Op-Ed: Ancient history offers balm for telco automation anxieties

  • The ancients used automation to invoke a sense of wonder 

  • 21st Century automation could leave humans wondering where their jobs went 

  • Without a humanist credo, the world is heading for an automation-incepted Dark Ages 

To what extent should telcos enable automation in their networks? It’s the question du jour in the communications industry – made yet more pressing as vendors look to combine automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver closed-loop (a.k.a. autonomous) networks, which do away with human oversight of communications altogether.   

This has put the wind up the folks who design and manage networks, particularly in the telco world, where a slow-and-steady creed still rules the day. There are two main worries: can computers really be trusted to run the show and, if so, will the folk who sign off on the move end up out of work.

Ancient history provides an alternative philosophy of automation that today’s comms industry could do well to learn from.  

The word automation derives from the ancient Latin word 'automatum,' describing mechanical devices programmed to carry out a specific action or actions on their own. As with contemporary robots, they imitated the behaviors and outward appearances of people.  

The idea of such automata pre-dates even the Roman Empire. Homer’s Iliad, composed in the 8th century B.C., describes Hephaestus being attended by golden maidens of his own creation, which assisted the god in walking and had "understanding in their hearts and in them speech and strength," which could be interpreted as a divine artificial intelligence.  

By the 3rd century B.C., the mathematician Ptolemy had established the Mouseion in Alexandra, which acted as an R&D facility for physicists, mechanics and other nerds to build an astounding variety of automated devices, including the Clepsydra, a water clock that would stand as the most accurate timepiece for over a thousand years; the Hydraulis, an early pipe organ; and the statue of Nysa, which would rise on its own, pour its own milk into a golden cup, and then return to a sitting position.  

What the automata from Rome, Greece and Alexandria all had in common was that they were created primarily for enjoyment, or as things of beauty.  

Not all heroes wear capes 

The purpose of automation “…is to instill a sense of wonder,” Hero of Alexandria wrote in his treatise, ‘Automata.’ 

Hero was to ancient automation what Oppenheimer is to the nuclear bomb. In the 1st century A.D., he designed dozens of automated machines powered by air, steam or water pressure. His writings make clear that automata were not intended to replace human labor, but rather to delight the observer.  

After taking a break from automation, the world is now embracing this technology again, but for a very different reason. 

In the communications industry, the popularity of automation (and AI) comes down to their ability to save and/or make money. 

The companies deploying these technologies put out a lot of marketing hooey about how they only eliminate boring jobs that people don’t want to do, anyway (which is not actually true). And while there are many laudable benefits to their use – such as increasing network performance and strengthening security – these outcomes also serve to obscure the ugly truth that the end point of the automation story always has the same destination: people with no jobs.   

“What one man can do, another man can do,” wrote Dr. Robert Glover in his book ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy.’

Updated, the maxim is longer, but hits harder: “What one man can do, AI and automation can do faster and cheaper.”  

But better?

Automation, robots, AI

Not necessarily. Starting in the 1990’s, the U.K. was a first mover in using automation to increase profitability of its buses and trains by eliminating train guards, ticket clerks, station managers, and bus conductors with a mishmash of technology workarounds. The end result has been a public transport system that is quantifiably less reliable, less safe, and more expensive than the one the U.K. had in the last century.

Telcos should consider these precedents from other industries and not assume that the endpoint of automation will automatically be a glorious success.  

The book of jobless 

Beyond automation’s spotty track record, the biggest potential problem it creates is a huge tear in the fabric of society. No-one knows what will happen when, say, 60% of the jobs that people do today disappear. For people working in the telecom industry now, this is all very worrying. For their children, it represents an existential threat.  

For 10,000 years, since the Neolithic Revolution, humankind has had the concept of working for a living ingrained into it. Take away the work, you take away the pay. Take away the pay, you take away the ability to buy stuff.

What happens then? What do people they do with their time? Without money, how will Americans measure their superiority versus all the other humans? Nobody knows. But it probably won’t be good, and that raises the “big question” of whether getting rid of all the jobs using AI and automation is really such a hip idea, daddio.     

In the U.S., there is nothing and no one standing between the humans and an AI-enabled automation dystopia. Don’t look to the government to help. Congress is faffing around with AI and automation legislation, but America’s extraordinary system of legalized political bribery – a.k.a. lobbying – means that in the long-term big business will simply purchase the automation outcome that suits it from our democratically elected representatives. (Based on the recent history of this country, it’s also highly unlikely that most US politicians have the IQ to comprehend the long-term ramifications of automation, or the emotional quotient to care).  

Knowledge of ancient automata disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Dark Ages (it made a comeback in the Renaissance). Unless the human race can get a grip on AI-enabled automation it’s likely to enter a new Dark Age – one defined by automation run amok.  

What we need now is a new Age of (Automation) Enlightenment. The pioneers of automation offered a humanist alternative, where it serves the people, rather than expurgating them. When they speak to us across the millennia, as Hero does, we would do well to listen.

Read more op-eds by Steve Saunders here.