DAVID CHARLES. The Australian media’s emphasis on the downsides of technological change has implications for innovation, growth and living standards.

There is systematic tendency in Australia compared to many countries in Asia for the mainstream media to place greater emphasis on the potential downsides of technological change rather than the upsides.

During a recent visit to Asia I was struck by the apparent dynamism of the countries I visited and the very different attitudes that were being expressed through the major media outlets to the range of technological changes in the pipeline and their potential to increase growth and living standards. The way the media frames issues such as technological change is important as public opinion is often shaped by the media.

There does seem to be systematic differences between the way the media frames new technology in Asia and in countries like Australia.

As elsewhere in the developed and emerging countries, the focus tends to be on a bundle of new technologies with very wide and deep implications for future development.

The main ones are:

  • Artificial intelligence;
  • Machine intelligence and Robotics;
  • Autonomous vehicles;
  • Big Data;
  • Nano technology and other new materials;
  • Additive manufacturing; and
  • New energy sources.

While these technologies have mainly been developed to this stage in the developed countries of the west, China as well as  Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong are all investing heavily in these areas which they see as being absolutely crucial to future business development, competitiveness and economic growth.

By and large, the reporting of these technologies in the Asian media is comprehensive and  positive focusing primarily on their potential to contribute to higher living standards and a better quality of life.

This compares to the noticeably less full reporting of these matters in Australia’s leading media outlets, even to a degree in the business oriented media, and the generally mixed tone of the reporting that does take place.

Perhaps Australia is not unique in this respect. A recent study by Doug Allen and Daniel Castro for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, February 2017 considers why the tone of reporting of technology in the US media has become more sombre. Their study is titled, Why So Sad? A Look at the Change in Tone of Technology Reporting 1986 to 2013.

They find that media reporting has become noticeable less positive since the turn of the century.

They ascribe this to two factors:

First, the increasing role of the NGOs and special interest groups who tend to direct their public campaigns to the downside of particular new technologies.

Second, the competition facing the traditional media from the social media which causes them to continuously cut costs and, amongst other things, to reduce their in-house employment of journalists who follow technology trends and are knowledgeable about them and to prefer the sensational to the factually supported.  The newspapers find it easier to treat the more superficial aspects of new technology and/or pick up in an uncritical way the lines being pushed by the NGOs. It is easier and possibly better for circulation to astonish the reading public rather than to present balanced material.

There are signs of both these aspects being present in the Australian situation.

Does this matter?

In reality, as it has been suggested, the community tends to divide into three groups as concerns technological change: the Never Betters (the optimists), the Better-Nevers (the pessimists) and the Ever-Wasers (the realists who embrace every change, while complaining about them at least initially).

For the optimists, new technologies solve problems and make our lives easier allowing us to do more with less. But for the pessimists, new technologies introduce additional complexity to our lives, isolate members of society from each other, threaten privacy, destroy jobs and impose other costs.

But if the media is tending, on balance, to present a negative picture of technological change and this changes public opinion it is likely that this will have a number of consequences which all will act to reduce the potential to exploit technological change.

Most notably it can influence the direction of public policy to hold back on support for research in contested areas, introduce unnecessary regulation and generally slow down technologically based innovation.

This in turn can exercise a chilling effect on Australian researchers in particular fields and the entrepreneurs considering innovations in these areas. To the extent that researchers and innovators perceive their opportunities being curtailed there is a consequent impetus for some of them to move to jurisdictions overseas where these barriers are not seen to be operative and the environment is more encouraging.

The consequences for innovation, business development, economic growth and higher living standards are also likely to be negative.

Any serious policy for innovation, technology, science and research needs to come to grips with the way technology matters are reported in the mainstream media. The Strategy 2030 being prepared by Innovation Australia is timely and can play an important role in addressing this challenge.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics – An Example

While AI and robotics have been developing technologies for quite some time – robots of the pick and place variety made their introduction into the automotive industry in the  1970s/1980s. The first robots were introduced at GM over 50 years ago. However, as they have had more machine intelligence applied to them their usage has received major impetus in recent years and they have received considerable business, research and media attention. The automotive industry remains the most important user of robots accounting for about half the robots produced in the US.

A particularly high profile aspect has been the application of AI to self driving cars. Google, Baidu and Apple are all developing software systems for self driving cars. Baidu the Chinese search engine is developing its Apollo platform for self drive cars which it plans to become the Android of autonomous vehicles. Baidu has alliances with Microsoft as well as the German automotive systems suppliers Bosch and Continental. Ford, GM and BMW are also developing their own self driving cars.

But of course AI has applications in many fields ranging from manufacturing, to health, aged care and education. Facebook has a major AI research facility. We have all probably had experiences with chatbots in recent times. The challenge is to distinguish between them and human operators.

