Technology is transforming our planet and frankly, I am overwhelmed on many fronts by the wonders and rapidity of technologically-driven “advances” in automation, bio-technology, communication, education, medicine, employment, the environment, and even privacy. There are moments when I empathize with King Alfred shouting to the waves to halt their advance! Nor am I alone in my concerns: Youthful constituencies in both the US and the UK have been expressing their anger at the inequalities, the narrowing of opportunities, and the environmental dangers we are facing — all in large measure resulting from technology’s global transformations.
I cannot overlook what is driving the nightmare scenario of endless GROWTH, fueled by the demands of technology’s paymaster, capitalism. The focus on growth of the standard of living, of production, of the GNP, and of the global population is now wedded to the growth of technology. The truth is that none of the current generation of politicians dares to propose an end to growth. None even mentions the dangers of a ten billion population level in the 21st century.
Planning is rejected at nearly all levels because of a misled belief in the freedom and advances which are offered by “the market.” Apple, Microsoft, and the larger community of “Silicon Valley” are all eager to create further advances in automation, communications, connectivity and the resulting profits! As the current front-runners of technological advance, their executive boards are convinced that given sufficient data and instant connectivity, their products will prove to be effective in creating a more beneficial outcome for society.
Is technological innovation the handmaiden of progress in the 21st century? Innovation frequently results in startling advances and profits, but it does not always produce results which give a long-term advantage to the good over the bad. The Financial Times has suggested that Silicon Valley technology has been distorting the operations of the market by restricting the basic information necessary for the efficient allocation of resources by industry. Data, on which the advertising agencies depend, are being offered by Google, Facebook and others at vastly reduced rates. Evgeny Morozov, who has developed a rather sinister scenario, suggests that these companies “will eventually run the basic infrastructure on which the world functions.” He concludes that “They would be thrilled to do this.”1
The accelerating pace of change, particularly in the fields of automation and robotics, is also threatening our sense of personal worth. All too many of the now unemployed workers have come to regard computers, robots, and machines as being stronger, more capable and faster than themselves. As these workers become discarded in a competitive environment, they are told to become more flexible and “compatible” with the new technologies.
It is important for us to try and step back and confront how technology is now changing the human spirit itself. Automation and mechanization are making us less connected with the natural world, more fragmented as human beings, less well balanced, and increasingly escapist in our behavior. Due to the internet, today we can focus on specifics, but have trouble picturing the whole. Innovation has become a driving factor in the digital world in which volatility and dynamism have become linked. Technology is cramming ever greater numbers of electronic components into everything from household products to automobiles and will soon enter the human body.
Society has become fixated on the idea that our technology advances in order to solve problems. We also tend to think of the development of technology itself much as we do of an evolving eco-system, but we tend to see “run-away technology” as having an independence and direction which was not given nor intended by its creators. The notion of separating technology from human needs and intents is itself remarkable. We may not be aware, however, that what we are becoming could be the result of what we created.
“New technology equals new perceptions. As we create tools, we recreate ourselves in their image,” observed one sharp observer.2 Technology can thus turn into a way of arranging our world so that we no longer experience it. It is significant that we are currently extending the scope of our possible awareness through the analysis of the 95 per cent of the spectrum (ranging from infra-red to gamma radiation, and x-rays to ultra-violet) which we cannot perceive with our naked eyes. Alas, the best minds in technology have no idea whether we are headed towards a techno-utopia or a dystopia. That is one of the many tech challenges which we have to answer.
The truth is that as members of an evolving civilization, we hold no genuine vision of where we are headed. It is generally accepted that the real future has always differed from rational extrapolations of what exists. New tech tends to evolve as the consequence of scientific breakthroughs, from the light bulb to the transistor, which could not have been predicted. Scientists are generally interested in discovering the truth, not in ushering in new technologies. They usually tend to dismiss statements about future developments as “speculation.” Such a perspective encourages their leaning toward the short-term. Engineers also prefer to focus on the more immediate problems at hand: Their employers, their colleagues and their training all encourage them to design systems that can be made from existing technology.
