found particularly challenging in your writing of this book? What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life? 

Gerd: Everything was challenging about this book: a topic that spans both the humanities as well as technology from all angles, not having (and not wanting) a publisher until the very end, having a crazy speaking schedule covering so many different topics while trying to focus on only one of them, defining when and where  the book actually stops expanding, deciding on making it more of a manifesto rather than a complete, conclusive work... and many more. Writing is really so different from speaking (which is 80% of my work) so... many new skills needed to be honed. A true beast, you could say.

Steven: Did you learn anything from writing your book that you didn't knew before you sat down to write it and what was it? 

Gerd: I wish I had known 10% of it before I started writing!  I continue to learn something every day I work on the key topics of the book, whether it is on digital ethics, artificial intelligence, automation, genome editing or the 10 megashifts. Writing this book has changed my life - and I'm only at the beginning of going really deep on many memes in the book (stay tuned via the blog on or via Twitter @gleonhard and @techvshuman 

Steven: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers? 

Gerd: Yes: get excited about technology if you’re so inclined but be sure to remain on TEAM HUMAN - that's where the real value is!


This book is standing on the shoulder of these giants...

James Barrat, Yochai Benkler, Nick Bostrom, Richard Branson, David Brin, Erik Brynjoson, Nicholas Carr, Noam Chomsky, Paulo Coelhoe, Dalai Lama, Peter Diamandis, Philip K. Dick, Cory Doctorow, Dave Eggers, John Elkington, William Gibson, Daniel Kahneman, Andrew Keen, Kevin Kelly, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, Larry Lessig, John Marko, Andrew McAfee, Elon Musk, Jeremy Riin, Charlie Rose, Douglas Rushko, Clay Shirky, Tiany Shlain, Edward Snowden, Don Tapscott.

Gerd Leonhard is a futurist, focusing on near-future, ‘nowist’ observations and actionable foresights in the sectors of humanity, society, business, media, technology and communications. Gerd is also an author, an executive ‘future trainer’ and a strategic advisor. He is the co-author of The Future of Music, the host of the web-TV series TheFutureShow and the CEO of TheFuturesAgency.

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