I was watching a promotional clip of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with former US President Barack Obama. He was discussing his new book “A Promised Land”.
I was very impressed with the combination of technological and political propaganda. Two people, thousands of miles apart, were having a conversation, yet they appear as if they are sitting together face to face, mask free (as we all know, COVID-19 can’t be spread in a digital environment). Oprah Winfrey welcomes Obama at what appears to be her home. He compliments her fireplace, mentioning the warmth he feels emitting from it.
The virtual interview was shown on one screen in one “location”, however in reality both parties are sitting apart. As I witnessed this surreal technological scene, I felt divided. On one hand, I was concerned about how bizarre this world has become, while on the other hand, I was impressed and amazed at the technology.
All of this has made me think of the many milestones and breakthroughs that have occurred throughout human history. These developments have brought fundamental change and paradigm shifts of great magnitudes, affecting both the economic and social reality of human societies.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in history was the discovery of how to make fire. This discovery made life easier for man, providing him with warmth and light, and helping him to cook his food.
Then there was the invention of the wheel, which made it easier to move between cities and distant regions; the invention of writing, which allowed man to record and preserve his scientific, cultural, and economic achievements; and the invention of the machine which brought a decline in manual labor.
This was called the Industrial Revolution, and it truly changed our lives on a massive scale.
The Industrial Revolution introduced the concept of speed and intensity of production, leading to huge scientific leaps in human history. It was also accompanied by the emergence of new needs. Computers, space travel, satellites, transistors and artificial intelligence (AI) are all products of the revolution. The twentieth century was the most prominent stage of these achievements.
The invention of the computer led to a technological revolution that complemented the Industrial one. Thus, the production of computers and their components, then introducing them into various aspects of scientific, military and economic life. This played a role in the emergence of the need for specialized zones for the industry at hardware and software levels, leading to the creation of Silicon Valley.
Professor Frederick Terman and American physicist and inventor William Shockley were the first to come up with the idea. Subsequently, the Valley became the first leading technological capital of the United States and the world. It hosts the headquarters of tech giants such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Visa, IBM, Chevron, and Wells Fargo all of which research, design, and execute technology that shapes the future.
Silicon Valley companies have paid special attention to artificial intelligence and spent billions of dollars investing in it. They recognize that AI will bring about a profound transformation on a global level. AI will integrate with various aspects of life, including a country’s economy, politics and education.
This technology will be able to predict our daily needs, such as ordering food, regulating home temperatures, reminding us to take medications, and assisting us in looking for new work. Moreover, studies to develop electronic chips that contain the person’s information, personal data, and health situation, which can be implanted in the human body are already underway. There will be also chips to monitor prisoners and those under house arrest.
AI, alongside these applications, has economic uses too. It can analyze data and provide insight to assist us in decision-making. Banks also use this technology to assess credit and make proper decisions on client loan applications.
AI can also study and forecast future possibilities related to the internal and external political situation, with one of the most notable examples of this use happening during the 2016 elections between President Donald Trump and former candidate Hillary Clinton. Cambridge Analytica misused American citizens’ data and activities on Facebook and other social media platforms to address and target specific groups of people who vote for President Trump and ask them to donate to his campaign.
The group divided voters into categories according to their interests, and plans were made to design online ad campaigns according to these categories. The campaign made thousands of ads to collect donations, and the success of the ad campaign was being monitored to weigh up its effectiveness in terms of interaction. They used these results to benefit the candidate, and thus instantly reach all American voters and influence them. Even the “fake news” and rumors that haunted Clinton on Facebook were said to have contributed greatly to her defeat.
All of these factors have contributed to the significance of Silicon Valley. American technological leadership encouraged many other countries to imitate its Valley experience in order to keep up with its the rapid developments.
China and India have their own valleys, and many European capitals have technological hubs such as London, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin and Dublin. Now, Saudi Arabia is seeking to establish its own “Silicon Valley” as a deal was concluded between Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and the Saudi oil company Aramco to build a large technology hub on the American Silicon Valley model.
Replicating this experience led to the rise of competitors in technology. This explains the technological trade war between the United States and China, as the latter seeks to move from assembling parts to producing technology, even if that means resorting to piracy, while the United States, armed with the technology that it has accumulated over decades, seeks to remain in the lead.
Here, competition is not limited to possessing advanced technology or production zones capable of doing research and making rapid progress with AI. Rather, its goal goes beyond “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” to “controlling the world” in the coming decades. This control extends to political, economic, and even scientific leadership and will likely interfere with daily life and public consumption habits.
The reality of technological development and artificial intelligence paints for us a complex picture of advantages and disadvantages.
The most notable advantages are: accelerating production processes, increasing machine solutions in production processes, and achieving greater speed and accuracy within production. This will fulfill society’s growing needs and result in increased profits and production levels, accelerating the movement of capital in the world.
Additionally, daily life will be made easier as AI facilitates bank transactions, treats diseases, replaces the need for physical documentation, controls devices remotely, and offers robotic solutions for menial tasks.
However, these advantages do not come without disadvantages. Technological advancement could result in increased unemployment as machine replaces man. Another concern is the loss of privacy that could occur if the human race is implanted with chips and kept under constant surveillance.
Technological advancement has posed a dilemma for contemporary philosophy and has come to be seen as a deviation of science, and this is where Heidegger focused his criticism of technology and modernity, labeling them a threat to human existence.
The ease of obtaining everything without much effort could lead to a deterioration in mental and creative abilities, and rather foster dependence and laziness. This may lead to a decline of the desire for exploration, the love of knowledge and seeking knowledge, which will negatively affect all mankind.
Considering this, many questions arise: How far will scientific, technological and AI advancement go? What will happen to the physical and mental health of humans? What do we want our future to look like? What would life be like if human existence was overtaken by machines and robots? Will human life as we know go extinct? If so, will there be any joy in that which replaces it?
These questions may be viewed as pessimistic to those in the science community. However, it is our right and duty to ask these questions, because they reflect an existential concern for the future of humankind.
This may seem unnecessary right now, as AI is still being developed at different paces in all countries. Indeed, while some countries are sending exploratory missions to search for water in outer space, other countries still struggle to have access to clean water.
But the panic caused by scientific and technological progress and AI applications may be, to some extent justified. It is natural for man to fear the unknown. It was a man after all who “deified” the sun, the moon, the flood and the fire, and in later stages of history was terrified by the wheel, gunpowder, and the engine.
The speed of this new development is overwhelming and we are witnessing technology that is exponentially progressing, building tools and accumulating achievements beyond belief. But we need to remind ourselves of our achievements and look at how many scientists we have today thanks to high-quality education that allows us to expand our research into new areas.
The thought that we should fear is the misuse of these inventions and technologies.
Mankind has never been content or satisfied with what they have; we always want more. No matter how much technology makes our life easier, we will always be looking to the “next big thing”. There is a philosophical, metaphysical, curious aspect in our minds, as Kant believes, that pushes us to wonder and explore.
So, is there any reason that philosophers and thinkers of civilization should be worried about the “future of humanity”? Or should we all consider the new technologies set by Silicon Valley as a benefit to us and future generations?
Perhaps Heidegger’s call to think about the future of technology leads us to realize that if we don’t take advantage of the technology and understanding we have now, then when will we? It comes down to us to decide how we embrace this knowledge, and this will be an ongoing question of debate until it becomes a forgotten question, and we inevitably move onto the age of the Silicon Valley.
Hasan Abdullah Ismaik is the Chairman of the investment company Marya Group, a global multi-billion dollar investment headquartered in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. In 2018, Ismaik launched the STRATEGIECS Think Tank, a research center specialized in qualitative strategic studies related to political, economic, social, and demographic transformations in the Middle East. For more than twenty years, he has been dedicated to presenting his views via published op-eds on security, peace, and the future of stability in the Middle East and the world.
This is the first of a two-part article. The second part will be published Thursday, January 18th, 2021.