‘Change is coming’

Ella Rhodes speaks to keynote speakers ahead of the British Psychological Society's 2020 Conference.

The British Psychological Society 2020 Conference will see a series of keynotes around the conference theme of ‘Psychology of the future: Changing landscapes’. [Editor's note: Sadly, this event has now been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak]

Rohit Talwar [pictured above], CEO of futurist research and insights business Fast Future, works with organisations and individuals to help them consider the skills employees will need in a fast-changing environment. The company holds executive education events, carries out research and publishes books on the future. Talwar examines politics, the economy, demographics, progress in science and technology, and the legal, ethical and commercial worlds in identifying trends that may come to influence us. He told us that during his keynote he hoped to provide an overview of all the forces that will impact society, and in particular the workplace, over the next five years. ‘I want to explore some scenarios of how technology will start to change certain things like the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we interact with our families, even the way we date.’

Talwar said a new way of thinking will be required to navigate the world of the future – particularly when AI may soon come to take over many routine jobs. ‘In every field you look in AI’s doing the work that we used to think not just ordinary humans would do but clever humans. The areas that humans will really be focusing on will be the creative, collaborative, problem solving, generative stuff around new ideas and new possibilities.’

Talwar said he would be raising questions about how society can adapt and prepare for such shifts as well as psychology’s place in a world where old norms and structures no longer apply. I asked him where he sees psychology in the year 2040 – the question behind the Society’s student competition for the conference. He gave me two scenarios. The more dystopian scenario is one in which psychologists are no longer required, thanks to therapy apps and AI being able to take snapshots of human behaviour at large in mere seconds. ‘AI will be able to look at whatever the social media equivalent is in 2040, it’ll be able to look at that instantly and tell us “this is the mood of society, this is what’s triggering it, this is where it’s come from, these are the historical precedents that have led to these outcomes, and this is where it’s likely to go next”. It will do the kind of stuff that psychologists do in their research but it’ll be doing it in real time, all the time.’

His more utopian scenario is one in which people living in an increasingly automated world, whose jobs may have been lost to AI, are drawn to studying and working with humans. ‘You could see a lot of people who’ve done previously quite intellectually challenging or demanding jobs – the lawyers the accountants the consultants, the managers in business, all sorts of people who now don’t have a job going in that direction. That could be accelerated by the fact that society’s pretty stressed… we know roughly 300,000 people a year quit work because of stress related issues, that’s only likely to go up so we’ll need more people to be therapists, counsellors, coaches and psychologists.’

Research Fellow Dr Amy Orben (University of Cambridge) will give a keynote address in the student stream of this year’s conference covering screen time, the limitations of research on digital technologies, and historical panics over technologies of the past including radio and comic books. She’ll consider our current knowledge, or lack thereof, and potential ways of improving thinking around digital technologies, screens and adolescence.

We asked Orben where she saw psychology in 2040, she said thinking about the psychology of the future was a question of hope for her. ‘Will it have remained relatively static, weighed down by the current and unchanged incentive structures; incentives that make us struggle to implement best practices today? Or will we have managed to establish positive and lasting change in the discipline? I would not have chosen to continue working in academic research if I don’t believe the latter can be the case. But to achieve that it will need hard work and continued activism from both junior and senior researchers.’

Orben said her psychology of 2040 would be more humble – a discipline in which conclusions don’t need to be hyped to gain respect or recognition. ‘We will look back on today, just like today’s cyclists look back on the Tour de France competitions of the 2000s. Those cyclists knew it was wrong to medically enhance their performance, yet they felt pressured to do so in a system where everyone else was doing the same. When I talk to researchers today many feel the same: they need to quickly produce “ground-breaking” research to get jobs, funding and recognition. Yet ground-breaking research should be hard to come by. My colleague Laura Fortunato always says: “If the only thing you want is ground-breaking research, all you will get is holes in the ground”.’

Psychology 2040, Orben hoped, would value strong theories, stringent tests and team-based science. ‘By sharing our data and code, other scientists can build off our work, accelerating our progress and helping our science home in on valuable findings while leaving aside those discoveries that do not generalise or fail scrutiny. We will work in larger teams, where each team member brings their own piece of expertise to the table instead of each of us trying to be an expert in everything from theory and experimental design to statistics and writing. While this future might seem far away, technological innovation and an increasingly interconnected body of junior researchers determined to do things better give me quiet confidence that this change is coming.’

Professor Miranda Wolpert will talk on ‘A world in which no one is held back by mental health problems: how Wellcome Trust is taking a radical new approach to addressing anxiety and depression in young people’. Looking to the future, Professor Wolpert told us that her hope was that ‘psychologists will be working with other professionals on the (no longer new) coherent field of mental health science’.

Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Berkeley, will be speaking on ‘Childhood as a solution to the explore-exploit dilemma’. She said: ‘I argue that the evolution of our distinctively long, protected human childhood allows an early period of broad hypothesis search and exploration, before the demands of goal-directed exploitation set in. This cognitive profile is also found in other animals and is associated with early behaviours such as neophilia and play. I relate this developmental pattern to computational ideas about explore-exploit trade-offs, search and sampling, and to neuroscience findings. I also present several lines of recent empirical evidence from our lab suggesting that young human learners are highly exploratory, both in terms of their search for external information and their search through hypothesis spaces. In fact, they are sometimes more exploratory than older learners and adults.’

We asked Professor Gopnik what 2040 might bring. She replied: ‘In 2040 we will finally see the end of the nature-nurture debates as Artificial Intelligence and Developmental Cognitive Science converge on specifying learning mechanisms that can actually infer abstract structure from data. And caregiving will, surprisingly, turn out to be a crucial part of that story.’ 


For the student competition, we are asking: ‘Imagine the year is 2040. You are still working in psychology, but it has changed. How?’ See www.bps.org.uk/events/bps-conference-2020/student-competition

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