Each week in the lead up to Brave Conversations, we'll be chatting to two featured speakers about their take on the issues facing humans and technology, now and in the future.
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Michele Berkhout Director, Corporate Solutions and Industry Engagement at TAFE Queensland South West.
Berkhout: I have approached this with the thought that the web is just a way of accessing information over the medium of the internet and so it enables access to information and information sharing, facilitating social networks based on sharing of information, much of which is sharing of information about self – to be more social we need to give away more of ourselves. The internet is a huge network of computer networks, so networking infrastructure which does not need humans.
At the moment around half the world does not have access to the web and of those that do have access to the web, well over half only have the web experience via a mobile device through apps, or thinner versions of a full website, so it is not as rich as on bigger device. Further, access to the web is becoming increasingly restricted, even in the “free” Western world and therefore even in the West, we are already living without full access to the web.
We just need to look at the lives of people without the web to imagine the world without the web – so some regions of outback Australia as well as poorer communities in developing countries, poor people in wealthy countries and often older people. Interestingly, some people only have access to Facebook and believe that they do not have access to the web e.g. 8% of people in Indonesia who access Facebook only believe they have no access to the web. So then the question becomes, is Facebook the web (information access, sharing and social) and can we live without Facebook?
In contrast to being without the web, without the internet, we would be in a lot of trouble. The internet (network of computer networks) already controls electricity and water supplies, transport systems, financial and accounting system, our financial worlds that includes stock markets, banking and insurance, telephone and communications networks and of course government, corporate and military surveillance. The internet without humans would still continue, so the Web without humans in the age of AI is an interesting thought. We have already lost our ability to understand networks and computing systems associated with AI, as super computers are now able to teach lesser computers through sharing of knowledge and learning capability and as humans, we do not know how they are doing it, but they are.
As humans, can we live without digitally mediated access to information? Given the rise in tech detox weekends and more recently cafes that have banned/removed access to wifi and devices, there is a trend of trying to reduce our dependency to always on, always connected in the rich world. The always on, always connected in a crowded world is promoting some unfortunate human behaviours and disrupting tried and trusted social designs like democracy.
The biggest challenges (which are neither good nor bad) for humans connected via computer networks are I believe:
· The more AI knows about humans, the more they can replace humans and shape humans. Are we ready for that? What is the role of education, jobs and skills if machines are doing the work and our job is just to generate behavioural data for the machines to do more work? Is education ready, equipped and delivering on what humans will need in the near future to live in a machine and algorithmic mediated world?
· The more we interact on the networks, the more we give away about ourselves, where we do not know ourselves anymore and our decision making is made by algorithms and machines that know us better. They will shape our work and personal lives and also how we interact with institutions, information and each other. We will become subservient to these. The ethics of algorithms can have unintended biases exacerbating discrimination and enabling prescribed social engineering much faster than humans can perhaps adapt. Are we ready for this?
· Public discourse is becoming dominated by a tone of hate, disgust and distrust. Is this the reflection of society and what will be the outcome from the negativity? How is this impacting trust? Who do you trust and how do you build it? If we are losing trust in institutions and individuals, what happens to trust as a societal value?
· Establish if the more contemporary values of equality and trust are values that 21C society still aspires to. Equality and trust only emerged as values in the 20C and now seem to be less important. If they are values that as humans we want to live, then use AI and machines to reimagine a fairer world. Address the asymmetry of equality that is emerging across a range of areas, but especially around access to data, information, internet and access to jobs that value humans to engineer a more fair society which perhaps is not driven by financial models where we are ending up at the end of a Monopoly game with the winners taking all (in India, like China, machines have taken over before the promise of reaching middle class for most of the population – something that was a very real possibility less than ten years ago – has actually occurred. The peak of social mobility has already passed and it was such a short window considering the much longer period that occurred in the West, but which now too seems to have stopped)
· Provide ways for people to own their own information and tax the algorithms and machines at the same level as the humans whose jobs they are taking away. Place a financial value on each aspect of human information, including behavioural data, so that humans can be paid for their value in the engineered society. The people who behave more like humans valued more highly because they are challenging the machines more. Then perhaps we will evolve more as humans and less than food for computing machines and algorithms. Teach humans how to be surprising and exceptional so that machines have to work harder to understand us. Also teach humans to be more human – more empathetic, resilient, emotionally connected to each other to manage though the change.
· If we value equality and trust, maybe machines need to reward humans for using kinder, more constructive words through public discourse, in a way that helps humans be more positive humans and rewards machines by showing that we can progress and we can be trained by machines. Algorithms and the machines will be the ones that can mediate how we speak to each other, shaping more positively our conversations – we really need their help here. Unfortunately, I think the humans aspiring to power/more power, and who have the money to design the algorithms and connect the machines, have more interest in humans behaving badly.
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