Some of the more illustrious folks from my generation think that social media invades their privacy, so they don’t have any Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts. Of course, that’s just wishful thinking. There is nowhere to hide and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Every webmail service, every application that uses cloud computing, every loyalty or rewards card, every backup service, every free service on Google will be able to extract personal information about you. It doesn’t matter if you’re on social media. The technology is so advanced and it has learned so much about you by now, that it can predict your next likely purchase with surprising accuracy based on your profile, habits and history. The provider of this free information can use the data in a number of ways. Search engines indirectly sell that information to advertisers to target their efforts more effectively. Stores know when to launch a sale on which products to attract your attention. Welcome to the brave new world.
An interesting concept came to mind just a few days into 2016 while I was having my regular walks along Punggol Waterway and the beach. I imagined that if the super-computer of the future can store up and process so much data about me from all my blogs and social media inputs, can it also without any further input from me, “learn” from future inputs and respond to questions based on everything it knows about my style and personality accumulated over the years? In other words, can it virtually become an immortal, digital form of Chan Joon Yee? How wonderful would it be to have chanjoonyee.com “autoblogging” for hundreds of years long after the “real” Chan Joon Yee has died.
But I’m not sure if there is anything to celebrate. There is so much “free” information out there. Free books, free music, free software, free news for instance. The newspaper industry has shrunk so much that it is now facing an existential crisis. Good riddance to the Straits Times and other government mouthpieces (I’m sure there are still ardent supporters out there), but even if we could bring Shakespeare back to life in digital form and produce new works, the new world order is such that it has become unrealistic to expect anyone in the future to pay a human to write plays and poems, let alone a machine. Will the digital versions of Stephen King and James Patterson continue to support the beneficiaries of their estate? Or will the public demand to read their works for free? How will writers make a living? How will musicians make a living? Who cares? Not many people are writers, journalists or musicians anyway. But wait. The net widens.
It has been estimated that the music industry today is only 25% of what it was just 20 years ago. The internet with its file sharing sites have put thousands of people producing, distributing and retailing music out of a job. Some people praise YouTube for providing a platform for aspiring musicians to get noticed. That does not address the issue of how they are going to be paid for their work. Musicians of the future may have to earn their living like musicians from ancient times – through live performances. Royalty may soon be a thing of the past. When all is downloaded and enjoyed, the only people who get paid are the network owners.
Have you ever used Google’s translator? Yes, it’s “free”. You just enter the words from the language you wish to translate, enter your working language and a translation appears within seconds. The result may be imperfect, but with a little editing on your part, it may be OK. Note that there is an option for those who know the answers to provide a better translation. Over time, the machine learns from humans and hones its translation skills. Very soon, we won’t need any human translators!
Take a look at a contemporary school textbook. There are “links” to sites on the internet! Why bother with textbooks then? It is said that the bulk of the information required to qualify for almost any job is available on the internet. The scope covered in one book, by one professor in one college cannot match the collective knowledge/wisdom of the internet. People are still going to college because few students possess the passion and discipline to go online and study a subject intensively. Lecturers will not become irrelevant because of that. But as more and more jobs and sources of income are taken away by computers, banks may see an increasing incidence of default on student loans. This may in turn cut down on demand for degrees. Enrolments fall and some universities may close down.
Taxi and train drivers are also in trouble as robot-driven vehicles hit the road. Given their precision and their lack of mood, temperament and penchant for drugs and alcohol, they are likely to cause far fewer accidents than human drivers. If simple apps like Uber can turn the taxi business upside down, robotic cars may come as the next tsunami and perhaps sooner than we expect. Who cares? Not many people are writers, drivers, translators, college professors or musicians. It doesn’t affect them. They continue to enjoy their free music, free books, free translations and robot drivers. Or can they? Well, the list of affected occupations grows.
Notice the way Facebook is now able to auto-tag a face with surprising speed and accuracy? What is there to stop the computer from identifying images of tumours and other lesions on x-rays and scans by learning from human doctors? Why not histological images as well? The computer “learns” faster and remembers more than any human student. With collective knowledge from thousands of human doctors, can it not surpass human doctors in the field of diagnosis in future? Yes, doctors, even surgeons are not safe. What about pharmacists? Can robot pharmacists not be able to fill a prescription by scanning a barcode? No more bad handwriting. No more mistakes. Anything is possible. Just use your imagination. Accounting? Legal documents? Fiscal policies? No profession is safe. Many enlightened souls in developed countries are slowing down or even rejecting “cutting edge” technology. And the excitement with which we embrace this new technology clearly shows that we are not really mindful of the devastating changes it can make to human employment in the future. Sure, we can say that human input will always be necessary, but will these humans, like writers and musicians, ever get paid?
I can more or less predict the kind of world that will greet me in my old age. It ain’t pretty and it’s only going to get uglier when my kids grow old. So have you thought of what courses you’d like to take with your SkillsFuture credit? Make sure it’s something that machines are least likely to be able to do or some service for which you’re most likely to get paid. Your body may end up being a bigger and more valuable asset than your brain. I may have a hard time training for it.