Apr 18, 2014

Everything that can be automated will be automated

When I look at how technology and society are evolving, a few simple trends stand out.

Everything that can be automated will be automated. 

Everything that can be digitized is being digitized. 

The people who seem to be making the most money are those who are contributing to the increasing digitization and automation of things. A simple way to find business opportunities is simply to take note of things that could be better automated or digitized. Then find a team, do the marketing, create the product, etc.

There are still a million things left to digitize and automate as we transition to a data and algorithm controlled world. We’re not even close to halfway there yet.

Just look at government. Governance in the future could be reduced to a set of complex computer programs that gather and process data from millions of different sensors and data sources and produce decisions and systems that can then be reviewed by a committee of humans.

Virtually all human interaction with government can be digitized and automated. Even the bulk of law-enforcement and the penitentiary system. Taxation could be fully automated.

Thanks to automation, bureaucracy may soon become a thing of the past. Hundreds of thousands of government office workers will be free to pursue arts and crafts, gardening, and yoga (joke).

I think that digitization and automation can bring wonderful results in manufacturing, governance, logistics, education, and research. These activities engage newer, more analytical parts of the human brain.

What is less clear is how to deal with many risks to individual health and welfare that this trend brings with it on an emotional and physical level. To name a few:

  • wrist/hand, eye/facial, and musculoskeletal problems and pain due to imperfect ergonomics and computer screen technology
  • compulsive use of electronic devices, the Internet, and communications technology and technology related addictions
  • social isolation and psychosocial problems related to replacing person-to-person interaction with online interaction
  • sleep disturbances due to disruption of melatonin production and compulsive use of electronics 
  • hormonal disturbances and negative changes in brain chemistry due to any of the above 

There have been many times in the past when a new technology, product, or system was forced upon people with little thought to their well-being. Perhaps the best example is the Industrial Revolution, which caused (forced) people to move to the cities and submit to many privations — extremely cramped living quarters, 14-15-hour work days, child labor, constant supervision, etc. Eventually, social conscience and humaneness were introduced into the system, and the most extreme ill effects were eliminated.

There are many more examples. Cigarettes now have filters, automobiles produce less harmful exhaust than they used to, convenient but nutrient-poor processed foods are now fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Damage is first made tolerable, then gradually reduced further in proportion to society’s degree of enlightenment.

There is an excellent TED talk called "The Long Reach of Reason" which illustrates how societies have progressively become more humane through the application of both ethics and reason — but with most of the credit going to reason.

Reason makes it clear that inhumane treatment, the infliction of unnecessary pain, and overexploitation of any important resource are ultimately counterproductive. But it often takes a while for reason to catch up with culture and technology.

The current global trend towards automation and digitization is also leading to forms of pain and exploitation that society is just beginning to recognize. People are still very much enamoured of computers and the Internet and are relatively blind to their negative side-effects and unsympathetic towards those who experience them. Others see the side-effects as a minor nuisance that people just need to learn to deal with.

I strongly disagree. To me, the way so many of us use our computers and Internet today can be likened to smoking filterless cigarettes, eating unfortified processed foods, or breathing unfiltered exhaust. Things could be so much better. It's mainly a question of product design.

Let’s exercise our imagination a bit. I don't think anyone would disagree that personal electronics should ideally:

  • help people become more knowledgeable and more intellectually capable
  • help them feel more connected (not just informationally, but emotionally) to others
  • help them learn faster
  • not fragment a person's focus or cause them to multi-task constantly
  • not interfere with their ability and desire to move around and interact with their physical environment
  • not cause them undue pain or distress
  • not interfere with getting deep sleep 
  • not disrupt their hormonal state or promote addictive behaviors or depression
  • not inhibit their desire and ability to pursue romantic relationships

This may sound unrealistic, and some readers may deny the problem in the first place. Others will lay the responsibility for these things upon the user alone ("The Internet itself doesn't harm people; people's choice of how to use the Internet does." "It's not the job of tech companies or the government to force people to use their products in a certain way.").

