THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa

JOHANNESBURG - Technology is developing fast and in its path leaves many people behind. Launching the results of Census '96 in 1998, Madiba remarked at the time that as an 80-year-old he did not know what the internet was.

Now technological changes are manifold and have risen to even greater heights, with artificial intelligence (AI) through machine learning.

Last week, I was in Tangier, Morocco, for the CyFy conference with the theme "Technology, Innovation and Society".

The panel I contributed to was titled “Being Human in the age of Technology and Artificial Intelligence”.

On my flight from Addis to Doha we had a number of people, young and old, from Somalia under the direction of the International Office of Migration.

And I could not help but think about the advances in technology side by side with the scale of human suffering that the Somali infants on the plane were doomed to in life.

Challenges

When we stepped off the plane in Doha we approached an escalator.

A middle-aged Somalian Muslim woman was hesitant to step on to it and, like an ox not yet ready for the dip, she remained lost at the foot of the escalator.

I wanted to give her a helping hand, but suddenly I realised that religion might come in the way.

I then wondered how, then, do I become human in front of a technological barrier to this lady.

So, ultimately, I decided to help her and on to the elevator we successfully stepped. Instead of enjoying the ride, she decided to march up the emerging escalator steps by herself and I followed.

We were now reaching the zenith of the escalator, when I observed that her foot moved in anticipation of a rising step. However, said step was fast disappearing into the flat portion at the end of the elevator, even as her foot remained hoisted in the air with her other foot fast approaching the end of the escalator.

She was surely bound to trip and fall, which could lead to a body pileup on top of her - and with me possibly being the first to land atop of her.

This potential physical disaster would perhaps transform into a somewhat religiously "blasphemous" experience - to say the least.

Realising the dilemma, I jumped ahead and again lent a hand to get her off the escalator.

Yet even with my help, she tripped and lost balance, although I was able to prevent her from falling.

How much of her religion in touching and holding her hand I violated - while trying my hardest to be human in the era of technology and artificial intelligence - remains unclear to me.

However, the incident suggests that technology impacts and is impacted upon by culture and religion, among others.

That being so raises the complexity of being human.

Barriers

The incident reminded me of an experience I had in Lesotho and how technological advances are not obvious to everyone.

After completing my studies at the University of Ghana in 1981, I went back to Lesotho, where I worked at the Department of Labour in Maseru and commuted daily from Roma.

We rented a flat adjoining Granny Sekoele, who was in her eighties.

One morning her daughter asked for a lift to Maseru as I was leaving for work. I obliged and leaned to the right to open the front door of the car for her.

She got in but I was shocked when her head ended up on my lap. The knees down remained protruding outside the car and she could not constitute her body into her seat.

With her hands on the steering and on my lap she leveraged herself back out of the car. She tried again and the same torture was repeated on me.

After the third attempt with the same result, I opened the rear car door for her to sit on the back seat.

Again, like a snake entering a hole, she fell head-first into the car but with the ample space of the back seat, she was able to use her hands to leverage the rest of her body into the vehicle.

As I drove off, I wondered what were the technological limitations that made it so difficult for her to understand how to enter a car.

The penny finally dropped as I entered a Kombi, or taxi, at work.

Retracing my movement, I realised that actually I go in head first and then take a step.

In contrast, when entering a sedan the order is stretched leg in first followed by the bum and a swing and you are in.

It then dawned on me that the harrowing, and yet entertaining, stunt of granny Sekoele’s daughter was a technological barrier.

She could have been entering into a sedan for the first time, but was using the technique of going into a bus or a Kombi and applying, as it were, inappropriate technology.

Knowledge

Growing up herding cattle, riding rams, billy goats, horses and donkeys is a pastime for rural boys, but it can be an entertaining spectacle when boys from the city attempt to jump on to a horse or donkey.

The mechanical advantage of lifting oneself on to a horse is counter-intuitive and often intrigues city lads.

Either they vault over the horse and land head-first on the other side of it, or they end up facing the tail.

Another pastime entertainment we rural lads enjoyed as regards the ignorance of city lads was their inability to steer donkeys or horses.

These animals instinctively seem to know when they have a dummy riding on them and would go straight for a low-hanging branch of a tree.

In slow motion you would see the poor city creature sliding towards the tail and finally losing balance before falling hard to the ground. The beast of burden would then gallop joyfully away, enjoined by our laughter.

Development

Marx, Engels and Lenin discussed how humans should behave in an era of technology.

They opined that technology removed the dangers and pain and laid the platform for the enjoyment of higher standards of living by society.

They aptly pointed out that such advances as driven by technology were and would be inconsistent with private control of the means of production and the distribution of benefits thereof.

Development is a social product and this process has been exponentiated by the information era that defies scarcity.

The private appropriation of the material assets of society are certainly inconsistent with the era of future abundance which technology makes possible. The inherent contradictions are becoming increasingly obvious and clear as citizens take on the likes of Facebook regarding the issue of whose data it is and in whose service the data and technology are.

Risk

More than ever before, technological developments, innovation and the era of AI seem to be posing serious moral, ethical and material questions to capitalist accumulation, socialisation of risk-scares and privatisation of proceeds from these scares.

Technology and AI potentially illustrate that risk can be societal and not private, thus limiting the scope of capitalist speculation and debunking justification for capitalist accumulation.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT