Soul-Searching During the Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Kate Park

A.I., Big Data, IoT, Cloud, 3D printing, Bio-engineering, Smart farming, Drones, Self-driving. All these big words signify the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). What is unique about the term is that it was pointed out in advance, unlike the former three. It is characterized by a “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”[2]

As a recent graduate, I find myself asking ‘what will be the changes in the global workforce when robots are already replacing people?’ A Swedish company already has workers with microchips implanted in their hands.[3] There is also a huge gap between those who have in-demand skills and those who don’t; currently there are few A.I. specialists which is bad news for small companies that struggle competing with Silicon Valley giants.[4] There are so few that big companies are trying to make “artificially intelligent machines that can build other artificially intelligent machines” without human input.[5] Anticipating major unemployment, Bill Gates suggests taxing robots, and with that money, re-invest on humans. Prioritizing human labor and equal opportunity, especially in regard to gender inequality within the tech industry, need to be emphasized.

Numerous scholars are disturbed by the ‘uncanny valley’ and agonize over the possible deterioration of morals, emotions, intuition and ‘common sense.’ Yuval Noah Harari, in Homo Deus, asks whether our goal as a species is to become like God, using technology to ‘upgrade’ ourselves.[6] He states that we have somewhat accomplished prolonged life, happiness and power. Now he foresees a future where we strive for immortality, eternal bliss and divinity. In line with ethics, IBM’s A.I. called Dr. Watson can diagnose patients with almost 100% accuracy, but the hard question is ‘who will be responsible for an error’?[7] Would it be the programmer or the doctor? As more people trust data, there is much to think about.

Supporters of A.I. assert that with the 4IR the world will be more prosperous. This may be true to some degree but companies such as Uber represent a ‘shared economy’ where already-existing wealth is reused – admittedly, in a novel way. Although collaborative open-source platforms like MOOCs and GitHub are esteemed and facilitate the flow of knowledge, “Uber…owns no vehicles. Facebook…creates no content. Alibaba…has no inventory. And Airbnb…owns no real estate” (p.97).[12] Meanwhile, cryptocurrency such as bitcoins are leaving banks unhappy since people use such traceless money for illicit activities. Whether 4IR will add new wealth to the market safely is still unclear.

A.I. enthusiasts also claim that the world will be more sustainable and safe. With telemedicine, patients far away may receive better care. With technology trickling down, digital divide may get smaller. With data-oriented outlooks, societies may become less biased. Nonetheless, bots appear to have influenced the recent U.S. presidential election, [8] and investigations concerning the impeached former South Korean president Park Geun-hye indicate that she had most likely ordered the National Intelligence Service to utilize social media in favor of her administration. Equally, “social media…has driven much of the rage” behind the Rohingya ethnic cleansing.[9] Soon military robots, virtual reality wars, and facial recognition in airports may become the norm. And hacking will be wide-scale because already, “in 2011, the number of new things connected to the Internet exceeded the number of new users”.[12]

Personally, I am nervous that we will lose our own agency. In March last year, the Baduk player Lee Sedol lost to Google’s AlphaGo program. It was a mind-boggling event. We also frequently hear how Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google track everything online, hurting our privacy. As someone who studied a foreign language, when I heard about Google’s new headphones comparable to Babel fish[10], I felt down. Learning another language is more than just that. Putting in the effort to adopt a dissimilar worldview and widen one’s emotional reach toward others are always part of the process. It is hard to say that from now on people will be interested in learning ‘the other’ since such tools customize solely to you. Thus “our biggest worry is not an attack by…robots, but a lack of purpose.”[11]

I believe that educational reform focused on critical thinking and creativity will cushion the potentially drastic and negative consequences. This may sound cliché but the truth is, from kindergarten to college, students literally learn like machines, absorbing as much information then hoping that disseminating such knowledge will keep them safe. A lot of schools are currently integrating technology in classrooms. However, “there is little…evidence…[indicating] that…computers [improve] educational results,” and many worry that kids are becoming test subjects for products.[13] Education must provide a variety of spaces/options for different types of students, and need to encourage students to have bigger views, not just seek an ‘easy’ way out, ask courageous questions, connect the dots, and strengthen their talent and individuality.

Up to now, we’ve made economic and technological globalization a success. With 4IR, however, A.I. and robots will likely replace us in continuing that legacy. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see people out of jobs and with more time on their hands. I believe that our next goal should be to make political, social and cultural globalization a success. 4IR can be – if we fuel our agency mentioned above – an opportunity for us to do some soul-searching, and become better humans, not God-like.

Kate Park is a recent graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied Global Studies and Spanish. She is the Blogger for Global Governance and Digital Revolution Affairs.