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Everything connected: In the future, computers will control a global network without human help.
What the future holds
When an American software company discovered an open connection between their headquarters and a mysterious location in China, managers were alarmed. Concerned that hackers been using malware to steal confidential information, they launched an investigation.
What they found was not a security breach, but something far more surprising. An enterprising employee had given a Chinese consultancy firm access to his login details. In return for a fraction of his salary, Chinese workers completed his work while he whiled away time watching videos of cats.
The nameless man became an instant internet sensation. But in fact, he had simply taken advantage of an economic truth that multinational companies are exploiting on an enormous scale: by exporting jobs to countries where living costs are low, it is possible to get the job done just as well while paying far lower wages.
This process is called ‘outsourcing’, and it has transformed the global economy. Because the internet makes transferring information so easy, there are few disadvantages to moving jobs abroad.
Today £70 billion worth of labour has been relocated to developing countries, and the growth of multinational corporations has increased cross-border trade flows tenfold over just thirty years. This, says former politician Al Gore, is the birth of ‘Earth Inc.’
But revolutionary as outsourcing is, there is another trend that may transform the world even more: robosourcing.
Recently, the powerful Swiss bank UBS fired one of its top traders. His replacement? A computer. Today, supercomputers use hugely complex algorithms to trade millions of pounds worth of stocks in mere milliseconds. Their operations are so complicated that it takes humans months to discover the logic behind what they have done.
Almost nobody’s job is safe from the boom in artificial intelligence. Robots, says one expert, will soon replace ‘lawyers, accountants, financial executives, even managers’.
And now software enables computers to analyse data and turn it into prose: even journalists may soon become extinct.
Two hundred years ago, machines began to take over the work of building and manufacturing. In the 20th Century, factory farming mechanised agriculture too. Now, computers are capable of thinking independently and responding to their surroundings. If even these tasks are removed from human hands, what will be left for us to do?
Across the developed world, unemployment rates are rising – and it may be more than just a temporary blip. As production becomes dominated by machines, the only people who stand to benefit are the people who own those machines.
Around the world, from China to Russia to Britain, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very few. In the USA, 50% of all capital gains income goes to the wealthiest thousandth of a percent.
We may be heading for a future in which all industry is owned by a global super-elite, while everybody else is left by the wayside.
For better or worse?
Would this really be so terrible? With computers doing all of our work, ordinary people will be free to devote their time and energy to pursuing whatever life they choose. Absolute freedom from toil and obligation: it is the future that humanity has dreamed of ever since humanity has dreamed.
But is this really what we want? Socially, economically and politically marginalised by an all-powerful international clique, some predict that our lives will be stripped of meaning and control. Without power or purpose, the ‘freedom’ we crave will prove nothing but a hollow, worthless shell.
*This series of articles is inspired by Al Gore’s The Future, published by Random House in January 2013
1. Would you be happy if you never had to do a day’s work for the rest of your life?
2. Al Gore believes that ‘just as the ancient walled city-states of Italy eventually became a unified nation’, the whole world is now becoming a single, borderless entity. Is this true? And would you like it to be?
1. Write an imaginary diary entry from the perspective of a person living in 2100, in a world when all work has been taken over by computers.
2. Some say that the concept of a future without work falls into a trap known as the ‘Luddite fallacy’. After doing some research, write a paragraph outlining what this means and whether or not you agree.
How algorithms shape our world – an unsettling talk by a digital media expert.
A long and scholarly but very interesting article on how the decline of the middle class and the rise of computers is affecting the global economy.
Al Gore’s The Future gets a mixed review from the New York Times.
How globalisation is transforming the way we work – an interesting opinion piece hosted by the BBC.
Can an algorithm write a better story than a human reporter? Not yet, says Wired – but that could soon change.
Malware – Short for ‘malevolent software’, this is an umbrella term for unwanted computer programmes like viruses, spyware and trojan horses.
Al Gore – Albert Arnold Gore was the Vice-President to Bill Clinton when he led America between 1993 and 2001. He was then beaten to the presidency by George W Bush in one of the tightest elections in US history; supporters still claim that the result was called wrongly. Since then Gore has presented an Oscar-winning documentary, won a Nobel Peace Prize and written several books. The latest of these, The Future, inspired this series of articles.
Algorithms – An algorithm is a command that uses a series of calculations to process data. It is like a mathematical recipe: by following a command, computers like those used by Google take in a series of raw ingredients, put them through a series of steps and produce a useable result.
Unemployment rates – In the USA, for instance, unemployment rates have risen by 33% over the last 25 years despite a 133% rise in production. Some of the job losses can be explained by recession and financial crisis, but probably not all.
Capital gains – ‘Capital assets’ are goods that are held purely in order to make money, not for their inherent value: for instance, financial stocks and shares. Capital gains are the profits made from such assets. This amounts to only a small proportion of most people’s income, but many very wealthy people earn capital gains amounting to millions of pounds.
‘There are some things that computers will never be able to do.’
What do you think?
Business and Economics, Government & Politics