By PETER COOK
Can you imagine a world where we work 15 hours a week with greater access to leisure, pleasure, intellectual and social stimulation? We’ve been promised this for decades, but the advent of computers has hermetically attached us to our iPods, iPads and office pods.
Artificial intelligence offers us a one-time opportunity to break free of our addiction to working on the chain gang, although it is as yet unclear as to whether our merger with artificial intelligence will lead to a War of the Worlds or a harmonious fusion of man, woman and machine.
Brain Based Enterprises is a new book that explores the role that innovation and creativity will play to help us survive and thrive in the 4th Industrial Revolution. This is not the age of steam, coal or manufacturing, but the information revolution, where value is created primarily through the intelligent combination of knowledge and wisdom.
How shall we cope in a world where it has variously been predicted that up to 50 per cent of our jobs will disappear in the next few decades? What does that mean for education, where the half-life of knowledge is in free-fall? What will become of money in such a world? How shall we fall in love?
In the extract below, the author expands upon the various scenarios that will inform our lives as we merge with machines.
It’s 7.05 am on Jan 5, 2030. The day begins for Julie:
Julie wakes up at exactly the optimum time to maximise her sleep, well-being and energy, to a vibration in her neck from her embedded well-being monitor. Some ambient music bathes the room, bathed in soft purple swirling lighting. The smell of freshly brewed coffee percolates upwards from the kitchen. These are things she chose in her psychological contract with Rover.
In a few minutes, coffee, water and fruit slices are brought to her by Rover, her personal robotic assistant. It’s time for Julie’s early morning well-being session, led by her ever-faithful 24/7 digital guide, who has already ironed her underwear, run a bath, organised her bag for the day, checked her travel schedule, confirmed her appointments and so on. Rover also monitored Julie’s vital signs and adjusted her personal exercise routine around her expected physical activity during the day, to maximise her balance of mind, body and soul.
Rover is, of course, a robot and makes rational decisions based on an aggregation of big data about what’s best for Julie’s work, life and play. However, Rover has also integrated humanity by taking on board Julie’s own personal values within the decision-making algorithms that Rover uses.
We are seeing the earliest signs and signifiers of a world where man and machine have switched roles, with driverless trains, 3D printing, self-service shops, smart cities, smart homes, smartphones and drones. We can already measure our vital signs to improve our vitality and receive live updates on life threatening conditions to help us live long and prosper.
However, the transformation towards our love affair with machines is not exactly new. We perhaps began to notice the difference as long ago as 1822, with Charles Babbage’s invention of the difference engine. Since that time, we have had the enigma machine, The Casio FX77, and many more devices that have enabled us to do ever more complex things.
Many more things are still to come in our enigmatic relationship with machines via the Internet of things (IoT), which promises to have 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020.
Listen to this podcast: Staying Ahead in the Age of Automation
Innovation consultancy firm Arthur D. Little reports that any technology innovations that enhance people’s time to spend on higher level Maslow needs and reduce or remove the need to focus on the lower level needs is a good innovation.
We will increasingly have the ability to separate the things that satisfy us from the things that we have to do. It is entirely feasible that we will have time to enjoy those things in life that we do purely for their intrinsic value, such as arts and crafts. Perhaps, like Julie’s example in 2030, we’ll use machines to clear the space and time for us to enjoy such things.
The economist Larry Summers pointed out that, whereas the availability of capital used to enhance labour, it may now displace labour. One only has to look at the automotive industry to see a glimpse of the future for these other sectors in terms of how automation has affected jobs.
In addition to technology, geopolitics is also driving change. For example, in construction, agriculture, health, hospitality, where there has been easy access to low cost labour, there has been little incentive to look at automation, but this has now appeared on the agenda in the wake of an uprising of nationalism across the western world.
From coal mining to data mining, we can envisage a number of future scenarios in our love/indifference/hate affair with man, woman, machines, robotics, artificial intelligence and official stupidity:
1. War of the Worlds
In this dystopian view, humans battle it out with machines and all lose the value of each other’s contributions. Like the film of the same name, it is a zero sum game for all concerned (or a nil-nil draw in football terms), with dramatic consequences for humanity, humility and technology alike.
Despite this being a lose-lose game for all concerned, we humans love a little drama in our lives, so War of the Worlds is not a completely unlikely scenario, especially in some business sectors, where it may be seen as a battle for supremacy that will at least appeal to some alpha males and females.
Pic courtesy of Peter Cook
2. Planet of the Apes
Humans decide to work without machines. This is an impoverished retro world in which humanity slides backwards overall. In football terms, this is one-nil to the humans or an ‘ignore’ strategy.
Although it sounds unlikely as a scenario, we already see attempts to ignore the march of automation in terms of the arguments about driverless trains in the United Kingdom (UK), and to a lesser degree, road transport.
Railways have the advantage of having rails so the destination and journey is already pre-set to some degree. There are also already examples of driverless trains all over the world.
