I am more concerned to know if I am on the right road than “being right” – I believe that we are at the starting phase of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). There are several technology trends leading to breakthroughs in productivity across many industries. I am only going to touch on what these effects are – as information on this is now widespread, easily found and I don’t want to repeat myself. But if these are true, then perhaps there are far-reaching consequences and profound questions that should be considered. It is in these areas where I feel the greatest risks and greatest potential for innovation will be found.
2020 gave me both time to reflect on this and an insight the types of situations that might arise. Rather than write a large piece covering every aspect, I’ll write this as a series, each post looking at aspects in isolation. This post deals with information and communication.
How this will improve efficiency
There are vast amounts of information created, it’s easily stored and transported, and – with increased compute power and new algorithms – it can be quickly analysed. This is leading to opportunities for increased productivity. This is only achieved if we know what information to collect, can understand what it means and – most importantly – change how we act based on it.
I am finding examples in the fields of computer vision, satellite imagery and remote sensing. Technologies such as LIDAR, LoRAN, Hadoop, ESP32 are commonplace in industrial settings meaning that the cost of measurement, distribution and storage of information has fallen dramatically.
We are connected by mobile devices, we hold multi-way video calls with colleagues, customers, and suppliers. We can track packages from factory gate to end user, we can store every aspect of manufacture and store it directly on an object.
There is little excuse for not knowing exactly what is going on, understanding the consequences of that, and acting to make things better.
The unintended consequences
As an industrialist it is tempting to see all these advances in information and communication solely in terms of their positive impact on the workplace. It is tempting, and wrong, to think the world around the workplace and those working there will remain static. They will not. The world will change because the general population have access to these tools and they will impact your workforce in ways that you won’t control.
Information influences behaviour
Information has become more influential as it has become quickly available at scale. Modes of transmission have rapidly evolved; society is moving further away from long formal written communication towards short media-rich content bursts. On the one hand this is leading to rich emotion-laden communication between previously unconnected and perhaps illiterate people. On the other hand, it is reducing consideration of more complex issues and drowns out nuanced voices expressed through traditional means. It is also becoming harder to remember and prove what information led to which decisions and why.
Can you trust what you think you know?
There are an increasing number of artificially created video characters (referred to as deep fakes) which can either be entirely fictional people or manipulated images of prominent people made to look like they are endorsing a false message. Backgrounds and images can be created that are almost indistinguishable by humans. This means that we could soon see (or may already have seen) reports from wars and atrocities that never happened. Perhaps, even if you see it with your own eyes, you will no longer be able to believe it. Persuading emotionally charged people (who may not understand how a fake video image can be created) to change their minds might be very hard.
Have you heard of Q? He’s a fictional character and the basis of QAnon, what has become a far-right movement in the USA: https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-qanon-n900531
MIT has a great primer on deep fakes here: https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/12/24/1015380/best-ai-deepfakes-of-2020/
This site creates a unique image of someone that does not exist each time you load the page. These people are totally fictious. https://thispersondoesnotexist.com/
This has been predicted for a while – Have a read of Victor Pelevin’s Babylon published in 1999 – (or watch the film) [….]Tatarsky is invited to join an all-powerful PR firm run by a cynically ruthless advertising genius, Leonid Azadovsky, who invites Tatarsky to participate in a secret process of rigged elections and false political advertising.[…]
Are you seeing the other side?
We are exposed to so much available information that a person can easily succumb to their own biases and seek out only items that reinforce their snap judgements. This has led to fractionating, polarised camps who no longer share a “Mutual Reality”. They have great difficulty in engaging in reasoned debate as each side has fundamentally different frames of reference. These frames induce them to interpret observations in very divergent and (to the other side) incomprehensible ways.
Will information cause wars?
It is possible that our future wars will be between ideologies and triggered by insults, or that – in the face of popular internal revolt – governments will launch “defensive” hostilities to stop the influence of their populations by alien states. Propaganda may cease to be a tool to assist armed conflict and instead become the sole purpose of hostilities. Perhaps the lines of conflict will not be those of countries but between ideologies, vested interests, and traditional institutions. Maybe we should watch the Hong Kong situation more closely?
Is there a case for censorship?
In 1984 I received a UK transmitting license for a radio set. At that time (and in the decades before) the license permitted someone to use a station for experimental purposes and research into radio propagation. Of course, I also (and mostly) used mine to chat to my other geeky teenage friends. The point of bringing this up is because the government realised I was to be granted the power to communicate across the world. I, therefore, had the potential to find information and broadcast local conditions to others. Not only was an examination required to obtain a license, once acquired it was very clear about what topics I was allowed and not allowed to discuss. I had to identify myself using a centrally registered callsign. Violation of the rules would mean revocation of the privileges. Now anybody, with no training, no examination can say pretty much anything to anybody (and everybody) without restriction. They can say it anonymously. This is new in human history and the results, so far, are mixed.
What is the role of cyber security?
Cyber security is currently focused on preventing people from seeing information you want kept secret or preventing people denying you access to your own files. In the future security may be required to prevent others from injecting false information into systems and influencing your or your staff to behave in the wrong way. That could be by planting rumours, or direct manipulation of operating data, financial reporting, or automated firing of workers.
Business has been slowly taking advantage of information and sensor data and transmitting it around the world. Remote working has been trialled and tentatively used when there were no alternatives. Now this technology is ubiquotous and in use by the “average Joe”. This is leading to new ways to communicate, new ways to manipulate the unwary and new expecations from workers.
Innovation will be the key activity for all companies that want to operate in this new environment. Setting up systems of work that promote the new and commercialising it quickly will be imperative.
I believe that it will be a responsibility for leaders – including business , political, spirtual and community – to use the tools available to them to continue to promote ordered society. Some of our most important human developments around organisation of effort, support for each other, goals for shared endeavours and, jointly agreeing what we fundamentally value, will depend on it.