Predicting the future has never been a particularly easy thing to do. History is littered with the ignominious pronouncements of experts who spoke too soon on issues ranging from technology to politics and if there is one thing that is certain, it is that change can come from unexpected directions. The speculative fantasists of the early 20th century, for example, envisaged a future in which humans had settled across the solar system, but failed to anticipate the emergence of technologies like the internet that are now taken for granted. Much more recently, almost no one imagined that Donald Trump would be the president of the United States, just as many of the most ardent supporters of the PTI could not believe that Imran Khan would fail to become Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2013.
At one level, science and politics appear to be completely different realms with completely different assumptions and methods governing how predictions can be made about developments in both fields. This is not an incorrect view to take, but it is important to point out that the process of scientific discovery, like all other human endeavours, is one that is governed by the constraints imposed by broader society. An example of this comes from the human exploration of space; the race to get to the Moon was always premised upon the rivalry between the United States and the USSR, and the scientific advances made in the mid-twentieth century were driven at least in part by concerted efforts by both states to achieve technological superiority. Once that political imperative disappeared with the end of the Cold War, investments in space exploration and attendant areas of research dried up. What can or cannot be achieved by science has always been determined by what society is or is not willing to invest resources in.
Similarly, it is self-evident that scientific progress has an effect on society as well, and that science and politics are embedded in one another. If society plays a huge role in determining the trajectory of scientific advancement, progress also reshapes society as part of a mutually constitutive whole. The industrial revolution, for example, was premised on the emergence of new technologies that boosted efficiency and productivity. The development of these machines was linked to the quest for more profit and economic accumulation, and cannot therefore be understood independently of the social context in which they were created. At the same time, however, it is certainly the case that once these machines were put to use, they triggered massive social change, fundamentally reshaping the structure of the economy and society within a span of decades. Industrialisation generated new forms of labour, employment, and economic production. It unleashed a wave of urbanisation that transformed social relations, from the structure of family life to the nature of everyday interactions between the relatively atomised individuals who now lived in the world’s emerging cities. Perhaps most importantly of all, the social dislocations triggered by mass unemployment (in response to automation), mass migrations (From the countryside to the cities), and mass exploitation (in the factories of the new industrial economy) generated the antagonisms that still shape politics around the world.
When discussing Pakistan’s future, contemporary observers are quick to point to present-day developments like CPEC as indicators of the direction the country is likely to take. These relatively macro-level discussions revolve around aggregate demographic and economic indicators to make necessarily speculative predictions about the future; what tends to be missing from these debates is an understanding of how technological change will affect Pakistan, how lessons can be learnt from history about how to deal with these challenges, and how it is decisions taken that day that will shape the course of future events.
There are a number of issues that must be addressed if Pakistan’s future prosperity is to be guaranteed. One such issue is the question of automation and how it is likely to alter the economic and social structure of this country. If predictions about what is being called the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ should prove to be correct it is likely, based on current trends, that much of the world’ workforce will be forced out of employment as automation and artificial intelligence are exploited in the name of efficiency and productivity. Some estimates suggest that by the middle of the Twenty-First century, up to half the jobs currently being done by humans will be done by machines.
In the past, radical transformations of this kind have been accompanied by the emergence of new kinds of work and new avenues of economic opportunity that eventually provide a means through which to absorb all this labour. This may not be the case this time, however, possibly because the nature and scale of artificial intelligence and contemporary automation may obviate the need for human labour altogether. In such a scenario, what is to be done about the tens of millions of people who will be out of work and will require mechanisms through which to sustain themselves and their families?
Around the world, governments and thinkers are slowly starting to grapple with this question. In some countries, Basic Income schemes, in which all citizens are guaranteed a monthly payment regardless of their employment status, as being piloted as a possible method through which to support the millions who will be out of jobs in the future. Others are realising that the humans who will succeed in the near future will be those who possess the right skills, particularly in terms of critical thinking and creativity, which will allow them to perform tasks that machines, even relatively intelligent ones, may not be able to do well.
Whatever the solutions may be, it is clear that the economic and social challenges of the future can only be met through the robust implementation of policies designed to mitigate, or even take advantage of, the effects of emerging technologies. In a country like Pakistan, where the debates of the early twentieth century have yet to be resolved, in areas like the provision of welfare, the exercise of democratic accountability, and the protection of labour rights, there is considerable reason to be sceptical of the country’s eventual ability to cope with the demands of the new global political economy. It would be ironic, if not unexpected, that by the time Pakistan gears up to be a relatively successful middle-income economy in the next few decades it will find that it was preparing for life in the wrong century.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.