The Advent of Artificial Intelligence: Is Hyper-Productivity ruining our Humanity?

How is the quest for efficiency affecting the building blocks of what it means to be human?

Renee Kapuku, Creative Digital Programmes Manager, Supa Network

The advent of technology has truly defined the beginning of the millennium.

Social media sites, the internet, the increase of start-up ventures and the streamlining of every and any kind of process has made access to our heart’s desires as easy as a push or a click.

Hungry? Have fresh, hand-cooked food delivered to your door in a matter of 30 minutes. Bored? Watch an endless stream of movies and television series to your heart’s content. In need of engagement with friends and family without getting off the sofa? Now there is no need — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat will give you everything you want to know (and perhaps do not want to know) about their lives at this present moment.

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Efficiency trickles into other areas. In need of being somewhere quickly? If express trains or other forms of optimised public transport are not enough, you have the likes of Uber and Lyft to take you directly to your destination if you choose. Uber is currently experimenting with customisable features, such as a mute button for riders looking for a quieter ride, and the well-know Uber-pool option which allows you to carshare with other riders in a bid to keep costs low.

Automation and AI are the stars of the show in industry. They have often formed the basis to disrupting the economy on a massive scale, with initial start-up projects like Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, DeepMind to name a few, snowballing into high-growth profitable titans leading the charge against traditional corporate giants.

And what about the development of robots? It has been estimated that since the turn of the century, industrial robots have displaced 1.7 million manufacturing workers world-wide, with each robot occupying the roles of 1.6 million human workers. Oxford Economics estimates that the global manufacturing employment would decline sharply, with as many as 30 million manufacturing jobs set to disappear by 2030.

Apart from the obvious gains in increased productivity and efficiency made a reality by these advancements, is there really a case to be made for the potential negative effects of progress? As we hurtle faster and faster into an increasingly digital and automated world, what elements of human functionality, process and purpose are we sacrificing for efficiency?

Social media has a profound impact on relationships. Whilst it is easy to argue that we feel closer to our relatives and friends, it has also introduced an extraordinary magnifying glass on aspects of life we often try to keep private, and has also dramatically increased our compulsions to create picture-perfect lives due to the ease at which people can access us. Social media has spawned addictions, contributed to the rise of materialism, and has had severe negative effects on mental health (particularly for young people).

The efficiency borne out of Uber Eats, as well as Uber and Lyft, decreases our daily energy expenditure and increases our likelihood of obesity. Easy accessibility of usually nutritionally empty, calorie-dense food coupled with our enhanced modes of transport means that we are less likely to move in general.

As for automation in industry, the uneven distribution of wealth means that, subject to the speed of investment and automation, low-income areas in the Western world and the Global South will be hit the hardest. Jobs held by unskilled, low-income workers will vanish.

How do we manage the balance between increasing our output and efficiency, but not at the expense of our relationships, mental health, physical health and duty of care for the rest of our human inhabitants? It is important that in our quest for progress we seek balance and mindfulness.

Sometimes as we seek to solve problems, we create more to deal with later down the line. It is important that we each take individual accountability in the way in which we use technology in our day to day activities, and it is important that we find ways of holding companies and organisations to account against agreed ethical principles before proceeding with funding and investment.

Whilst technology is certainly nothing to shy away from, and certainly not to be casted out in true Luddite style, we must think of ways to use technology to serve the masses (globally) and move beyond development of AI for merely efficiency, but also for the greater good of our humanity.

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