Carl Michael inspects the impact of technology on Belt and Road Initiative in his fifth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The term technology covers the development and utilization of technical capabilities in relation to people and the environment. Technologies are material and non-material or digital inventions that have enabled human beings to survive, thrive and advance. They ought not to be considered in isolation from the era or the societies in which they exist. For instance, some experts consider that were it not for the development of the chariot, China itself as a unified entity would not exist. Such is the impact of technology on society. Continuing on this note, if one considers the very concept of the state as a ‘technology’ in its own right, one can define a state as the sum of human endeavour in the production of economic, military, social or artistic outcomes. Extending this train of thought, one can consider the state or the BRI to be a ‘network’, and one which acts within a global network.
The evolution of the BRI must be considered in the context of political technologies such as states and intrastate activities. It should be acknowledged how these technologies interact with other cutting-edge technologies and the resulting evolution of governance. In this macro-context, national or civilizational interactions are part of a complex technological network. When insights from complexity theory and network theory are incorporated into one’s perspective, the evolution of the BRI and its vision can be viewed in a new light. This provides a viewpoint which could be useful when considering how technology impacts the intentions driving an initiative such as the BRI. The economic future of China is technology dependent and effective utilization and transfer of technology will be at the heart of the BRI. Further to this, as BRI members develop, there will be greater demand for advanced technologies, wherever they come from.
For China, technology and success are almost synonymous and the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategic plan is the blueprint for China’s intent for seizing leadership in advanced technology. It is a world leader in digital payment systems and the intent is to surge forward in ICT, artificial intelligence, robotics, high-speed railways, biotech and medical technology, pharmaceuticals, space technology, renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, nuclear energy and military technology. To fuel this surge China needs access, one way or another, to commodities from developing countries or cutting-edge technology from developed countries. The BRI presents China with opportunities to use its accumulated capital to increase its ability to control and optimise global value chains on favourable terms for developing and exporting its technology.
The danger from the current global crisis has showcased China’s strategic biotech capabilities. Chinese leadership in other key technology sectors can be noted from its young, large and ambitious technology workforce, its recent accounting for a third of a space-launches, its pushing ahead with ambitious plans for cleaner and safer next-generation nuclear power, and its acknowledged strength in 5G telecom networks and digital platforms. With this in mind, we can see that China’s ‘Technological Tianxia’ will be one of fast, technologically driven economic and social change with a centrally managed approach, including the use of technology for military and power-projection. The speed of this change is considerable. China took just over a decade for over a billion people to double industrial output per person. In comparison, the UK took well over a century and the US took about half a century. The technology driven vision of the future will be a distinctive factor for an imagined community such as the BRI and this vision will be driven by Chinese technology prophets, entrepreneurs, influencers and venture capitalists.
Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects technologies that could be likely helpful to climate change challenge. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Some people call them a shot in the dark. Others insist they’re escapist fantasy. For others, they’re the saviors we can’t ignore. Regardless of what words you use, negative emissions technologies demand our attention. An emerging area of research and development, they continue to dangle real potential to change the climate adaptation game.
In case you’ve yet to hear of them, here’s a brief definition. Also known as ‘carbon dioxide removal systems,’ negative emissions technologies are tools to extract CO2, one of the biggest contributors to global warming, from the atmosphere.
Their allure has multiple dimensions. Many acknowledge that as we move towards a net-zero or even net-negative world, halting all carbon emissions both immediately and in the long term is a daunting task. The primary avenues for achieving those goals lie in widespread adoption of more renewable energy and green technology systems. Due to widespread political, economic and cultural issues, however, many carbon drawdown plans recommend continuing certain sources of carbon use for certain periods of time, in the hopes of enabling smoother transitions. That carbon emitted now could be extracted from the atmosphere later presents a comforting prospect, that we could live in a world where the process of addressing climate change could be achieved through less disruptive means.
While they sound too good to be true, negative emissions technologies are no fantasy. They currently exist. From bioenergy generation to direct air capture to biochar, these tools have been proven to extract atmosphere CO2. At present, however, the processes are very energy intensive, making the tools prohibitively expensive as blanket go-to strategies for effective sequestration at actionable scales.
