Digital Dictatorships: The Future of Digital Dependence following the COVID-19 Pandemic

This article explores ideas and concepts put forward by well known author, Yuval Noah Harari, discussing how humans have begun to increasingly rely on emerging technologies to make decisions for them and thus, highlight the probability of a shift in authority from humans to algorithms in the future.

Illustrated by Tishya Maini

“A.I. often frightens people because they don’t trust the AI to remain obedient. We have seen too many science fiction movies about robots rebelling against their human masters, running amok in the streets, and slaughtering everyone. Yet the real problem with robots is exactly the opposite. We should fear them because they will probably always obey their masters and never rebel.”- Yuval Noah Harari

If there’s anything the human race has realized over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the vital role technology plays in day-to-day life in connecting people and bringing them together. The primary problem that every person faces today, is the lack of physicality in human interaction. The pandemic has forced all who can work from home to do so, through the use of innovative digital tools and technologies for virtual interaction.

Over the past decade, designers have prioritized the usability of digital tools and technologies over its accessibility. However, accessibility was the primary focus in this pandemic because physical access was completely cut-off during unprecedented worldwide lockdowns. Each and every person in the world was forced to adapt to the ‘new normal’, where people who made peace with this fact early came out stronger, and those who did not are facing the consequences. On a brighter note, the pandemic has made people realize that technology is key to everything as humans move forward and evolve as species. Although this realisation has happened for all good reasons, there is a chance that the exponential expansion and increasing human dependence on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) algorithms and robotics, could lead the human race on the path of achieving the technological singularity, which is a probable moment in time when computer intelligence surpasses that of humans, and when combined with the merger of the InfoTech and the BioTech industry, it will completely redefine the global community, people’s way of life and even the human race.

Technology is getting better

Over the past decade, the InfoTech industry has worked on introducing a new wave of technologies that come under the umbrella of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’,namely AI, AR, VR, automation, and robotics, to the global community. This advancement has led some to consider the idea that technological evolution could be more important to the future of humanity when compared to biological evolution. As these technologies continue to play an increasingly great role in automating aspects of human life and making everyday mundane tasks easier to execute, the potential effect of on our lives and our futures become a major focus of research and debate amongst the masses. In his book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly clarifies by saying:

“Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.”

The term “artificial intelligence” was only coined about 60 years ago, but today, there isn’t any shortage of experts and artists trying to ponder the future of AI, be it through dystopian science fiction films and shows, or learning through the process of trial and error, specifically in the area of the automation of vehicles.Out of all the predictions, there is that about the technological singularity which has sparked debate amongst futurists all over the world as to when such a leap would be achieved by humanity and whether or not it should be encouraged in the first place.

Although there might be an intriguing yet mysterious level of thrill looking at a future which is far from reality at this moment, it is required that futurists prioritise studying the effects of present day emerging technologies on the global community. Be it asking a voice assistant such as Alexa to make a list of groceries one needs to purchase, to Google Maps leading the way on the quickest route to their destination, the lives of humans are increasingly moulded by data algorithms, which are sets of instructions that help complete tasks in the form of defined lines of code. Today, such algorithms are helping humans make decisions and, in a few cases, learning to make decisions for them.

Algorithms rule the world

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, talks about the way, for thousands of years, humans believed the authority over them came from laws made by divine entities rather than the human mind. It’s only in the last few centuries that there has been a shift in their beliefs and humans have been more informed about the decisions they make in living their lives. However, Harari also mentions that soon enough, with the coming technological revolution in machine learning and robotics, humans might witness another shift in authority, this time, from humans to big data algorithms, resulting in the very idea of individual freedom ceasing to exist. Researchers who have looked into human emotions and reactions, inferred that human emotions are nothing but calculations made by the brain in the process of recognizing existing patterns and accordingly making decisions.

At present, people rely on the Netflix algorithm to suggest new movies and shows to watch based on their history, on the Spotify algorithm to analyze the types of music they listen to and suggest more based on the data, and on Amazon’s Alexa to keep them updated on their day’s schedule. Experts predict such algorithms to universally become more important as the years go by and essentially, improve human lives for the better. For example, in areas such as banking, digital money lenders fuelled by such algorithms would make better decisions about who they loan money to based on the objective data coded into it. Such algorithms will also solve the problem of major traffic congestions by suggesting the best alternative routes to people while they travel. Although the pros make it seem like such algorithms will relieve humans, from a lot of stress and help them focus on more important decisions, there is always another side to the same coin. In a survey conducted by Pew Research Centre, of around thirteen-hundred experts inclusive of futurists, academics, coders, and IT professionals that participated, majority voiced their concerns on the potentially disastrous consequences of such algorithms, such as highly personalized marketing and their role in helping people make more crucial life decisions.

