About Russell Chapman

Russell Chapman is a freelance photographer and writer. From the UK, he is now based in Switzerland. Photography has always been his greatest passion. Using photography he tries to communicate strong messages and emotions in a way that will have a lasting impact on those who observe his work. He is recognized for his work in Syria, having been invited to present at international conferences such as Refugee Voices at the Refugee Studies Centre at St Annes College, Oxford University and Franklin University, Switzerland. He has also published the book Syria: Refugees and Rebels which photo documents the human story of the conflict in Syria as well as the refugee camps of Lebanon and Jordan.

Privacy and the Internet

It is getting more and more difficult to have a private conversation online these days. I’m not talking about the need for privacy so something criminal can be planned, but the simple act of being able to talk confidentially with someone and have a reasonable expectation that nobody else can listen in on your conversation or read your emails. As time goes by, the ability to have secure and private access to the internet becomes more difficult, governments and companies such as Google and Facebook want access to our communications, that information is then sold to other companies. The fact is, you should never post something online that you are not happy for the whole world to see, just because you believe it to be private, just for the person you want to see it, does not make it so.

privacySo what can be done to improve the security of your communications? For a start you need to communicate using ‘end to end encryption’ What is that, you ask? It means your communication is encrypted on your computer or phone before being sent to whoever you want to see it. The computer or phone of the receiver then decrypts the message. Nobody in the middle, not your ISP (internet service provider) or anyone else, has access to your communication. Even the service you use to send the encrypted message can not read your messages, even if they try to look, all they will see is a scrambled and meaningless string of numbers and letters. The next important point is that any service you use for secure communication must use ‘open source’ software. Open source means the original software code is freely available for anyone to see and modify. It also means that if a bug is found in the software, it can be quickly fixed and updates made. It is not possible to hide a deliberate mistake in the software that can give access to your messages, for instance, to hackers, ISP or government. For this reason I would not use WhatsApp, it uses end to end encryption but it is ‘closed source’ not open source, the original code can not be seen or corrected, except by WhatsApp and it is owned by Facebook, a company that lives on collecting data about its users.

There are some simple steps you can take to improve the privacy of your email and chats. The first is to sign up for a ProtonMail email account, it is based on open source software and uses full end to end encryption, you can access it through your web browser and on your phone through an App. For chat there are two options I like, one is free the other is not. The first is Signal, it is a free App for your phone, again it is open source and offers end to end encryption. The second option is Threema, also an App for your phone, it isn’t free but it has some features I personally like. While ProtonMail doesn’t need the person you are emailing to also have an account both Signal and Threema do require the person you are communicating with to be using the same software. It is how their systems work.

Those are simple steps you can take to improve the privacy of your communications and for 99% of the time are more than adequate. If you are interested or curious to try something new and don’t mind following a few simple steps, there is an extra layer of security you can add to your communications. Most people will use ProtonMail on their PC or phone, Signal and Threema are for phone use too. But the system to run the PC will probably be Microsoft Windows operating system or the Apple operating system. Signal and Threema run on Android, IOS operating systems etc. The issue is that those operating systems are controlled by the companies that created them, Android is owned by Google and open source, Google updates it but how often does the maker of your Android phone send you those security updates? Both MS Windows and Apple IOS are actively targeted by hackers and they regularly find security weaknesses to exploit and get access to the computers running them. We are trusting Microsoft, Apple and Google to fix those weaknesses as quickly as possible and not to deliberately leave secret access points into the operating system so governments can have a browse through your computer or phone whenever they wish. Most people don’t want to stop using MS Windows or Apple IOS for their regular computer needs, I understand that. But let’s imagine you are working on a highly confidential project that needs to really be as secure as possible, or maybe someone in China who needs full and open access to the internet and communication which really as secure as possible. This is where a ‘Live Operating System’ comes in very useful. A Live OS is a complete bootable computer installation including operating system which runs in a computer’s memory, rather than loading from a hard disk drive; the USB itself is read-only. It allows users to run an operating system for any purpose without installing it or making any changes to the computer’s configuration. Live operating systems can run on a computer without secondary storage, such as a hard disk drive. Today, most people run a Live OS from a USB memory stick, CD or DVD. There is a Live OS that is built from the ground up with security in mind, it is called Tails is open source, concentrates on encryption and making you anonymous on the internet. Using Tails will not change or effect your Windows or IOS installation, You plug the memory stick into your USB and the computer starts from that and when you shut down the PC and remove the USB stick, the next time you start your PC, it starts as normal. What are the advantages of using Tails OS? All work you do, documents created and conversations are kept secure and encrypted, you can create documents that you can save to a memory stick and only you will be able to read them. Tails OS connects you to the internet through the Tor network and keeps you anonymous. If you don’t mind getting a bit technical, it is worth taking the time to read and understand how Tor works and the different ways you can use it. Countries such as China try to block Tor but there are built in ways to get around the block.

