If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. — Sir Issac Newton
Artwork by Gavin Aung Than, 2014
A terrifying unified metal organism crushing humanity under its robotic heel, exterminating the humans who once gave it life and whose robotic perfection could no longer tolerate our imperfect nature. We as humans have grown to fear this meme more than nearly any other; the machine finding humanity’s flaws a reason to remove us from the Earth. Okay, perhaps that was a fictional account of the robot apocalypse designed to play on our fears of the unknown, robots, and the ever-encroaching wave of technology swallowing up our lives.
But the robot apocalypse may look more like this: Robots coming to work, first in our factories and then later in our offices, programmed with capabilities which allow them to displace the less qualified workers engaged in tasks that can be replicated with algorithmic procedures and programming. (That may be more jobs than we are willing to admit.)
Illustration by Roberto Parada
I predicted the future of work and the economically debilitating effects of robots, automation, and the replacement of the workforce with machines on the populace in previous articles. In Death to the Labor Class, I postulate the consideration that the culture of America and the world at large may need to re-evaluate how we deal with compensation and the nature of work in the future, as machines put laborers out of the workforce in greater and greater numbers.
I tried to remind people that automation has been taking your jobs for years, you simply still had other choices of work to get and still bring home the bacon. Now I am postulating not only will the potential for automation take your job, it will take it higher and higher along the social-economic food chain. Once only blue-color workers were affected, now the potential for algorithms can take any job which can be proceduralized and structured based on databases of stored information.
For example, there are already computerized journalists in use today. See: NYTimes: In case you’re wondering a human wrote this article. A market for such technology will continue to grow as the databases they draw from become more intelligent and sophisticated. Will they replace real journalists? For some types of articles the answer is assuredly, yes.
See: Death to the Labor Class: http://storify.com/ebonstorm/may-13-2013-monday-s-musing-death-to-the-labor-cla.
A sample of how robotics are slowly changing manufacturing from Wired Magazine and the Tesla Automotive company
The comments I received primarily indicated those jobs needed to be replaced since robots COULD do them, they should. Mostly this would affect people with less education, blue-color workers and the disdain of the white-color workers was palpable because they thought their jobs would be unaffected by technical automation of any kind.
I mentioned the idea of algorithms or procedural decision-making based on experience. This is how experienced doctors, lawyers and other professionals decide on courses of action. What if you could write a program or algorithm to do the same thing? The program would learn from decisions made in the past and predict what possible outcomes and their potential chances for success. This could mean an entirely new class of workers, including middle managers could find themselves unemployed as intelligent agents make the same decisions they did without preferential treatment, emotional attachments, or favoritism to muddy the economic water.
Engineer Christopher Steiner has an interview in the European Magazine discussing the idea that white-color jobs that are low in innovation are indeed next on the list of people made unemployed by technology. And there are a lot more jobs at stake than in the manufacturing industry.
Here is a telling quotation from the article. It is definitely worth your time to read. The effects are worldwide and potentially socially catastrophic:
“The European: We tend to think about unskilled labor as the most precarious form of labor – machines could easily do it. Yet one of the arguments you make is that algorithms threaten many mid-level, white collar jobs…
Steiner: Being an expert in a field, having worked for fifteen years in that field, usually means that you have accumulated enough expertise, seen enough cases, read enough studies, dealt with enough clients, that you develop your own pattern recognition system within your brain. In medicine, experienced doctors are valuable because they have seen and treated many patients and diseases. Experienced lawyers know very well what information they need to pursue litigation, where to find that information, and so forth. But algorithms are very well suited for pattern recognition, much more than humans. If you can feed algorithms with data about a patient’s symptoms or about a legal case, I can’t see how that would not take away many of our jobs.”
Can science fiction function as a means of creating social awareness around technology and its future developments?
In advance of my interview on #SCIFICHAT on Friday, April 12, 2013, I thought I would write a quick article about my interests in science fiction, fantasy and how I use my love of the genre to promote and pursue ideas around science, scientific achievement, technology, social development under the guise of science fiction (and occasionally fantasy). I happen to agree with Ray Bradbury and believe a little fantasy hiding underneath one’s science fiction never hurt anyone.
I am a writer of all kinds of genre fiction including hard science fiction, social fiction, space opera, fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, epic fantasy, and a bit of pulp and horror when no one is looking. I grew up reading the required classics from Asimov to Zelazney: Dune, Foundation, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Chronicles of Amber, The Eternal Champion Sagas, Xenogenesis, Lord of Light and The Hyperion Cantos.
