Why firms must prepare for the rise of unsupervised technologies

The disruptive frontier technologies being developed today – largely without supervision – will transform the world. Entrepreneur Daniel Doll-Steinberg warns business leaders to get ready 

Entrepreneur Daniel Doll-Steinberg

Daniel Doll-Steinberg wants you to start paying attention. Specifically, he’s putting out a rallying cry for you to really heed the new reality that is stealthily being constructed with the emergence of frontier technologies. 

“We are entering a phase when many well-intentioned people are building technologies to disrupt the way we live. The more people who understand that, adapt to those technologies, and use them in a way that suits them, the less chance we have of experiencing outcomes no-one wants,” he explains. 

He refers to Sam Altman – one of those well-intentioned people – who is the CEO of OpenAI and whose ChatGPT brought artificial intelligence to the masses. Altman has said one of his aims is to build artificial general intelligence that would make computers as capable as humans, essentially overtaking people’s marketable skills. His is not the only company with such a goal; DeepMind, Meta and others appear to have similar ambitions. 

“They are trying to replace coders, accountants, lawyers and more; but just unleashing something like that onto the world could be catastrophic,” thinks Doll-Steinberg. 

So-called frontier technologies – including AI, 5G, blockchain, cryptocurrency and quantum computing – are developing at an exponential rate. In 2019 alone, Amazon spent $36bn (£28.8bn) on R&D to create human-replacement technologies, from robots to smart home assistants. Adoption of these technologies was accelerated by lockdown and as they become increasingly general-purpose – not requiring domain experts to create them – they are expected to be virtually unstoppable. 

This is why business leaders need to start really understanding and deploying them today, so they can not only take advantage of them, but they can also counterbalance some of the wilder future concepts emerging, says Doll-Steinberg. 

The world is developing around frontier technologies

It is this sentiment that inspired Doll-Steinberg and Stuart Leaf’s book, Unsupervised: Navigating and Influencing a World Controlled by Powerful New Technologies, published this month. It is a detailed guide on the key technologies being developed and the concepts and capabilities emerging from them, from Google’s new large language model, PaLM, which can explain why a joke is funny, to possible biological and technological enhancement. 

If you’re deploying AI across a department and employees notice some negative unintended consequences, there should be mechanisms for them to flag it

Doll-Steinberg is a serial entrepreneur and investor, with decades of experience in the tech sector. He previously advised the European Commission on enterprise policy and from 2008 to 2011 he helped form the UK’s International Innovation Strategy. In 2022, he co-founded innovation investment firm and tech ecosystem EdenBase. Anthony Scaramucci, the American financier who briefly served as Donald Trump’s White House director of communications, also calls him a friend. 

Speaking not long after returning from eight days at the Burning Man festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, Steinberg explains that the book was born from the first lockdown in 2020. His friend and business partner Eric Van der Kleij, keen to keep his “full-on” friend occupied, asked him to write “the future of the next five years of the world”. (Doll-Steinberg claims that during this process he accurately predicted the Black Lives Matter riots, and that people would lose trust in experts). Then, after several lockdowns and many long dog walks spent dictating into his phone, the bones of Unsupervised emerged. 

But far from predicting the future, the book is more of a guide, of sorts, on how to embrace and contribute to an inevitable future shaped by frontier technologies. 

How will advanced tech affect your organisation?

So, what should business leaders be doing? First, they need to understand how these technologies will impact each area of their business. This could involve running proofs of concept to see where certain technologies might impact the business positively or negatively, in the next one to three years. 

Take quantum computing. “The US National Security Agency and the US Air Force have said quantum computers are close enough to breach your systems in a shorter period than it takes to fix them. So, if you don’t start making all your systems quantum-safe in 2023, you’re likely to have quantum hitting you before you’re ready, which will be catastrophic,” he explains. 

He also recommends creating a fund to deploy in startups that could disrupt your business as a safety net. 

The important thing is to start taking small and steady steps today – but be aware that going too slow or too fast can have unintended consequences. It is partly for this reason that Doll-Steinberg doesn’t believe leaders should outsource the task to a big consultancy or a siloed department, which may not be as familiar with the organisation or as quick to respond to success or failure.

“Other people don’t understand the culture of your organisation and what you’re trying to achieve – it’s vital for the board and CEO to be in the loop,” he says. “CEOs should read about this like they’d read about new regulation or their competitors; this is a competitor to you, like Tesla to Ford.” 

Frontier technologies and the workforce

He advises businesses to also start building trust within their organisation today, because it will make technology adoption smoother.

Doll-Steinberg had experience with disruptive technology early in his career, first building derivative trading technology, which enabled a new asset class to be traded, and later when he was tasked with implementing a new technology system at a major US bank. 

“Most people resisted the change, seeing it as a threat,” he says. “It made me realise that even minor changes are difficult. But AI is going to displace entire functions – and if big firms don’t do it, smaller ones will eat their lunch,” he says. 

The more people adapt to disruptive technologies, the less chance we have of experiencing outcomes no-one wants

Doll-Steinberg navigated the resistance by building trust with people across the workforce. Employees are key to successful implementation and should feel comfortable to speak up without fear of repercussions. 

“If you’re deploying AI across a department and employees notice some negative unintended consequences, there should be mechanisms for them to flag it – conversely, they should feel comfortable sharing new ideas,” he explains. 

Many CEOs are worried about the impacts of AI on their staff and how to implement it in mutually beneficial ways. The focus, according to Doll-Steinberg, should be on finding ways to use these technologies to augment staff, not to replace them

“Leaders should ask: how can I maximise the value of my staff with these technologies? It might involve redeploying people or using AI to retrain staff to use new systems or learn new roles,” he explains. 

Can businesses influence the trajectory of frontier technologies?

Lastly, use the influence you have to steer the direction of travel. “A big real estate company or property developer working with many contractors, suppliers and councils can influence all of them to start using technologies in a cross-consistent way that benefits everyone – that’s enormous,” he explains. 

This is the ‘swarm effect’ described in the book: “No matter how small our individual actions, the aggregate effect can be enormous.” And without clear and consistent regulation, this effect becomes ever more important. It’s a reason why companies should consider writing their own code of conduct for adopting technologies. 

Yet, despite the enormity of it all, Doll-Steinberg’s message, he assures, is a positive one.

“Because of technology, the last decade has been the best one yet for humanity. And I see no reason why that shouldn’t continue as long as people start today, in a sensible way, to make sure they’re delivering these technologies for the benefit of their friends, employees and customers.”