Technology Changing the World? It’s time for the regular reminder …

There’s a UK general election on Thursday 12th December.  Perhaps a once-in-a-generation chance to steer the country away from fascism?  The stakes are high and the issues numerous (yes, really, more than just Brexit) but here, we’ll try to keep to the technology.  However, ‘keeping to the technology’ is as much to do with understanding what it can’t and won’t do, just as much as what it can and will …

Some of this isn’t new in this blog but it seems to be a timely reminder.  Let’s start with a simple (rhetorical) straw poll:

  1. Can we all agree that the next few years are going to bring some interesting technological developments?  Yes?
  2. Can we generally agree that those ‘developments’ can be loosely described as ‘advances’?  Hmm?  Not quite so certain?  Depends on your point of view?  Maybe?  Possibly?  Most of the time?  Probably?
  3. Are we generally confident that emerging/future technology will benefit people?  Ah!

Which people?

This is at the heart of it.  Yes, technology changes lives.  Yes, it has the potential to make lives better.  But will it?  and for whom?

This isn’t meant to be a heavily technical piece but we could briefly summarise the tech. drivers over the next few years as being these:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Automation and Robotics
  • Big Data Analytics
  • Internet of Things (IoT)
  • 24/7/anywhere connectivity

We’ve noted before that futurology is a tricky business.  Trying to gauge where AI will be in five years’ time, for example, is perhaps just about possible – even if opinion will vary.  Similarly, the ‘rise of the robots’ over time makes for a credible discussion.  In fact, any of these big five drivers may yield to some decent form of predictive analysis … in isolation.  It gets much harder though when you put it all together.  Trying to divine a 6/7G IoT-connected world automated by AI/Big Data-driven robots is near to impossible.  (Seriously, yes.  There are so many different opinions out there that the probability of any given futurist being right is vanishingly small.)  And then we really should do what we generally don’t, which is to look beyond the technology to the wider social, ethical, moral, legal, political, environmental and economic fallout, and … and, well then it all starts to get rather messy …

Because, for some reason (we could be cynical as to why but we’ll try not to be), the moment we mix the tech. discussion with the wider social debate, we seem to start thinking (or be told to think – oh, there we go) that one will answer questions posed by the other.  In this case, by-and-large, technological know-how doesn’t answer social, economic, political, legal, etc. questions.  If anything, it generally poses more questions but we’re often told it’s the other way around!  Why is this?  If a footballer started playing the piano, they wouldn’t automatically assume that their newly-found musical skills would benefit them on the pitch; but with the social implications of technology we mix concepts routinely.  Technology will somehow just make everything better.  Is this just a natural human tendency to confuse or is this deliberate obfuscation?  Let’s try an example …

There are many issues to face in the Automated/AI/Big Data/IoT/n>5G world of the future.  Potential loss of privacy and/or identity, physical and mental health, security and sustainability being just a few.  But perhaps the most obvious is employment … or lack of it?  Let’s try that one ….

In fact, let’s revisit an exchange that’s already taken place on Reddit … A year or two before he died, Stephen Hawking was asked …

“Have you thought about the possibility of technological unemployment, where we develop automated processes that ultimately cause large unemployment by performing jobs faster and/or cheaper than people can perform them? Some compare this thought to the thoughts of the Luddites, whose revolt was caused in part by perceived technological unemployment over 100 years ago. In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done?”

… and answered …

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

… to absolute howls of indignation from … well, from pretty much who you’d expect, really.  We could quote absurdities at length from the Forbes piece but we won’t – you can read it for yourselves.  And, anyway, it wasn’t the only source of attack.  It ranged from simple dismissiveness to ‘stupid scientists should stick to simple science and leave the clever economics to us brainy economists’.  (The Forbes piece couldn’t even tell the difference between a sentence and a paragraph or separate a logical starting point from any inference, by the way.)  It largely epitomised the ‘we must be right because we’re rich’ arrogance of wealth.

Let’s start with the question.  The last two sentences of the question ask two things: paraphrased as ‘Will the robots take our jobs?’ and ‘What will that be like?’  Fair enough but here’s the thing …  Hawking’s answer starts with an ‘If’.  He’s not trying to answer the first question; he’s taking that as the starting point for the second … If that happens, what’ll it be like?’  So straight away, the standard, ‘It’s OK the old jobs will be replaced by new ones’ argument is irrelevant because that wasn’t the question he was answering.  (It’s also bollocks but we’ll come to that later.)  That just leaves the economists trying to argue somehow that being unemployed under technocapitalism will be just great.  (Also demonstrably bollocks – also later.)  Oh, go on then, we’ll quote just the one passage from the Forbes piece; an absolute masterpiece of content-free waffle …

“The point being that the rise of the robots cannot possibly make us any poorer than we are now. And that’s in the very worst case: the worst that can possibly happen is that some other people become richer and we get to jog along much as we do now. That’s also the result that is vanishingly unlikely to actually happen. What is far more likely to happen is that we all, jointly, become vastly wealthier.”