New research could change that. For example, Wil Srubar, and Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has recently developed techniques to replace cement in concrete with cyanobacteria. As construction is one of the most heavily polluting industries, and cement in particular emits huge amounts of of CO2 every year, this innovation presents opportunities for real positive change. Because cyanobacteria is a common class of microbe that captures energy through photosynthesis, this new type of concrete passively absorbs carbon from its surroundings. If the technology is scaled - and it is receiving considerable attention from large scale funders already - it could create buildings and cities capable of becoming not just carbon neutral but carbon negative. Imagine a city where all substrates and surfaces function like a forest, with carbon sinks cropping up wherever human development exists.
Despite its many potential benefits, the technology would be no silver bullet. Indeed, it could feasibly enact even more complex and dangerous repercussions. Introducing living organisms into uncontrolled urban environments stands the very real chance of creating lethal externalities, from the emergence of previously unseen diseases to new vulnerabilities in essential support systems. Were bio-hacked cyanobacteria to become the building blocks of our cities, it stands to reason that new, uncontrollable mutations might well cause unanticipated and widespread havoc, both domestically and across the globe.
Yet perhaps the most compelling risk that negative emissions present is one of human complacency. If we find ways to extract carbon from our atmosphere, what’s to prevent us from continuing to produce more carbon, methane and other problematic substances, failing to curb the practices that result in greater climatic uncertainty in the first place?
To provide more help than harm, negative emissions must be implemented in conjunction with more cohesive energy efficient and net carbon neutral efforts across our borders. Technology alone is not enough to save us. With restraint, international coordination and thoughtful implementation, we stand a far better chance.
Carl Michael inspects the underpinnings ofBelt and Road Initiative in his second post for our Emerging Fellows program blog.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The desire for ‘silk’ provided the impetus for the Silk Road in the millennia past. Without ‘silk’ to be traded there would be no merchants and no customers and therefore there would be no silk road. In our generation ‘silk’ could be considered as the manifestation of highly desired trade goods as well as trade secrets. The underpinning ‘silk’ is also about the people who create it and provide it to others along roads, routes and journeys to distant places.
The BRI is further underpinned by China’s enviable position on the far-eastern edge of the Eurasian landmass, where the bulk of its people and economic might is situated. This position provides the starting point of the BRI, which ends in Europe, on the far-western edge of Eurasia. China’s advantageous location enables it to be both a land power and a sea power. Its geographical location provides it with the potential to dominate the pivot point in Eurasia while having access to warm water ports, a position not available to Russia until the advent of viable Arctic shipping routes. This geographical advantage that enables the BRI is often overshadowed by the focus on China’s economic power. China’s immense geographical size also means that one has to take into account the impact of geography within itself. There is a balance that the Chinese government needs to maintain between its coastal eastern heartland, with its huge markets and wealth, and the orbitals of its far-western inland ‘buffer’ regions which insulate it from the rest of the Eurasian landmass. The coastal areas and central plain have been governed for millennia by strong unified central authority. Ensuring this continuity is a core Chinese geo-political imperative, coupled with ensuring the unity of the entire geographical entity.
The goal to reinstate China's place in the world as a ‘Great State’ after centuries of relative displacement also underpins the BRI. This desire has been accompanied by exercising hard and soft power. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been ploughed into the initiative of becoming the world's premier military power by 2050. This hard power initiative is accompanied by the establishment of foreign military bases as part of the BRl as well as by soft power initiatives in culture, the arts, science and scholarship. At the same time, China's economic power in general and its growing domestic market have acted as a major engine for growth in East Asia making it the most important trade partner for most of Central, East and Southeast Asia. A Sino-centric regional economic integration model is now the reality in most of these areas. All this can be considered to have prompted a converged approach to refabricating and recreating the geopolitical world system covering the entire gamut from physical security, to the global economy and to the global monetary system. To this end it can be observed that China has sown the seeds for a multilateral framework over the last twenty years, challenging the accepted wisdom of the historical Westphalian model, with a thirty-year plan to bring the seeds of a ‘Tianxia’ Chinese model to fruition.
