The rise of the Internet of Things and AI promise a new age of efficiency and connectivity. What changes can we expect to our culture and way of life, and what are the implications?
Our lifestyles have evolved profoundly in the last twenty years, and it seems reasonably certain that this trend will continue. IoT devices embedded into our infrastructure give us an unprecedented amount of information about and control over our environment, and this is certainly set to increase. Moreover, artificial intelligence researchers are transcending what were thought to be the limits of their ability. Recently the program AlphaGo beat the world’s top rated Go player: long considered a near-impossible feat for artificial intelligence. Their success demonstrates that AIs may be capable of far more than we imagined.
The Robots Are Taking Over
The rate of progress in the field of machine learning means that futuristic ideas may soon seem mundane. The era of self-driving cars is approaching quickly, prompting questions about how this will change the way we live. While self-driving cars could transform the lives of people who can’t drive, such as people with disabilities and the elderly, they could also make higher-paying blue collar jobs, such as taxi and long distance truck driving, obsolete.
While we can’t predict exactly how machine learning will progress, or the order in which AIs will acquire different skillsets, it seems likely that occupations that require less training will be absorbed first, which could make it even harder for blue collar workers to get a job. This could lead to increased wealth disparity in society, with an increasingly pinched working class.
This is far from a new problem: the term Luddite dates back to 19th century textile workers who smashed the machines that displaced them. As algorithms and devices emerge that can do work which previously required a skilled operator — 24/7, for no pay and without any need for training — human workers may become unable to compete.
Economists have argued that this process does not cause long-term unemployment, but, given the current rate of game-changing innovation, it’s becoming a more pressing issue. Some commentators have suggested implementing a basic or unconditional income as a solution for societies which no longer need their members’ full labor capacity to sustain themselves.
Canadian province Ontario plans to launch an experimental scheme based on this idea in coming months: it will be interesting to see their results, and if other basic wage pilots on a similar scale will follow. Unlinking income from employment is a controversial idea: would it remove citizens’ motivation to contribute to society, or give them freedom to realize their full potential?
Also consider that rich countries have outsourced much of their labor to poorer countries, meaning that on a global scale, developing countries with economies most reliant on less-skilled workers will be the first and hardest affected by these advances. This could be amplified by the fact that speed of technology adoption predicts future economic performance. Countries which are already struggling to provide basic services to their citizens are in no position to consider avant-garde measures like unconditional income.
The increased speed and ease of communication brought by the internet has catalyzed the process of globalization, the negative effects of which disproportionately impact poorer countries. It’s very possible that near-future advances could exacerbate the global gulf between rich and poor.
When was the last time you spent a day without using the internet? Unless you’re a particularly keen outdoor enthusiast, it’s probably been a while. Our society’s internet addiction is particularly strong in some people, who show classic withdrawal symptoms when they’re cut off. As technology becomes more intuitive and streamlined into our daily lives, we’re becoming increasingly dependant on it. Can you imagine accessing our bank accounts, ordering food and interacting with friends without it? The consequences of this have been explored extensively in fiction, and while a total collapse doomsday event shown in World’s End is unlikely, could we be heading towards a society that is ignorantly blissful to be weak, gullible and ineffective as in Wall-E?
The shift towards interacting online rather than in person also means a reduction in privacy. Any information saved in the cloud or transmitted via the internet can no longer be regarded as truly private, as our knowledge of government surveillance activity demonstrates. As well as increased availability of private data online, there is a commensurate lack of concern. While surveys might indicate that we’re not happy about warrantless surveillance, it’s not a subject that has provoked mass protest. What expectation of privacy will we have in the future? If we’re hesitant to draw the line today, where will we seek to draw it tomorrow?
Even without worrying about Big Brother looking over your shoulder, we’re increasingly preoccupied with what our peers think of us and what we say. If we say something thoughtless in a private conversation, the consequences are unlikely to be more than a moment of awkwardness. However, a thoughtless tweet has the potential to ruin lives: so we’re all more careful what we say, to the point of self-censorship. Has increased connectivity given us more information about the world at the cost of being less genuine and honest with each other?
Innovation promises to alleviate our problems, but possibly at the cost of creating more. The last two decades have brought profound changes in how we socialize, work and learn about the world, and this trend seems set to continue. We may be on the brink of another technological leap forward: hopefully, as a society we will be mindful of the costs of progress, and ensure that the most vulnerable people in our global society don’t pay more than their share.
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