Automation Angst

According to some techno-evangelists, humanity is on the verge of huge breakthroughs in computing, robotics, genetics, automation and artificial intelligence that will dwarf many of the inventions of the past two centuries. They might be right, but at what price? What might the cost be of these breakthroughs in terms of unemployment and inequality? Moreover, are these breakthroughs really as close as the evangelists claim and will they be as fundamental as those in the past?

It can be argued, for example, that compared to clean water or the invention of the motorcar, Facebook and Uber are trivial inventions. Most of our recent innovations are incremental improvements of innovations created years ago and most of the most significant change over the last 100 years has been social not technological.

Time will tell as to who’s right, but it does seem a fair bet to suggest that the search for economic efficiency and convenience will continue to displace workers on a significant scale and may focus wealth in a handful of places and professions. Fully autonomous farms, factories, warehouses, logistics and transport networks are probably not that far off and it’s possible that the development of digital and virtual products and services, many of them delivered for ‘free’, will result in mass consumption being decoupled from mass employment, which could be catastrophic.

None of this has to be a bad thing, of course, if new jobs are created and perhaps if the spoils of efficiency are fairly shared, although remember that while the Industrial Revolution created new jobs, wages in England were stagnant or declined for almost 40 years and that work conditions associated with many of the new jobs were appalling.

Having said this it’s almost impossible that all old jobs will disappear. Many of the developments that are nervously anticipated are still years away and many of the things that humans do will remain out of reach for robots and autonomous systems. Humans are far better than machines at abstraction, generalisation and creative thinking. We have vastly better common sense than machines, we’re agile, nimble and energy efficient too. And don’t forget that it’s humans that have rights and vote – and we can revolt too. Humans are also a deeply social species and physical connection is likely to remain important. Many of of our economic needs are also explicitly interpersonal or social.

The bad news is how robots and automated systems interact with human beings depends a great deal upon how much their designers know or care about human beings. In the same way that there’s a fine line between genetics and eugenics, there’s a thin line between technologies that enhance humanity and those that diminish it. Moreover, developments in robotics, information technology, neuro-technology and genetics all have the potential to vastly widen the gaps that already exist in health, intelligence, opportunity and achievement.

The amount of data that spills from these technologies also seriously threatens privacy and freedom of choice. There’s a very real possibility too that one day these technologies will advance to such a point that the owners of the technologies will be able to predict and control almost everything an individual does, thereby reducing humans to mere automatons.

This is unlikely, although an even worse scenario might involve the widespread adoption of mediocre artificial intelligence and predictive systems, which, little by little, become a train wreck of momentous proportions due to a decline in human agency or a crisis in human identity.

Governments and giant corporations are pouring billions into robotics and automation projects with almost no external oversight whatsoever. We urgently need the inclusion of an ethical code alongside any computer code and should be able to quiz the technologists, and perhaps one day the technologies themselves, about their knowledge, their skills, and their intentions. Ultimately, any AI singularity is a choice, not a destiny.

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Where’s Watson?

If you are Brisbane based I’m at the Avid Reader bookstore (193 Boundary St) tonight 6.30-8.00pm. I’m then back at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Thursday & Friday for a couple more events (9.30pm Thursday late night salon conversation with Yanis Varoufakis and Starlee Kline and then 11.30am Friday panel session with T.L. Uglow and PJ Voght called ‘Should we delete the internet?’). Friday night I’m out on the town if any Sydney based readers fancy a beer (probably the bar at Alpha in Castlereigh St from about 8pm).

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What happens to learning when your teacher is an app?

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 14.55.27Nice book extract (on education) in the Australian Financial Review.

About a ten-minute read. Click here for article.

Here’s how it starts…

It has never been easier to give the illusion of intelligence. If you know the right people to follow, or the right publications to plunder, you can cut and paste your way to instant academic credibility. I’m doing it right now. This idea isn’t mine, but comes instead from a 2014 New York Times article called “Faking Cultural Literacy”.

The article argues, correctly in my view, that we live in an era where our opinions are increasingly based on very little knowledge.What matters is not knowledge itself, but knowledge of the fact that a thing exists or is happening. Who needs to take time learning about something when we can just skim Twitter? We’re all busy people, after all.

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Lines for a life online

We rate and rank and tag and post,
We swipe and tweet and troll and toast (lol!),
We check and watch and Like and bray,
And do it all again next day.”

‘When We’re Not Sleeping’, Antony Funnell

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Brains Vs. Computers

Quote of the week

“If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” Emerson M. Pugh

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Science and Fiction

Infinity loop - Final 2Couple of public events people may be interested in. The first is Hackstock this Friday. It’s at The Trampery, 239 Old Street in London and it’s part of the London Sci-Fi Festival. I’m in conversation with science fiction author Lavie Tidhar. The second event is on May 7 and it’s a panel death about what’s next in science and fiction. If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi you really should come along. I’m moderating.

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Digital Vs. Human (Reviews)

So the first review is in for Digital Vs. Human: How we’ll live, love and think in the future. It gets 9/10 and “Watson comes out fighting” from the Herald newspaper, which I’m more than happy to live with in the future.

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Screens vs. Paper


I’ve just been going through a pile of paper torn out of various magazines over the past year. In the pile I found a single page torn from the New York Review of Books. I’m afraid I’m not 100 % certain who wrote this, but it’s likely to be from the Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen.

“Computers keep total records, but not of effort, and the pages inked out by their printers leave none. Screens preserve no blemishes or failures. Screens preserve nothing human. Save in the fossiliferous prints left behind by touch. But a page – only a page can register the sorrows of the crossings, bad word choice, good word choice gone bad, the gradual dulling of pencil lead…A notebook is the only place you can write about shit like this and not give a shit, like this. Cheap and tattered, a forgiving space, dizzyingly spiral bound, coiled helical. ”

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How Digital Vs. Human was written


If anyone is wondering how a book gets put together here’s how I did it. Firstly, I didn’t start with a title. In fact for the first 6-months this book was simply called ‘FF2’ (Future Files 2) and later More or Less Human. Eventually a number of key themes started to emerge, notably screens, the internet, phones, automation, robots and AI and eventually the final title (Digital v Human).


As you can see I had an A4 yellow notebook that held all my ideas (not backed up!!!) and eventually I had the key thoughts for each of the chapters once the chapter list was sorted out. The chapter names took forever, but I think they work really well.


So that’s it really. It started in September 2014 and was done by January 2016.


Free chapter downloads and online ordering links here.

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Books and Bookshops


Digital Vs. Human launches today in the UK. Free downloads and more here.

Meanwhile, here’s a little something I wrote on the future of bookshops for the Bookseller called Do bookshops have a shelf life?

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