APRICOT2017: Tim O’Reilly on fear, loathing and the 4th Industrial Revolution

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With the 4th Industrial Revolution coming on strong, it’s high time the ICT industry addresses fear of technology as many people today express dismay and horror of AI taking away jobs. Tim O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, spoke at last week’s APNIC conference, Apricot 2017, of how people really need to stop letting fear of the outcome of 4IR affect their decisions regarding its implementation and adoption.

O’Reilly pointed to an Oxford University study showing that 47% of jobs are at risk of being automated in the next 20 years. There is even talk from Silicon Valley of a need of universal basic income, as there will be no work for humans to do.

“Do they really think there’s nothing left for humans? I don’t,” he said.

The danger is not a rise of the machines, he said, but a rise of the people who are afraid of the future. While the people in the room at Apricot see a positive future, there are too many people in the other world who are afraid of it. O’Reilly likened it to the 1811 rebellion of weavers in England who felt threatened by steam powered looms.

The Internet used to be a way to connect people, to communicate and put documents online. But increasingly the Internet is becoming the connective tissue for all kinds of new services.

O’Reilly said that unlike in the 1990s when it was possible to take people away from a computer running Windows and it would continue to work, today’s services are a hybrid of human and machine. Few things will continue to run without the programmers.

This was foreseen before of the first days of the Internet. J.C.R. Lickider wrote a paper in the 1960s talking about man-machine symbiosis. The idea is that in not too distant future, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought, and process data in a way not approached by the information handling machines we know today.

The network engineers gathered at Apricot have the task of bringing new people into this system. They are responsible for its health and safety. “You are the doctors of this new superorganism, keeping it alive,” he said.

Today, the programmers are not workers but managers, creating new algorithms. Humans in the on-demand economy driven by companies like Lyft and Uber report to those algorithms for duty, and they are paid and even fired because of those algorithms. This brings a huge change in how we think of Internet applications. In the past, apps were purely digital and the company only had to think about how it satisfied its users – but now they have to think of how to satisfy its users and its workers rather than treating them as a disposable IT commodity.

Put another way, Lyft and Uber are not about improving the way the world works, but rethinking how they could work.

O’Reilly spoke of the challenges in government, and how Obamacare almost failed because of the inability to launch its website. In government, measurements takes years or decades, but in the tech world, who would even cross a road with data more than five seconds old?

“We have to go from apps to ops and bring it back into your world,” he said. “We need to build government services with users at the center of our focus. The workflows need to be developed and changed.”

Algorithms will be the power tools of the mind. Similar to the way that nobody builds buildings with shovels and pickaxes but with power tools, algorithms will be key to how humans and machines work together to solve the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

More and more decisions – such as identifying and eradicating fake news – depend on algorithms, as they have to be made immediately, not a day later. The question then is whose algorithm – whose black box – do we trust as these black boxes become run by fewer and fewer people?

“The boundaries between physical and digital are blurring. We are used to thinking of the Internet as something for content, for communications, but it’s increasing becoming the gateway and the platform for real world services,” he said.

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