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The automated path to social and ecological destruction

18 31 27

In the mid-1980s, Max Headroom, a “computer-generated” TV personality with a zany sense of satire and an electronically altered stutter, became the world’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) superstar. Back then, of course, computer technology was not yet up to this mammoth task, so the intelligence behind Max Headroom, just like the actor portraying him on television, was very much human.

Max Headroom was from a dystopian future in which the world is ruled by an oligarchy of television networks. In a way, reality not only met but exceeded the show’s predictions. Sure, our lives are not controlled by “advertising-mad” TV companies, but they are being overwhelmed by equally advertising-mad social media companies that monitor and record the minutiae of our behaviour.

Moreover, technology has advanced so much over the past 35 years that the emergence of a computer-generated TV presenter like Max Headroom would hardly surprise anyone today. In fact, we already have machines convincingly acting like humans – so much so that we can create entire computer-generated worlds for our entertainment and fill them with seemingly intelligent characters.

The advances in computing power, robotics and AI have enormous implications for society. Most importantly, although we are still some way away from humans becoming obsolete in the workforce, much of human labour has already become surplus to requirements.

Factories that can function with zero or minimal human intervention (known as “lights-out manufacturing”) are but one visible example of this. A couple of generations ago, a typical factory would employ hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. Today, many manufacturing facilities are more or less completely automated. The FANUC manufacturing facility in Japan, for example, functions like a robotic womb, using robots to build robots without the need for human intervention.

While full automation is still relatively rare, partial automation is everywhere – from agriculture to manufacturing. The service sector, which had long been viewed as the one sector which would continue to create jobs no matter what, is also........

© Al Jazeera

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