The next industrial revolution and Asean

AS we press on to understand more deeply what the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) entails we will be faced with several leadership dilemmas. The so-called "revolution" that many are aspiring to, is not all roses as it is made to be, namely, in creating a better and a more equitable world as envisaged by the Post-2015 Agenda. For Asean, this dilemma can be even more glaring because of the inequitable state of affairs among its 10-member countries in almost all sectors.

Take for example, the provision of basic utilities like clean water, hygienic sanitation and reliable electricity supply. A vast section of the population in the Asean Community are still deprived of these utilities, which ironically are the "basis" for the first and second industrial revolutions extending way back to the late 1700s and 1800s respectively.

Their unavailability is a significant indication that such communities are not primed to take on the next "phase" of the industrial revolution, namely, the information, communication technology (ICT) revolution.

According to TIME, 52% of the world's population still lacks internet access; in the Asia-Pacific its 62%. This means the third industrial revolution is still far beyond the reach of many Asians, let alone Asean.

It would not be surprising if this has to do with the lack of uninterrupted supply of electricity to homes and work premises as the "fruits" of the second industrial revolution, let alone the third. We have not even mentioned about "anyone, anytime, anywhere" communication and exchanges which is what 4IR is all about.

Succinctly, the emergence of 4IR as an ubiquitous cyber-physical model, is at best tentative for the majority of Asean Community. For those who are quick to decide that 4IR is an isolated event rather a continuum of events going back even to the first agricultural revolution will be faced with greater fiasco, predictably.
The sums do not add up, making the fulfilment of the Asean motto of One Vision, One Identity, One Community an even greater challenge.

This is already felt given Asean's overall human rights record, even among its most developed members.

Recent reports from Bangkok on the issue highlighted that civil society demands stronger and more forceful human rights mechanisms "to address the deteriorating human rights situation in the region." Adding: "Asean needs to address major human rights challenges in the region, such as: the migrant and refugee crisis; the impact of businesses on human rights; shrinking democratic space; and the protection of human rights defenders."

Many will still remember how this fared during the Pol Pot regime, and now Myanmar is standing on the brink of something similar.

Some 600,000 people (regardless of who they are, or made out to be) have been forced to flee for survival to neighbouring countries amid allegations as early as 2015 by several Nobel Peace Prize winners calling the situation "nothing less than genocide". Now even the UN and several other agencies are referring to it in similar (if not stronger) terms.

In the context of 4IR, this makes an "ideal" case for "autonomous weapons system (AWS)" to roam around. Placed in the hands of rogue government forces or even non-state actors and vigilantes AWS are deadly arsenal programmable to execute on-going "genocide" in a more clandestine and unsuspecting manner.
Indeed, nations aligned to such activities are allegedly on record to be among the most active in this area of research. This is no longer sci-fiction or child's play.

Link this to the latest update about the AlphaGo (Zero) board game, it is already causing a stir since the new version is able to be entirely self-taught "with no human input" as reported in Nature, an acclaimed science journal.

This is deemed as a major step towards "superhuman"-like activities using a trial-and-error process known as "reinforcement learning".

In other words, the new AlphaGo "is no longer constrained by the limits of human knowledge", claimed the company's, DeepMind, CEO.

It does not need to learn from humans or by playing against them (as previously the case); in contrast, allegedly humans are not even aware of it. Imagine if it is a killer-game for real.

This takes us to the ultimate dilemma which is an ethical one.

At the height of the atrocities in Myanmar, the esteemed Dalai Lama expressed in writing how "dismayed" he was "by the distressing circumstances in which the situation seems to have deteriorated further," addressing Myanmar's de facto leader.

He was also reported saying that "he had no doubt that the Buddha would have helped the Rohingya people".

Simply put, left to their own devices, there is absolutely no guarantee that the issues of ethics and morality could be safeguarded in the world of 4IR; no more than it could during the previous ones that resulted in massive climatic disruptions, or the various scandals as exposed by Wikileaks of how rampant the breach of ethics and morality even among top public officials in some of the most advanced nations.

Renowned consulting companies are no less culpable when it comes to "cooking" the books in the interest of their beholden clientele. "Big data" are manipulated to deliver even bigger lies and manufactured truth. Greased with corruption, we have deadly recipes in our hands.

This is often done under the shroud of secrecy, and one cannot get more opaque when it comes to the realm of the algorithm that even some of those involved admitted that they are unsure of what is going on.

Where are the checks and balances? If it is at all possible, in ensuring issues of ethics, especially with respect to privacy and transparency, and morality are religiously adhered to.

Who monitors the monitors? Can ethics and morality be automated, the way we regularly automate the techno-appliances?

There are much more, but suffice to show that the 4IR could prove to be our nemesis. After all, throughout human history, humans have greedily exploited and enslaved other humans to the hilt. Will 4IR be any different?

The writer will be a panellist at the Asean 2050 Forum on Nov 2 at Putrajaya Marriot Hotel. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com