China has declared one of its goals in research and industry is to become the world leader in AI by 2030.

The focus in Asia is very much on developing AI and applying it to business as quickly as possible.

But in many western countries the media is inclined to focus less on the opportunities and more on the threats to jobs and ultimately to the position of human kind relative to machines that can think for themselves. Currently the exchange between Elon Musk, Tesla and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook on the subject is keeping the media’s attention. There has of course been a long science fiction genre based on out-of-control robots.

A number of studies by academic researchers and in some case government related agencies have suggested that up to 50 per cent of all jobs in manufacturing and services in the US could be at risk from the combination of AI and robots over the next two decades. (Martin Ford’s book published in 2015 Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future has become a best seller.) There is an active debate about whether special income support measures such as a universal basic income should be introduced to mitigate the impacts on jobs.

The sceptics might point to past experience with the introduction of mainframe and later personal computers, which at the time were claimed to be going to decimate jobs. In practice, computers tended to augment the capacity of workers, rather than to replace them, and to open up whole new fields of activity.

But will it be different this time. In the Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that this time around machines will be competitive with humans in the workforce rather than complementary. An equally good case can be made that technology will certainly shift the demand for people but to different kinds of jobs.

In reality the dramatic estimates of jobs losses from AI and robots are highly debatable, nevertheless, the mainstream media has tended to take this as being something of a given and has accordingly focussed on the downside.

This perception also has implications for the debate about inequality and the role played by technology. Like others from Silicon Valley, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue fort a negative income tax.

Similarly with the discussion around autonomous vehicles and self drive cars in particular. On the upside, the potential is there with the development of self drive cars that the loss of life and injury from road accidents could be reduced substantially, congestion reduced and currently people who are disqualified from driving cars due to handicaps of one kind or another would be able to use self drive cars.

But the benefits tend to be relegated to second place behind the reporting of a small number of cases where cars (most notably Tesla’s) possessing some self driving capabilities suffer catastrophic accidents.

What is to be done?

While the Australian business media does tend to present a more positive story about major emerging technologies, their potential benefits to society and the business development opportunities they offer, the mainstream media tends to be rather more inclined to latch onto the possible downsides and risks which lend themselves to eye catching articles.

There are echoes of the study findings on this subject from the US study cited earlier. There are many NGOs who find it is in their interests to emphasize the negatives of some emerging technologies. At the same time the mainstream media seems to lack staff technology journalists who can present a balanced picture.

Who is going to fill the communications gap?

In the first instance, the business community and the research community have a strong interest in getting knowledge about the potential benefits and growth possibilities associated with emerging technologies into the public arena.

But governments also have a role to play. Perhaps an arm of government with the necessary technical expertise and reputation for serious and balanced work might be charged with undertaking studies of important new emerging technologies.

The claims that are currently being made for the impacts of AI and robotics on employment and incomes from wages (and the linked argument for a negative income tax) are a good case in point. This is something which the Productivity Commission might look at. As with most changes, there are likely to be winners and losers.

2030 Strategic Plan for the Australian Innovation, Science and Research System

The Government has charged Innovation and Science Australia with producing a 2030 Strategic Plan by the final quarter of 2017. An Issue Paper was already released and submissions are being sought.

The argument presented here is that part of the Strategic Plan should include  ways that the research community, business and government itself can contribute to better community understanding of both the rewards and risks of emerging technologies.

In the absence of this Australia is likely to provide a less attractive environment for the development of new technologies and their commercialization than will be the case elsewhere in Asia. Perhaps Hong Kong where the major English language daily the South China Morning Post since last year has been owned by the Chinese internet company Alibaba is a special case. But it does reflect the much more positive attitude in Asia to new technology as a driver for business, improved living standards, health, aged care and environmental improvements.

David Charles is the Director of Insight Economics Pty Ltd. He was formerly Secretary  of Commonwealth Department of Industry and Commerce. He co founded Allan Consulting  Group in Melbourne 











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6 Responses to DAVID CHARLES. The Australian media’s emphasis on the downsides of technological change has implications for innovation, growth and living standards.

  1. Greg Bailey says:

    This is a useful summary of the kind of optimistic appraisal of a future where there will be substantial utilisation of AI, Robots and whatever else digital technology can throw up. Optimistic because it assumes constant growth is a good thing and that the dire predictions of up to forty percent job losses in a few decades may not come to fruition. Maybe they will not, who knows, but given the large amount of underemployment in the Australian/US economy, in part created by digital technology and the growth of low wage manufacturing in China, the prognosis seems not to be a positive one.

