Time to face up to reality and stop looking for scapegoats: automation is coming

An anti-trade, anti-globalisation narrative has grown to become one of the most important political discourses of 2016. But, we hear from former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, former president of the UN's General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft and WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo, about a far greater problem on the horizon

On the day of the 2016 US elections, when Americans up and down the country were queuing up to vote for Donald Trump, three experts on world affairs gathered at Web Summit to discuss the reality we now live in.

José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission, former Prime Minister of Portugal and now the non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, was joined by Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the World Trade Organization, and Mogens Lykketoft, former president of the United Nations General Assembly and former Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs. These are men that play or have played key roles in running our world, and it’s clear that they have serious concerns about the future we now face.

“Frankly speaking, we are now in a very existential fight globally between the forces of openness and the forces of nationalism, protectionism, chauvinism, as we see in American election,” summarises Barroso.

“We are seeing all over the world a backlash against globalisation, against trade. We are seeing protectionism from the voting in Wallonia in Belgium against the agreement in Canada – that has blocked an agreement between Europe and Canada – to the positions of the candidates in the United States election against trade in the Pacific region,” he adds.

automation

Featured image courtesy of Web Summit

Azevêdo’s reasoning for this backlash is a familiar one. “Today in the marketplace there are feelings of uncertainty, feelings of being abandoned, feelings of being left behind and a sense of not enough opportunities out there.

“If you’re young, if you’re 20, 30 years old it’s one thing. If you’re [in your] late 40s, 50s and you lose your job, what do you do next? What’s out there in the marketplace for you? How do you support your family; where do you go from there?”

However, the focus on globalisation-driven trade and its role in job losses is not, Azevêdo argues, going to resolve the problem.

“I think that a lot of this blame on trade is just finding the easy targets, finding the easy enemy: it’s the different, it’s what’s coming from outside,” he says.

Automation is the problem

According to Azevêdo, the real source of our problems is staring us in the face; and it’s time we faced up to it.

“If we’re honest with each other and we look at the marketplace and we know what’s happening, it has nothing to do with trade,” he says.

“Two in 10 jobs that are lost in advanced economies today are due to trade and to imports. Eight out of 10 or more, it’s about new technologies, it’s about higher productivity, innovation.”

In summary, automation and other productivity gains are driving job losses and a lack of opportunities, and that isn’t something you can legislate against.

“Those things, you cannot fight them, you cannot be against them, you have to embrace them, you have to see that that is the future and to adapt and be ready for that,” urges Azevêdo, adding that there is far more to come.

“What are you going to do when you have a full-scale delivery of parcels by drones? Or when you have self-driven trucks delivering cargo?” he asked, adding that the first automated deliveries are already being made.

“Now in the US alone there are three and a half million truck drivers. Those guys are going to lose their jobs and it’s not only them, it’s all the roadside assistance, hotels, cafes, restaurants, service stations. What you going to do with all those people?

“Now don’t tell me a few years from now that you didn’t know this was going to happen. This is going to happen. And what do you do, how do you handle that?”

Politicians combating the wrong problem 

Amidst all the vitriol, politicians, the panel argues, have so far failed to face the reality of the situation, instead tailoring policies to a false cause.

If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism

“If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism, is stopping trade,” says Azevêdo. “You smother the chances of thousands of people.”

But ignoring trade is only part of it.

“I really believe that the missing variable is leadership, because we are seeing, including in Europe, that the leaders of the centre-left and centre-right parties are giving up to more extremist forces, including the very dark forces of nationalism, and we know in Europe what happened when nationalism was winning: the First and the Second World Wars,” says Barroso.

The panel agree that there is a trend of, as panel moderator Tom Nuttall of The Economist puts it, “the inability or unwillingness of some of our elected politicians to deliver hard truths to their electorate about the difficulties to come”.

But why are politicians failing to acknowledge automation’s impact on the job market?

“I think the politicians will get their way as long as the electorate is responding to the easy answer,” answers Azevêdo with nods of agreement from Barroso and Lykketoft.

“[Politicians] don’t want to give a complicated answer, and answer where you have to reform the whole system of education, training, skills, offering opportunities for small entrepreneurs, financing, investment for them. It’s much easier to say ‘oh it’s an import from that country over there’.

“At the end of the day they have to be held accountable and the people who can hold them accountable is the electorate. And the voter, at the end of the day has got to accept that finding the easy solution is going to cut it.”

What’s important to acknowledge, says Azevêdo, is that this is a problem that isn’t going away.