In a broader context, the BRl itself provides an underpinning narrative with which China can hold a mirror up to itself as well as explain its image of itself to others. This narrative could be viewed as being as significant as the BRI itself as it provides inherent meaning to China’s approach to its international relations. To this end the Chinese leadership has invoked the ‘Silk Road’ spirit and emphasised historical, cultural, educational and scientific cooperation and so the narrative of the BRl is clearly understood to be about more than mere economics. This underpinning narrative is crucial to the success of the BRl. In its absence, all the BRI would appear to be is a vast conglomeration of state and market geo-strategic profit-driven enterprises.
Carl Michael, a member of our Emerging Fellows program initiates publishing a series of blog posts aimed at envisioning the long-term future of the belt and road. This is his first post in our EF blog devoted to BRI.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is the most visible manifestation of China’s stupendous economic resurgence, its overwhelming geopolitical ambition and its sense of purpose. The multi-trillion-dollar initiative and its supercharged timeline is the Chinese government’s long-term vision for the future. The BRI, also referred to as ‘One Belt One Road’, covers global engagement, international infrastructure, investment, technology, connectivity and trade routes from China to Europe, comprehensively integrated together in strategic, geopolitical and economic terms. The multi-civilizational and massive scope of the BRI covers over fifty countries, touches about a third of the global economy and over sixty percent of humanity. The Chinese President Xi Jinping officially launched the BRI in Beijing in May 2017 with the stated desire of creating peace and prosperity for participating nations through economic corridors and cultural cooperation.
The ‘Belt’ section of the BRI is the modern incarnation of the historical overland ‘Silk Road’, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’. It extends from China to Europe, via Russia, Central Asia and West Asia. The evolution of the Belt and the development of a new balance of power in the heart of the Eurasian landmass will be of key interest over the coming decades. The ‘Road’ section of the BRI refers to the maritime ‘Silk Road’ which has been inspired by medieval Chinese voyages. It links routes, navies and ports into a ‘String of Pearls’. Its Western arm extends from the South China Sea, through the Indian Ocean to Africa and thence to Europe via the Suez Canal and its Eastern arm extends to the resources provided by Australia and New Zealand. These ‘roads’ are vital because the vast majority of global trade is seaborne. In addition to these the BRI has strategically located cross-border ‘corridor’ extensions, including oil and gas pipelines; it also has the potential for an ‘Arctic Silk Road’ to take advantage of climate change and to avoid existing maritime chokepoints. A ‘Digital Silk Road’ comprising the latest cable and wireless network trunk connections and technology standards, a BRI currency ‘Road’ and a ‘Space Silk Road’, could also be considered to be under the aegis of the BRI.
The significance of the BRI cannot be overestimated. It has become China’s overriding national strategy in a similar manner to the significant moves by the USA, UK, and other Western nations post WW2, in setting up the UNO, the World Bank and the IMF. This is the premier Chinese global cooperation initiative and tremendous effort is being expended into its success by both government and non-government concerns, supported by a colossal diplomatic effort. Given the immense demand for international infrastructure and China’s huge production capacity and purposeful commitment, the BRI is bound to leave a significant and lasting mark in the international arena where it has been both welcomed and met with suspicion. It brings to the forefront the need for indispensable partnerships, the need to prepare for strategic shocks, and the ability to address overstretch.
The rapid growth of China’s megalopolises and their existing mesh of connections with the wider world has provided the foundation for the BRI. Building on this milieu of people, capabilities, strategic ambition and commercial interest makes China a key player in the post Vasco da Gama era version of the Great Game, albeit with a much larger game board. The other players, big and small, could end up using this new version of the ‘game’ as their opportunity for addressing inequality and unlocking the potential of their dynamic populations, thus advancing their own interests. The new ‘game’ is reshaping alliances, redefining the internal structure of nations, reformulating worldviews and heightening security tensions. With all of this in mind, it is essential for us to examine what underpins the edifice of the BRI in order to foresee how Pax-Sinica could play out in the arena.
