You say you want a revolution…

Anyone following contemporary debates about the future of work and civilisation will, sooner or later (and very probably sooner), be listening to comments about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. It’s everywhere, and while its exact meaning may not always be clear, what is constantly repeated is that it is happening now and is changing absolutely everything. Everything is being digitised, brought online, automated, and subjugated to robotics. Your job and mine will go, we will be replaced by machines that will not only do the job better, but will also understand better than we can how the job needs to evolve. The jobs we may apply for 10 years from now don’t on the whole exist yet, so we can’t properly prepare for them, and the best we can do is acquire every possible transferable skill and find out what will still need real human interaction; unless robots get better than us at that too. And watch that toaster, it’s online, smart, and may be planning to do away with you so it can watch daytime TV rather than bother with your nutrition.

That sort of thing.

As with everything else, the best thing to do when you encounter breathless hype is to take a step back and think about what you are being told. There is no doubt that the digital world is moving at a fast pace and is changing how we do things: how we communicate, how we analyse, how we adapt our technology to improve safety and efficiency, how we access news. The ‘internet of things’ is creating smart gadgets and appliances. Big data is yielding insights and solutions that eluded us in the past.

But the use of science and technology to effect social and industrial change is not new, nor are we now witnessing profound and speedy change for the first time in history. The development of the printing press and the use of paper to allow high-volume dissemination of its outputs probably produced a bigger social upheaval than anything we are seeing today: suddenly information and knowledge were no longer the private property of the elite, and absolutely everything changed. The (first) Industrial Revolution totally changed the way we live and work, in particular by opening up mass transport and urbanisation, putting an end to agrarian societies with feudal structures, and ushering in the age of capitalism with its attendant consequences, good and bad. The two world wars of the 20th century changed global politics beyond recognition. Contraception changed social interaction and opened up the workforce.

It may be interesting to observe that while a typical person, not from any social elite, would have had a fundamentally different life in the 19th century from what a similar person might have had 100 years earlier, the life we live now is not so fundamentally different from that experienced in the post-war 20th century. The technology has changed and allows us to do things that we couldn’t have done before or which would have been much more laborious, but socially and culturally our experiences are still recognisably similar. What is it that makes us think that the next few years will be so totally different?

We have always been bad at predicting the future, particularly where technology is involved. This is in part because we sometimes predict the future with the same kind of sensibility we apply to science fiction, including the desire to get a thrill from something really horrible. So when Elon Musk makes our flesh creep at the prospect of the spread of malignant artificial intelligence, he is tapping into the same fascination that gave us the Terminator movie franchise a couple of decades earlier. And to be honest, I’ve got sick of the statement (by now a real cliché) that 40% (or whatever your preferred percentage is) of jobs in demand in 10 years time don’t exist today. Well, maybe they don’t, but history doesn’t support this proposition: what job known to you now didn’t exist 10 years ago? Jobs may change in what they demand of those doing them, but that is a natural process of evolution.

This blog post is not an invitation to go into denial about the pace of change today. There is of course a huge technological, digital, fast-paced evolution taking place. Google, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla – even the possibly departed Cambridge Analytica – are changing all sorts of things in our lives. But how adapt to that, and how we reform society to contain the risks, are issues to be debated and decided in a sober frame of mind. In that process, we do well to look at some of the social fundamentals, such as how we can protect the integrity of truth in the face of all-out assaults by those wanting to manipulate us, and perhaps worry a little less about what our toaster might get up to. Even if the latter is more fun, in a Hitchcockian sort of way.

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4 Comments on “You say you want a revolution…”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    “There is of course a huge technological, digital, fast-paced evolution taking place. .. But how adapt to that, and how we reform society to contain the risks, are issues to be debated and decided in a sober frame of mind.”

    This is exactly the crux of the matter, however the debate in ‘a sober frame of mind’ might not be as straightforward as one would think, and for some obvious reasons. Firstly, the popularity of a genre like Science fiction is not merely due to the visual appeal of special effects, the fascination we have towards malignant technologies goes far deeper than that, it taps into the so-called “Frankenstein Complex”, this is the fear that God will punish us for our sins of creation and/or because we are afraid that our creations will trump our power over them. No discussion about AI can ignore the impact that the “Frankenstein Complex” seems to have on our attitudes and behaviors towards it. Secondly, sobriety of mind is hard to achieve in a field (Silicon Valley entrepreneurship) which, as the Vanity Fair’s piece on Elon Musk reveals, is dominated by (young) alpha males endowed with huge economic power. Such power does not comply easily with political scrutiny, as the recent Cambridge Analytica/Facebook saga has demonstrated. As an aside, I often point out to my students the irony of a woman, Mary Shelley, having initiated the SF genre and stereotypical gender views according to which technology and science are predominantly male categories.

    I don’t know about the fourth industrial revolution, I am always a bit weary of teleological histories where something as complicated as human evolution is neatly allocated a place in time and a number, but there is a lot I agree with in philosopher Luciano Floridi’s work The Fourth Revolution. How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (2014). For Floridi the information revolution is the fourth in a sequence of revolutions that include the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian.

    Interestingly, for the purpose of this discussion, Floridi argues that Musks’ (and Hawking) argument that computers will gain intelligence as a result of Moore’s law is flawed (Moore’s law suggests the number of transistors in computers doubles every two years, delivering more power at a lower price). Moore’s law, Floridi rightly points out, is a measure of computational power, not intelligence.

    What we should really focus on is how we are going to socialise such systems of intelligence and how we shall best adopt them and adapt to them, from an ethical perspective, because many solutions are far from inevitable, and some may be preferable to others and should be privileged. And here is where universities have some influence to exert, it is in our science labs and departments that the design of AI and its applications must go hand and with an ethical and empathic framework. As John Connor in The Terminator put it: “The future has not been written.There is no fate but what we make.”


    • I fully agree with your conclusion – in much of the debate so far society has been asking the wrong questions. The social consequences of AI are more important than the technological potential.

  2. Vince Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment. Indeed I’d go so far as to say we need to gee the process along.
    You see I think we’re being hindered and hamstrung by controlling elements in the civil service.
    In the UK you have social welfare fixated upon fraud when they should be doing everything they can to get people working for themselves. The Black Economy was a good thing. It was a means to get people into employment and running small businesses. We actually need entire communities of Del-Boys and if they are getting the social so what. Eventually if their earnings get above a certain amount that aspect will fall away. It’s what keeps Italy going despite hundreds of years of utterly incompetent administration.
    And in Ireland we had and still have the issue where the ESB won’t accept home generated excess back into the grid. Citing some ‘special’ electricity. This results in a profound lack of uptake in renewables. And we could also do with the Del-Boys too.

  3. Vince Says:

    Sorry about the second bite.
    I’m a bit confused about the Cambridge Analytica thing. Yes, it exists with a goal in mind. And yes we all feel it’s very likely we can be nudged by social norms within a social group. A bit like shopping at Waitrose of M&S. But isn’t this a little bit like those IQ tests so favoured by civil service entrance examiners and some uni’s like UCC. Isn’t it sorta self fulfilling since you have no way of measuring in any scientific way that means a scrap, for you have no control.
    But what I’d really like to see are the proposal doc’s and their claims. And I’d really like to know how contact is/was made. Is there a directory on either side. Are there, or was there a set of salespeople nipping over to Ryanair flying to visit likely candidates.
    And how would you price it. Results, in some sort of no foal no fee, see point one.


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