Rethinking technological development and automation
THE FUTURIAN #1
Can we trust technology? The very fact that this question is on the tip of our collective tongues speaks to our contemporary malaise. The accelerating pace of technological change leaves nothing holy, nothing sacred. Generational transformations take place in the span of a couple of years, and have made unthinkable strides, besting human beings in complex tasks from diagnosing illnesses to playing Go. Even uniquely human endeavours that require human creativity, such as the arts and music, promise to be next. And on the horizon, we hear whispers of Artificial General Intelligence, which can mimic and exceed human intelligence just as human beings imagine themselves intellectually superior to animals. Alvin Toffler wrote his best-selling book Future Shock in 1970 to describe the psychological effects of such rapid change, and accurately diagnosed the pulse of his generation — what about us contemporary human beings fifty years later, for whom the 1970s is imagined to be a pastoral paradise?
Technological advancements have implications for our material livelihoods. This is a key locus of our anxieties: accelerating developments of exponential technologies will accelerate automation of human labour, stripping us of our ability to make a living. Reputable organizations publish statistics that seem to confirm our anxieties. A McKinsey Global Institute report that estimates that 375 million workers, or about 14 percent of the global labour force, will need to switch jobs; a World Economic Forum study suggests that a third of all jobs are at risk of automation in the next decade.
Can we trust technology? Our contemporary framing of the question betrays an important assumption. In this formulation, technology is framed as a human-like, autonomous force, and a moral agent that makes its own decisions. Why do we not trust technology? It is because it seems to exist outside of human control. In this image, human beings lag behind, increasingly powerless, as technology develops faster and faster, leaving us without work and destitute. Faced with this predicament, should we look to the Luddites for inspiration, and put up a brave and noble resistance against inevitability?
What is technology, really? The term technology finds its roots in the word techne, which means art, skill, craft, or the way, manner, or means by which a thing is gained. Just as its roots suggest, technology has always been a tool for human beings to achieve their endeavours. We put the cart before the horse (or the tool in front of the human being) when we imagine technology to be an autonomous force that operates beyond our control. It should be, in fact, the opposite. In the final analysis, technology depends on human ingenuity for its development. We are ultimately the designers and creators of the technologies that populate our contemporary society.
I use the first-person plural pronoun “we” to describe collective human society; however, it is possible to further analyze the “we,” and identify the people who are most directly involved with the creation of the technologies. On the one hand, there are the engineers, the designers, the researchers, and others who are intimately involved in the creation of technologies. On the other hand, there are those who benefit from the development of certain technologies, and actively spur on these technologies. Taking the perspective of an economist, in the context of automation of jobs, this would be those who own capital as opposed to those who sell their labour on the market. Those who own the technologies of production have an interest in automation to replace labour, if the cost of labour becomes too expensive.
It becomes immediately apparent that if these two groups (and of course, others) did not actively work towards the development of certain technology, then there is no way for the technology to be developed. Technology does not develop itself as an uncontrollable and autonomous force; it is completely reliant on human beings for its development.
The recognition of this fact opens up new futures. By interrogating our former assumptions and by taking this new framing onto the (development of) technology, we can imagine completely different worlds, where technologies do not threaten human livelihoods. Instead, we can imagine worlds where technologies foster optimal outcomes for human society as a whole. When we speak of automation in the abstract, we forget that jobs are a collection of skills, competencies, and tasks. Perhaps socially optimal technological disruption could lead to selective automation. We could form partnerships between technology creators and the most vulnerable in society to co-create technologies. The most unpleasant, boring, and repetitive tasks could be automated away. Workers could work less, instead of being replaced. Perhaps Keynes’ expectations of a four-hour work day could finally be realized and even exceeded.
Technology could allow us to pursue our true passions instead of worrying about the means to survival. Instead of trust or suspicion in technology, we should perhaps ask a different question: do we trust those who are currently involved in the development of new technologies?
© Kevin Jae 2021