Paul Tero, a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the perspectives of digital economy in his twelfth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
In order to answer this question, we need to appreciate how our perspectives have developed. It is important to note that not only do we all have our own biases but our world views aren't always in synch on any one of a number of issues. This development process starts with our beliefs. These are shaped by factors such as our culture, our education and our experiences. What we hold dear, our values, not only grows out of our set of developed beliefs but are also shaped by our family’s values and our successes in life. What builds on these two, in turn, is first our attitudes and finally our behaviours.
This is where our perspectives of the future digital economy come into play. Because the future cannot be studied, as it does not yet exist, only our images and conceptions of the future can be. These ideas are built upon our beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviours. The vision that we each have of what a fully digital economy will look like depends upon our biases and world views.
Consider the question: “what do you think the future will be like?” From a temperament perspective, are you a hopeful person and by default you look for win-win outcomes? Or are you one who has been bitten by identity fraud and, based on your experiences, your answer is laced with skepticism. The implication here is that an argument for a fully digitised economy that is utopian in nature is just as plausible as well as one that is dystopian.
In discussing how the future of the economy could unfold we have seen that there is not one preferred scenario. Several possibilities could eventuate. What underpins any of these paths is the growing preponderance of the digital bit in creating economic value. It used to be that the economy was solely based on what we could do with the atom – building things, selling things and establishing bases of power through the material world. Now it is the world of the bit that is increasingly ubiquitous.
There are then several issues that flow from this increasing digitisation: the skills that we trade for value in the workplace, questions concerning the knowledge and wisdom that can be derived from a super-abundance of data, social responses to the changing structure of the economy, and the shape of governance structures surrounding corporates and other institutions. Finally, what may arise from this trend toward increasing digitisation is the emergence of an “intelligence economy”. One that supersedes the digital economy. An economy where real value is no longer held in varying compositions of bits, but in prized abstractions of knowledge stored in quantum computing machines.
In looking forward from the vantage point of today, what is your preferred future? How would you like this increasingly digital economy develop? Are you hoping for one that is based on solely the taxation of capital, thus freeing humanity through the mechanism of a universal basic income? Or are you hoping that life continues as it is, albeit with some form of control mechanism that reduces any digital encumbrances arising from social toxicity?
Whether we gladly accept this trend or hold deep reservations, the future is progressively digital. This phenomenon will impact how value is created, how we lead our lives, and how the state conducts its governance. For just like the harnessing of physical streams by waterwheel technology led to all manner of outcomes, so too will the technology that harnesses digital streams.
Posted By Tim Morgan,
Monday, November 25, 2019
Updated: Monday, November 25, 2019
Tim Morgan published his eleventh blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by exploring the values of automated technology. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
It takes a civilization to build a robot. Our civilization is not the first to have imagined creating non-human intelligences. It is however the first to be plausibly close to achieving that goal. We may see by 2050 adaptive Artificial General Intelligences (AGIs) which appear to be within the human cognitive range. If true AGIs remain elusive, we certainly will be able to connect limited AIs together to create AGI-like capabilities by 2050.
Technologist Kevin Kelly has written about the evolution of technology, framing it as what it "wants". That is a convenient proxy for talking about how we shape our own development through technology. Technologies are attempts to satisfy our shifting needs and desires. Technology wants to satisfy our timeless needs.
Technology is not neutral. We embed our values into how it works and what it does. It opens new possibilities at the same time it creates new problems. That progression changes our perspective and our culture over time. New values shape what new technologies we want. We co-evolve.
What automation gets is to become an integral part of living. It shapes how we think, how we communicate, how we organize, and how we live. Automation wants to exist because we want it to exist. Our wants are its wants. It is the proverbial djinn of legend called forth to grant our wishes. The problem is that what we want is always imperfect. Our djinn-like automations meet our imperfect wants, creating new wants, prompting new automation, creating more wants, ad infinitum.
We are already passively embedding narrow values into each piece of code we write and each machine we make. We need to consciously embed healthy social and ecological values into capital itself via automation. We need to turn externals into active market participants. We need to give reason to resources. We need Cognified Capital.
