Modern technology is now overwhelming politicians and public services. Decisions are being made for the future that are out of date before the ink has even dried on the goat parchment the legislation was written on. It won’t only cost billions but also could end, the state as we know it and put lives in jeopardy in the process.
Even just a few years back it didn’t used to matter that much. For example, the UK 2010 Digital Economy Act banned people from illegally downloading music and films from sites like Pirate Bay. Yet even this small step took six years to get any movement from internet service providers to do anything and by that time technology had moved on and the Torrenting industry found a new legal way on cashing in on people wanting something for nothing. Nowadays you can avoid breaking the law by simply streaming these films and music for free rather than actually storing it on your hard drive.
That’s a small example of the slow pace of government action and the flight of foot of people in technology. Yet here are three more recent and more insidious examples that should give policy makers a pause for thought about how in just a few years the world will have changed and how states will have to adjust to prevent waste, manipulation and atrocities.
Firstly, HS2 – the superdooper fast rail link between the north of England and London. Just a few years ago it seemed a wonderful envirofriendly scheme that would boost infrastructure, create jobs, cuts emissions from cars and planes and help spawn an economic revitalisation to the midlands and the north. Now it seems a dinosaur.
Why? In 2012 no one envisaged the pace of technological change that has occurred. Just last month Ford announced that it planned to have completely driverless cars on the road by 2020. That’s just 36 months away. These aren’t motors where you have to hover over the controls to correct an errant decision by the onboard computer. These are vehicles where you sit in the back and sup tea whilst the machine does all the driving. Google, Apple, Tesla and a whole host of old school car companies are set to do the same.
Essentially what they are building are individual train carriages, ones that can take one or more passengers and move them effortlessly long distances without human intervention. They can plan the best route to avoid snarl ups, ensure distances between vehicles is safe enough to prevent an accident but close enough to be hugely more efficient in passenger transportation that trains or current cars. No need to prebook tickets or wait for the off peak train or worry that there has been overhead powerline damage.
This makes the £56billion HS2 seem pointless and costly when one could simply build a driverless motorway on the same stretch for a fraction of the price and in half the time of creating an outdated railway that relies on metal lines, drivers, signalmen, conductors and the like. HS2 is due to be completed by the year 2033. If it took just eight years from driverless motors to go from science fiction to science fact goodness knows just what will the vehicle industry look like in a further 13 years. The pace of the HS2 debate and legislation and construction of this giant public sector infrastructure project is so slow as to render it meaningless by the time it is complete in 15 plus years time.
Then there is the current favourite hot topic of fake news, pseudo clicks, made up Facebook and Twitter profiles to boost made up stories that bolster dodgy ideologies and political ambitions. Macedonia appears to be a front runner but in the coming years things will get a lot more sophisticated.
At the moment you may read a fake news website, or a fake attention grabbing post but you aren’t at the stage of hearing or seeing it. Yet scientists have already invented software that can mimic the way a person speaks and have also recently created realtime lip sync changing software. Both of these were theoretically created in order to help do immediate translations from one language to another, yet the purposes of this type of technology can easily be used for much more insidious motives.
Imagine someone instantly dubbing Trump in a video news conference into saying he is declaring war on China or putting words in Putin’s mouth that he is about to invade Poland. Imagine that there is footage of the Pope saying he likes molesting boys or Rupert Murdoch saying he killed a little child. There is no end to what could be fabricated and almost no way of telling if it were true or not. To verify the clips would take hours and in that time the internet will have spread the clip virally around the world to millions without any factcheck. How ensuring truth, lies and completely made up stuff are dealt with will be an essential challenge in the coming years for security services, politicians, journalism and any well rounded human who doesn’t just want confirmation bias stories to reboost their current beliefs. Once again, in this arena, the old time establishments are staring agog whilst doing nothing.
The third is tech war and terrorism. Just this week Islamic State published footage of an attack on Iraqi soldiers using a drone. It isn’t the first time it has been done, but it is one of the the first times a non governmental organisation has used automated technology to attack governmental military.
As the technology of wearable and internet of things and drones continues to race ahead unabated and unregulated the potential to use these tools, created by Western governments and big business, against their states and their populations will grow ever more acute. You can buy a drone that can carry 2.2kgs for less than £2,000 on the internet without any ID. You only have to load that with a small amount of explosive and you have created a modern day homing pigeon doodlebug. Now you don’t need martyrs to attack anywhere. You just need a drone. Soon there will be robots. And nanobots. Again all science fiction but now science fact. And yet again, governments are so slow and so unwieldy as to fail to act to stem the proliferation of potential weapons of mass destruction whilst concentrating on spending billions on things like Trident which have no deterrent purpose in the 21st century and take decades to build.
Just three examples in a sea of technologies that are spewing forth in this new post industrial age. Mass unemployment, data breaches, cyber attacks, fraud, attacks on personal liberty, eavesdropping on a gargantuan scale, biotech marketing. There is an ever growing list of rapidly developing technologies which could have powerful benefits for human kind but also, without a degree of insight, regulation and understanding, could have catastrophic repercussions for the entire planet. Yet local, regional, national and multinational actors fail to keep pace and, by doing so, risk the very fabric of the society that we live in. It isn’t Terminator – Terminator became self sufficient. Instead it is humans using technology to screw itself up in any number of ways that is likely to become the focus of our bleak dystopian future.