22 Feb

Can Mindfulness Help Us Navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution

  • February 22, 2017

Last week saw a gathering of over 4000 politicians, private sector leaders, policymakers and experts for the fifth annual World Government Summit in Dubai. The speakers covered 114 different topics that will shape future governments. Among the core themes were familiar anxieties about inequality, extremism and climate change, but also a new recognition that globalisation isn’t working for everyone — and that we’re headed for a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ that will potentially bring even greater disruption and dislocation.

The First Industrial Revolution started in the 1780’s and mechanized production through steam power; the second from around 1870 brought mass-production with electric power; and the third in the 1970’s automated manufacturing through electronics. Now we’re seeing an exponential rate of development in technologies that have the potential to revolutionise almost every industry worldwide within the coming decades. Rapid breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, 3-D printing, nanotechnology and biotechnology promise to further dissolve the distinction between our physical and digital worlds.

At the Summit, Uber founder Travis Kalanik predicted that within 5–10 years most taxis will be automated and, rather than calling a driver, we’ll communicate with cars through sophisticated AI. These changes will likely lead to such an abundance of cheap and easy transport that most of us are unlikely to own our own cars. But what becomes of the people who currently drive cabs, trucks, buses and trains? A 2015 study predicted that 30% of US jobs will be automated within 10 years, and that the jobs of many knowledge workers are no safer than those of manual workers. In the UK, the Bank of England estimates that around 45% of jobs could be at risk. Meanwhile, the political order across the western world is already convulsing as those who feel left behind by the unassailable logic of global markets seek ways to comprehend their predicament and make their voices heard.

With these challenges in mind, many speakers at the summit articulated variations on the following three proposals:

1.) In the words of Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, we “urgently need new, human-centred thinking” in economics and policy-making. Professor Jeffrey Sachs suggested that economics should become a moral science, whilst speakers including Elon Musk discussed the inevitability of needing a new economic model or social contract, including perhaps a ‘universal basic income’. As new ways of organising society are assessed, we must do so through a ‘human-centred’ lens rather than blindly serving existing systems.

2.) We need to develop 21st century job skills that cannot be replaced by robots and AI, which means exploring and cultivating what makes us uniquely human. President of the World Bank Dr Jim Kim proposed that we must cultivate STEMpathy (science, technology, engineering, maths + empathy) because increasingly, what we know matters less than how we apply it. Joseph Aoun President of Northeastern University predicted that we are entering the ‘age of humanics’, rather than an age of robotics, which he defined as “an age that integrates our human and technological capacities to meet the global challenge of our time”.

3.) World leaders like the Prime Ministers of Bhutan and the United Arab Emirates proposed that providing the optimum conditions for human happiness should be the ultimate aim of governments. The new science of positive psychology and wellbeing presented at the summit by Professor Martin Seligman and others shows that there are ways in which we can all learn to be happier, and the degree to which we are happy has a major impact on our productivity and employability — learning how to live isn’t necessarily different from learning how to earn a living. Dr Kim argued that investing in the psychological health of future generations is not just the right thing to do, but is also important for social stability.

So how could mindfulness training help meet the challenges of a Fourth Industrial Revolution through these proposals?

Developing ‘human-centred’ thinking

Firstly, ‘new, human-centred’ thinking requires our current leaders and decision makers in society to have a more intimate understanding of their own humanity. Mindfulness practice is more than just attention training. It’s also largely about developing kind curiosity towards inner experience, and provides a framework for deep inquiry into the psychological mechanisms of human distress and wellbeing. Through mindful awareness, leaders have a vital opportunity to learn about the human condition by exploring their own hearts and minds.

Furthermore leaders need empathy to resonate with the people they serve — to avoid preoccupation with an abstract concept of the nation state, Progress or The Market. Mindfulness training has consistently been shown to develop empathy — for example, heightened neural responses to seeing others in distress. This heightened empathy arises in part through the development of body awareness. As it turns out, the more we are grounded in the body and know stillness, the more we can feel moved.

Developing 21st century skills

Although robots will eventually take on most manual tasks and AI will progressively out-compete our limited intelligence, our technology can’t yet claim consciousness, empathy or compassion. There is huge value to us in being seen, being heard and relating to other conscious creatures. Feeling listened to by a doctor, for example, outweighs technical competence in our assessment of their service and likelihood to sue for malpractice. And research increasingly associates levels of social connection with better mental health, physical healing rates and life expectancy.

Mindfulness is a natural capacity, present in all of us to some extent. But we are all too familiar with its opposite: a heedless, distracted state often described as ‘autopilot’. It goes without saying that anything that we can do on autopilot, robots and AI could soon do better. Mindfulness may come to be seen as the core 21st century capacity, because it concerns our only competitive advantage over the machines: awareness itself.

Learning how to live

Though practices like mindfulness will help us to create unique value by exploring and developing our ‘humanness’, we may still be progressively less able to do tasks of significant economic worth. If we’re successful in creating a human-centred economy that plays to our best qualities then this may mean that we work fewer hours, or fewer days. But it may also mean that many of us will be unemployed. If this is the case, how will we use our time? What will education teach us? How will we deal with the tensions that these changes unleash in society? What will give our lives meaning? These and many more questions will assail us as a species in years not too far from now. To navigate them well together, we will require a deep understanding of ourselves and each other — and knowledge of behaviours that underpin healthy emotional functioning.

Volunteering, self-development and caring for others and are likely to be some part of the picture. Perhaps we’ll begin to see ourselves as our own life’s work. Might we even direct our energies into the hard toil of self-discovery and the training of heart and mind, reducing distress and cultivating happiness? Far from just another fad, could the recent mindfulness craze be just the start of a macro trend towards putting psycho-education and contemplative practice at the centre of human endeavour? We can hope.

This article originally appeared on Medium and written by Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative