We are only just beginning to understand the potential impact of software robotics, machine learning and the Internet of Things. These technologies, amongst others, are already playing a significant role in improving our personal and working lives. Their influence will be huge on a global scale – this much is unquestionable. There is also a modern Luddite mentality. People who feel this new technology has the potential to damage our society in many ways. Taking jobs from people that need them most and creating weapons that equip armies in new and powerful ways. As a result, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have written an open letter urging research on the possible pitfalls of modern technology. Could we really be heading for a future where we cannot safely control our own creations?
Much has happened since the fall of the Roman empire, less than 2000 years ago. It’s only been 70 years since the first computer came along. There have been manufacturing revolutions before although none with as much good (and bad) potential. Historically, we seem to have come out on top so far. Could manufacturing 3.0 really do more damage than good?
The Celts ruled central Europe from around 750 BC; arriving in Britain some 250 years later. This continued until the Romans invaded in 55 BC, in the dying embers of the Iron Age. Eventually, in 476 AD, the Roman empire met its inevitable fate. Romulus, the last of the Roman emperors in the West, was overthrown. This marked the end of more than 500 years of Roman domination. For the next 600 years, the early Middle Ages, scientific progress was slow. Famine, plague and widespread conflict was prevalent during this time. The scholars of this time Greek and Arabic were the languages of choice for the academics of this era. With these languages in decline, information was hidden from the Latin speakers of Western Europe.
Academia resurfaced between the 11th and 14th centuries. Universities were established in England, France, Spain and Portugal. This, in turn, promoted advances in theology, medicine and law. These universities were nothing like our modern day equivalents. There was no campus or communal facilities. People took classes wherever it was possible, in homes, churches and open spaces. Still, momentum was gathering and a new intellectual community was born.
The European Renaissance took place between the 14th and 17th centuries. It marked the transition from the Middle ages to what we now know as modern history. Notably, the printing press was invented around 1450 and this rapidly accelerated the ability to share knowledge and ideas. The late Renaissance period heralded a new dawn for science. Astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, inventors and philosophers of the day made huge advances. Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton…and their many contemporaries made contributions that are still relevant in the 21st century.
Throughout this time, and before it, manufacturing was either fragmented or non-existent. Even at the turn of the 18th century, manufacturing was an embryonic and emerging practice.
The industrial revolution started in Britain in the late 18th century. Its growth was rapid and far reaching. Up to this point, people mostly made goods at home using hand tools and basic machinery. Work outside the home was largely agricultural – good, honest, back breaking labour. Wages were small, families were often malnourished and disease was prevalent. In fact, William the Conqueror could magically appear and see a world taken almost directly from his Domesday Book. Despite the 700 years that had passed since he scattered his men across England and Wales to create it.
The industrial revolution dramatically changed working conditions. The iron and textile industries advanced significantly in a short period of time. This was largely due to Watt’s work in progressing the steam engine. Work moved from homes to factories with specialised machinery driving mass production. As a result, manufactured goods were created quicker and in greater diversity than ever before. Traditional energy sources could not sufficiently power this newborn mechanical age. Fossil fuels gradually replaced wind, water and steam. Ironically, the very things we are trying to leverage more in the present day.
The full impact of the industrial revolution was not instant, but it was profound. Advances in medicine and the quality of living led to a population explosion. Surprisingly, there are 6 billion more people alive today than there were 300 years ago.
The invention of the transistor in 1948, was the catalyst for a technical revolution. The integrated circuit followed shortly afterwards – although its absolute origins are still a little unclear. By the end of the 1950s, we had integrated circuits made from silicon. With this in place, the first true computers were not far away.
General Motors introduced industrial robots into a New Jersey factory in 1962. A groundbreaking combination of electronic and mechanical creativity. Even today, watching robotic arms assembling cars seems like science fiction. Only 70 years before, H.G. Wells Time Machine was published – amazing his readers with the concept of time travel. People standing on a GM shop floor in 1962 must have felt that the future had already arrived.
In the same year, Olivetti designed the first personal computer. This went into mass production in 1965. Only 4 years later, these same computers helped to put Apollo 11 on the moon. Paul Allen and Bill Gates founded Microsoft in 1975. A year later, Wozniak and Jobs produced the first Apple PC – the computer era had arrived.
The industrial revolution profoundly changed the workplace. The computer revolution was far wider reaching. Today we cannot imagine a world (business or personal) without computers. Desktop and laptop machines, tablets, smartphones and wearable devices are all commonplace. Children play with iPads where they once had colouring books and jigsaw puzzles. It is no longer mandatory for US schools to teach handwriting skills beyond the ability to write individual characters.
Today, we are more dependent on technology than ever before. Now, there are some new kids on the block. The Internet of Things is connecting devices and collecting huge amounts of information from the world around us. McKinsey predicts there could be 20 to 30 billion connected devices by 2020. This will bring a potential growth in the global economy of $6.2 trillion by 2025. Big data and data analytics are helping us to make sense of this information in new and meaningful ways. However, cyber criminals have the potential to hack any device with an internet connection. Also, the transmission of vast amounts of consumer data increases the chances of somebody intercepting it. To emphasise, online fraud is greater than it ever has been.
Robotic process automation allows us to automate repetitive but important tasks. This means we have more time to focus on our customers and strategic planning. Machine learning and artificial intelligence allow computers to make decisions on our behalf that were previously impossible without human intervention. The predictions here are equally startling. McKinsey claim that 45% of all current jobs can be performed by existing technology. Gartner predict one in 3 jobs will be converted to software by 2025. An Oxford university study reports that 47% of total US employment is at risk. Is the future really so bleak for our chidren or can we all benefit from an ethical approach to automation?
Virtual reality transports us to interactive environments without leaving the comfort of our living rooms. Augmented reality seamlessly fuses atoms and pixels together in creative and innovative ways. The medical sector benefits considerably from the use of virtual reality. Both for training purposes and for conducting robotic surgery. Still, there are some concerns that these alternate realities may render people less sensitive to violence. There is also a fear that cyber-addiction will detach people from their real lives. Before very long, 3D printing may create spare body parts for people that need them. Guns created from 3D printers already exist. Finding detailed plans on the internet is not too hard with a little time and determination.
In the closing scene from the first Spider-man film, we cut to Peter Parker reflecting on wise words from his Uncle Ben. “With great power comes great responsibility”. Modern technology gives us this power – the responsibililty is ours to take care of.
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