Will the newest technologies help everyone?

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Will the newest technologies help everyone?

Silicon Valley’s latest ideas in technology will make a lot of money. But millions of people will lose. Jim Thomas writes about new technologies.


© Donough O’ Malley

It’s a long way from Silicon Valley in California, to the farms of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. But California affects the future of the poorest people. Silicon Valley is hoping to make money with new technologies which will change things for everyone. There are already changes for the workers of the Global South.

Forty years ago Silicon Valley made billions of dollars with computer chips. Personal computers and the big internet companies have changed the world. But today there are new technologies which will change everything: synthetic biology, machine learning, artificial intelligence, gene editing, self-driving cars, flexible manufacturing, drone agriculture, robotics, and meat grown in the science laboratory.

Digital manufacturing

Digital manufacturing is the biggest new idea. In the last 30 years it was digitizing information. Text, sound, video, and communication were made into digital form. And data companies made a lot of money. Today they hope that in the next 20 years we will see physical things digitized. Factory work, agriculture, trade will change completely like newspapers, taxi drivers, and telephone companies changed before.

Today it is possible to use using a 3D printer to copy something like a violin in one place and ‘print’ it on the other side of the world. It is possible to email digital instructions to the robots of a flexible factory, like the Tesla factory in California or Foxconn in China, so that the same machines that build racing cars can change to building battery packs. If you use digital manufacturing with ‘microfactories’ like today’s photocopying shops, and use a drone to deliver, then it is possible we will not need to transport goods around the world. It is possible this will change international trade so that ships will be emptier and the workers in the sweatshops will earn less money. Robots are already doing these workers’ jobs.

Synthetic biology

It is possible that something like this will happen with food. Companies are using genomics and synthetic biology to find genetic codes that produce flavours like vanilla or saffron. Then they send the genetic codes across the world by internet. Factories ‘print’ the vanilla and saffron flavours and compete with the workers who grow plants in East Africa or the Middle East. And the flavours are called ‘natural’.


Ann Nduta looks after her plants. Marian Bassey

It is also possible to use artificial intelligence to tell a computer to replace a chemical or material with what is cheapest, for example, to replace egg whites with bean proteins, replace copper and steel with engineered nanomaterials or make chemicals more cheaply. This will change the way we get materials from mines and fields.

These changes will affect the Majority World, for example, the work of many farmers, dockers, drivers, miners, textile workers, and others will be less valuable. In 2013 Oxford University researchers said that it is possible that computers especially in transport and offices will replace 47 per cent of jobs in the US. In the Global South computers will replace many more jobs.

Taking the market

Kericho County in Kenya is ten thousand miles away from California. In a field there Ann Nduta Kanini grows stevia leaf. It is a natural sweetener. She is one of 3,000 farmers in Kericho County who grow stevia leaf for world markets. She can earn enough money to look after her eight children and her mother. Stevia leaf makes good money for farmers like Ann but this may stop.

Evolva is a Swiss-American synthetic biology company. With the big grain company Cargill it has made a synthetic stevia plant called ‘Eversweet’.

Ann is worried that synthetic biology will take away her job. ‘They are using machines and I am using my hands,’ she says sadly.

The industry which makes flavours and fragrances uses over 250 different extracts from 20 million small farmers. But it is already starting to use synthetic biology to make its flavours and fragrances.

Some countries depend on agriculture and they are talking about these problems in international meetings about synthetic biology as Madagascar’s vanilla farmers or Iran’s saffron farmers find they may lose their jobs.

Of course there will also be good news. For example, making synthetic sandalwood may stop illegal cutting of African and Indian sandalwood trees. Local digital manufacturing of goods may produce less carbon. And 3D printing of medical supplies for war zones is an interesting idea.

But the new technologies will be good for those with the money to invest. A few good ideas may not be enough to help those whose lives will be worse.

Jim Thomas is Programme Director with ETC Group. It is, an international organization looking at the effects of new technologies on the poorest peoples.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2016/05/01/emerging-technologies/

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