In this time of threat to privacy and loss of confidentiality, steps need to be taken by those who want to protect their communications from mass surveillance. You can take some simple steps such as use ProtonMail, Signal or Threema and if you need an extra layer of of security and don’t mind getting a bit technical then use Tails OS with its built in connection to the Tor network.

Global Politics in 2017

Welcome to 2017. If you thought 2016 was an interesting year just wait for what will unfold this year. We can look forward to fresh developments in the MIddle East, Russia, China, USA and Europe. Global politics is changing and under the surface so are economic developments. I’m sure some things will be quite a surprise. Saying that, I’m going to attempt to present what can happen based on current situations.

Syria: While Assad has broken the back of the opposition, with the determined backing of Russia and Iran, resistance is bound to continue in different areas of the country. It is safe to say that Assad has held onto power, for now. The fact that he was prepared to see the destruction of his country and displacement of millions of the population are of no consequence to him. He has sworn to take control of all Syrian territory, including Daesh and Kurdish held areas. This operation could continue for some time yet and may never come to a total conclusion. Winning the war is one thing, winning the peace and rebuilding the country is quite another. The only way to control ex rebel held areas is through an iron fist of military rule. As part of this, Russia has sent hundreds of military police to Aleppo. Then there is the economic situation, the country is in ruins, large parts of the infrastructure destroyed, roads, bridges, water and electricity supplies are out of action. It is going to cost billions to rebuild. Syria does not have the money to rebuild, Russia can’t afford to help rebuild the country and neither can Iran, their economies are not strong enough. Many wealthy Syrian business people moved to Gulf states such as Dubai, also Canada and the USA, it has been suggested to me that they will move back to Syria when things calm down and re-open their factories. Whether this happens by choice or through the threat of having their factories taken over by the government remains to be seen. Assuming factories can be brought back on line, the surrounding infrastructure they need, such as water and electricity is less than reliable. I can also see a strong possibility that a lot of forced labour will be used, mainly of the remaining Sunni population, to begin the enormous task of cleaning up the country. Assad now has a mandate from the global community to mistreat his people as he sees fit and you can be sure he will not disappoint. For the future, Syria will remain a broken country, violence will continue and oppression will increase. Assad himself could not have held onto Syria without the help of Russia and Iran, as a result he will be obliged to do as he is told when it suits his saviours. The only way therefore for Syria to rebuild is if Arab states take out their cheque books and that is not going to happen as long as Assad is in power. There will have to be a transition to a Syrian leader more acceptable to the Arab states before they consider handing over any money. Who the new leader will be is not clear yet but it will be someone from inside the existing power structure of Syria and most probably a Sunni, not an Alawhite, not from the first tier of government but most likely from the second tier of power. If relative calm can be brought back to Syria there would be massive investment potential. Before the war, Syria had the most diverse economy of any Arab state and it has natural resources for producing phosphates and cement, as well as agriculture and textiles. To bring its economy back can only happen if the country is rebuilt and that is not going to happen as long as Assad is in power, financial interests will see to that. How any power transition plays out will be watched very carefully by Iran, they do not want to lose their influence in Syria as part of the Shia crescent they have constructed which stretches all the way to the Mediterranean sea. Russia in its new role as power broker in the region will be looking to maintain its influence in Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran as it negotiates a new power structure in Syria. Failing this, Syria will never be rebuilt. Where this will leave the Kurds in their semi-autonomous region of Syria remains to be seen, particularly as the USA has been stepping away from the region for some time now. Its only real remaining interest in the region being Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey: Turkey has had a terrible year with many bombings and shootings. Since the failed coup attempt last summer President Erdogan has clamped down hard. Not just clearing out the military and police but also lawyers, judges and teachers. The so called ‘parallel structure’ full of Gulanist supporters as he asserts. He has gone well beyond those who had anything to do with the coup attempt. As a result, the fractures in Turkey between those who support Erdogan and those who don’t have become a chasm. Erdogan has to now keep the pressure at a high level to stop any dissent. Personally I see the potential for civil war in Turkey and I am going to stick my neck out and say the foundations for civil war are being laid now. Also of note is the fact that it was Russia, Turkey and Iran that laid the framework for a ceasefire in Syria. The USA was nowhere to be seen and not invited. This is a clear demonstration that Turkey is no longer looking west as it had done in the past. At the same time, don’t imagine that all is rosy between Turkey and Russia, their’s is a business relationship only and there are still areas of conflicting interest between them. Erdogan will not tolerate any Kurdish semi-autonomous state inside Syria and it will act unilaterally if Assad and Russia don’t end it. But I want to keep the focus on Turkey’s internal stability, or lack of it. The number of attacks by Kurds and Daesh increase, Erdogan’s policies are alienating a large part of the population who were used to having power and influence in the country. I believe the fuse has been lit in Turkey.

