Dreams to Nightmares

While I have been dreaming if more equitable governments and more transformative leaders who will anticipate the welfare of people and the environment, others have been dreaming of societies dependent on and imprisoned by technological “solutions”, particularly to further pandemic outbreaks. What is one person’s nightmare is another’s dream.

Some years ago when I was writing a weekly column for a local paper, I raised the question of AI (Artificial Intelligence). There has been a fantasy of what AI can do for all of us – the menial tasks that can be replaced in factories, offices, and such places where manufacturing, accounting and maintenance take place. But improvement does not just stop at riveting pieces of machinery or totting up numbers; it expands and slowly improves applications to medicine, law, teaching – gradually usurping jobs and the weft and weave of social fabric. In my column I asked what happens when there is more AI application and less employment for people. What happens to the people languishing without work, battling to find meaning let alone the means to support themselves? What happens when AI, more logical and less compassionate than Man concludes that Man is surplus to requirements? Perhaps this is where a Universal Basic Wage or Income raises a head. But where would the taxes for this come from? The Tech Giants are not known for their tax returns; rather they ask governments for monetary support to develop applications which they then sell back to the governments. This is exactly what Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, now chair of the Defence Innovation Board that advises the US Department of Defence, proposes of the US Government. Underlying much of Eric Schmidt and various tech giant CEOs’ plan is that government outsource much of what it does to technology. This would give them greater power than they already have: a carte blanche to intrude into every fabric of our lives.

The Australian government has encouraged its citizens to download an app that assists tracking people who have Covid-19 and their contacts. Certainly the idea is laudable. There are assurances that the information is encrypted and then deleted on a 21-day cycle. The Minister of Health has said that application and information it collects will disappear like a puff of smoke when no longer needed after the danger of the pandemic has passed. Personally, my doubts were not allayed, partly because governments have ample excuses to track people for whatever reason and all it would require is a bit of tweaking and fudging over who has access to the information, currently quarantined but without legislative clarity on police access.

What is being sold in a time of fear and anxiety is humanless, contactless technology because, according to Auja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, selling self-parking technology, “Humans are bio-hazards, machines are not.” Hmmm, reminds me of the NRA’s mantra, “Guns, not people, kill.”

So what are Scmidt and his cohorts selling us? Smarter education delivery, smarter cars, smarter cities, smarter homes. Smarter homes? Yes, homes that you never need to leave, where everything is delivered to you and from whence you work. Telemedicine and teleart – it is all there. Teleart? Yes – no more interaction with ideas other than the blunted interface through technology, teleported into your entertainment studio now expanded into a gymnasium.

A recent experience with telemedicine brought home its shortcomings. The doctor or physician needs to see the whole person to arrive at a diagnosis. A man with emphysema, somewhat cognitively impaired with a history of cancer was being reviewed regularly through telemedicine, in other words a phone call. His major anxiety was shortness of breath. The doctor was unable to see the other symptoms (puffiness and swollen, blue feet). I am assuming he or she noted that “patient continues to sound breathless and is anxious but there is little evidence of change”. Only when the ambulance was called could a thorough assessment be made followed by appropriate medical intervention. Unless telemedicine improves significantly and the associated technology imported into the home of people most vulnerable and least competent to manage the technology, incomplete diagnoses will be made.

I have to say I have little faith at this stage that life will be seamless technological ease. My city has recently installed new parking meters, not contactless so disabled during the heightened Covid-19 crisis. To operate them you need an app. However, no matter how I tried, I was unable to download it. I contacted the council office who advised me I needed to go to the actual meter supplier’s website. I spoke to a very helpful consultant who said I could just call them before and after parking on a specified number and follow the prompts. When I parked I waited 30 minutes on a line that was never answered and provided no prompts. I sent them an email. Two days later they advised me that I needed to let the council know. I used the contact email address provided on the council website. It promptly bounced back. At this stage I have given up but if they follow up with a fine, I shall probably have to print off all the associated emails and walk into their offices to talk to someone. From my perspective, there is a long way to go as far as services are concerned.

Naomi Klein points out that before the Covid-19 outbreak, the public was becoming more sceptical of the intentions behind technological largesse. As a result, advances in AI were being slowed down: “Keeping fleets of potentially driverless cars and trucks off the roads, protecting private health records from becoming a weapon used by employers against workers, preventing urban spaces from being blanketed with facial recognition software, and much more”. She argues that the pandemic has opened up a window of opportunity to sweep aside democratic engagement, allowing us to compete with China in technological advance without the annoying intrusion of civil rights. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/may/13/naomi-klein-how-big-tech-plans-to-profit-from-coronavirus-pandemic

There will be employment – human drones who will work in vast warehouses, data centres, sweat shops, lithium mines, prisons and processing plants, underpaid, under-protected and invisible. They will be the people supplementing AI. Opportunities for white collar workers will also be affected, including computer programmers. People across all professions will be reduced as jobs and skills are outsourced to AI. It raises the question about what sort of syllabus will be taught through tele-education. After all, if you are educating the vast majority to undertake menial work, you don’t want them to think critically – just as you don’t want artists engaging with the public. Oh, Brave New World!

Evidence shows that women have been most affected by job losses as a result of the pandemic. They are predominantly the shop assistants, the hospitality workers, the child and community carers, clerks and other support staff. This trend will continue. After all, who will be supervising the home education and co-ordinating the contactless services delivered to the home? And who will bear the brunt of pent up frustrations of the unemployed or bored employed? The upside may be that this domestic bliss never eventuates because relationships are built on contact, often not very hygienic.

There will be a small, powerful aristocracy who will be able to afford all that the new technology is able to bring along with the enlarged apartments towering over cities where the less fortunate eke out their lives. This aristocracy will be the people who drive the technological advances and increasingly govern.

Alphabet’s smart cities smack of this fantasy. It is worth visiting Sidewalk Labs website and be seduced. http://www.sidewalklabs.com

Recently, Toronto’s flirtation with Alphabet’s Street Labs innovation came to an end, seemingly because the full extent of the plans and the working relationship with Toronto’s governing body was elastic and not clearly articulated from the start. The other problem was that those pesky citizens were not happy about data collection and surveillance. Alphabet is still hopeful about developing smart cities but recognises that it may need greater engagement with the people who will live and work in them and (heaven forfend!) demonstrate greater transparency and compliance with applicable laws. http://www.wired.com//Alphabet’s

As I have been writing this piece the images of a novel I read some years ago, the author and title of which I cannot recall, has been haunting me. In the novel, the rich, powerful and privileged live above the city below, moving from one structure to another for their work and entertainment via aerial pathways. They never need to descend to the dark, pest-infected city below where the sun’s rays barely penetrate and where people get by the best way they can. Indeed, the people living in the sky are barely aware of those below. Alphabet’s smart cities and Schmidt’s dream bring this to mind.

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