Science and technology are intimately connected. New technology that produces new instrumentation is necessary to establish the validity of most recent discoveries. These tools tend to become increasingly complex and expensive as the research becomes more removed from the powers of unaided human observation — as evidenced by particle accelerators, microprocessors, space exploration, and both bio- and nano-tech. It has generally been trial-and-error experimentation, not the planning of a genius, that has brought about most advances from digital watches to GPS.
To build structures to complex micro-specifications, a kind of supra-molecular chemistry is being developed for “molecular meccano” or nano-scale construction. One important aspect of such supra-molecular assemblers is that they will be able to replicate themselves much in the fashion of the giant macromolecules of DNA and RNA which are at the basis of all life on earth. Eric Drexler, one of the most brilliant of the technology analysts of the 20th century wrote that: “Advances in the technologies of medicine, space, computation and production … all depend on our ability to arrange atoms. With assemblers (that is molecular machines that can be programmed to build almost any molecular structure or device from simpler chemical blocks) we will be able to remake our world.”3
Can we tolerate this technological transformation of the world? Scientists may be able to produce proteins from chemicals, super-strong materials from carbons and silicates, tailor-made genetic alterations to fight specific viruses, as well as ever more sophisticated aphrodisiacs, but our social structure, which until quite recently was tribal, is so delicately balanced that it may be overwhelmed if we push relentlessly for advances in micro-technology. Regrettably technologists, like those who want to meld computer chips with the human nervous system, seldom seem to address the possibility of improving social institutions. The problem is that their technological meliorism lacks social vision.
Automation would appear to be one of the most threatening technologies now facing us. It takes the most extraordinary forms from drones to the new generation of half a dozen different types of robots. All of these point to a future that does not need us, rather than focusing on machines which support the well-being of humans. Capitalism strives to promote automation guided not only by popular demand but also for ever greater efficiency bringing more profit.
The collective performance of human employees does not improve much over time, while robots keep on becoming ever more efficient. Automation had progressively mastered increasingly complex tasks. This makes it harder for manufacturers to justify hiring workers even in jobs that require special manual and intellectual skills. Half of all current jobs in the United States could potentially be replaced in the next two decades. Personally, I believe that even if automation can carry out some functions more rapidly and efficiently than humans, it still makes better social sense for us to continue to carry on with those functions, even if we do them less well or are not as profitable.
Tomorrow’s technicians may also come around to believing that human beings, as currently constituted, should be modified. After all, engineers have used technology to improve technology, just as experts have used computers to produce better computers, and bio-technicians are using biology to improve plants and livestock. Is there a rational reason why humans should be the exception to this chain of betterment? Eventually, “mind” (or Artificial Intelligence) may well emerge in bio-mechanical machines which may prove to be a difficult challenge for civilization.
Today automation, no longer limited to factories and assembly lines, is being integrated into every day life. We are increasingly automating the military, health care, transport and housekeeping. Two Dutch experts have compiled a comprehensive overview on automation and robotics whose table of contents overwhelmed me.4 The challenge of evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of Mechanoids, Humanoids and Androids on our sex lives, stopped me. For the time being I shall leave human-robot interaction to the pages of science fiction.
A global debate on the use of military drones has obviously been avoided for far too long. So has the private use of drones — with one million drones, each weighing up to 25 kilos, having been sold in the United States. Such drones pose a serious threat to security as terrorists could use them on sport events and public crowds. The Economist pointed out that “Technology can also keep drones out of trouble. Some drone makers are installing “geo-fencing” software which programs a drone’s GPS to prevent flights near sites such as airports and nuclear power stations as well as restricting the speed and height that they can reach.”5 The development of common legal and ethical principles for the responsible use of drones is essential.
