Imagine yourself in a beaten-up Landover, roaming all over South Africa’s Addo Elephant Park, with the sun beating down on your back, with your aim being to count elephants and not being eaten by lions. It seems a far stretch away from lockdown life currently and the future prospect of being an elephant counter may be now out of reach as technology is trying to take away that idyllic job by using machine learning. Technology is pervasive in all areas of our life. It is said to be used to make our lives easier. To make simple tasks or even complex tasks faster. Our life is about getting to the end goal quicker, more efficiently and in a more cost-effective manner. Is the human, social side of everyday tasks being taken away by the desire for supplementing technology for human beings?
In Africa, elephants are now being counted by machines that have learnt to count elephants by using algorithmic examples. An earth orbiting satellite (Oxford University 2020) will take picture of the savannah and from that the machine will be able to discern whether a grey blob on the picture is an elephant or not. It is a proof of concept technology development from the University of Bath but demonstrates that time consuming work that is often done by research teams for months on end can be done simply and effectively via satellites and machines. In one day up to 5,000 sq km can be tracked and recorded. Although useful to track elephants against poaching it seems quite sad that the days of adventure and overland forays into the wilderness may be replaced with technology. Yet the end goal of counting elephants and ensuring their safety can be achieved by this technology.
In 2019 Oxford Economics state that “the robotics revolution is rapidly accelerating” (Oxford Economics, 2019). It is estimated that the global stock of robots will be as many as 30 million by 2030, with China having 14million of these (Oxford Economics, 2019). The pandemic has undoubtedly spurred things along (National Geographic, 2020). The pandemic has made human contact undesirable and even hazardous, with many jobs prohibited from being carried out in person and has made the reluctance of using robots and machines lessen. Activities that would never have been carried out by machines are now commonplace, with humans embracing these new tech focused avenues. The Financial Times highlights that although technology is enabling humans to carry out work and social elements of life, their use is and will have a profound effect and impact on the labour market going forward (Financial Times, 2020).
With these changes and developments that do have benefits and have enabled the world to carry on during the pandemic, such as the willingness of the legal system to adapt (UNODC 2020) and use technology for court cases (GOV.UK 2020a), dispute resolution (Jones, 2020), as well as across other disciplines, there is the human cost. The cost of jobs, the cost of social interaction and the cost of human and individual power.
In a democratic society, power is held for the people, by an elected body. With the increase of technology and the importance of their functionality on carrying out every day life, it can be argued that there is a power struggle between the dominance of the tech giants (Facebook, google etc…) and the state, (and its people). In December 2020, the European Union announced plans to overhaul how the EU regulated digital markets, (BBC 2020). The Digital Services package containing the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, seek to regulate modify the way in which tech giants tackle illegal and harmless content as well as ensuring they are using their customers data correctly (European Commission 2020). This law will not take effect until after the Brexit transition has most likely ended but the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority have their own reforms in hand (GOV.UK 2020b). Their focus is on the behaviour of tech giants, ensuring fair treatment of consumers and business, ensuring a level playing field for smaller tech firms (GOV.UK 2020b). The UK is hoping to still maintain a powerful leadership in tech regulation post Brexit. It is interesting to note that the UK is going to make a legally binding code of conduct, which is firm specific, and that is overseen by the newly created Digital Markets Unit (GOV.UK 2020b). The use of legally enforcement regulation is a step away from the previous financial services regime of a light touch approach, following the spirit of the regulation which we can see in the early part of this century. The reason behind this could be aligned to the recognised power struggle between the tech giants and the state. A question over the sovereignty of tech giants is integral to discussion on their regulation, nationally and internationally in terms of The United States, where political and business fringes are over intertwined. I am concerned that although there is an awareness over the power struggle between tech giants and the state, the human being is not at the heart of the tension. Rather it is still the desire to be the one who controls and who has the power, in relation to state and tech giants. No matter how useful technology can be there is always a human behind it and our social, ethical and moral obligation that cannot be forgotten. We cannot forget the fun in carrying out tasks. Taking us back to our African adventure, surely it would be wonderful to still have boots on the ground to check that the technology is right? Adventure cannot be lost in life’s digitalisation.
Dr Clare Jones is a Senior Law Lecturer at The Open University Law School. Clare is a member of the Open Justice Centre and is Co-founder of the Law, Information, Future, Technology (LIFT) research cluster.
Email Clare, or tweet @DocChambers or @OU_LIFT.