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Our mindless future

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, April 9, 2018  /  08:53 am
Our mindless future

We are at the beginning of the next wave of industrial revolution. This time, it is driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI). (Shutterstock/File)

In greeting the fourth industrial revolution – characterized by the combination of the power of data, information processors and algorithms – most Indonesian observers have been naively positive, singing praises on how the internet of things could help the Indonesian economy move forward, repeating words like “efficiency” and “speed” like mantras.

In fact, the efficiency and speed brought by the fourth wave of the industrial revolution – with the internet of things – brings sinister consequences for employment. Many people, like those who work at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, have lost their jobs because their skills have been replaced by artificial intelligence.

In response to the prospect of being sidelined in the workforce by artificial intelligence, some individuals have tried to console themselves with the conviction that the professions that artificial intelligence would replace would only cover low-skill jobs.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, furthermore, argues in his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Vintage Books, 2016) that, by observing some of the advancements in artificial intelligence development, it seems like AI is capable of replacing high-skill jobs – even highly complex vocations like journalists and artists.

Let us take a look at some examples. In the United States, a statistics website called StatSheets is developing an algorithm that could produce sports news. Separately, Ray Kurzweil has developed a program that could compose music. One day, in addition to the loss of low-skill jobs, the journalist and artist professions might no longer exist.

Sociologists have theorized that with the replacement of human workers with artificial intelligence, many people will lose their jobs without having new fields created for them – this is how the fourth-wave industrial revolution is different from its predecessors: the invention of the steam engine, mass production through electricity and information and communications technology.

Whereby in the previous industrial revolutions lower-skill jobs were lost to create new ones requiring higher skills, this time, the internet of things could replace even the high-skill jobs.

As a result, socioeconomic inequality will be larger, with a large concentration of wealth and power lying in the hands of the giant technology company owners, sidelining the rest of us into the outer margins of society, according to Sanata Dharma University scholar B. Hari Juliawan in his article for Basismagazine in 2017 titled Kecerdasan Buatan dan Keributan Beneran (Artificial Intelligence and Genuine Chaos).

Will those who work for the big technology companies seek to rule the world by replacing their fellow human beings with artificial intelligence, greedily devouring as much money as they can from these inventions, while also working to erode the intellectual tradition that human beings have created for hundreds of years?

American journalist Franklin Foer is addressing the issue in his latest book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, published in late 2017 by Penguin Books, focusing on the operation methods of three giant companies – Google, Facebook and Amazon – that he refers to as the “monopolists of the mind”.

The term “monopolists of the mind” is no exaggeration. In his book, he argues how Google seems to want to replace our minds through its cooptation of the mind’s various functions. Google Maps, for instance, will tell you which turn to take, and there is no need to learn a new language to translate texts meticulously – Google Translate will do it for you. Most of the time, we sheepishly follow the instructions of these engines.

Besides telling us what to do, Google also co-opts various sources of information, not only through its search engine, but also through its video website YouTube and Google Books, which has an ambition to reproduce all the books and publications in the world into its database.

How Facebook operates is yet another example. In his book, Foer says that Facebook wages “war with free will”, because the way social media works is so addictive, with its endless streams of updates, likes and comments. Then, based on the information we put out online, the platform will tell us the products or services we might be interested in through its advertisements based on the keywords we use.

While the social media platform tries to hook us into using it for extended periods of time due to its addictive nature, do we still have the capability to think for ourselves, or have we turned into mindless netizens on autopilot mode? This is a question worth pondering.

From the issues of the inability to think for oneself, internet addiction and a shortened human attention span due to how the internet operates, Foer takes us into a scarier consequence of the rise of big data companies: the death of the author, and even intellectual pursuits in general.

This is where Amazon comes in. Foer argues that the e-commerce platform has diminished the intellectual value of an author’s work greatly by making their works available at a lower price through e-books, while pressuring authors and publishers who object to the practice by making it difficult for them to sell their books.

Through the free circulation of audiovisual files on YouTube, the value of filmmakers’ and musicians’ works has similarly been diminished. Furthermore, the online commercial system places more emphasis on what sells, instead of focusing on works that embody the intellectual endeavor.

Whereby previously it took years of hard and often thankless work to become a published author, nowadays platforms like WattPad allow anybody to become authors, regardless of the quality of work they produce. Indonesian publishers, at least, have adopted the practice of publishing works that gain wild popularity on the platform. Gone are the days of the great gatekeepers made up by a long line of editors and writers.

In a similar way, the big technology companies have also diminished the value of journalism. Instead of going through a meticulous process involving a long command chain of reporters and editors, nowadays everyone can call themselves “citizen journalists”, while malevolent individuals could earn lots of money by creating fake news.

Foer also argues that, with the absorption of all advertisement revenue by big technology companies such as Google and Facebook, traditional media outlets now find it hard to transition into online platforms.

Journalists and writers are burdened with not only a higher workload to produce more attractive content for their media outlets, but also the pressures of creating stories that sell. To circumvent the declining advertisement revenue, many media outlets are also forced to compromise their journalism ethics.

Our intellectual ability is at risk with the distractions brought by these online engines and platforms, which diminish the intellectual and artistic endeavors that big technology companies seemingly place no value in, as they continue to develop artificial intelligence that could bypass our own intellectual capabilities.

Do we just stand and watch as more humans are marginalized by artificial intelligence, while big companies earn more money and gain more power from their businesses?

If you think these prospects are scary, then you need to read Foer’s book. He also outlines how we can fight these giants and take our minds back from their clutches – while we still can.