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Reign of the robots: how to live in the machine age

By using ever more machines we lose not only physical skills, but cognitive faculties.

The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us
Nicholas Carr
Bodley Head, 299pp, £20

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prospetiry in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
WW Norton, 320pp, £17.99

There is a Mitchell and Webb sketch in which two cavemen sit at a work table making tools. Big Feet (Webb) chips the flint, Red Beard (Mitchell) ties it to sticks. Red Beard reminds Big Feet that they won’t be getting much done today, because today is Bronze Orientation Day. “I’m so sick of hearing about bronze,” says Big Feet. “What’s wrong with stone? Does stone not work all of a sudden?” Red Beard is more open-minded: “They say it will revolutionise the way we hunter-gather.”

The leader of Bronze Orientation Day is Hairy Back, who is breathlessly enthusias­tic and talks in slogans. “My message to you is this: Don’t Be Afraid of Bronze. Bronze Is Brilliant.” Foremost among its virtues, he says, is that it doesn’t need to be chipped. Big Feet is understandably concerned to hear this, but Hairy Back confirms the bad news with ruthless cheer: “Old-fashioned chipping is a thing of the past. Have you thought about retraining as a smelter?”

The sketch is eloquent about our relationship with technological change. New technologies don’t just disrupt old ways of working, they split us into tribes: those who resist disruption to old ways, and those who insist that the new must always be embraced. Digital technology has come at us in such a rush in recent years that the polarisation is particularly acute. Most books about its effects on society are polemics, written by a follower of either Hairy Back or Big Feet: the internet will save the world, or destroy everything you love, depending on which. But now that personal computers are approaching middle age, perhaps we can have a more mature debate, one that presumes every new technology comes with a credit and debit sheet attached.

The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr provides a fine example. Carr’s previous book The Shallows argued that the internet is making us stupid, by turning us into a twitchy, distractible species capable of little more than clicking on someone else’s answers. The Shallows was rather one-sided: it underestimated the capacity of the web, used thoughtfully, to extend and deepen our thinking. Carr is an avid internet user and if his thesis was correct he should hardly have been able to write another book. But I am glad he did, because The Glass Cage, a more nuanced account of human cognition in the age of digital automation, is very good.

The Glass Cage warns that we may be creating a technological environment that erodes our skills, anaesthetises our curiosity and dims our critical faculties. From airline cockpits to central heating systems, cars and phones, we are swaddling ourselves in technologies whose workings we don’t understand, and that ask so little of us that we feel no need to enquire further. Carr quotes the technology historian George Dyson: “What if the cost of machines that think is people who don’t?”

In Seattle in 2008 the driver of a 12-foot-high school bus ran it into a nine-foot-high bridge. The top of the bus was sheared off and 16 students were injured. The driver later told police that he hadn’t seen the signs and flashing lights warning him of the bridge ahead because he was following GPS instructions. In 2009 Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic, killing all 228 of its passengers and crew. A subsequent investigation showed the aircraft had run into a storm that caused the autopilot to disengage, which threw the plane’s human pilots into a panic. In the words of the report, the crew suffered a “total loss of cognitive control of the situation”.

Carr acknowledges that digital automation has benefits, and to argue otherwise would be absurd. Computers remove the need for us to carry out tedious tasks; they make fewer errors than we do, perform miraculous feats of calculation and save lives. High-profile exceptions notwithstanding, you are less likely to be killed in an airline crash now than at any other time in the history of aviation. But none of this is to say we should not interrogate automation’s downsides. If we don’t, we may end up making ourselves redundant.

In The Second Machine Age, one of last year’s most important books, the economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee invite us to think about the relationship between human beings and technology as a race in which we are competing with machines for the best jobs. The race has had two stages. The first, which started with the Industrial Revolution, was mechanical. In the workplace and the home, machines took over the heavy lifting, performing physically demanding and repetitive tasks more reliably and efficiently than people. In the short term this created human losers such as the Luddite weavers, but in the long run many more of us were winners.

New technologies made some jobs obsolete but created whole new categories of employment, and the newer jobs have, on the whole, been more productive and better paid. They have also been more interesting: human beings have responded to the challenge of machines by cultivating brain over brawn. The grandchildren of Luddite weavers became factory managers; the children of typists in the 1960s became software engineers. A vast and prosperous middle class was created – if “middle class” means anything it indicates the ability to make a living from your mind rather than your muscle.

Understandably, given how well the past two centuries turned out, it has become almost heretical among economists and policymakers to suggest that technological automation is anything but beneficial, at least in the long run (as Hairy Back might put it, Automation is Awesome). So it is brave of Brynjolfsson and McAfee to contend that this time the machines really have put humanity on notice. The second stage of the race has begun, and we are in danger of losing it.

Human beings won the race with the machines of the Industrial Revolution by cultivating their intelligence. But information technology automates mental, not just manual tasks, and now, due to a huge increase in computing power and the sheer number of interconnected devices, the machines are catching up.

The digital sphere is expanding at a dizzy­ing rate: from music to agriculture to the military, ever more sophisticated cognitive labour is performed by algorithm. As the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said, “software is eating the world”.