ANY idea what any of that means?  Even those parts of it that we might speculatively decipher, is any of it justified by argument?  Nope!  (And we won’t even bother asking what the **** ‘wealth’ might even mean on a planet that’s burnt all its natural resources.)  Utter wanker.

This is what happens when capitalists get challenged on capitalism.  Bluff.  Obfuscation.  Brashness.

But to give the issue the genuine attention it deserves, let’s try to deal with those two questions separately.  In fact, let’s break that first one into two:

  1. Will the robots take existing jobs?  And, if so, will the old jobs be replaced by new ones?
  2. What will that be like?

OK, here goes:

  1. (a) Will the robots take human jobs?  Yes, almost certainly – and on a considerable scale.  The best evidence is that the process has already begun and is visible on an initial scale.  But to really understand the question, we have to look beyond the robots, not just to the automated world of the future but the whole Automated/AI/Big Data/IoT/n>5G world.  It’s not just robots.  The willrobotstakemyjob.com website, for example, understandably estimates the percentage probability of a production-line worker losing their job to automation as over 90% (depending on exact line of work) but suggests a teacher is pretty safe on about 1%.  But this is based on a misunderstanding of what real (compound) automation looks like.  It’s considering only the Automation part of the Automated/AI/Big Data/IoT/n>5G world.  A teacher won’t be replaced by a metal can in the shape of a human, clonking around the classroom with an artificial voice.  Rather they’ll be replaced by a complete system: ever larger quantities of increasingly sophisticated online content, tailored by big data analytics to individual needs, located, retrieved and organised by AI, with practical engagement through the IoT, and all at lightning fast network speed.  On one level, who wouldn’t want that?  It would be great – and quite conceivably better than what we have now with underfunded and over-worked schools.  But the poor teacher will still be out of a job and, to rub salt into the wounds,  many educationalists are currently actively developing the online material that’s ultimately going to replace them!  Of course jobs will go; just look at supermarkets.  (b) Will the jobs be replaced by new ones?  Well that’s a good theory, and there’s a bit of a myth that this is what’s happened in the past with previous technological revolutions.  ‘The industrial revolution created a new middle class’, for example.  But it’s a huge simplification.  Firstly, the middle class created then wasn’t today’s (that’s come from political pressure, not technological change).  That ‘middle class’ was a new group of super-rich industrialists who the upper classes wouldn’t allow into their ranks.  Today’s middle class is merely a layer of the working class raised up a notch and trained to look down on the rest.  Secondly, a large number of manual workers starved to death!  The same will happen in the future but on a vastly greater, global scale.  The economists don’t seem to have quite grasped an essential concept: that, once the Automated/AI/Big Data/IoT/n>5G robots have taken the ‘old’ jobs, they’ll take the ‘new’ ones too.  The technocapitalist model in which we’re all going to be selling data to each other in the brave new world isn’t sustainable.   OK yes, we could all become somehow ‘creative’ but who’s going to pay us for it?  In the current system, no-one.
  2. What will it be like?  This is much easier!  Because it has nothing to do with the technology.  Let’s consider the various possibilities … If machines do much of the work for us then – in a fair society in which the benefits of technology are shared – that could mean a comfortable life for all.  Or, if the means of production and exchange remain in the hands of a few then not having employment will render a large majority working population, not just redundant, but a burden, with the associated stigma, poor standards of living and possibly worse … It remains to be seen what the elite may choose to do with massive workforce, surplus to economic requirements, in a world already – by some measures – considered overpopulated?  We can reasonably argue which of these extremes – or anything in between – we’re likely to get but we absolutely have to understand that it won’t be the technology that decides it for us!  If nothing about the current system changes then unemployment in the future will mean what it means now: technology can’t change that.  Technology will lead to misery and wider environmental catastrophe unless something bigger happens.  You’re then into a debate as to whether a political/economic system that’s so awful must eventually crumble under its own absurdity (loosely a Marxist principle) or whether it (capitalism) will retain its grip until and while it destroys the planet beyond repair (not Marxism – something else).

So, to summarise, yes, technology (all of it, not just automation) is likely to render a large proportion of human labour unnecessary.  That could be bloody wonderful but it won’t be unless the wider political/economic framework changes wholesale. 

Or, if that’s still too cryptic …

Thursday 12th December!

About Vic Grout

Chair, Clwyd South Labour Party; Professor of Computing Futures, Wrexham Glyndwr University View all posts by Vic Grout

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