This photo taken on December 20, 2017 shows robot waiters next to a chef preparing food at a robot-themed restaurant in Chennai. India’s first robot-themed restaurant with robotic waiters has opened in Chennai, with the automated servers carrying dishes from the kitchen to customers.
My seven year old daughter got Bitcoin for Christmas this year from her Uncle, an enthusiastic computer scientist. I thought this was pretty cool albeit a bit difficult to explain. It wasn’t on her list to Santa and she wasn’t interested.
My daughter has no idea how digital technology and this new era of intelligent machines is shaping our future. Does anyone?
Who is in control of our digital future?
I saw Anthony Giddens, the British sociologist, speak a few years ago. His big takeaway is that humanity is at a crossroads – for the first time in history digital is moving at a faster rate than social anthropology. He cited three key reasons for this: the smartphone app, (connected 24/7 to) the internet, and quantum computing enabling Artificial Intelligence (AI), and your personal “app bot”.
I was struck by this and suggested that he added cheap money as the fuel that is firing much of this innovation. With zero interest rates and cheap borrowing, money has been piling into digital innovation in the past years. If you understand how to invest in digital on a risk adjusted basis, the next 25 years is looking bullish.
Now that we are all networked and can access the universe of knowledge through digital we have been intellectually liberated. Apparently, we are less reliant on government and corporate command and control communication systems that dictate to us how to behave and consume.
Social media has dominated recent discussions and brought to light the issues of open global access to both communicating and consuming information in our great public digital spaces. It appears that sovereign states, corporate entities and lobby groups with money to spend can openly mine data and buy their way onto your Facebook page to promote their views through advertising.
Niall Ferguson, the great historian, in his new book the Tower and the Square argues that social networks have been with humanity throughout history. He sends a warning to West Coast technology evangelists about being misleading on the utility of their applications when they are using our behavioral data to game us and sell advertising, apparently to anyone who will pay for it.
In The Networked Age we have amplified the message and accelerated its contagion. It appears social networks may be assisting humanity in repeating history at a faster and more socially volatile pace than ever. This is the price we pay for the dissemination of information and misinformation to everyone in the global network in real time.
One of the amplified messages is “robots will take your job”. There are green shoots of a rustbelt revival thanks to robots, but it appears that the jobs are not coming with it. In a shift of focus, this message is starting to resonate with white collar professionals in sectors such as legal, professional and financial services and this is causing mild alarm.
AlphaZero’s conquering of both Chess and Go beating Stockfish, the world computer champion, in record time seems to be a clarion call to the power of the next wave of AI. Elon Musk is regularly warning humanity of the dangers of AI, while he publicly makes plans for the manned colonization of Mars, presumably to escape the robots on Earth.
McKinsey Global Institute predicts that as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation, between 39 and 73 million jobs in the US. Advances in AI and robotics will have a drastic effect on everyday working lives, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution.
The report also states that as in the past, technology will not be a purely destructive force. New jobs will be created, existing roles will be redefined, and workers will have the opportunity to switch careers. The challenge to this generation is managing the transition. Income inequality is likely to grow, possibly leading to political instability. The individuals who need to retrain for new careers won’t be the young, but middle-aged professionals.
Before Brexit or Trump, Mohamed Al-Erian argued that when growth, the driving force of Western economies, is absent in the economy, the forces of populism go to work. We simply cannot accept a future for our children that is not better than our own. This may be made worse when there is a perceived wealth gap created by new technology, automation and job losses.
Thomas Picketty, the French economist, focuses his work on wealth and inequality. His sometimes controversial work has presented compelling data that the rate of capital return in developing countries is greater than economic growth – the rich are getting richer. This is a particular issue in the digital era as human assets are replaced with capital assets.
Bill Gates in his philanthropic work has argued the industrial measures of economic outputs such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are inaccurate. He extends this to the digital world in that the impact of years of automation such as application computing, email and messaging, and networking are not reflected in productivity statistics.
Governments might pay closer attention the gap between industrial revolution economic and productivity growth measures and measures that are more accurate in the emerging digital era. Gates’ position on taxing robots is refreshing and an elegant solution to providing governments with income to re-train workers for new digital era jobs due shortfalls as the result of automation.
So who is in control of our digital future?
You, and me, our children, and our connected communities.
Digital has given us the tools to distribute knowledge on a global scale. Ultimately, through the bubbles of speculative markets and fake news, everything regresses to the mean – this is human. Digital may pervert our perception of the journey creating greater volatility, but rational human behavior prevails – just give it the time and the tools to learn and adapt to all of these new changes.
Rather than ask who is in control of our digital future, ask yourself what you are doing to contribute to its success in society.
Wishing you a happy, healthy, prosperous and digitally active 2018.