We appear to be next on the menu. It’s no coincidence that middle-class incomes are falling at a time when complex production and logistics processes are running smoothly with minimal human oversight, and hi-tech companies with small staffs are conquering the world at the expense of companies that rely heavily on cumbersome and temperamental meat-based robots . . . excuse me, people.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee sketch a potential future in which corporate profits rise higher than ever and an elite of robot-owners grows phenomenally rich while the rest of us wonder what to do with our time or how to feed our families. You might say that’s a fair description of the present. They would say you ain’t seen nothing yet. They note that there is no iron (nor bronze) law of economics that says most people benefit from technological progress, even if that has been true to date. It is quite possible that, to adapt Keynes, in the long, long run we are all obsolete.

Despite this, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are optimistic. They advise us to make the most of what remain uniquely human capabilities: inventiveness, empathy, an ability to cope with the unpredictable. To ensure that machines remain in the service of human happiness, we need to play to our strengths.

Sensible as that sounds, something tells me the robots have thought this one through. By taking so much out of our hands, and now our brains, they are neutering the very capabilities that might enable us to outrun them. The long-recognised problem of “deskilling” – as factories replace skilled labour with machines, workers become less skilled and therefore more dispensable – now applies to the very skills that ought to give us an edge over our machines. We are easing ourselves into a dependency trap.

Take navigation, a fascinating discussion of which appears in The Glass Cage. Mapping apps are a godsend. I do a lot of walking around London, the city where I live, and I rely much of the time on a blue dot to tell me where to go, which makes it much easier to get around (my sense of direction barely deserves the name). But Carr points to a hidden cost. Cognitive science has established, as a general principle, that the less you exercise a mental skill, the worse you get at it, and that this applies to the skill of mentally mapping space. Maybe that’s OK, as long as my battery doesn’t run out. But then again, maybe not.

The neural networks we employ to find our way through space are the same as those used in forming memories (memory seems to have begun in the need to find one’s way back to the right cave). Véronique Bohbot, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University, has found that the way people exercise their navigational skills affects the functioning of the hippocampus, a part of the brain pivotal to memory; studies have famously found the posterior hippocampus to be larger in the brains of London cabbies.

Bohbot also discovered that the more effort a person makes to build cognitive maps of space, the stronger his memory circuits become. When I follow the dot, I am not engaging my hippocampus. Consequently, I may be allowing age to ravage my memory faster than it would do otherwise. Bohbot worries that over the next 20 years, because society is increasingly geared towards shrinking the hippocampus (Uber drivers, like everyone else, use GPS), dementia will occur earlier and earlier.

Does this mean I’m going to delete Google Maps from my phone? No. But I will use it only when I absolutely have to. In other words, I will use it to augment, rather than replace, my meagre capacity for navigation. My aim is to avoid a relationship with my phone in which I become increasingly lost without it.

Just as it’s hard to say no to a good app, so the greater the degree of automation in society, the more likely we are to regard it as a force of nature, resistance to which is as rational as dancing a rainstorm away. But let’s recall Stevie Wonder’s definition of superstition: to believe in things that you don’t understand. Technophiles are fond of saying that the best technology is indistinguishable from magic. It is useful to remember, however, that magic relies on tricks, and the sleight of hand performed by digital technology is to hide from us what we are losing. Steve Jobs loved to say of a new Apple product, “It just works.” I, too, love technology that just works, but that’s not to say there isn’t a price to pay for tools that efface their very existence.

If the Luddites underestimated the benefits of innovation, they did at least regard the introduction of novel technologies as a choice, and in that sense, Carr points out, they were more rational than those today who insist that we hand over more tasks to machines. It has somehow become accepted that if a machine can do something, it should do it. This is the attitude of a child, cooing at every shiny thing that crosses her path, sticking it in her mouth even at the risk of choking.

Even the Luddites weren’t Luddites. Carr reminds us that the original gang (named after a legendary, possibly mythical Leicestershire machine-breaker, Ned Ludd) didn’t go around demolishing things because they hated machines, but because they were trying to prevent another form of destruction. They were out to protect a way of life that was bound up with the practice of their craft. They took pride in being good at something difficult, and enjoyed the security, respect and independence it brought. They didn’t hate what was new; they just loved what they had.

In 1958, New York’s modern master planner Robert Moses proposed to blast a highway through Greenwich Village, scattering its communities in order to make room for the inevitable technology of its day, the automobile. Moses had already built a highway through the Bronx, which never recovered from it. His plan for the Village was defeated by an alliance of local residents, including the urban philosopher Jane Jacobs, who articulated what would be lost in unforgettable terms: “the sidewalk ballet”, the dense web of glances, handshakes and hellos that constitutes city life at its most creative and fulfilling.

With digital technology today we are roughly at the stage we were with the car in the 1950s – dazzled by its possibilities and unwilling to think seriously about its costs, which is another way of saying we haven’t thought about how to maximise its benefits. Tools, whether they are made of flint or silicon, should be deployed to extend our potential, not erase it. Hunter-gathering has been revolutionised many times over but we still have the job of being human. It’s up to us to define the scope of work.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear