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AI, AI, Captain!

AI, AI, Captain!
December 07, 2017

Why I hope the human – technology future looks like the one at the Volvo Ocean Race

Having been brought up in the mountains, I’ve never spent much time around sailboats. When I went to Alicante a few weeks ago to see the launch of the #VolvoOceanRace, I expected to see water and lots of beautiful boats, and to meet some people who had the courage to race the oceans over nine months in what is billed as the toughest race on earth. But I hadn’t expected to see the future.

The water, the boats, and the sailors were all there, of course, but to my surprise, I also found an answer to one of the most important questions facing humanity today: in a world powered by artificial intelligence and in which technology is becoming so pervasive, what role will be left for us humans and how do you balance technology to make Humans the centre of action?

Other sporting events have answered this question about technology differently. As a long-time #Formula1 fan, I’ve seen how technology can be used to make individuals almost superfluous. #Formula1 basically allows sponsors to throw any amount of resources (money, technology, people, sponsors) they want at solving a narrowly defined problem: how to make a car go as fast as possible. As a result, in recent years, you never really know whether the champion is the driver or the technology encasing that driver.

The Volvo Ocean Race is different. Its organizers have chosen to use technology to enhance the human element of their sport. Following a principle the organizers call "One Design", all the boats are based on a single specification. This reduces the amount of money needed to compete and, more critically, ensures that every team is competing on an equal footing. This philosophy is extended to data as well: every team gets the same data, including information on weather and updates every six hours on the relative positions of the other teams.

The Volvo Ocean Race is different. Its organizers have chosen to use technology to enhance the human side of the sport.

The race, then, is not just a matter of resources, like Formula 1 or America’s Cup, but a question of strategic savvy and sailing ability. The race is won or lost by the skipper (leadership) and the crew (team), not a bank account or technology dominance.

The single design, the regatta’s communication network, the onboard cameras and drones for aerial shots, the onboard reporter (a full-time sailor on every boat who is there to communicate the excitement of the race) – the race’s whole ethos – all serve to keep humans at the centre of the action, even from the middle of the ocean. And that includes fans like me, who are able to keep in touch with the latest developments with a touch to our smartphones.

We already know that the technology that is evolving at an exponential pace may replace humans in almost all of what we do for work. Many futurists give humanity about 30 years until the robots definitively overtake us.

Like a lot of people in the tech industry, I worry about what the future will bring. Are we as technology companies unleashing a genie that will consume us? The VOR race reminds me that we do have choices about how the AI future unfolds, both for us and for generations to come. We don't have to just “prepare to be assimilated” or start spouting bionic aids which make us more robots than human. The future is ours to design.

Speaking personally, I feel that the VOR’s vision of a future in which the technology is there to enhance human drama, emotions, ideas and innovation, not eclipse them, is the more appealing vision. What do you think?

Ashish Gupta is Corporate Vice President - ITO and Infrastructure Services EMEA, at HCL Technologies.

HCL is the Official IT services provider for Volvo Ocean Race, 2017-18. Volvo Ocean Race is the world's toughest race covering 45,000 nautical miles across four oceans, six continents and 12 landmark host cities. To know more about the HCL-Volvo Ocean Race partnership,click here