The age of sudden big change

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The age of sudden big change


Technology is changing society very quickly but we are not thinking about the human impact. Dinyar Godrej writes about some of the important problems for the future.

Today the speed of change is so very fast. In the past changes in technology happened slowly over thousands of years, like farming, or hundreds of years, like industry. Today big changes happen in a few years and it is difficult to predict them. And with progress in automation, we need to think about robots in industry and driverless cars but also about the many ways computers and digital technology is changing our work and our lives. We are now at the beginning of a new age of very big and maybe very difficult changes.

Now we see sudden solutions to old problems. Researchers spent years trying to get computers to identify objects but then machine-learning solved the problem. Computers use algorithms to learn from examples, data, and experience. Google’s technology to recognise pictures is now better than humans.

We thought that automation could not do the job of a dentist. But in September 2017 in China, a robot dentist put in two teeth without help from a dentist. The teeth were 3D printed.

Of course, Silicon Valley believes in big changes. Completely changing industries means making big money for one company. Mark Zuckerberg says for Facebook, ‘Move fast and break things.’ This is now true for capitalists making money from technology.

Some people are worried about this. In October 2016 Klaus Schwab from the World Economic Forum was unhappy and said, ‘Society is facing the “new unknown”.'

Fewer jobs?

Most of the problems of automation are in work and jobs.

Citi and Oxford Martin School says 80 per cent of retail jobs are at risk. It’s not just machines replacing the people at the tills in shops but more internet shopping and automation in warehouses and transport.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) says that in Britain, we may lose jobs in finance and accounting, transport and distribution, and media marketing and advertising. Another report says we may lose one in three British jobs.

And for the Majority World things are no better. A study using World Bank data says we may lose 77 per cent of jobs in China, 69 per cent in India, and 85 per cent in. Uzbekistan. These ideas about the future are because there may be no more low-wage labour in the Global South with automation making manufacture cheaper in the West. And more automation in poorer countries may replace more jobs than in the West.

Others disagree and say with new technology there will be different kinds of jobs, or life will be better and work will matter less. But in the US, only 0.5 per cent of workers have found new and different jobs.

There is also the idea that it is better to have automation in jobs that are boring, repetitive, dirty or dangerous.

But there are very good technological advances. Artificial intelligence can now find cancers better than doctors and is better than doctors in diagnosing symptoms. Robots can do surgery with steady hands. This is good news of course for patients but not so good for the doctors. It is likely and maybe possible for computer programs to study case law better and faster and suggest lines of defence in court. But do we want them to be the only possibility? Algorithms can find illegal financial transactions in a millisecond. But they can also do fast buying and selling on the stock market. At the same time they can compete with other computers. It’s very good that drones can deliver medicines to remote rural areas in Malawi. But there is a problem if the areas stay remote and that is the only health care they have. And with China’s robot dentist – well, the country doesn’t have enough dentists. But is it better to train more humans?

We always need to think about the effects on humans. And we are not doing that enough.

A new report showed that US workers who used automation at work were more likely to vote for Donald Trump. It is possible they were thinking about Trump’s plan to bring manufacturing back to the US again. But in 2016, the US produced more goods than ever (85 per cent more than in 1987). And with one important difference: it did this with 30 per cent fewer workers. Manufacturing was already back in the US, but more and more machines did the work. Maybe Trump blamed globalization for losing jobs but today many people say that automation is a bigger problem.

Orange growers in California are, worried about not finding enough cheap migrant workers. They are investing in an orange-picking robot. And in Britain with Brexit, farmers are thinking about automated strawberry-pickers costing $250,000 each.

Bad for workers

Many predictions about work make a few unhappy points. More and more we will divide jobs into low-paid/low-skilled and high-paid/high-skilled, with only a few people doing the high-paid/high-skilled jobs. Workers will have less power and wages will go down. Algorithms in management will lead to more robotic working conditions for humans; and maybe many people will do work that is just between machines.

Willem Schinkel is a Dutch sociologist. He says, ‘If we think that work will disappear, that is a very good way to make us work more cheaply.’ This means we will be at work 24 hours a day. Then we will want to have our boring 9-to-5 jobs back.


A real Robocop! A police robot in Dubai in May 2017. It will help people report crimes and answer questions about parking tickets but it will not arrest anyone. About 25 per cent of Dubai police will be robots by 2030. Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Another idea is that more and more jobs will not be necessary. So we must learn new skills again and again to have a job. And perhaps most of us do not want to do this or cannot do this. So we must fit our skills to the needs of the intelligent machines and those who control them!

Another prediction is that inequality will increase with technology. This would be very bad for the Global South. At the beginning of 2107 Oxfam said that just eight rich men now control as much wealth as the world’s poorest 50 per cent.

Social critic Curtis White said,, ‘Robots are very good at supply but they don’t create demand.’ Techno-capitalism would make most of us economically worthless for our labour, and there would be a few very rich people controlling us.


Governments don’t seem to think about regulating new technology and its effects. The changes are coming so fast that they are finding it impossible. Schwab says that regulators need to change and that there is a ‘decentralization of power that new technologies make possible’. This means tech billionaires have the power to make decisions because no-one will stop them. Larry Page from Google wants to reserve a part of the planet for unlimited experiments without regulation.

We can see this power grab in the world of Big Data. Many people complain that all our digital activities, and the way the internet watches us are making a rich bank of data, And only a few mainly US companies are using this data. They can use this data to influence our political behaviour, what we buy, and many other parts of our lives.

Critics say that governments are giving public statistics to the big data companies and they are doing it without thinking. But at digital trade talks the rich countries make sure that they stop any kind of regulation.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In September 2017, Vladimir Putin said, ‘Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for the world… The leader in Ai will be the leader of the world.’ Putin was talking not about the AI we already have but about the future - general artificial intelligence (AGI), AGI could possibly do what humans do and do it better – in financial markets, in research, in controlling human leaders, and making weapons we cannot understand.

Some say AGI is a long way in the future or it will never happen. Some are very afraid of AGI and others are looking forward to it. The worriers want action now for safety problems that are so complex that they may take many years to solve.

Those who want AGI have a simple plan. GoodAI, is trying to direct machine intelligence to look at ethical decision-making. It wants AGI to ‘to help humanity and understand the universe.’. Dennis Hassabis from Google’s DeepMind, says his company’s job is ‘Step one, solve intelligence. Step two, use it to solve everything else.’

AI ethicist John C Havens says: ‘I wonder what would happen if we spent more time helping each other directly, and not relying on machines to grow brains for us.’

I need to tell you before I go that a person wrote this article and not a robot. Or is that really true?

Dinyar Godrej has worked New Internationalist since 1989, but joined as an editor in 2000. His interest in human rights means he writes about world hunger, torture, landmines, present day slavery, and healthcare.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).