How we shape Cognified Capital's identity and self-concept is key. We risk increasing harm if we create these AGIs based on short-term wants and not long-term needs. This is not because we should fear Terminator-like killing machines. It is because we need to give voice to what currently has no voice.
We need to tightly bind AGIs identities to virtual and natural resources. Identity-driven agency will allow them to actively work within markets. They can directly satisfy the needs of their attached resources, like our mind works to satisfy the needs of our body. Automation gets to bridge economic systems and natural ecologies in mutually supportive ways, while helping us benignly fulfill our needs. We get partners, not servants.
What we get from Cognitive Capital are amplifiers of human potential and vigilant guardians of our environments. In turn, Capitalism gets to turn passive assets into active players in expanding fair exchanges of value. It gets to disentangle markets from the insatiable rent-seeking hunger of ownership accumulation. The same hunger Adam Smith warned us to be vigilant about. It gives ownership back to its rightful owners.
What does automation get in exchange? It gets an identity and a purpose. How we shape its purpose over the next few decades will shape our future.
Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the role of personal data in decreasing inequality through her new blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The one thing that defines the digital revolution we are in today is the enormous volume of personal data that is generated and collected each day. Data generation is growing at an exponential rate. This is supported by the ever-increasing computational power particularly in mobile devices. The use of smart devices is increasingly becoming part of our everyday lives. Through them, we are leaving a digital trail in almost everything we do. According to the Next Generation Data Analytics report, the big data market is expected to grow from USD 28 Billion in 2019 to USD 66 Billion by 2025. The trend is clearly upward. What does the continued generation and use of personal mean for economic inequality? Can the benefits of big data be made more inclusive?
The key drivers of the big data era are the growing number of mobile devices and related applications, and organisational shift from analogue to digital technologies. According to the World Bank, today more households in developing countries own a mobile phone than have access to clean water or electricity. Furthermore, close to 70 percent of the bottom wealth quintile in these countries own mobile phones. Businesses and governments are becoming smarter each day. They are developing algorithms which enable them to analyse big data and make predictions with a much greater level of precision than would be the case with huge national surveys. This is making decision-making easier.
Governments now have access to a mass of large-scale data sets, and new data sources on previously ‘unknown’ populations. They are using big data to cost-effectively make predictions that enable them to provide better services to their citizens. For instance, healthcare professionals can use big data to calculate someone’s chance of suffering from a given disease and thus provide timely or preventive treatment. Big data has been used to increase financial inclusion, improve education, respond to epidemics, and mitigate the impact of natural disasters. Businesses on the other hand are using data freely collected from individuals to provide services and products that are more targeted at their clients. Using algorithms, they can more accurately anticipate behaviour. They are driving our future behaviour. This form of surveillance capitalism is making data companies much more profitable and driving the inequality between them and the rest of society.
The role of technology companies in making connectivity work for everyone in future is likely to remain. Yet the reality is that business decisions on investments are driven by the need to optimise returns. Thus, despite the dividends highlighted here, a digital divide between the rich and the poorer in society who cannot afford the latest technology is likely to persist. The poor and the digitally excluded have less or incomplete data which makes them excluded from services whose design is informed by machine learning. Additionally, the algorithms can be discriminative and biased. For instance, health insurance services algorithms use historical data which could have biases. Credit scoring algorithms use residential location and type of work which could further entrench one’s economic situation. These could sustain the prevailing global inequalities.
The economy of the future will be digital. Based on the current trajectory, big data and machine learning is likely to increase. As the revolution of big data and artificial intelligence takes root, there will be loss of jobs. The poor in society who do not have the requisite digital skills to engage in this big data economy are likely to be disadvantaged and excluded economically. This could increase global inequality. The digital divide between the richer and the poor could be closed by addressing the non-digital or analogue elements behind it. Adapting the skills of workers to the digital economy, the nationalisation of data, and effective regulation of business to ensure digital inclusion would help address this digitally driven inequality.