The key invention to such a future is the biometric sensor, that will analyze human biological processes and turn them into digital information.Once invented, this sensor, along with big data algorithms could be used to hack into the mind of an individual to know their desires, opinions, and their personality. In his book, Harari states an example, using the persona of an individual that might be confused about their sexual preference sometime in the future.As people might not know themselves very well at a young age, such an algorithm could look into hormonal reactions in their body and tell whether they feel more aroused by watching videos of men or women, in the form of an online test. In such a way, the algorithm would be able to calculate and analyze the individual’s biological processes and thus come up with an accurate result. This would essentially spare the individual years of confusion. Even if they are uncomfortable with the result and would prefer not to tell anyone about it, there’s a good chance that major corporations will use this information to sell their products to this individual. This information could help them make huge profits. There might be, however, an alternate possibility where the same individual is open about their preferences and thus continues to share more information about themselves to get better recommendations for products and thus eventually, get the algorithm to make decisions for them.Such temptation to rely on algorithms will only increase and as these algorithms become more reliable, human decision-making instincts will become less reliable, to such a point where it will be very easy for people to get manipulated into thinking that they themselves have made these decisions when really, the authority lies elsewhere. Harari has discussed this subject in immense detail and has stated that:

“ As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer see the world as the playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices. Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data processing system — and then merge into it.”

Machines are better than humans

As automation, robotics and machine learning continue to play an increasingly great role in everyday life, its potential impact on workplaces and the lives of the working force is another great topic of discussion amongst the masses with the pressing question, “Will AI take my job?”. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a very strong incentive for industries to replace humans with machines in order to keep their operation and production costs low. This process will eventually accelerate itself in the coming years, as automation takes over workplaces such as highway tollbooths, manufacturing factories, banking and even healthcare. Harari discusses a similar situation back in the nineteenth century, where the risk of massive unemployment was created amongst the masses owing to the Industrial Revolution. He states that:

“Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, for every job lost to a machine, at least one new job was created, and the average standard of living has increased dramatically. Yet there are good reasons to think that this time it is different, and that machine learning will be a real game changer.”

Originally, there were positive predictions where AI and automation would free us humans from mundane and dangerous tasks and workplaces, so that humans could take on more creative and intellectually stimulating jobs. What the world is seeing today, is the complete opposite. A study in the United States of America revealed that around forty million people lost their jobs at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been cases where few of the jobs have come back, but economists have estimated that around 42% of the jobs lost at this time are lost forever. This has led the American working class to alter their skill set and switch professions , in order to sustain a roof on top of their head. Harari states that, in the future, there might be a scenario where not just the American population, but the entire global working class will have to constantly keep evolving their skill set in terms of creative, social, cognitive and technological skills, in order to stay employed. This won’t be an easy task to execute, as it will be a very time consuming process, irrespective of the availability and accessibility to relevant information and education opportunities on these skills.

Even if a person did transform their skill set and finally secure a decent paying job for themselves, there’s a chance that they would lose it, owing to the constantly changing industry.This will leave the person with the option of repeating the entire process in order to get a new job, which will have a huge impact on their mental health with time. Harari discusses how such a scenario would lead to the rise of a new ‘useless’ class, where people who suffer from unemployment and lack of relevant skills would fall into this class.A majority of youngsters might even manage to keep the cycle running and constantly keep evolving; but for how long? There will come a point where a young generation is fully exhausted of constantly being driven to change, which might lead to a global epidemic of stress and huge economic divide.

In Conclusion

This pandemic has made everyone realize that technology is key to everything as we move forward and evolve as species and has thus convinced the human race to accelerate the process of evolution of technology. At this pace, there will soon come a time where the merger of the InfoTech and BioTech industries will serve as the foundation of a whole new world altogether. Harari mentions that, as more and more data flows from one’s body and brain to a central AI server, and as humans become more ‘hackable’, the human species will increasingly rely on algorithms to make decisions for us and worse, under the illusion that they are still practicing free will. Such personal data in the hands of authoritarian governments and big corporations might do more harm than good from a broader point of view. With automation spreading itself across a various range of industries and workplaces, there is a risk of mass unemployment and the world is already witnessing it because of the pandemic.

Moving forward, although these scenarios are simply predictions brought out by Harari, the probability of algorithms coming into power and dictating over the lives of our species is very high. Thus it is suggested that one fights such a scenario by staying aware of these possibilities and by not letting the algorithm get the best of them, by simply being aware.

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