Thinking about the digital economy

Some years ago when I was spending a morning in a somewhat obscure library in London looking for materials relevant to the development of a British trade union in the 19th century, I came across a sermon delivered shortly after 1800 in a London church. The clergyman in question was most exercised by what we would now call the impact of new technology. He feared that humanity’s ability to perform ‘miracles’, which should be the sole preserve of God, would create a materialistic society in which a very small number of people would reap the rewards of science and engineering, while the majority would become redundant and face destitution.

I was reminded of this recently when the US company Boston Dynamics, a spin-off from MIT, unveiled a humanoid robot that could jump up and down on various obstacles and, finally, do a back somersault. You can see the whole spectacle here. This display quickly led to a whole tsunami of online anguish about how we are all doomed. If a robot could successfully mimic an athlete, then humans might as well all just go home and wait to be put out of our misery by the new artificial master race. You get the idea.

As for me, I thought the Boston Dynamics machine was pretty smart engineering, but to be honest I was less captivated by it than by another recent item of news: a group of engineering researchers helped by an economist were able to design a robot which delivered a lecture to economics students and successfully answered questions from them at the end. Apparently the robot answered questions with stuff like ‘Well, this is a hotly contested point, but I tend myself to support the view that…’

Today, lots of people are talking about the digital economy and what it may involve and what it may do to us. The science and engineering of it all is of course important, but it may be as important for us to come to grips with what it all means: how it affects our understanding of humanity and human purpose. This isn’t a debate about automation; that’s a debate we’ve been having for 250 years, and to be honest there aren’t many new things to say. It’s a debate about who we are, and how we will harness human ingenuity, and how we can ensure that we evolve successfully to engage that ingenuity with the new means at our disposal.

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4 Comments on “Thinking about the digital economy”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    “This isn’t a debate about automation; that’s a debate we’ve been having for 250 years, and to be honest there aren’t many new things to say. It’s a debate about who we are, and how we will harness human ingenuity…”

    You might want to consider that debates about automation have always *also* been debates about who we are, one only needs to think of philosophers like Descartes and de La Mettrie, not to mention Freud’s concept of the unheimlich, the uncanny: the feeling that arises when there is an ‘intellectual uncertainty’ about the borderline between the lifeless and the living. triggered, by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata’.
    I’ve long been fascinated by the history of automata, the prehistory of today’s artificial intelligence (http://publicdomainreview.org/2016/05/04/frolicsome-engines-the-long-prehistory-of-artificial-intelligence/) exactly because such visions of human nature are only apparently soullessly mechanical. As Descartes, a great admirer of automata, put it, there must be something more to us, something spiritual in our nature. If not, he asked, turning to look at the passersby on the street below his window, “What do I see but hats and coats that cover ghosts, or simulated human beings who move only by springs?”


    • Yes, those are interesting references. And of course some recent science fiction has addressed these issues of ‘humanness’ quite effectively. And film (2001).

      • paul martin Says:

        “there aren’t many new things to say” is incorrect as your reference to “recent science fiction” illustrates. There was a Radio4 book program recently pointing out that the genre was relatively new (decades) & such as Clarke et al have given an alternative perspective. Of course it is not just fiction that has produced insights here are some:

  2. Vince Says:

    The other side of racism is self interest, loosely. So what you have with that clergyman was a guy speaking for his own. A bit like the revolutionaries 100 years ago, they saw their positions vanish. But which landowning family in 1860 would’ve seen that by 1925 their position would be under pressure. And it’s only since joining the EU that their wealth has grown.


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