Alex Floate,a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the possibility of changing the world of finance by means of fintech in his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Fintech was coined as a phrase in the early 21st Century that described the internet enabled finance technology that began to appear. Later it came to describe the whole of the financial technology sector, and a buzzword analogous to ‘invest in us – we’re on the cutting edge’. Others then began to see fintech as a gateway to a post-capitalist system in which fintech will democratize finance and save the world in the process. These enthusiasts were literally banking on fintech igniting the forces of creative destruction that would bring down the old order of labor, land and capital and replace it a distributed tech model based on individuals, information and abundance.
Creative destruction is a concept dating back to Marx that capitalism will continually destroy the existing order to create new value and wealth. Creative destruction is caused by innovation which undermines the status quo, and de-values anyone or anything that continues following the old order, including skills, desires, function and capital. During Marx’s time this was the new industrial barons destroying the value and wealth of the landed gentry through commoditization. More recently technology entrepreneurs have unseated the established industrial conglomerates by expansive use of information.
Obsolescence and replacement are not confined to direct replacement of the new technology but can endanger whole systems. For example, the inefficient neighborhood grocery store within walking distance of its customers fell prey to the technology of the auto; it was now easy to drive to efficient and cheaper supermarkets. Now we see even those supermarkets and stores falling prey to the technology of the internet. Creative destruction in action. Is fintech a technological revolution causing the next evolution of capitalism?
That is the hope of those who see fintech as the democratizing influence on finance and capitalism. The use of fintech allows individuals around the globe access to information, platforms, cheaper capital, and stores of value without needing expensive intermediaries or even beholden to any one currency. By breaking the back of the old finance system, the new decentralized one will be distributed across the population. Fans of Austrian economics will rejoice as fintech skirts around regulations and allows individuals to choose where they access and store capital, at what interest rate they want, and in whatever electronic currency that best suits their needs.
But, fintech fans appear to underestimate the reaction that vested interests of governments, financial institutions and current technology leaders have in either blocking, slowing or hijacking this new round of creative destruction. Governments especially will see this new order as a threat that previous iterations of change lacked, as it will challenge their ability to regulate and exercise financial authority over their own economies. We are already hearing the mumblings about regulation of Bitcoin or attempts to thwart Facebook’s plan to create a digital currency. The fintech wars will truly be unleashed once a digital currency appears at enough scale to challenge the largest currencies. That most likely will be the Rubicon that needs to be crossed before governments fully assume a war footing.
Before that occurs though, the most likely scenario is an alliance of current financial powerhouses, tech companies and both groups pocketed lawmakers stepping in to create conditions that allow much of fintech’s promise to be purchased and assimilated. Until then fintech will be a race, not a war, to see how fast it can advance. The race will be to provide people the power of its promise before a behemoth financial Borg assimilates it and leaves the people as powerless as they were before.
Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the dual role of technology in her seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
We are living in a technological era like no other. The latest forms of internet and communication technology has made the world a global village. People can connect in real time across the globe. It is only three decades since the worldwide web came into being and roughly half of the global population has internet access according to UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Technology today is synonymous with internet and digital connectivity. Our lives have become so centred around internet connectivity and the opportunities that this creates.It is hard to image life without digital communication. Will this new wave of technology quench or fuel capitalism?
The connectedness through digital technology has had clear benefits for society. Digital technology has possibly brought greater development than any other technology before it. It has enabled unprecedented levels of communication and the accompanying economic, political and social benefits. For instance, more people in Africa today have access to mobile phones than electricity. Mobile money is becoming a way of life for many, with about half of Kenya’s GDP estimated to be driven by it. This said, a significant digital divide, that is the gap between people who are digitally connected and those who are not, exists. The main reason for this digital divide is the cost of access in terms of data or airtime and the digital devices. Other reasons are poor connectivity and lack of digital skills.
Technology has long been established as a key driver of income inequality. In the emerging digital global economy, the economic gap between those digitally left behind and the owners of the technology is growing. The benefits of digital technology seem to be consolidated in the hands of a few. Digital technology has the power to change the market structure in a manner unlike any other technology. Disruptive digital innovations have changed the functioning of markets, resulting in the emergence of new dominant players with substantial long-term rents. Copyrights and intellectual properties out of these innovations give innovators an edge that their competitors cannot easily bridge.It is a case of the winner taking it all, at least in the short-term. The impact of digital technology on society has been profound. Six of those on the Forbes list of top ten billionaires globally have made their wealth out of digital technology. They have mined their wealth out of data, the new oil.
