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

Aug 4, 2017

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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