Since the advent of broadband and the increased accessibility of digital technologies digital has become synonymous with the humdrum of daily life. People don’t research things in books, they google. Couples don’t rent a film from the video store, they ‘Netflix and chill’, whilst ordering pizza on their mobiles. The landscape of everyday activities is changing, and the outlook is decidedly digital. One could go on for hours about how pervasive digital has become, but that’s not what this article is about. This article is about two of the biggest downsides of digital: automation and misplaced-responsibility.

Automation & artificial intelligence

Automation and digitisation by their nature equate to job loss. Unskilled labourers in manufacturing and related industries have long felt the effects of automation. Machines don’t work set hours, machines don’t need to be paid, and machines don’t complain. But this problem is no longer only the concern of factory workers. As artificial intelligence (AI) increases, clerical services, and even fast food services are taking steps towards digitisation, removing the “human element” in the service industry. The San Francisco based restaurant, Eatsa, is totally app-based. Food is ordered and paid for from an iPad at each table. The only employees are two technical support staff, who greet customers and assist with the ordering, and a small kitchen staff, to prepare the food. 

But, with digitisation comes massive ethical implications. Where a company can replace 20 staff with a computer and 1 technician, should they? Should this 1 technician start to earn what the other 20 earned combined? The answer to the latter is, of course not, but even if she was given the equivalent salary of 3 of the previous employees, there’d still be a saving on 17 employees’ salaries. So, in terms of capitalism, digitisation seems like the obvious answer. Unfortunately, this means that there are now 19 people without jobs and no requirement for the skills they built at that company. And whilst machines do not take breaks, and do not complain, they also do not innovate.

The development of AI has created even more ethical concerns. Ex Machina (the 2015 Alex Garland movie) explored the ideas around AI, consciousness and the Turing test. Do conscious robots deserve the same rights as humans? Will AI developed by white middle-class western men reflect the diversity of human consciousness? It depends who you ask and what they are developing, but as new technologies, and eventually AI, weave themselves deeper into our lives numerous ethically ambiguous situations will present themselves.

Security

Our personal information and the data of companies who migrate to the cloud are in even more immediate danger. No sector is immune. Governments have been breached, universities have been hacked, the Heartbleed bug even affected big hitters like Google, high-profile extramarital dating site, Ashley Madison, was breached, and most recently Britain’s TalkTalk was the victim of a cyber-attack. With the increase in digitisation, the necessity to increase digital security has grown as well, causing a massive rise in demand for Chief Information Security Officers.

But organisations aren’t being put off. The Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, recently announced that Australia and New Zealand would each trial a “cloud passport” system. The biometric information of travellers would be stored in a central database, with biometric security tools to verify travellers crossing the border. The security concerns of this project would be massive, since this amount of personal information would be an irresistible target to cyber-attackers. 

For consumers, despite growing concerns over the safety of their data, they continue to hand over their data in return for the latest app, video or access to the latest social network. Terms and conditions are ticked without reading, credit card details given out, access to your phone’s GPS granted, home address given away. But when data is lost, leaked or stolen, where does the blame lie? Should consumer be more aware of the dangers associated with their reckless broadcasting of data? And if so, whose responsibility is it to educate them? Should companies be publishing details of every attempted attack on their systems, alongside the value of their investment in security and data protection? 

Businesses face the same concerns, and should not take lightly the security issues faced by new technologies and large cloud based services. 

Looking forward

Digitisation will continue to increase and become even more invasive because it makes economic sense, because it streamlines bureaucracy, and because there is a demand for it. Consumers and businesses want everything to be quicker, cheaper, and cooler. Convenience is in demand. 

But we must seriously examine the effects of digitisation. The speed at which ‘digital’ has invaded our personal and professional lives’ has left little time for consumers and businesses to understand the positive and negatives effects of digitisation. 

Business, organisations and governments must remember that automation and data generation are not ends in and of themselves, but a means through which to improve their organisations. Nor should they forget that, as IT and cloud services become more sophisticated, so does the technology designed to attack and disable these systems.

There are many more downsides than this article has had the scope to explore, but there are also massive advantages. The trick, as with all things in life, is to perfect the balancing act.

Danielle Németh

Danielle is a member of the research team at Odgers Berndtson. We have the largest team of expert researchers in the UK based in our offices across England, Scotland and Wales. The majority specia...

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