Humanity in the fourth Industrial Revolution
We Sapiens possess an apparently unquenchable desire for innovation. The techno-optimists among us would say that innovation will likely solve any problem we are bound to face. But often technological interventions only change the nature of a problem, or, at worst, create an entirely new problem. This is not to say we should not pursue new technology as it comes into reach, but rather that we should not be so naive to think that new solutions won't present unforeseen negative outcomes.
As new technologies change our world, our place within it also changes. This change is in equal measures exciting, empowering, and frightening. Just as the Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century, and the Agricultural Revolution before that, changed how we lived and worked, the fourth Industrial Revolution has heralded a new paradigm for us to grapple with.
This revolution manifests in the deeply embedded nature of technology within our society. It is marked by emergent artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing (3D printing), the Internet of Things, and advanced biotechnology. For Sapiens, some speculate that this could be the end of our species. But at a minimum, the vast proliferation of automation could mean a future without work.
One solution to this problem, favoured by Silicon Valley, is not a technological one, but rather an economic one. In a piece for the New York Times Magazine, Annie Lowrey describes this solution, sometimes called basic or guaranteed income, as »... a curious piece of intellectual flotsam that has washed ashore several times in the past half-millennium...«. It's true, this is not a new idea. In fact, Lowrey goes on to explain that the concept appeared in Thomas More's Utopia in 1516 and again in Agrarian Justice published in 1797 by Thomas Paine. But in recent years it has graduated from mere musings to working prototypes lead by Finland and the Netherlands, with lesser experiments run in Canada, India and Namibia. But it is a new solution in Kenya supported by GiveDirectly that is creating the most recent stir.
The great power of new technologies is its ability to leapfrog existing paradigms. In Rwanda, drones now deliver medicine more efficiently than traditional infrastructure could ever have hoped to. The sunk cost of road and rail prevent countries with these adequate albeit 20th-century modes of delivery from fully adopting the more efficient 21st-century solution. Meanwhile, in Kenya, M-Pesa is disrupting the classic late-20th century model of funds transfer by pigging backing on SMS technology. Lowrey explains that:
In 2007, Vodafone and the British Department for International Development together built a system, called M-Pesa, for Kenyans to transfer actual shillings from cellphone to cellphone. An estimated 96 percent of Kenyan households use the system today.
Though this system has since spread from Afghanistan to India and eastern Europe, it is most at home in Kenya where GiveDirectly is distributing »$24 million in donations for its basic-income effort, including money from founders of Facebook, Instagram, eBay and a number of other Silicon Valley companies«.
But what of the future of our developed economies? Bill Gates presents a novel idea, suggesting that by taxing robot labour we may be able to support the transition of factory workers into aged and child care—areas that are still highly underserved and are well suited to the innate empathy of humans.
Whether we adopt a universal income or new, innovative taxes, it is clear that we must consider the impact of our technocratic future.
Disclosure: Björn personally supports GiveDirectly's basic income trial with monthly donations.
Inspired by: The New York Times Magazine