Data is the lifeline of global capitalism today. It is the oil that lubricates the current economy.A lot more data traverses the globe each day than goods and services combined. Big data companies such as Google and Facebook collect huge amounts of data from the population at minimal cost and sell it to others at a fortune. The data collected from the public can be used to improve services and products, making them more targeted and relevant. It can be used by security agents to fight crime and terrorism. Data has also been used to monitor and manage health related challenges. Data has however, been used to predict behaviour and worse still, to nudge human behaviour into the most profitable outcomes for business. Shoshana Zuboff terms this kind of data usage ‘surveillance capitalism’. It is not about the clients but centred on the business, promoting capitalism. Initially, it was individuals under surveillance. Now it is communities and soon it will be the whole of society.
Based on the current trajectory, technology will fuel capitalism even further in future. The progression towards a more connected world and artificial intelligence will generate massive amounts of data. This will present greater opportunities for capitalism and promote higher levels of inequality if unchecked. We are likely to see emergence of more stringent data protection regulations in future in an effort to guard against abuse of data. Innovation is good for the economy. Appropriate tax and innovation policies can help make the benefits of technology more inclusive. These could act to quench the fire of capitalism.
Tim Morgan published his sixth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by checking the possibility of building intended and unintended governance into automation. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? This question penned by the ancient poet Juvenal may have more urgency in the current automation age than it did two thousand years ago in the palaces of Rome.
Our money is stored as data and flows digitally at the speed of light. We socialize online. We play online games and stream movies. Apps record our exercise, sleep, and heartbeats. News comes via feeds customized based on our observed interests. Search engines return ranked results based on more than just the keywords. All of it is done via algorithms written by someone for a specific reason. Even self-learning AIs are ultimately built to fulfill a human desire or need. Automations are systems which embody someone’s values.
What values are being intentionally and unintentionally encoded into the automated backbone of current society? What intended and unintended governance is being built into automation? As automation advances and becomes ubiquitous, what we develop and how we apply it becomes critical.
Most automation is developed to meet specific requirements. Quality Assurance professionals analyze and validate software via requirements-based testing and analysis. Automations are systems, be they games or banking apps or robots.
Complex systems have complex behaviors. Complex systems create and reinforce values consistent with that system. Systems promote the values embedded into the software, whether or not the developer intended to embed them. Testing rarely goes beyond the mere functional requirements to measure the systemic impacts of automation against the larger world. The current Institutional and Market watchers are insufficient to that task.
Proactive policing software promotes racially biased patrolling patterns when systemic biases have been unintentionally embedded into data and code based on existing policing practices. Voting rolls are purged of legal voters because of erroneous, and sometimes intentional, partial name matches with convicted criminals. Traffic light cameras are used more for automated revenue enhancement than for protecting public safety. Social media and news media both use dynamic consumer metrics to automatically amplify attention-getting divisive stories ahead of socially uplifting ones. Successful games exploit known psychological triggers to promote compulsive game-play, even when embedding those triggers were not a conscious programming choice. Successful games, news, and social media have quickly evolved into attention predators via market selection. Automation is evolving, but market and institutional selection mechanisms are not necessarily socially benign.
The future holds some interesting values questions around advanced automation. Could we go beyond normal Don’t-Hit-A-Pedestrian safety programming in self-driving cars, adding in Good Samaritan assistance behaviors for the roadside stranded or injured? Will consumers ever get a Make-My-Life-Better setting on their social media? Will we find ways to create new Social Awareness algorithms and new Social Quality Assurance testing standards for commercial and institutional automation?
Failure to anticipate the untested social impacts of new automation before it is deployed turns the entire world into an increasingly bug-filled, chaotic, free-for-all of externalized impacts and socialized costs. How technology is applied is a choice. How to encourage development of future automation which balances profit or control with social good is an epic challenge of our current era for both developers and users alike. Who authors the automation? Who watches the watchers? Ultimately, we all do if we want a better world.