My guilty pleasures included the hard science styling of Ben Bova and Larry Niven, the wild space romps of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, Steve Perry’s The Man Who Never Missed and Jack L. Chalker’s space operas, The Well of Souls Saga and the Four Lords of the Diamond series and so many others…
The failures and the cowardice of modern science fiction
Though I missed the conversation a few years ago on the internet which talked about the failings of science fiction in recent years, I could completely relate to the idea that science fiction wasn’t taking the risks it once did. Its protagonists were mostly white, mostly male and moving further away from being accessible to the readers. Some of those failings included:
As a long time reader of the genre, I am aware of how science fiction has been used to address a variety of social ills. Many such works exist. A quick sampling include:
While I don’t as yet consider myself in such august company, I have tried to use science fiction to address a variety of social ills and challenges facing humanity today in my collection of short stories called Hayward’s Reach:
I have to admit I was a bit embarrassed to be writing stories such as these because they are so far removed from much of the science fiction I see being written today.I’m not disparaging such science fiction because it is both popular and from a writer’s perspective quite profitable. I keep hearing the litany of the writers everywhere: Readers don’t want challenge, they want escapism. So if you make them work too hard, they will put your book down. I just don’t happen to agree with it. Eventually, I believe they will want more. So I write and wait.
Can we as science fiction writers make any changes in our society through our work?
Once upon a time science fiction propelled engineers and scientists to create ideas and technologies which are only now becoming a reality. Look at our cell phones, submarines, computer monitors, space craft, and wireless technologies, many of these started in the minds of early writers of the genre fiction. For a time, successful science fiction television inspired an entire generation of scientists, astronauts and engineers. We see far less of that today, with science fiction instead promoting a fear of technology or a return to superstition rather than embracing scientific curiosity.
Can science fiction tell potential stories about the human condition and potentially guide policies toward the effective use of science in society?
Some of our science fiction has lent itself to predicting trends in human behavior such as Nineteen Eighty-Four prediction of a surveillance state, similar to the one we find ourselves approaching in 2014. There does not seem to be quite as much of that kind of writing today. I believe part of the reason is the breakneck pace of scientific advancement. It is hard to write a novel about a piece of technology or a technological idea because by the time you finish the novel the idea has been superseded by a more advanced piece of technology in two years it took for you to finish your tale. I think it is a risk few writers are willing to risk their careers on.
After reading Should Science Fiction Die, and other such screeds on the failure of science fiction writers to innovate, to solve problems, take risks, ask questions, challenge the status quo and include complex themes within their body of work, I feel much less like I am on the wrong track and instead just working on a different kind of story-telling.
I’m done being embarrassed about asking questions or trying to find answers with my science fiction. I’m quoting one of my favorite space westerns, Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds: “So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”
Science Fiction Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle; Huffington Post, 2013, Athena Andreadis, Ph.D.
Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards?: World SF Blog, 2009, Lavie Tidhar
Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform; Strange and Happy, Jason Stoddard
Megastructures: Artwork by Steve Burg © 2012-2013
Having talked about E-waste in past articles on Open Salon (Forget About Saving the Earth… and on the Good Men Project in Gadgets: A Perfect Storm of Wrong) this recent info-graphic embodies more up to date information from the EPA reinforcing the idea we are not handling the development of technology in a responsible manner for the simplest of reasons: No one is being held economically culpable for the development of new devices without concern for the disposal of the old technology.
What should happen from the development of any portable technology is a disposal fee built right into the cost of the device. The provider pays a part and the customer pays a part. When it’s time to dispose of the tech it is sent to a facility to maximize its safe disposal rather than shipping it overseas and allowing the lowest paid labor to handle the disposal in the most toxic method possible, usually by burning it, releasing long-lived and deadly dioxins into the atmosphere.
Remember, this info-graphic only discusses e-waste produced in the United States. As other countries ramp up their production, these numbers will continue to skyrocket. The only thing we know about e-waste for sure is eventually it will be coming to a landfill or garbage disposal facility near you. You won’t have a choice unless we start handling this problem today.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an Emperor, that’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.
The way of life can be free and beautiful. But we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in;
machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical,
our cleverness hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little.
More than machinery we need humanity,
more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.
Without these qualities life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me I say: do not despair.
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators will die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die liberty will never perish.
Soldiers: don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder!
Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men,
machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts.
You are not machines!
You are not cattle!
You are men!!
You have the love of humanity in your hearts.
You don’t hate, only the unloved hate.
The unloved and the unnatural.
Soldiers: don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty!
In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written:
– “The kingdom of God is within man.”
Not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men: in you!
You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power, let us all unite!
Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people.
Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
Soldiers! In the name of democracy: let us all UNITE!”
I have, until I heard this, never knew anything or heard anything which espoused my personal belief in human potential, in human virtue, in the strength of what is good in humanity in such a clear and focused way. I keep thoughts like these to myself because I fear most people would think I am too optimistic about people, that I don’t recognize what terrible things humans are capable of. I tend to think differently in that regard. I think of what we could do if we harness our energies for good, the same way we harness them for greed or fame or dominance over our fellow man. I will live this way even if no one but me can believe it is possible to harness the good in men. I think of movies today and find them mostly banal, filled with little to stir men’s hearts, but this, this is an anthem worth remembering.
“The PC Market is collapsing.” –Business Insider
“Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have taken the world by storm. Apple launched theiPhone six years ago. Three years later came the iPad. Google sold its first Android phone in 2008, five years ago. Is the PC dead yet?” –Yahoo Finance with the Business Insider
But that conversation on LinkedIn continued and the overall message shifted to virtualization, thin clients, and the much ballyhooed “Bring Your Own Device” or BYOD premise of bringing whatever you prefer and just connecting it to the company network.
Bring Your Own Device is not a silver bullet. BYOD is just one of a new strain of network security concerns which continue to abound in our modern age. Malware and other denial of service attacks continue to increase and are working on more sensitive integrated systems every day. As the technology for smarter devices continues to develop and as fast as new apps are being developed, malware is just as quickly propagating across this new interconnected and completely open environment.
What I hear far too little of is an understanding of the new technological ecosystem being developed. In addition to the growing iOS and Android playgrounds where few if any environmental monitoring is being done, almost no malware protections are being enacted and neither security processes, nor human awareness have kept pace with the potential for hackers to invade the privacy of billions of potential devices which lie unprotected for the most part.
Adding to this tech-soup of potential vulnerability are the complexities of virtual computing and remote desktop environments, as well as thin client systems are all becoming dependent on cloud computing technology, wide area networks and client-managed environments. Few are discussing the increasing complexity of these environments where hardware is centralized but use is distributed through a multitude of virtual environments without concern for operational capacity, network stability, and Internet connectivity.
We are seeing more outages of the Internet daily, so much so, there are applications which monitor traffic to let you know which services are currently available:http://www.isitdownrightnow.com/ . Though this tool is primarily for popular web services, Amazon has a version which is also accessible through the internet:http://status.aws.amazon.com/ . Each tool like these is predicated on the idea that no system of computer operation is infallible and the more interconnected we become the more likely we will find the opportunity to see first hand:
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a nail.
Perhaps the question should be: Is the desktop computer being killed by corporations who want to manipulate users into a cycle of:
Is the death of the PC being artificially hastened to sell portable digital technology, even when financial, economic, social, and technological safeguards for that technology are not currently in place? Oh yes, I would say so, just from watching the industry and its lust for profit.
The PC is not dead. But we are sealing it up alive in the coffin for profit’s sake. Think of how much money can be made while new interfaces are being developed. Think of all the planned obsolescence inherently built into each device, replacing it after only 6-12 months. Imagine all of that technological churn being done, the billions spent on advertising new versions of old devices with only minuscule differences making corporations like Apple some of the most profitable agencies on Earth. Think of the ever-expanding app industry estimated to grow to $25 billion dollars in 2013 and continuing to grow. There is so much money to be made by Apple, Samsung, Nokia, Motorola, and other device manufacturers I can’t see them NOT promoting the device/gadget over desktops. The potential profitability is absolutely astounding. Charge as much for a handheld device as you do for a laptop with 1/10 the functionality, but call it mobile. “Make a gadget cool, and the sheep will follow.”
If the PC is dying, I suspect someone is killing it; for a profit. And it’s not the butler.
See Also: Gadgets: A Perfect Storm of Wrong – Where I discuss the environmental issues around the constant proliferation of gadget/device technology.
As the head of United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) and the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, General Keith Alexander is at the front lines of many aspects of American national security. While online life has improved many aspects of public life, it has also opened up a entirely new realm of possibilities for those wishing to do the US harm.