Mal Fletcher
The Relentless March of the Microchips

Will robots take our jobs? It’s a question I’m often asked in my travels as a speaker and media commentator.

Will humanity cease to be the master of its own destiny? Will we become, as some noted scientists and technologists have suggested, a species surpassed and then subjugated by its own machinery?

It is axiomatic that all technology is amoral. We are not a product of the technologies we devise; we are a product of how we choose to utilise those tools. It is human choice that will determine whether or not technology produces more good than harm, to humankind and to its environment.

One of today’s most exciting fields of tech-endeavour is nanorobotics. Nanobots are machines built from the microscopic level up. In nanotechnology, atoms are used as building blocks to devise machines that may one day soon, for example, be injected into our bloodstream to identify and destroy dangerous cancer cells.

Yet the same types of micro-machine could be weaponised using harmful chemicals, then injected into the air we breathe. We would ingest them without being aware of it.

Sadly, according to one report, less than three percent of research and development funding in the nanorobotic field is used to study its potential downsides.

The same might be said of other types of emerging technology. This week, a US company announced that it is offering its workers subcutaneous microchips. The chips, the size of a grain of rice and utilising RFID (radio frequency identity) technology, will be embedded in a worker’s thumb or fore-finger.

The chips will supposedly make life easier by granting employees access through security doors and enabling them to open their computers and purchase lunch in the canteen.

The CEO of the Winsconsin-based company envisages a time when the 50 or so people who’ve already signed on will be able to use the chips to unlock their phones, share business cards and store medical information.

The group is following the lead of a Swedish workstation called Epicentre. It started offering its workers the same type of injectable chip a few years ago.

In the past couple of months, the Swedish transport authority has announced that it is considering offering customers this option to replace its version of the Oyster Card.

Meanwhile, some in the finance technology sector see implants as a natural progression beyond wave-and-pay payment systems. No more messing around with clumsy cards and creased-up cash in the supermarket, the thinking goes; now all we need is a wave of the arm and we’re away.

Whilst implanted chips may appear to offer advantages of convenience for travellers, employees and consumers generally, they carry some important ethical baggage.

There are a number of important concerns. A growth in personal debt is one. As we remove the substantiality of cash, we encourage some people to spend without adequate forethought. Might not this be why we see the emergence of so many new charities devoted to helping people with debt?

There are obvious concerns with personal privacy and security too. Any computerised device can in theory be hacked – that is, remotely accessed and perhaps controlled without the owner’s permission.

Already, our intense engagement with Cloud-based technologies today leaves many people concerned about their privacy. Identity theft is on the rise – to such a degree that police services admit that, though their members are better trained in this area than before, they cannot keep pace with its growth.

Meanwhile, every piece of data we upload to a favourite social media site carries the potential to bring the intrusive attention of marketers raining down upon us.

New marketing techniques such as geo-fencing rely on smartphones, which came to us as the first instalments of the internet of things. Our phones allow marketers to locate us and our online spending history shows them what kind of spam to fire our way.

We are moving but easily engaged targets for all manner of junk advertising, at any time of day.

Do we really want to make matters worse by turning our bodies into an extension of our phones?

We’re already ceding much of our mental activity to machines. Everything from arithmetic to navigation and interpersonal communication is mediated today via technology.

It's because of this that many people in developed countries are pushing back against the incursion of work-based technologies into private life. German trade unions now insist that workers be able to escape their work-based email accounts at the end of each shift. Workers' groups in other countries are following suit.

Why then would workers want to tie themselves to a little piece of the workspace everywhere they go?

Yes, all technology is amoral and there’s little doubting the great boon our machines have been to us.

Sometimes, though, we need to admit that not all progress is good progress; that pressing “pause” now and then gives us time to think through the future implications of emerging technologies.

Unless we do so, we may quickly discover that a surfeit of data does not equate to a surplus of wisdom.

If we’re not willing to engage with reflective thinking, if we jump headfirst into every new type of technology in the belief that things that can be done should be done, we might just as well throw up our hands in resignation or despair. For the bots and the algorithms truly will surely, one day soon, reign supreme – and we will probably deserve our fate. 

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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