As I write, we have experienced a series of lengthy strikes by rail staff in the UK over the gradual erosion of human presence on their trains. The argument revolved around whether the trains would continue to have an on-board member of staff, although it was presented as a health and safety issue to the general public in terms of who was responsible for shutting the doors.
It is certain that technology will not go away from such occupations and the unions would do well to think about what humans can contribute to people’s lives on transport systems, rather than attempting to stop the onward march of technology.
Road transport is more difficult in some ways as the landscape is a more random one, with pedestrians, cyclists, obstacles and the lack of what railway people call a ‘permanent way’ on most roads.
There are currently concerns about the idea of having convoys of lorries on our motorways with the trailing driverless vehicles connected by Bluetooth. As an aside, I can understand the concern over the connectivity, having travelled widely and been repeatedly told that conference centres have Bluetooth speakers for my music, which then cease to work in every place from New York to Old Amsterdam.
Until a technology can be shown to be fail-safe, why not use a good old wire? Sure, it does not matter that much when the risk is that your music will not play at a seminar, but it does matter if you may kill someone on a motorway.
However, the wider point is that the technology will eventually be made to be fail-safe, so never mind my occasional blue language over Bluetooth! So, returning to the issue of driverless cars and lorries, recent research bears witness to our Planet of the Apes scenario:
- Fifty-eight per cent of people think that driverless cars are an interesting technology with merit, but they also think that humans will always drive vehicles.
- Nineteen per cent believe driverless cars are safer than cars driven by humans, and that replacing all human-operated vehicles should be the goal.
- Thirteen percent believe driverless cars are a dangerous technology, prone to accidents and hacking. They believe that widespread implementation would leave millions jobless. As such, they believe that we should rein in the implementation of automated vehicles. However, it is not clear from the research just who ‘we’ are – manufacturers, politicians, consumers, etc. Within this 13 per cent is the Planet of the Apes outlook on life.
- This outlook is mirrored in views about convoys of lorries connected by Bluetooth, with 64 per cent believing that this development would make roads more dangerous, and 46 per cent believing that it would kill an entire industry.
Whilst technology marches on, we can see in this example what Twiss said: that technology is always impeded by social evolution. When evolution is actually perceived as a threat, we can see how there may be a rocky road to implementation.
We have seen a less belligerent form of Planet of the Apes in the returns to various crafts, where human ingenuity and the personal touch are seen as more valuable or authentic than machine efficiency.
Such nostalgia can co-exist with the efficiencies that can come from machines where people are prepared to pay a premium price for hand-made products and services, from craft beer to craft work.
3. Attack of the Clones
Machines not only augment human function, they mainly replace it, but without the human systems in place for us to enjoy the leisure time that this creates. We live easy yet unfulfilled lives as a result. In football terms, this is one-nil to the machines as they replace entire jobs once performed by humans.
Some observers have predicted that the technological singularity will signal the end of the human era around 2040, as superintelligence advances at exponential rates. We have not exactly been attacked by clones up till this point except in the movies, but just notice the quiet revolutions in areas that we take for granted.
Your switchboard operator is digital, your lift operator is electric, and some receptionists are now electronic. The Attack of the Clones scenario seems fairly unlikely, yet we already see how automation can de-skill jobs such as car manufacture and agriculture, if the people doing them do not step up to new levels to profit from augmentation. The choice is in our hands. All that needs to happen for this to become reality is for humans to decide to recline in their sofas and watch the world go by.
Here is what Winston Churchill might have said in Attack of the Clones:
“We will fight them with our synapses. We will fight them with our neurons. We shall never reprogram.”
4. The Man (Woman) Machine
We work in an integrated way with machines, using them for what they do best and deploying human skills when they are of greatest advantage. As a result we live easier, more fulfilled lives.
The epilogue I wrote for this book is informed by The Man (Woman) Machine, also referred to as The Man-Machine for convenience, and in deference to the Kraftwerk album of the same name. This is one-all draw in football terms, a win-win or ‘cobotic’ approach. This approach is already established in use within certain high tech professions such as surgery, electronics, pharmaceuticals and opticians, so it is not a work of science fiction.
Rather than fighting with machines and AI, the smart leader finds ways to seamlessly integrate with technology, moving their skills up to high levels of emotional literacy to enrich their own jobs.
We must learn to ‘swim with information’ rather than ‘drown with data’ in a world where we consume more data in one day than the average person in 1800 did within their entire lifetime. This requires us to become much better at choosing and deciding what we consume without polarising our choices into a narrow view.
We would do well to remember that in the battle to automate, Darwin always wins (eventually), so be part of the solution by finding smart ways to integrate with technology rather than becoming a laggard.
Peter leads Human Dynamics. He is passionate in the areas of science, business and music, and is the author of eight books, acclaimed by Tom Peters and Professor Charles Handy.