Saturday, July 22, 2017
A CONVERSATION WORTH HAVING
Recently, a good friend of mine, Doug Hunks, introduced a topic for conversation. The topic was autonomous cars. Like me, Doug is a good driver and loves road trips. We spent the next several hours weighing the pros and cons of cars that have the ability to drive themselves. Our arguments covered the gamut of well-worn issues. We agreed that autonomous cars have the potential to greatly reduce collisions caused by drivers who are intoxicated or unskilled or distracted. But what of those countless people who make their living from driving motor vehicles: truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, delivery and courier people etc ? What of the risk of hacking and corruption of the technology that controls the performance of the cars? And what about the loss of the sheer pleasure of driving a car? We didn't come to any substantial conclusion about autonomous cars. But we knew one thing for certain: they were sure to be on our roads sooner than we think.
In the early nineteenth century in Britain, a famous labour movement, the Luddites, gained notoriety for smashing textile looms in many factories. The leader of the movement was said to be a man by the name of Ned Lud who stirred up his fellow workers because of the increased use of automated looms in the factories. The violence grew and eventually became a series of riots which pitted workers against the factory owners and, in turn, the British government. Many of the leaders of the movement were arrested and put on trial. A few were executed in order to send a stern warning to the general population about such challenges to authority.
In fact, Ned Lud never existed. He became a type of "Robin Hood" fiction that was meant either to stir up support for the movement among the working class, or to create fear in the upper classes who owned textile mills and other manufacturing establishments and make them distrust anyone who agitated for better conditions for workers. The common misconception about the Luddites is that they were against new technology: that is only partially true. The Luddites' main contention was that the machines were making the amount of time spent learning how to work in the factories useless and counter-productive. Their reasoning was that, if the machines were going to be in the factories, it would be time better spent learning how to operate and repair the machines themselves. Whatever the real reason for the rebellion, the Luddites became associated with anyone who was or is against new technology and the word now means a cranky technology-hater or a person who refuses to learn or accept new technologies.
Few people would suggest that the Luddites were right to do what they did. And few people today would suggest that we should somehow return to a form of Luddism in today's world. Indeed, most people enjoy the freedom and information that new technology brings. We marvel at the advancements in technology that seem to occur daily. We embrace technology willingly and believe that technological advancement is natural and inevitable.
This would be scanned.
One of my previous blogs was on the topic of artificial intelligence. The blog was inspired by my reading of Ray Kurzweil's book "The Singularity is Near". In this book, Kurzweil wrote about the imminent arrival of what he called the "singularity" or a new bio-tech life form that combines the best of biological humanity with the head-long race to create AI. Kurzweil was something of a prophet for the new creation and waxed positively evangelical on its benefits. I was shocked, sceptical and, quite honestly, frightened by what he wrote about. Images of "Blade Runner" and "The Terminator" raced through my brain as I contemplated Kurzweil's future world.
I've had some time to live with the notion of the Singularity. I even adopted a fatalistic sense of humour about the whole thing, believing in the old song of humans making "good pets" for the new, greater and far more intelligent and capable creatures.
I'm no Luddite. I don't believe we should storm the laboratories and headquarters of all the tech companies in the world, setting fire to all the super-computers, smashing all the data storage devices and rounding up all the scientists and technicians who are selling our future for monetary gain. I recognize and accept the general notion that change is inevitable and necessary.
But I do believe there will be serious consequences for all of us when the new technology is perfected and the Singularity makes its messianic debut. It becomes a question of what will the new world order look and feel like, and what will happen to the majority of us who are a bit slower and less able to adapt to it? Will it become a matter of "adapt or die", as social Darwinists would suggest? And what will happen to all of those whose livelihoods will disappear ? Yes, there will be new opportunities not even dreamed of yet. But the transition will be difficult, tumultuous, perhaps even violent. History teaches us that all such transitions have been so.
Well, as we grew up, "The Jetsons" were replaced by "Star Trek", and the afore-mentioned "Blade Runner" and "The Terminator" movies and shows. Technology became a little darker, a little more threatening and laden with serious consequences. At some point, perhaps, we should have applied the brakes and started to ask ourselves if this should be continued. Perhaps we would have arrived at a collective answer of "yes" because we all believe in the permanence of change. But a conversation may have been able to tackle the ethical and social issues surrounding the changes. And there have been some precedents for turning back the inevitable march of technological progress: nuclear proliferation comes to mind.
I, for one, would love to have that conversation. But, to the best of my knowledge, there is no such conversation happening anywhere. Political, economic and scientific leadership is oblivious or, at the very worst, complicit in avoiding the topic. And the rest of us ? Well, we love our smart phones and tablets. We have become willing participants to the gradual dumbing-down of society as we expect our machines to do our thinking for us. We become impressed at the increasing abilities and talents that we used to be able to do for ourselves, but are now done by our clever machines, as though the machines are our precocious children. And we want more of it. We should be careful what we wish for.
Perhaps the horse is already out of the barn. But I'd like to believe that we still have some time. I'm not saying that we should turn back time and become less technologically savvy. I, too, use technology, not terribly well mind you, but I use it and appreciate it. But I still think we need to have the conversation on the ethics and necessity of rampant technological advancement.
Just so we know what to do or say when the machines take over.