Mania for getting things for free carries a corollary that diminishes the human

Opinion: Technology must not be allowed to continue to destroy employment

A general view of the Dublin web summit, which is  being held at the RDS in Dublin this week. Photograph: PA

A general view of the Dublin web summit, which is being held at the RDS in Dublin this week. Photograph: PA

 

Wish I were there, with all of you in Dublin. Was invited this year, but couldn’t make it work this time.

The tech world loves Ireland. And I hope Ireland appreciates the techies who come each year to talk about the unfolding digital era. The current generation of tech business leaders might very well be the nicest, best-intentioned elite in human history.

And yet I fear we’re all making a big mistake, however innocently. While we talk about job creation, the world as we have guided it is producing fewer jobs. While we’ve said we’re strengthening society, we’ve witnessed waves of austerity and the rise of hopelessness in the young, all over the developed world.

So the critical question before us is whether we’re doing the right stuff, but just not enough of it to make up for a heap of misfortune that descended just as we started to have our way with the world – or, is it possible that we, the tech elite, are part of the problem?

This latter dark possibility has preoccupied me lately. Here’s how I’ve come to see things: we techies love efficiency and automation. We particularly like the idea that we’re building artificial intelligence.

But the way technology actually works is a little askew from the way we like to dream about it. For instance, it’s marvellous that our online services can automatically translate documents from French to English. We like to think we have built a giant electronic brain, and have offered it free.

But that’s not the truth. Actually, the way language translation works is that millions of documents translated by real people are grabbed from the net. A statistical collage of bits of text that have been well-translated by humans is assembled to create the automatic result. So-called artificial intelligence is actually a mash-up of work done by real people who have been made anonymous and are not paid.


Getting things for free
This is the only reason that automation can threaten employment. If we were honest about where value comes from, we’d be creating new ways for people to make their livings as a matter of course, since people are still needed. Instead, we love the idea of artificial intelligence and the experience of getting things for free, so we must pretend that people are worthless. This didn’t used to be true. It used to be that new technology meant new kinds of jobs. But our current fantasy life is precluding the obvious solution.

A compounding problem is that it’s just so tempting to get rich by having a big computer that routes the big data that runs our modern world. It used to be that the richest people owned oil fields or transportation systems. Now, the top new wealth is accruing to those who own information hubs. The richest people own mobile phone networks, social networks, or some other kind of platform from which to gather everyone else’s data.

The fact that we don’t want to acknowledge that network value comes from people everywhere means that those who own the computers in the centres of networks get ultra-rich and powerful. This explains one of the glaring contradictions of our age. On the one hand, this is the age when anyone can tweet a complaint and embarrass a corporation, or even bring down a government. Yet this is also an age overwhelmed by the rise of income inequality and austerity. Power is being centralised and decentralised at the same time, it would seem.

The explanation for the apparent contradiction is simple: the new power centres are based on using data from people to run behavioural models that calculate slight advantages all the time, so that those with the biggest computers win more and more. To tweet a complaint can help someone gain a tactical win, but the strategic win always goes to the big computers in the centre, watching it all.

When you tweet a complaint, that tweet is added to the data that models you, so that a slight advantage over you will accumulate over time, in the way advertisements or offers of credit are directed towards you, for example. When you use the latest gadgets or services, you are feeding a societal behaviour modification program. It is usually not intentionally evil. In fact, it often runs on autopilot.

Understanding the temptations that come with having a superior computer on an open network can explain some of the bizarre malfunctions of our age. Why was finance able to suddenly go crazy about five years ago and bring about a global calamity by bundling dubious mortgages? The reason is that automatic statistics calculated advantages beyond the understanding not only of regulators, but even, in some cases, of the owners of the computers. Big central computers, which I call Siren Servers, silently plodded along, calculating a gigantic concentration of income.

Why has the American National Security Agency started to spy on friends without bounds? What did it hope to gain? The NSA, I believe, was seduced by the same senseless dream. If that organisation could gather everyone’s data, could it not then rely on algorithms to automatically calculate security?

Why is the US undoing itself in a fight over healthcare finance? Because big data algorithms changed the game for insurance companies. Before big data, a health insurance company would grow by insuring more people. After big data arrived, it became more profitable to predict who would get sick and find a way to drop unfortunate people from insurance. Thus a crisis erupted. Obamacare is an attempt to undo the effects of a naive use of big data, but it is so hard to gain acceptance for such mechanisms that the nation is thrown into extraordinary crises.

Big data is seductive because it often works a little at first. The reason is plain. Statistics are valid – if you collect a lot of data you can often predict small changes in the real world. Based on that ability, someone with a superior network computer can calculate advantages that seem to come from a magic realm, without cost, for some initial period. At first it seems like you’re making unbounded money or gaining unbounded power, and no one is the worse off for it.


Befuddled with incompetence
But ultimately the real world is not described solely by statistics. The financial scheme breaks. The security organisation befuddles itself with incompetence. And the economy, which we thought we could calculate into eternal order, instead breaks down. I have found the tech world open-minded and well-intentioned. When I bring these ideas up, they get a hearing.

So please, Dublin, appreciate the techies who are descending, but don’t let us off easy. There is more than one way to design digital networks, and if what we’ve built so far isn’t creating the world we want, we need to change it. Demand that we be empiricists. We should make our global machine work for real, not for our fantasies.

Jaron Lanier, who has written and lectured widely on the tech sector, is credited with popularising the term “virtual reality”. His most recent book is Who Owns the Future?

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