The digital revolution?

What exactly is “the digital revolution”?  Is it a revolution in human society today that is akin to the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century that it is often compared to?  Is it merely the use of computers to make human actions, communications, work, travel etc. more efficient, or is it more profound than that?  Is it mainly the effect of the use of PCs by individuals or the use of massive date-crunching computers by large corporations and governments?  Is it the replacement of workers by robots, leading to unemployment and riots, or is it the production of many new jobs in the digital area, using the internet or computer assisted design (CAD) or animation?  Or is it all of these?

I must say that my view was rather that it would largely entail the development of robots that would replace mostly physical jobs done by humans, that computer driven robots could do more efficiently and more safely than men or women can do them.  An example of this would be the robots that assemble cars.  If that would be the major outcome of the digital revolution it would in fact result in huge societal changes, leaving many people jobless and without income.  But, I happened to catch one of the debates of the Intelligence Squared series entitled “Be afraid, be very afraid: the robots are coming and they will destroy our livelihoods,” on BBC World TV, which was chaired by Zeinab Badawi.  It featured a speaker, Andrew Keen, an internet specialist, who argued that it is not the physical jobs that the robots will replace that are of most concern, but rather the professional  jobs that most of us think are safe, such as accountants, lawyers and teachers.

Most of us think of driver-less car as something that presages the future, a car that is driven by a computer, that has all the rules of the road and has GPS with all the directions included and can take you more safely to your destination than you can yourself.  In fact, with more computer-based safety devices included in the car, such as distance detectors and speed controls, the greater will be the safety on our roads and the fewer casualties.  In the near future it is likely that buses will be driver-less.  But, Keen prognosticated that it will be the white-collar rather than the blue-collar jobs that will be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI) computers/robots that will in fact produce the greatest societal changes.

This will decimate the middle class in the next 30-50 years and bring profound changes in society.  In other words, the development of AI will lead to the breakdown of the Turing Test, whereby one will not be able to tell whether one is communicating with a human or a robot.  Computers that can think and can learn will become just as efficient, in fact more so , than human accountants or lawyers, because they can have all the case histories and precedents already at their fingertips and this would lead to accountancy and law firms being able to reduce their costs by firing most of their staff.  Similarly surgeons can be replaced by thinking robots with lasers that will be more accurate and less likely to make mistakes than human surgeons.  All of this will certainly take getting used to, as humans learn to accept the intervention of thinking robots in our lives.

Beyond this we have the possibility of what has been called by futurist Ray Kurzweil “the singularity,” when robots and humans merge to form cyborgs or androids, and it will become impossible to distinguish between them.  But, before that happens, let’s be real, we have to deal with more immediate basic human problems, such as the breakdown in Arab/Muslim society and the flood of Muslim immigrants to Europe.  The loss of many blue-collar jobs to robots and the consequent unemployment and social unrest will only be fed by these new immigrants.  The only thing that man can do in response is to innovate, something even AI can’t do.

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