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Author: Bob Merritt
Publisher: Morgan & Claypool
Reviewer: Ian Stirk
This book aims to discuss the current progress and the social impact of the Digital Revolution, how does it fare?
The book is for anyone interested in the progress and impact of the existing and forthcoming Digital Revolutions. It’s a relatively small book, consisting of around 100 working pages, spread over 19 chapters.
Below is a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the topics covered.
Chapter 1 The Next Technology Wave
The author suggests we are at an historic point in the development of technologies. Several technologies are accelerating at a speed that society may not be able to assimilate satisfactorily. The acceleration comes from the doubling of technology capabilities every 2 years, and the increasing ability of computers to emulate ‘human intellect’. If the future rate of change mirrors that of the last 50 years, mankind will see machines with personalities indistinguishable from humans, in the lifetime of the majority of people living today. However there is disagreement if this trend will continue.
Current progress is shown by the use of exoskeletons and other devices driven by human thought connected to the brain. Research is active in deciphering brain activity with the hope of providing finer grained control. Other research relates to linking together multiple human brains to provide faster collaboration and potentially accelerated biological evolution of human intellect. It’s suggested the Industrial Revolution can be used as a template for the impact of change.
Chapter 2 Makimoto's Technology Waves
3 popular technology laws are examined: Metcalfe’s Law (the value of a network increases as the square of the number of its users), Moore’s Law (chip capacity doubles at a predictable rate), and Makimoto’s Wave (there’s 10 years between development and commoditization of technology).
The author says it is worthwhile looking at Makimoto’s forecasts, since in 2002 he presented a paper discussing the demise of the PC sometime after 2010, taken over by a second wave of technology around 2012, this became mobile devices/networks. A more recent forecast suggests the rise of robotics in the next wave of changes. It’s suggested that technologies being researched today will trigger substantial changes to our social and political structures.
Chapter 3 The Digital Revolution
Digital devices can work at rapid speeds, resulting in a swift increase in knowledge. Additionally, increasing efficiencies have led to improved digital functionality (e.g. digital music). What is the impact on social change?
The growth in digital data is discussed in terms of sensors, social media, photos/videos, cell phone signals etc. It’s estimated that the world created 1.8 zettabytes of data in 2011, and 50 times as much will be generated by 2020. Storing and processing this volume of data has its own concerns. It’s suggested that conflict may be created between groups that adopt the new technologies and others that don’t. The increasing digital output and advancements are likely to lead to further social divisions and disruptions, as different groups take selective advantage of it.
Chapter 4 Emergence of the Second Digital Wave
Here we look at the mechanism that enabled the technological advances described in Makimoto’s book Digital Nomad. Much of it relates to Moore’s Law, with improvements at exponential rates, leading to a second digital wave involving mobile communications. The impact of tablets and mobile devices on the PC market is highlighted. It’s noted that the combination of Internet, mobile, and social media has contributed to new forms of aggressive behaviour.
Chapter 5 Technical Impact
This chapter briefly discusses Moore’s Law in greater detail, together with supply and demand. It suggests inducing people to take advantage of the latest technological improvements, making use of Metcalfe’s law, which offers an explanation for the rapid rise of the Internet. Taken together, Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law suggest a continued network expansion into the future - and this provides the foundation for network enabled devices, the Internet of Things (IoT).
Chapter 6 Architectural Impact of Digital Wave
It’s suggested that since much of the content from the second digital wave relates to mobile devices, the information has changed from spreadsheets to visual content. Another change is the use of the Internet for content, especially video. This has resulted in a shift from PC-orientated environments to networks that can process a variety of unstructured data. Much of this processing falls under the heading of Big Data, a growing topic.
Chapter 7 Social Impact of the Digital Revolution
The previous chapters discuss the ever increasing rate of appearance of new technologies, this chapter looks as some of the consequential social impact. Makimoto’s Digital Nomad suggests these changes will include liberation from: state controlled telecom networks, costly computer power, geographic ties to work, and politically repressive regimes. Some of these have already been seen in the real world.
The use of social media to organize social protests (e.g. Arab Spring) is discussed, as is the ability to disable local networks. The disclosures Edward Snowden show the extent of covert monitoring that occurs. It’s noted it is difficult to anticipate the potential use of new and evolving technologies.
Chapter 8 Other Unanticipated Consequences
This chapter opens with a look at the ease of stealing large volumes of digital data, as demonstrated by Private Manning, who leaked more than 740,000 documents. Eavesdropping on mobile communication of leaders is also noted, as is the hacking of digital information. Some potential privacy laws/groups are briefly highlighted. Again, the ability to absorb new technology rather than cause unrest is discussed.
It’s suggested as we enter the third digital wave, with its focus on robots and artificial intelligence (AI), there is concern it may cause as much or greater unrest as the original Industrial Revolution.
Chapter 9 Robotics: The Third Digital Wave
This book shows that as one wave of technology matures, another starts to develop. The first digital wave related to PCs, the second to networks and mobile communication, the third relates to robots.
The chapter posits that using the current level of robot intelligence, together with the past rate of increase, robots can expect to have the information-processing abilities of the human brain around the year 2040.
The chapter take a brief look at ‘Amelia’, a software program that demonstrates the current state of development. It is a new type of AI that can absorb, deconstruct and use information like a human. In a recent demo, it absorbed the text of a technical manual, and then tired to answer any questions submitted to it, in any of 20 languages, any unanswered questions were diverted to a human operator – where Amelia listens to the answer and absorbs this information as part of its growing knowledgebase.
Many futurists expect the new technologies will create as many jobs as they destroy, although Martin Ford in Rise of the Robots suggests otherwise, see my recent review.