Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

Civil society, the missing link as we enter humanity’s Fourth Industrial Revolution

25 January 2019

An earlier version of this article first appeared on Third Sector.

Artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT); the emergence and growing power of these types of technology has led us to the edge of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Up to now the tech companies of Silicon Valley and beyond have led this revolution; but if we want humanity to genuinely benefit from such a revolution, big tech can’t go it alone. It is essential that civil society organisations play a prominent role too.

The creations of the new tech titans are changing the way we work, communicate and interact with each other. They have already transformed financial systems, governance structures and even whole industries, and will continue to do so in ever more fundamental ways. Unfortunately the benefits are sometimes not distributed fairly across society, with some communities benefitting and others suffering. And civil society – organisations such as charities and NGOs – is left to pick up the pieces.

World Economic Forum brings together tech and civil society

To combat this, the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week launched a new project called “Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, at its annual Davos conference. WEF aims to bring civil society, industry and policymakers together to explore shared approaches to the opportunities and challenges that technological advances might bring. The organisation of which I’m Head of Policy – the Charities Aid Foundation – has provided policy recommendations to this report and forms part of the ongoing advisory group, having explored the potential impact of emerging technology on charities for a number of years in our own work.

Opportunities abound to deliver social and environmental missions more effectively through new technology. “Tech for good” is real-world concept, with genuine results. For example, since 2016 The Children’s Society has used AI-powered live translation tools when speaking with young refugees and migrants who have limited English language skills. Using the software, conversations are translated in real time using a mobile phone or Skype. Even in its relative infancy, artificial intelligence is helping to undermine the idea of things being “lost in translation”.

shutterstock_563134342 world economic forum image case study

The role of civil society

The role of civil society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not just about using technology, however. Civil society organisations must play a key role in highlighting how technological development can negatively impact vulnerable people and communities, the groups they are trusted to serve. And let’s face it, emerging technology has shown a dark side.

This was brought into sharp focus last year with the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. The question of how our online personal data is used will remain at the forefront of public attention. Likewise, there is a growing awareness that when algorithms are trained using data that contains historical biases, they exhibit and strengthen those same biases; and that this is having a real-world impact. People, due to their gender or skin colour, sometimes end up on the wrong side of automated decisions and this clearly has to stop.

Civil society organisations can bring to light the ways in which technology is affecting real people’s lives, and work with tech companies to ensure they minimise any unintended negative consequences. But we may also need to question some of our assumptions about the inevitability of technological development; and challenge the idea that problems with profound societal implications can be seen merely as questions of “tech ethics”, and dealt with from within the tech sector itself. In some cases, more traditional mechanisms of legislation and policy may be necessary.

The tech sector must acknowledge civil society

Civil society should rightly value the tech sector for its vast range of skills and tools, which are already transforming lives around the world for the better, but at the same time the tech sector has to acknowledge the perspective of civil society organisations. Let’s be reasonable here and recognise that this will not happen automatically. There is a huge power imbalance between civil society organisations and multi-billion dollar tech companies.

And even when they do meet they often seem to be speaking a different language. Organisations like the WEF therefore have a vital function in bridging the gap between these worlds and enabling all sides to engage in a meaningful way.

protecting humanity

Whenever there was a previous industrial revolution, civil society was involved in the huge social changes that resulted, fighting for fairness and equality. From the abolition of child labour to the introduction of clean air legislation, the work of civil society has helped to protect people from the harm done by technological change whilst ensuring that positive progress was shared as widely as possible.

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, civil society needs to play this role once more. The WEF’s new project offers a valuable platform to ensure this happens, and we look forward to working with them and many others to make this vision a reality.

House of Lords report on AI suggests key role for civil society

CAF has been calling for civil society to be involved in the ethical development of AI for some time.

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Our project to create a world where new technologies and social trends have a positive impact on the future of civil society.

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