2017 was a year of spectacle for technology enthusiasts. Robotics, Big Data, and social media have enjoyed the limelight while Elon Musk, Nick Bostrom and Stephen Hawking have raised concerns about developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Although most of these warnings have focused on the impact of AI on the western-technology-dependent countries where automation is likely to replace manpower in various job sectors, very little attention has been given to what might happen to the third-world countries due to the repercussions from the first world. As an AI enthusiast, I see a different and more sinister fate awaiting us, the third-world citizens.
Bangladesh has been a source of cheap labour for several decades. With the onset of cheaper but far more intelligent and efficient machines, these labourers will only be a liability. Here's why.
Cheap labour is at the heart of the big industries all over the world. Yet, labourers are also a burden for the companies. In addition to wages, they are liable for their various demands, accidents and deaths. Labour unions pose a major eyesore for the bourgeoisie. In contrast, machines are far more efficient at work and the companies do not have to worry about riots and uprisings. Given these possibilities, the machines certainly seem better candidates than humans in industrial scenarios.
This leaves us with a major dilemma. What happens to those people who struggle to live through every day and have to support their families with their limited income?
One possible way out could have been creating low-skilled tech labour force. For a long time, data entry posts were a major source of income for many outsourcing companies. But now that automated data generation systems are being adopted, the need for data entry and computer operators is becoming redundant.
Both the cost of education and competition have skyrocketed in recent years. Since graduates from reputed universities are given priority in the job market, most students are now forced to apply for expensive student loans to certify themselves. As the managerial posts slowly get automated, a majority of these hard-earned certifications will go in vain, making non-automated job positions even more competitive. Meanwhile, highly specialised positions will likely be harder to achieve for many as the knowledge base is rapidly expanding beyond human limits. All these factors combined, very few among the ordinary people will likely be able to come out of the hard pit of third-world reality.
This is to become even murkier. As job sectors get replaced by automation systems, further contraction will occur due to increase in living expenses. The current trend indicates that lifestyle in the third world will be increasingly dependent on technology. Smartphones and laptops have become necessities as much as refrigerators and washing machines. Keeping up with these continuously upgrading electronics is also becoming more difficult.
The Internet of things (IoT) may arrive in Bangladesh in the near future and such systems will require smart devices that are getting harder to afford. Cheap electronics provide temporary solutions but are vulnerable to data theft and privacy breach. Thus having a secure gadget will become as important as maintaining a bank account. Those who will not be able to afford such products will become vulnerable to cybercrimes, adding to their miseries.
Piracy has so far been untracked in third world countries due to many reasons. However, with crackdowns on piracy, content licenses are to become even harder to crack. As illegal access to video contents, books, and research works becomes increasingly unaffordable for many, independent learning will become a major challenge for these people. On the other hand, available pirated content will further increase vulnerability to hacking and data breach.
The wealthy will however benefit most from these kinds of mechanisms. Having more control of the data extracted from the people by various means as well as cash inflow from increasing dependency on legal purchasing systems, wealth inequality will worsen. While corruption at the higher tiers will become extremely hard to detect and publicise, supervision of the day-to-day activities of ordinary people will become more frequent. Any public uprisings that occur will likely be foiled by the use of data politics.
Data politics will be a dominant phenomenon. With public information being constantly extracted through various techno-surveillance systems, the device-dependent masses will have almost zero privacy in the online world. Those who may try to lead resistance movements against the elite may be “pacified” through flushing of private records. As the resistance continues to disintegrate by misinformation-induced confusions by junky media portals, the elite will continue to have more control over social dynamics in the lower tiers of society. Amidst rumours and fake news, authentic media sources will eventually die out. Citizen journalism will gain some ground; yet, it ironically will be used against the citizens themselves. Thus, on one hand, the elite will continue to enjoy advantageous lifestyles and live longer through technology-induced longevity. On the other, the masses will become liabilities for them.
Increasing digitalisation of 21st-century life will lead to two major issues. One, automated digital appliances will be everywhere, and Internet will be needed to sustain the smooth continuity of such a global system. Two, to sustain the aforementioned infrastructure, power will be more in demand than ever before. To sustain a growing digital infrastructure, more natural resource reserves will be needed. In the world of geopolitics, securing precious minerals takes precedence over the interests of ordinary people. As the existing resources continue to get depleted, more populations will be displaced through crises artificially created with the sole purpose of securing minerals.
And what happens to the huge chunk of the population that cannot be educated or provided jobs or be utilised in any other way? Being totally redundant and unintegratable to elite-controlled institutions, we might, one day, find ourselves being confronted by a handful of people who have no regard for international and humanitarian laws.
The future may hold many promises, but I fear it may not be meant for us, the majority—but only for the wealthy.
Muhammad Mustafa Monowar is assistant manager of human resources at Bangladesh-China Power Company (Pvt) Limited.