Brendan Hoban: Recommending Seán McDonagh’s new book – Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs

Fourth industrial revolution is now upon us

Western People 23.2.21

A lot has happened in the last 50 years. Here’s an instance of the extraordinary change witnessed in that half century. I was ordained 48 years ago and appointed a curate in Keenagh, Crossmolina. There was no phone in the house as the cost to install one was deemed prohibitive. However, there was a phone in the local post office where the late Tommy Gaughan was in charge. Tommy twisted (and twisted) a little lever to alert the exchange in Dooleeg that a customer ‘wanted to get through’. When or if the exchange was active, ‘you were put through’.

For multiple reasons it wasn’t a very satisfactory service and my PP at the time, a kind and gracious Ben McLoughlin, decided that a phone should be applied for. It cost £1,500 to install, around the same as my annual salary. After some soul-searching, it was decided to apply for it. When I was transferred to another parish, after serving in Keenagh for five years, the phone still hadn’t arrived.

In his new book, Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs, Seán McDonagh, the ecologist and sociologist, then a missionary in the Philippines, among the T’boli tribe in Mindanao, relates a similar story.

After his father died in Tipperary in the mid-1970s, he promised his mother that he would phone her every month. This entailed a bus journey from T’boli town to Davao city of between four and six hours, depending on the condition of the road and the bus. Seán would then book an overseas call of ten minutes, which if the line broke down as it often did, the overseas connection might not be restored. He then spent that night in a missionary house before getting the bus back home the next day.

There was no comparison between McDonagh’s long and demanding journey to a phone, in comparison with my own trips to Tommy Gaughan’s – a few hundred yards down the road ­– but almost half a century on, T’boli and Keenagh now share the extraordinary convenience of what was then an unthinkable level of communications – mobile phones, text, Skype, email, Facebook and a developing series of other social media platforms.

The range of communications media available all over the world – there are now four billion mobile phones on earth! – has created untold convenience and opportunity. But, as McDonagh warns in his book, while these technologies (and the corporations that control them – Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Google) can be beneficial in terms of spreading vital information, they can have serious negative effects on human freedom and personal privacy.

For example, every time we ‘look up Google’, we may marvel at the convenience of such a valuable and free service, but Google, whose business it is to make money, is in the process collecting data which is then sold on to advertisers, allowing them to target specific groups. We are, in effect, giving free data to huge corporations like Google (and similar platforms) to dispense with as they see fit.

Sometimes people wonder how, in indicating an interest in a particular area through ‘looking up Google’ we can find an advertisement of a similar product magically finding its way to us. ‘When a person uses Google to search the internet’, McDonagh writes, ‘it keeps their search history forever’. Google stores all our emails and contacts, tracks every place we’ve been and builds ‘a robust, accurate profile’ of people as advertisers seek to target specific people and their specific needs. If we click on a particular advert, Google records our interest and sells on the data to interested advertisers.

Another huge development is Artificial Intelligence (AI). McDonagh situates this new phenomenon in the context of four ‘industrial revolutions’. The first began in Britain after the 1750s and was driven by steam – trains, shipping, manufacturing industries. The second began in the 1860s when oil, gas and electricity began to power industry and travel. The third began in the 1960s with the arrival of computers, moving society from using purely mechanical to digital technology in the 1960s and 1970s. And the fourth industrial revolution is now being driven by AI, drones, robots and 3D printing.

McDonagh investigates the effect of this latest revolution, described by one commentator, as ‘a fusion of physical, digital and biological technologies’ on the social and working lives of people today.

While robots, especially ‘humanoid robots’ have captured media attention, McDonagh explains how powerful AI machines can recognise patterns and connections in data that are ‘so complex that no individual human or groups of humans can see those connections’. While some commentators argue that the present technological revolution will, as the earlier revolutions, create new jobs, McDonagh challenges that position and argues that the new technologies will lead to huge levels of unemployment. He quotes Heather Humphreys, Minister for Social Protection and Rural and Community Development, who believes that Irish workers face a 50% chance that their jobs will be automated in little more than a decade.

McDonagh’s book, though dealing with complex ideas and reaching out into a new, and for most people, unexplored frontier, has the great benefit of explaining new terms – AI, algorithm, cloud robotics, cybersecurity, big data, etc. that are becoming part of the vernacular of our day – in refreshingly simple language. For a difficult and complex subject, his book is an easy read for the general reader and I would highly recommend it, as an introduction to terms that have entered our everyday vocabulary, the issues that underpin them and their significance for our ‘new normal’.

The lesson McDonagh takes from the recent pandemic is that we need to be prepared for the changes that accompany the fourth industrial revolution rather than reacting to them when they happen. A good start, for the general punter, would be to read this important book.

  • Seán McDonagh, Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs
  • Messenger Publications, 184 pp, €19.95.





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