At the United Nations in New York, prime minister Boris Johnson used his inaugural address to provide an eyebrow-raising glimpse of the future, one where technology reigns supreme.
Johnson began his speech in a sobering fashion. With artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems becoming more prevalent, he warned: “no-one can ignore a gathering force that is reshaping the future of every member of this Assembly. There has been nothing like it in history”.
Referring to AI as the next “scientific revolution”, the prime minister then described how in past periods of rapid technological change “the human race had the advantage”. But, Johnson added, “That is not necessarily the case in the digital age”.
Fears around AI are by no means new when discussing the proliferation of modern computing. Whether in a military or commercial context, the idea of computers taking control for some is a scary thought, a tone Johnson played on for full dramatic effect: “You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor – even your personal trainer – but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google. And if that is true today, in future there may be nowhere to hide.”
This idea of having nowhere to hide from technology is a central tenant in Johnson’s glimpse into the world of tomorrow, touching on everything from bins to cheese, antiseptic streets and electric cars. These ideas fall into Johnson’s image of a smart city where bollards talk to lampposts, ensuring “there is always a parking space for your electric car”. Or, as Johnson puts it, urban environments as clean as a “Zurich pharmacy”.
Alexa “clucks her tongue”
Many people may not complain at the idea of streets as clean as a Swiss chemist, or not having to worry about getting a nearby parking space. However, convenience in the future comes at a cost. Evoking Orwellian ideas, Johnson proclaimed: “This technology could also be used to keep every citizen under round-the-clock surveillance.”
This idea may seem farfetched but using connected tech as a mass surveillance gathering tool has already been put into practice. Systems to this end are already in place in both despotic countries and the West alike, with the Edward Snowden leaks showing how far prying eyes can see. Not even Amazon’s Alexa is safe in Johnson’s future. “A future Alexa will pretend to take orders. But this Alexa will be watching you, clucking her tongue and stamping her foot”, he says, with the voice assistant becoming less of an assistant, and more of a controller of our behaviour.
“Your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese,” Johnson adds, ramping up the rhetoric of tech as an omnipresent observer. He goes on to add how the front door of your eyes will open before you as if controlled by a “silent butler”.
Looping back to the idea of everything watching, listening and waiting for what you will do next, Johnson added “every one of them [devices] minutely transcribing your every habit in tiny electronic shorthand”, before asking where the data resides. “Not in their chips” but rather like some hulking mass in a “great cloud of data that lours ever more oppressively over the human race”, is Johnson’s answer.
Data, the “gushers of cash”
This is where Johnson hammers home what he sees as the AI threat, comparing the bulk of data collected, the silent digital eyes and ears watching to a storm-cloud that will inevitably burst, pouring down a rain of data of which people have no control, and no idea in what form the burst will even take.
“Click by click, tap by tap” Johnson says, the human race is becoming not the user of recourses, but the resource itself. Like oil before it, data has been the prime commodity, the most valuable thing a company or country can hold. The wealth and the value of data is strikingly clear just by looking at the companies that deal in the business, or the effects it can have when harnessed as exampled by Cambridge Analytica.
Johnson’s language is characteristically colourful and at times verbose when painting his vision of the future. But in many ways, it isn’t too much of an exaggeration of the real questions facing governments today. “We don’t know who should own these new oil fields, we don’t always know who should have the rights or the title to these gushers of cash and we don’t know who decides how to use that data,” explains Johnson.
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This question of who owns an individual’s data has yet to be firmly settled: is it the company or the individual who provides data in exchange for a free service? Inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee is working on a project to give data ownership back to the individual, but it remains in its infancy. Meanwhile, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, has set the bar for how nation states can return some power back to its citizens.
“Should the machines – and only the machines – decide whether or not we are eligible for a mortgage or insurance or what surgery or medicines we should receive?” asked Johnson.
“Pink-eyed terminator” cliches
This may seem like some oppressive, Skynet-esque future, but computers are already making important decisions about a person’s life. Cast your gaze to China’s social credit system where the aggregated data on a person has stopped the sale of millions of transport tickets and is being rolled out even further. Recently, it was reported that the country was offering free transport tickets for people that registered to a facial recognition network.
“Digital authoritarianism is not, alas, the stuff of dystopian fantasy but of an emerging reality,” says Johnson.
This is where Johnson, at last, provides some explanation for outlining his technological vision out with vivid examples. “The reason I am giving this speech today is that the UK is one of the world’s tech leaders – and I believe governments have been simply caught unawares by the unintended consequences of the internet”.
As technology proliferates, Johnson expresses a view that for all the merits, there may be more unforeseen consequences to come. As such, nations need to ask the right questions now. After all, the internet age, in Johnson’s words, is “far bigger than print” and “the atomic age”.
But it is here that Johnson falls into a lazy cliche, one despised by artificial intelligence and robotics academics but loved by tabloid newspapers. He asks whether “helpful robots” will wash and care “for an ageing population”, or if they will be “pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race”. Tired examples and bizarre bluster aside, it does encapsulate the core message of Johnson’s speech: that government’s must ensure technology works to benefit everyone.
After all, technology can drive the human race in two directions: one where the dangers are spotted and mitigated, or one where we sleepwalk towards the abyss. Or, as Johnson puts it, we could end up with tools that restore “our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues” or slop out “terrifying limbless chickens”.