Think tanks versus robots: how technology is likely to disrupt think tanks

4 May 2020
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2019: think tanks and technology 14 items

[This article was originally published in the OTT Annual Review 2019-2020: think tanks and technology on March 2020.]

‘Tech’ and its close cousin ‘innovation’ have entered buzzword territory. Debate rumbles on about whether we are headed for utopia or dystopia at the hands of ever smarter robots that threaten to eclipse or even erode humanity. It’s the sort of big generational question that infiltrates popular culture, as well as public policy. As ever, when it comes to buzzwords there’s useful learning to be done beneath the hype. The challenge is to separate the meaningful from the meaningless.

For think tanks this is good news. They will have a critical role to play in understanding how societies can maximise these benefits and minimise the risks across the full spectrum of public policy. At the same time, think tanks are being fundamentally challenged by the disruptive forces of technology. It’s not enough to simply study the application of technology to improve or transform society. The leading think tanks of the 2020s will be those who are able to grasp the scope of change that new technology will bring to how they work, and then adapt accordingly.

Here are some ways that core think tank functions are likely to face disruption from technology in the coming years.

There is a burgeoning opportunity for new research into the implications and application of technology. In well-defined sectors, like climate change, education or health, plenty of organisations have already started looking at how technology will affect the policy space. Others like Dot Everyone, Nesta, The Alan Turing Institute and the Open Data Institute have begun to define aspects of new technology that merit greater study, such as algorithmic ethics, big data, machine learning and anticipatory regulation.

New technology will also bring new ways of conducting research. An ability to interrogate algorithms will be an essential part of understanding how the world around us is constructed. The ability to work with data will no longer just be about daunting spreadsheets and predictive modelling. It will mean spotting patterns and trends in human activity, informed by a newly minted awareness of the location, consumption and vital statistics of millions of people.

Quality of communication is integral to the impact research can have. Public discourse has been radically transformed in the age of the smartphone. The rise of post-truth politics has been well documented, but it is just one component of a new information ecosystem that will demand different skills and approaches from communicators. As personalised media consumption and pluralised media creation increase, we can expect the rise of identity politics to continue. This will require careful thinking about how to frame important emerging issues like equality and ethics in technology (in what is already a febrile mistrustful atmosphere).

Technology companies are already nudging us away from screens, hastening the decline of text and the ascent of audio. Furthermore, the ability of organisations to communicate directly with their audiences is growing, with livestreamed video becoming more and more prevalent on social media as internet speeds increase. If blogging was the breakout medium of the early 21st century, then podcasts and live video will claim the next decade, assisted by wearable technology like watches, glasses and in-ear headphones.

It’s not just the work of think tank researchers and communicators that will change. For those concerned with think tank operations, there will be new compliance requirements as more countries adopt stricter data storage regulations. It will get much easier to create and operate think tanks with staff across different geographies using networked working and new software that eliminate administrative burdens and enhance efficiency.

In the years ahead, we can expect to hear more about all sorts of specific technologies like drones and driverless cars. Each of these poses important policy questions. But ultimately, it is the transformative potential of artificial intelligence through algorithms and machine learning that will transform society. This is likely to happen more slowly than we anticipate and in ways we are yet to imagine, but for anybody examining the future of think tanks it’s an essential starting point.  In the meantime, it is wise to remember that when it comes to public policy, humans – not robots – will continue to make the big calls for a while yet.