    One cannot always base predictions of the future on the past and even if digital technology has created many new jobs since its initial appearance in the early sixties, it has now become so advanced that human jobs are definitely being displaced. Where will these people go? Into the services industries? Already there, where many jobs are low skilled, wages are low and there is much rorting of workers. I do not know where the new jobs will come from, but whenever people talk about the potential growth of new jobs through digital technology, they never say where these jobs are likely to emerge.

    Some people have talked about a minimal living wage to be applied to everyone, employed or not, in the foreseeable future. But it is difficult to see this forthcoming in a neoliberal society where basic living networks defined in quantitative terms are being cut back. Of course, if too much is ultimately cut back, there will be too few people to buy products produced by the new digitally enhanced workforce and so further stagnation will result.

    Nor does this article mention anything about the possibilities of this technology mitigating the effects of anthropogenic climate change. It assumes constant growth in a world of infinite resources.

  2. Michael Johnston says:

    Can any anyone remember the last time technological innovation was delayed or suspended because it’s adoption might cause social chaos?
    David’s list of potential disrupters is very limited and could be expanded to include many other software and hardware innovations.
    Fancy a job in retail after Amazon comes to town?
    How many banks do we need when block chain is fully exploited?
    How many of us like the prospect of our grandchildren competing for jobs on the electronic hungry mile?
    The questions can be endless but …. “You can’t stop progress” .
    What we do know is that at most forks in the road for technological progress societal welfare comes a long last; generally the new technology is adopted and most ordinary people in the firing line get stiffed. A visit to the banner room at Sydney Trades Hall provides ample evidence of the fate of those in the firing line with countless numbers of jobs disappearing through new technologies.
    I cut my second class honours thesis on the fate of airline navigators’ redundancy due to tech change. It was a long time ago and no one wants to return to peering at the night sky with sextants, notwithstanding how sophisticated they had become. The airline navigators were a powerful union and saw their fate in advance, being tech ‘savvy’ and very intelligent. From this position of power and advanced notice they were able to negotiate generous redundancy packages and, more importantly, retraining. Many became pilots and flight engineers.
    The union movement is now a pale imitation of what it was in the ’60s. It’s capacity to foresee the application of new technologies is greatly diminished and it’s power to do anything about it is almost non-existent. Thus the fate of future generations of workers is now subject to the generosity of the employing class. Taking bets anyone?

  3. Michael Keating says:

    A very timely article.
    Another aspect of technological progress that is regularly ignored is the macro effects as technological progress increases living standards. Thus much of the discussion focuses on the impact on employment in the particular industry, where robots are introduced. But if this raises productivity dramatically, as it can, then price of the product typically drops, and the real incomes of consumers are then increased. Sometimes that price drop increases the demand for the product so that there is no drop in employment. For example, think of airliners where the demand for air travel has increased enormously in response to the drop in price of air transport, and more people are employed than ever before both in making aircraft and flying them. But even when the employment in the particular industry falls as a consequence of the new technology, incomes are increased and we demand other different services, so that there is no decline in total employment. For example, the number of people employed in agriculture has fallen while output has risen enormously. Today we all spend much less of our income on food, and that means we have more income to spend on other products such as travel, health and education. In short the challenge is not to preserve particular jobs by trying to stop technological progress, but instead we need to enable people to adapt to new technologies, including by changing their jobs when necessary.

  4. Jaquix says:

    The words “public opinion is often shaped by the media” jumped out. Australia’s media is overwhelmingly on the conservative side, esp Murdoch’s stable, and you aren’t you going to get any enthusiasm for modern technologies from them. Liberal govt ditto. They’ve slashed funding for scientific and other research. Gutted the CSIRO for heaven’s sake. They’re not going to change. Only a change of govt and direction will deliver some optimism into the future.

  5. nexusxyz says:

    That initiative will go no where like all the other ‘innovation plans’ that can be traced back through multiple administrations.

    Current and conventional thinking around business and economics needs to be dumped along with the way government ‘planning’ is undertaken. Innovation is the wrong focus. The focus should be on acquiring, manipulating and managing technology to create a ‘competitive advantage’.

    There can be no financial success without first having a ‘competitive advantage’ created through technology and acquisition. The alternative approach would also enact symbiotic collaboration of all public and private entities across Australia. There is an alternative approach but vested interests will continue to take us down the current destructive path.

  6. David Brown says:

    thank you for your article

    we Australians desperately need the encouragement that your description of media describes

    seems to me the article is an indirect comment on the lack of penetration of SE Asia by the Murdoch dominated press compared to poor old Australia

    Murdoch and its snivelling Liberal National governmental lackey’s set the tone for our MSM discourse in Australia and now even in the process of finally destroying our ABC?

    what can we Australians do?

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