A basic condition for humanitarian law is that someone can be held responsible for undesirable consequences at all times. Robots are likely to test the boundaries of our antiquated legal frameworks. There is a need for timely government action on the gradual robotization of automobiles and traffic. The US government has funded much of the advances in science and technology since the beginning of the Cold War in 1950, but it has not matched this with controlling the consequences. Technological development was mostly driven by the US Defense Department’s push in areas ranging from satellite communications to molecular biology, transistors, the internet as well as drones and automation. Today’s governments hardly feature in giving a direction to technological developments. I believe it is urgent that governments obtain automatic shares and a percentage of the profits from the patents and intellectual property they protect on automation and technology.
The “Silicon Valley” mindset has propagated a belief in techno-optimism which promotes that driver-less cars will prevent gridlock, that mobile phones will spur growth in the less developed nations, and that robots will look after the old as the aging population mounts. Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are struggling in a media rivalry over whose technologies will come out on top. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, for example, is experimenting with lasers, drones, and satellites which could connect remote areas of the globe. Apple’s iPhone has now reached an impressive 2.5 billion people. The problem is that while capitalist-driven technology can increase and multiply consumer desires, it can also lower the number of employees who could pay for them.
Corporations pushing beyond the personal computer to the personal robot could serve to swell the ranks of the unemployed. In economics, the ultimate human goal must be the ability of all to find gainful employment. Capitalism is now failing in this respect. No elite of scientists, inventors and investors should be permitted to fleece all of mankind as they are doing now.
As technology encroaches on a world increasingly dominated by machines, people have begun to ask what are its limits? It would seem there are none: Technology is speeding up the rate of human evolution itself. Bound as we appear to be to technology, we can no longer pretend to be free. We are manacled. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, was already asking in the 1950s: “Is man a defenseless and perplexed victim at the mercy of the irresistible superior power of technology?”6 He concluded that it was impossible to brake or direct its history.
New Directions for a Technology Dominated World
Technology may promise marvels for tomorrow, but we should not let it run away at such speeds as to destroy everything we once valued — starting with our environment. Do we really want technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering, nuclear energy and communications which will overwhelm the achievements of the past two centuries? The speed of change in the electronic industries, the speed of communications, and the flickering images of the digital screens already seem to have reduced our patience and ability to focus.
Social architects “must begin to combine technological ingenuity with sociological awareness, and governments need to design institutions and processes that will help integrate new, artificial agents into society,” writes the author of Robot Futures.7 To do that, however, we must aim for a society structured around long-term changes rather than one having to cope with continual short-term crises. Socially, we must collaborate and urge governments to prevent an uncontrolled system (or an elite of billionaires controlling it) from dehumanizing us. How are the electorate and its representatives to prevent the potentially dehumanizing effects of automation? Who will decide how to shape limits on biotech brain research? Even if much is desirable, how could controls on the shaping of automation over the coming decades be achieved? Are the codes of information technology and the codes of molecular biology not likely to be progressively intermingled? (The genome of every cell contains 3 billion bits of coded information, so such efficient packaging by nature is too ingenious not to be copied.)
We don’t need philosophers to tell us that our brains do not seem able to direct the complex decision making process involved in resolving the challenges of an out-of-control technology. Despite all the expert briefs, the discussion papers and the endless reports, we have been unable to draft any workable strategies for change. The fact is that, as a society, we must rethink our basic assumptions about changing the world. This demands an entirely different ethos, one not founded on the advances in science and technology, not driven by capitalist consumerism, and not centered on possessive individualism. To achieve such a paradigm shift, people may have to transfer their focus from the material world to the miracle of their own internal consciousness, possibly onto the as-yet-unfathomable universe, or even on an evolutionary system which generates perpetual change. Yes, controlled change is a genuine and positive possibility and I firmly believe democratic politicians globally should start to grasp this.
1Evgeny Morozov, “Tech Titans are busy privatizing our data,” The Observer, April 14, 2016
2John Brockman, The Third Culture, (1995) p. 377
3Eric K. Drexler, Engines of Creation, (1986) p. 14
4Lamber Royakkers and Rinie van Est, Just Ordinary Robots: Automation from Love to War, (2016).
5“Keeping the skies safe,” The Economist, April 23, 2016, p. 70
6Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, (1960) p. 52
7Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, “All too Human” , Foreign Affairs, July 2015, p. 28