Friday, February 15, 2019

Technology is only an enabler, not a panacea

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When technocrats talk about technology, they sound too optimistic even to the extent of being arrogant. They give an impression that technology is the panacea for all the ills suffered by the humankind, and humanity’s salvation lies in driving more technological innovations. They touch upon the cutting-edge technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), big data, Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR) and precision and regenerative medicine to buttress their claims. But are their claims true? Will technology really be able to find solutions to all our problems? Will it allow us to win over poverty, malnutrition, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), prejudice and inequalities? Will it succeed in enabling the entire humanity to lead better lives? These are the questions the right-thinking people, who are not influenced by the euphoria, are asking.
Some time ago, The New York Times published an interview with Sunder Pichai, the Chief Executive Officer of Google. During the interview, he rightly stated, “Technology doesn’t solve humanity’s problems. It was always naive to think so. Technology is an enabler, but humanity has to deal with humanity’s problems.” Sunder’s answer is laced with humility and pragmatism. The other technocrats should take a leaf out of his book and practice the same humility and pragmatism while talking about technology and shun the practice of generating excessive euphoria around it.
The science and technology community, no doubt, should be proud of its inventions, which certainly enabled a large section of the society to lead better lives. The problem is, any product or service that results from technological innovation is initially available only to the super rich and it takes a lot of time for it to percolate to the masses. Moreover, the technology, which has been monopolized by the super-rich, is posing a threat to democracy and pushing the nations towards oligarchy.
Take the example of education and health care. Technology, as it did with many fields, has also transformed the fields of education and health care. There are many privately-owned schools that are equipped with smart classrooms and internet access, where the children of the rich and the elite study. These schools are even gearing themselves up to introduce cutting-edge education technologies such as Virtual and Augmented Reality. All these technologies have reduced the role of a teacher from being the sole knowledge source to that of a mere facilitator in these schools. The children of the poor and the lower middle class, however, attend the same dilapidated government schools where a set of largely unmotivated teachers do their half-hearted teaching in the same old chalk and talk method.
Coming to healthcare, the precision and regenerative medicine are available only in some corporate hospitals which are prohibitively expensive for the ordinary folks. The poor and the lower-middle classes are not even able to get primary health care as the primary health centers run by the governments have almost become defunct.
As Sunder has stated, technology, no doubt, is an enabler. The problem is it enables only a select few and an overwhelming majority of the people are not able to access its enabling benefits.
With the emergence of cognitive technologies, humankind, for the first time in its history, is facing a rival in the form of AI capable robots. Now, there is a lot of effort that is being made by the tycoons to persuade the people that automation will not make people go jobless and people merely have to reskill themselves to grab the new opportunities the cognitive technologies will be creating in future. But skilling and reskilling need training and the training is increasingly becoming inaccessible to the poor and the lower middle-class. According to the World Bank, the darling of our politicians and plutocrats, “more than two billion working-age adults (all over the world) are not equipped with the most essential literacy skills required by employers.” It needs no elaboration that all these people must be from the poor and the lower middle-class background. When skilling itself is not happening where is the question of reskilling?
With the advent of disruptive technologies, even the governments have shifted their focus from people-centric policies to tycoon-centric policies in the name of speeding the economic growth. As a result, tax cuts, easy credit and bailouts in the name of ‘ease of doing business’ are increasingly becoming rampant.
The plutocrats have already brought the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) to fore to compensate for the job losses. The idea, however, will further sabotage democracy and lead to oligarchy. When UBI becomes a reality, the program will mostly be funded by the plutocrats which will make them the de facto rulers of the country.
Humanity is also confronted by the big data that will be generated from various interconnected devices and social media platforms, which could be used for mass surveillance. Though the governments all over the world are making the right noises about curbing any misuse of big data, they will take no more than token measures in that direction. There are already enough indications that the rich and the elite are gearing themselves up to leverage upon these mass surveillance techniques to further strengthen their stranglehold over the society by sabotaging the democratic process, which is the only ray of hope for the poor and the ordinary.
Already, the ultra-rich, who have tightened their grip on the mass media through their investments, started selling their own narratives to divert the attention of the people from the bread and butter issues and by not letting the people see the objective reality. In the near absence of an independent media, there is either nobody or scarce few who are ready to reveal the truth about the impending dangers.
As long as Technology stays as an enabling force for a select few, it leads to concentration of wealth and power and democracy remains a namesake. It finally becomes an instrument in the hands of the rich and turns into a Frankenstein’s monster, which not only wreaks havoc on humanity but will ultimately swallow its own enthusiastic promoters.

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