Let's remember that people once worked 15-hour workdays, breathed poisonous air, and even sold their own children into slavery. In each case a host of logical arguments could have been produced to explain why things "had to be" that way and were unlikely to ever change. The truth is, things can be any way people decide they should be (if there are people left to decide).

As doctors and researchers increasingly document negative side-effects of the technology we use, and innovators come up with new technical solutions, I believe that more and more tools will become available for people to avoid potential detriments to their physical and emotional health by technology.

I can imagine:

  • computer monitors that cause no more eye stress than reading a book
  • screens that change as night comes on to not inhibit melatonin production and can be set to turn off and help you get away from your computer screens at a predetermined time
  • connective technology that doesn't cause the subtle damage that current wireless technologies can (look up "sperm count and cell phone kept in pocket")
  • software that is responsive to your psychological state and adapts the environment (interface) and suggests tasks that are most conducive to preserving a balanced state of mind
  • software that stops you and asks you questions when it detects behaviors that go against your stated goals
  • software that allows you to customize your virtual environment in order to avoid getting sucked in to things you don't want to do
  • software that can be told to leave you alone unless X or Y happens (e.g. an important e-mail, etc.)
  • Internet interfaces that, rather than always offering you more information that you might be interested in, limit this new information to only a bare minimum 
  • fully customizable social media networks where you can choose the functionality you want and disable or minimize what you don't want (like Facebook's news feed and other features that prompt compulsive online social behaviors for those who are inclined to such problems)
  • technology that distills what you want to know from social media networks, e-mail, news, etc. into audio so that you can keep track of what you're interested in on the go, without staring at a screen (as we know, people's visual channel is more powerful than audio and thus more potentially engaging and addictive)
  • technology that allows you to respond to the above types of messages verbally and have it converted into text for the other person if necessary, all without looking at a screen

These ideas are tailored to the needs of self-employed creative professionals like me. People working in offices may have other needs as well. The basic idea is that technology should become almost fully customizable so that people can decide what they want to use it for and have it do just that.

What we currently have is computer and Internet technology that is still largely one-size-fits-all and contains very many potentially addicting elements. These elements seem to make good business sense for software and hardware makers, but they may ultimately prove counterproductive. Once a technology begins inhibiting its user's productivity and personal effectiveness, it has become counterproductive. The producer may continue to profit from the user's compulsive behaviors, but society as a whole suffers as users' productivity and general fitness declines.

If less addictive options become available and people start to choose them over the alternatives, producers will be forced to compete for the consumer segment that is opting out of traditional designs and interfaces. If people quit Facebook in significant numbers because of certain features or the lack thereof, it might make good business sense to embed the functionality that would persuade "deserters" to come back.

Obviously, the ideas I've suggested above will bring fresh new problems with them. People will become used to and dependent upon omniscient, omnipresent software that allows them to find out anything and connect with anyone at any moment. This could become a kind of "god" to people, eliciting a psychological and emotional attachment.

We already have this now to some degree, but only if you're in front of a screen. Getting rid of that limitation will allow people to be more physically active again without sacrificing interconnectedness. It could also allow software to penetrate our lives even more deeply.

One of the ways to overcome the social isolation that increasing Internet use often brings is to live in more compact settlements where people can get around on food and visit a variety of public spaces and interesting venues where they can interact with both like-minded people and strangers face to face.

Fortunately, this trend is already underway in overly suburbanized societies and is called "New Urbanism." The natural complement to an increasingly data-oriented society with high levels of computer and Internet use is an urban environment that facilitates face-to-face social interaction and physical exercise and play to the greatest degree possible. These should be default behaviors by design.

Personally, I look forward to technological advancements in computing and connectivity, provided they do not undermine proper human functioning. There is so much good that can come out of electronics and computing.

Digitization and automation could allow us to continually monitor and respond to ecological changes. Wars could become less and less likely because people feel emotionally connected to the whole world. People could become more rational and knowledgeable given their ability to access factual knowledge in a second or less. Long-standing “tragedies of the commons” could be overcome through computer-aided communications.

I also hope this will be a world of healthy, active, passionate, and socially integrated people.

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