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When most jobs, both physical and cognitive, are automated, when humans no longer decide for themselves what is right and good, what then, is the meaning of life?

IT seems much intellectual and public discourse in Malaysia today revolves around Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

While many aspects of Industry 4.0 have been debated, allow me to contribute a bit about this issue, by focusing on the possible effects of a new form of inequality in society.

The economic inequality — wealth and income — that is affecting Malaysian society today is a result of the past three Industrial Revolutions which started more than 150 years ago in England.

Now, the fourth wave of the revolution is here with us, hence Industry 4.0.

These new technologies will certainly impact all aspects of our lives.

Imagine being able to live forever. Google has already embarked on this project and is upbeat about its prospects. Google’s Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2029, humans could have a choice to be immortal, thanks to the nanotechnology revolution, where the creation of nano-bots makes it possible to augment our immune system and recognise diseases and deal with them before it is too late.

And mind you, this is not just about living longer, but also having all the health, youth and vitality of life. In other words, it is not just about life extension, but also life expansion.

Imagine the creation of all-powerful algorithms which will take care of all your wants and needs for the rest of your life, as ‘they’ know you much better than you know yourself.

No more dealing with the misery of making wrong decisions in life.

From mundane matters like what movie to watch and what books to read, to important decisions such as what to study, which career to take and whom to marry, these algorithms will help you.

‘They’ can also be your life companion. No more stress from relationship issues, since the algorithms will be programmed to be focused on you, your feelings and nothing else, one hundred per cent.

Imagine the application in the legal, financial and healthcare sectors.

Perhaps corruption can be easily weeded out with AI taking charge of making decisions in the public service sector.

And in the legal profession, imagine brain scans being used to reveal lies and deceptions!

In the financial sector, even today, most financial trading is managed by computer algorithms.

Why need humans when AI can process and analyse financial data in mere seconds?

Why learn about stocks or foreign exchange markets when AI can do that for you faster and with a higher level of accuracy?

And in the healthcare industry, algorithms will become your all-knowing health service, shielding you from critical illnesses, such as cancer, stroke and heart disease.

Remember IBM’s Watson? An AI which can diagnose diseases?

Imagine, the creation of IoT and its application in the education and security sectors.

Digital teachers not only impart knowledge, but in the process also understand you and know your personality better than you do.

They will use a method which suits your personality to optimise teaching and learning.

So, having imagined all these as possible outcomes of Industry 4.0, would life not be great?

On the surface, perhaps yes. But I foresee, if we don’t take the necessary measures today, a major threat could emerge in the form of inequality.

Surely, only a small class of elites would benefit from this new technology, for instance, in terms of ‘upgrading’ humans to immortality.

Then what will happen to the rest of the population?

When most jobs, both physical and cognitive, are automated, when humans no longer decide for themselves what is right and good, what then, is the meaning of life?

Are we ready for this new form of inequality?

The writer is Associate Professor of Economics, School of Economics, Finance and Banking Universiti Utara Malaysia

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