Over the past years I’ve written repeatedly about the digital transition. In 2015 I organised and moderated a workshop on behalf of the Dutch national Internet Governance Forum, NLIGF, on this topic at the IGF in João Pessoa in Brazil. This workshop looked at the digital transition from a few angles: education, permissionless innovation, privacy and politics. The results were somewhat disconcerting as a room filled with (inter)national experts concluded that education was running far behind developments. No one present was able to point to the new kind of jobs that a transition usually brings. Privacy was under severe pressure, e.g. from algorithms that were seen as black boxes and politicians were near ignorant of these developments. All saw the thriving permissionless innovation, with participating (Internet) engineers who could not wait to see where the world is moving towards. The report NLIGF published can be found here: http://www.intgovforum.org/cms/workshops/list-of-published-workshop-proposals under workshop 48, ‘Internet of Things. Ethics for the Digital Age’.
This topic a such is far from new. With every mechanical innovation a loss of jobs came; that were replaced by other, often jobs that required an higher education. Probably since the invention of the wheel. Looking with an optimistic view it isn’t hard to conclude that the same will happen here, although it does take education and I’ll return to that below. Perhaps these jobs lie just around the corner and we cannot see them yet.
It is a rather acute topic though. Some people have declared that Donald Trump was elected president by people who have lost their jobs to machines, with little chance of regaining a new job (that is meaningful to them). If true, the people who lost out to globalisation and further industrialisation made the rather small difference between win or lose. These people felt unheard and made their choice. It is the former part of this sentence that is important. It looks like a lot more people may get to this state and will want to be heard. Why?
The reason I am writing right now is because of a few disconnected pieces of news that alerted me over the past days. “Software is able to decide on traffic management during traffic jams”. The software opens or closes an extra lane by studying camera footage. “First tests with driverless trains to start”. “70 km stretch of roads opened to automated car tests”. “Robots performing surgery”. All these tests are aimed at one thing: replacing workers for artificial intelligence: traffic management personnel, train drivers, lorry drives, taxi drivers and surgeons. What will these people do after they have been let off?
Mind, all the above our autonomous cases, not connected to each other. One company, a ministry, a university hospital, testing new software. All in their own cocoon. There’s one major communality. As soon as the software does what it is supposed to do at a satisfactory level it brings one thing: massive lay-offs, of people who will probably not find another meaningful job. My guess is this will probably happen around the same time. So massive lay-offs of people, mostly with a lower education, who now have meaningful, satisfying jobs.
This is where leadership comes in. As long as decisionmakers at the political level have not developed an awareness around the digital transition, as their own colleagues and other experts stated in João Pessoa they have not, let alone developed a vision of how to confront this transition, they will be surprised and overwhelmed of what these changes are going to bring to society.
In The Netherlands there is a strong call, a lobby to set up a digital team of policy leaders within the government. Yes, it is important to create favourable circumstances for businesses to develop further, yes, there are major opportunities for start ups and incumbent companies alike, yes cyber security is a major issue and yes, it is extremely important to educate our youth (and do not forget to re-educate those people losing jobs). It is even more important to develop a view on what sort of a society we all want to live in. If we do not get this right, I am afraid that discontent is going to rage high in the coming decade. People are losing jobs and want to be heard and their numbers may grow exponentially when the software is able to fully take over. There is a little window of opportunity still open to take this question full on. In ten, perhaps even only five, years it will be too late. So what is it going to be? It’s time to add this last line to that manifesto.
Wout de Natris, Haarlem 31-03-2017