Cast your mind back a decade or so and consider how the longer term looked then. A public horizon of Obama-imbued “yes we will” and a high tide of hope and tolerance expressed within the London Olympics provides one narrative theme; underlying austerity-induced pressure one other. Neither speaks on to our current world of divisive partisan politics, toxic social media use, competing facts and readily believed fictions.

This must be instructive. The future is made, not discovered, and yet we’re always confounded by the longer term because it becomes the current. What we imagine, say, do, organise and vote for matter, however the world they matter to always eludes our grasp. We often stumble into futures we’d somewhat avoid. Our ecological and climatological future represents one such horizon and whether and how we are going to work, one other.

Organisations are also always attempting to own the longer term by mapping out what it’s going to mean for us. The “fourth industrial revolution” is the newest version of this. It is often defined as a mix of latest technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, natural language coding, robotics, sensors, cloud computing, nano-technology, 3D printing and the web of things. According to proponents of the fourth industrial revolution, these technologies are set to rework the societies we live and the economies we work in. And apparently, that is prone to be well underway by 2030.

It’s vital to know, though, that the fourth industrial revolution is just an idea, an try and capture the meaning and significance of what appears to be occurring. The idea incites anxiety-inducing headlines regarding threats to employment and a general theme of positivity regarding the advantages of technology.

How many roles will likely be affected?
Kate.sade/Unsplash, FAL

A shiny future

The fundamental proponents of the concept of a fourth industrial revolution are think tanks and consultancies working with modellers, economists and tech-experts (and naturally technology corporations themselves). This work provides the themes, insights and far of the evaluation of information that informs current government policy in the shape of business strategy.

At the center of that is the World Economic Forum’s work, spearheaded by its Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab, and that of the McKinsey Global Institute. The focus of each is weighted towards expressing the advantages of imminent transformations if we invest quickly and invest heavily.

For example, imagine a world where your toilet bowl tells your fridge that your cholesterol is high. Your fridge, in turn, each adjusts your order for dairy products that week (delivered by automated vehicle or drone from a grocery warehouse) and sends an alert to the healthcare AI whose database monitors your cardiovascular system. This AI, in turn, liaises with your private home hub chatbot facility (which rebukes you and suggests you narrow down on fats and make more use of your private home gym subscription) and, if deemed needed, sets up a house visit or virtual reality appointment together with your local nurse or doctor.

According to the fourth industrial revolution literature, this, like many other possibilities, is science fiction on the cusp of being science fact. It is a commercialised future, a cradle to grave system. A system that, apparently, may help us survive our profligate past and present for the reason that fourth industrial revolution also guarantees a sustainable future, where a connected set of technologies creates the opportunity of controlled energy and resource use, minimal waste creation and maximal recycling.

But these think tanks and consultancies are hardly going to be held directly liable for the longer term they assist to supply. They will not be sinister organisations, but nor are they neutral. The “fourth industrial revolution” is just not simply a possibility. It matters what sort of opportunity it’s for whom, and under what terms. And that is discussed far more rarely.

A future for whom?

The emphasis on advantages and the concentrate on the necessity for investment subtly distracts from the core issue of who will own the essential infrastructure of our futures. Large corporations aim to regulate mental property for technologies that can influence every aspect of life.

At the identical time, those writing concerning the fourth industrial revolution recognise that there is perhaps what they call “technological unemployment”. Current claims regarding the likely rate of job displacement are mixed. Some research claim between 30% and 50% of current types of employment could disappear. Some suggests around 10% is more likely.

But the implicit message conveyed by corporations and consultancies, despite the proven fact that it will affect most sectors of society, is that “the longer term is coming and also you’d higher get used to it”. And government messaging and policy has tended to soak up this standpoint. For government, the opportunities have been translated right into a language of competitive threats: “If we don’t do these items, others will.” This subtly focuses attention on inevitable economic consequences without providing scope to think about the broader social ramifications which may have to be managed.

In the UK, for instance, there’s, as yet, no broad government initiative for public education, consultation and deliberation regarding a subject that will involve profound changes to our societies. Only the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence has flagged this. The focus otherwise has been on “employability”. And the fundamental emphasis has tended to be on individual responsibility. This assumes there will likely be jobs we will do if we retrain, enhance our human capital, compete with robot capital, and get used to collaborating with technologies.

And yet fourth industrial revolution technologies could put the essential functional relations of a capitalist economy in danger. Waged labour is what allows consumption, which in turn becomes profit for corporations, which in turn maintains corporations, wage labour, and the capability to contribute taxes. If adoption of latest technologies is rapid and pervasive, then the displacement of human staff may overwhelm the capability of economies to supply alternative types of work.

This is one extreme possibility, but it surely is one which current government policy is doing little to confront. At the moment, within the UK, only trade unions and a few fringes of the Labour Party are interested by the scope inherent in latest technology for various sorts of societies which may liberate us from work. This must change.

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