“Most of the problems that we face today are structural changes in modern society. I hear: ‘oh, the economy is going to pick up again’. That’s not going to change things. These are structural changes and you have to come to grips with that, and the political system has to respond to that.”

Globalisation for all

Whether we like it or not, globalisation cannot be stopped, and there will be job losses. But if politicians can face the fact that this is a structural change, the panel says, they can respond to the future in a way that works for us.

“Globalisation is going to happen, with the support or not [of] politicians,” says Barroso. “Of course it will be great if the political leaders try to have a human globalisation where we can defend some values, values that are dear to us in Europe: of human dignity, human rights, of social care.

ftr_1612_feature-bottom

“But at the same time the point cannot be to resist the wave of globalisation because globalisation is going to take place, so we need enlightened leadership, but I believe in democracy and I believe the pressure of our civil societies is decisive for having this kind of enlightened and active leadership.”

But in order to achieve this, we as citizens need to hold our politicians accountable, and make them face the reality we’re entering.

“Hold them accountable,” says Azevêdo, “It’s the electorate who has to inform themselves, have a more rational conversation about this and say look, this answer doesn’t convince me. We need much more than that, and that’s the first step.”

China planning to end sales of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles

Xin Guobin, China's vice minister of industry and information technology, has said the government is working with regulators to put in place a timetable to end the production and sale of cars powered by fossil fuels. It's hoped the move will accelerate the expansion of the electric car market.

Source: Bloomberg

Limited Tesla Autopilot was "partly to blame" for crash

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has found that Tesla's Autopilot system was partly to blame for a fatal accident in which a Model S collided with a lorry. The safety board concluded that Tesla allowed the driver to use the system outside of the environment for which it was designed,

Source: BBC

Chelsea Manning warns about the risks of AI

During a conversation at Noisebridge hackerspace, Chelsea Manning commented on some of the inherent risks of AI. "We’re now using huge datasets with all kinds of personal data, that we don’t even know what information we’re putting out there and what it’s getting collected for," Manning said.

Source: Ars Technica

US government bans Kaspersky software from its agencies

The Department of Homeland security has ordered government agencies to stop using software products made by Kaspersky Lab because of possible ties between Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence. The process of discontinuing Kaspersky products is expected to begin within 90 days.

Source: Ars Technica

Hyperloop One selects ten possible routes for the first hyperloop

Hyperloop One has announced that it has selected ten proposed routes for the first hyperloop. The company also announced that it would “commit meaningful business and engineering resources and work closely with each of the winning teams/routes to determine their commercial viability”.

Source: Inverse

Artificial 'skin' gives robotic hand a sense of touch

A team of researchers from the University of Houston has reported a breakthrough in stretchable electronics that can serve as an artificial skin, allowing a robotic hand to sense the difference between hot and cold, while also offering advantages for a wide range of biomedical devices.

Source: Science Daily

The plan to make every surface inside the car of the future smart

Yanfeng Automotive Interiors (YFAI) has revealed a vision for the future of cars where every surface inside the vehicle can become a smart surface.

Launched at the International Auto Show, YFAI’s activeSkin concept will turn the largely decorative surfaces inside cars, including the door trim, floor console and instrument panel, into smart interior surfaces, which YFAI says will be “fully interactive” and could be ready by 2022.

“The future generation of surfaces will be smarter than ever. Just by passing your hand over a upholstered surface of the car will appear an interactive surface or dynamic decorative ambient light. Surfaces interact with us, “says Han Hendriks , YFAI’s chief technology officer.

“This technology is impressive.”

Images courtesy of YFAI

YFAI says its customisable 3D glass surfaces could benefit drivers by replacing some of the current operating elements in traditional cars.

However, If no information is called up by the driver, integrated screens and operating surfaces would remain invisible as purely decorative glass surfaces, so drivers would not be distracted by unnecessary information popping up.

“We offer on-demand functionality, so it will only be visible when you need it. In this way we will be able to customise features on interior surfaces,” said Hendriks. “With activeSkin we can achieve a 3D effect that gives a feeling of amazing depth.”

This isn’t the first time YFAI has tried to predict what cars of the future will be like.

The company’s XiM17 concept car was designed with autonomous driving in mind and helped answer the question, “What will people do in their vehicle, if they no longer have to drive?”

YFAI’s XiM17 allows passengers to switch between a number of different modes to allow passengers a number of different ways of engaging.

For example, in family mode all four seats in the car are positioned facing each other, whereas in meeting mode the rear seats are folded away. so that the driver and passenger seats face each other. and a floor console rises to form a desk.