Thursday, April 21, 2016


The future of the Digital Revolution needs to be put into perspective, because its roots go back centuries. In truth, of course, "there is nothing new under the sun". Merely the medium of digitization has changed.

Digitization is Not New

Digitization started when we used fingers for counting (see images of Digital Calculation). Fingers could even be used to count exponentially, a precursor of Moore's Law formulated in the 1960s (see main table Digi-Multi-Medium is the Message). Fingers were accompanied by scratch marks on cave walls, and then by Abacus beads way back in 2000 BC. Later on, of course, we invented the Calculating Machine or Tabulator (which led to the creation of IBM). Then came things such as the ENIAC mainframe computer, the Brunsviga crank calculator (which a former banking colleague of mine operated at astonishingly lightning speed), and the Sumlock button comptometer (the precursor of the electronic calculator).

Extensions of Human Abilities

With these advances, humans "extended" themselves through technology to make life easier and more productive. All this was written about in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by my tech media guru Marshall McLuhan at University of Toronto. He explained that each and every technology is an "extension" of human skills and abilities, and that "the medium is the message". One simple example is that the telephone is an "extension" of the ear and mouth (and hence the brain). As shown in the quote, he also said, way back then, that computers are an extension of our central nervous system.
Since then, McLuhan's discerning concept has applied to every new technology and to digitization, from the formulation of Moore's Law in 1964 and the invention of transistors and microchips through to the present day. This digi-transforming trend undoubtedly will continue (as I forecast in the accompanying main table) for at least the next 20 years.

Today, we should perceive that "the digital multi-medium is the message." This applies to all digital technologies, soon to be combined with biotech skills of various kinds. As we look forward a couple of decades, all human senses and abilities will be digitized in various degrees and in diverse applications, as further "extensions" of our abilities.

These developments will continue to transform society, our personal lifestyles, our systems of governance, services such as education and healthcare, and in particular every form of business. (I will be writing extensively about the digi-transform of business in subsequent posts.)

For now, I would like to assert 2 key points about the Digi-Revolution:

1. We will not see what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls a "singularity".

A so-called singularity is where humans and intelligent machines essentially will combine or converge, and which implies that robots essentially will become smarter than us. I dismiss this idea as delusional.

As mentioned and explained above, all technologies are "extensions" of us. While they will duplicate many of our abilities, and they will converge, it is we who will program them. In other words, we are in control. They cannot become more intelligent than us or threaten to take over, unless we give them the uncontrolled ability to self-program themselves and somehow continue to evolve biologically at a faster pace than humans.

Indeed, other technologies such as DNA will boost human intelligence in enormous degrees. Furthermore, we thus will one day finally be able to give a newborn or even unborn child a brain that is pre-programmed with everything that it will ever need to know. In other words, a child will never need to attend school or college in the conventional sense.

Yes, we will also be able to give robots or humanoids the same advanced intelligence. Again, however, it is humans who will be in control of all that, unless of course we simply want the robots to take over everything and we willingly succumb as a species.

On the contrary, robots will be our partners. For example, I do believe that we will send advanced humanoids on long-distance space journeys, unaccompanied by human astronauts (see below and main table notation).

But let's stop repeating the alarmist myth that a science-fiction "singularity" is going to condemn humans to servitude or oblivion. It will not.

2. Robots will not put everyone out of work.

Throughout history, new technologies have indeed eliminated certain kinds of human work, from back-breaking labor to tedious mathematical and accounting calculations that rack our brains. Technology does reduce the amount of human time needed to be spent on certain tasks, sometimes eliminating much of what was traditionally done. Indeed, we have been able to considerably reduce the standard workweek since the agricultural and early-factory eras, and that has allowed us to have more leisure time. We may even soon see people-less factories and offices, and, as mentioned, robots will become space travelers.

However, every technology also creates new kinds of jobs that did not previously exist, of three main types.
  • Technology itself requires humans to invent it, manufacture it, sell it, deliver it, install it, use it, service it, and replace it when it wears out or becomes obsolete.
  • Technology allows new things to be done which were previously impossible, thus creating whole new industries and work careers, albeit of a more advanced nature than the jobs that were displaced.
  • Technology creates more leisure time across society, in turn spurring entirely new industries in leisure, tourism, and entertainment of various kinds.
So let's get beyond the myth that robots will take away millions of jobs. They will not. They will create millions of additional jobs. You can see this in the next table, for example:
  • Back in the early 1970s we saw the introduction of automated teller machines in banks. Those machines did not replace bank tellers; they avoided the need to recruit additional bank tellers as the population and demand for services grew. That was 40 years ago and we still have bank tellers. The nature of the job has changed, but that is basically all. Those who might have become tellers found a different career.
  • Desktop publishing similarly put typesetters out of work, unless they upgraded their skills and switched to be a word processor. But that technology created a boom in the publication of the printed word and vastly improved the efficiency of the publishing industry.
  • came along, of course, and started to impinge on book stores, but Amazon created a huge amount of employment, both in its own distribution centers and in the entire distribution system of couriers and the postal service.
  • Fax and e-mail basically killed letter mail, the postal service's main purpose. But it now delivers far more items than before, thanks to parcel delivery.
  • Driverless vehicles will replace certain jobs, but create yet others, and will allow the entire transportation infrastructure to modernize, create yet more different jobs, and contribute to the economy in more efficient and productive ways.

Finally, no technology gets implemented unless it meets four main criteria:
  • In and of itself, it must function reliably; it must be technically viable.
  • It must also be economically viable, both in terms of production, consumption, and employment, or else it will not be implemented.
  • It also must be socially acceptable, or consumers will not put it into use.
  • And it must be politically acceptable in that it meets all social laws and is considered good for society.

All of this has been the case throughout history, and it will continue to be the case in the future.

So let us embrace the ever-more-dramatic digital revolution, and reap its opportunities and benefits, while managing its risks. But let's keep things in perspective. There is "nothing new under the sun," and humans are in control. The digi-multi-medium indeed is the message.

Copyright (c) 2016, Frank Feather

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