Russia: Flush with a sense of victory, Russia is back on the world stage and projecting its geo-political influence and military strength. With the USA stepping away from involvement in the Middle East, Russia has stepped forward to fill the vacuum. From the outside, Russia looks strong but the projection of power masks internal weakness. Its economy is in bad shape, the middle class is shrinking rapidly and the price of oil and gas is nowhere near high enough to help the Russian economy recover, its economy is now about the size of Italy’s according to World Bank data. Despite military success in Syria, war is very expensive and has been sucking up money from other parts of the economy. There is also the question of what Russia will do next. Emboldened by victory, inaction of the West and a soon to be new President of the USA, will Russia be tempted to strike out elsewhere? Russia can’t afford two wars and now that its operation in Syria is being scaled back, maybe soon will be the time when it increases activity in Ukraine. Just because Ukraine is not in the news much these days does not mean the situation in the east of the country is quiet, there are daily shootings and bombings, but not on a level high enough to get on the news. Will Russia now look to expand operations again in Ukraine and capture more territory? It is a possibility and it can do so in the knowledge that nobody can stop it. The big question is if Russia will try and capture territory from Estonia and Latvia, which have a significant Russian speaking population, the same as in eastern Ukraine. Will Russia gamble on NATO/OTAN backing down in the face of an invasion of those two Baltic countries? With incoming President Donald Trump showing a lack of enthusiasm for Nato, as well as seeming to be more isolationist, could Russia get away with it? Certainly European members of NATO would not be able to stop Russia in its tracks and Turkey would refuse to get involved in any way, despite also being a member of NATO. I think Russia will wait a while to see what Donald Trump actually does as President, and if he shows no interest in the region, Russia will take it as signal and go ahead. Maybe not in direct invasion but will use tactics similar to those used in Ukraine.

Regarding the internal situation in Russia, it should be pointed out the increasing power of the Orthodox church. Working with the Kremlin, its role seems to be that of getting the message to the people, telling them to endure economic hardship as a part of their faith and that Vladimir Putin is something like a living saint, sent to save the country from the rest of the corrupt world. In so doing, the Orthodox church is coordinating a campaign against all who do not uphold ‘traditional values’, including those who do. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were persecuted and sent to gulags during Soviet times for their political neutrality and talking about their faith, are once again under attack, labelled as an ‘extremist’ organization and their website is now banned in Russia, the only other place it is banned is in North Korea. The Orthodox church is the main perpetrator of this attack on basic rights of freedom of worship. It wants to control the message and the message is that Putin is some sort of saviour on a religious level. In the meantime, the Orthodox church is increasing its wealth while the people suffer increasing financial hardship. The country is returning to how it was during the time of the czars, A small rich elite, almost no middle class and the uneducated peasants who are constantly being fed news of how great their country has once again become.

What should be understood about Russia, is that it always tries to put the blame for difficulties on external situations but in the end it always tears itself apart from the inside. The Orthodox church with its growing power and influence over the masses, could, when the time comes, be the factor to cause upheaval in the country, give it time as it consolidates its power and influence in the ruling structure and education system of Russia. Very similar in a way to the ‘parallel structure’ that was developed in Turkey and led to the coup attempt last year.

USA: With a new incoming President it is not easy to say what is going to happen but 2016 was a difficult year for the country. The divisions in its society are increasing, Black Lives Matter is a case in point. Many people are struggling to earn enough, pay for medical insurance, get a decent education. It is against this backdrop that many decided to vote for Donald Trump, if only just to try something new, as the existing political establishment tends to look down its nose at the working poor. Will Trump help them? Time will tell and I wont try to second guess what will happen regarding this. What I do think will be different is foreign policy. Trump is a business man, making money is what drives him and he has a reputation for being quite ruthless. However, his skills wont necessarily translate into effective diplomatic negotiation. An example would be his comments on the ‘One China’ policy, by which Taiwan is recognized as a part of China, even though it has a democratically elected government. Trump suggested this policy should be renegotiated, with China making economic concessions in return for continued acceptance of this policy. For China the ‘One China’ policy is a red line and will never be acceptable for use in any economic negotiations, China will react and react strongly if Trump decides to go down this road. Being known for the size of his fragile ego, he takes offense very easily and has a tendency to seek revenge. When he realizes that he is being played by Russia, the consequences could be dramatic to say the least. Unless there is an economic argument, I don’t see Trump taking much of an interest in Syria or Yemen or any other humanitarian crisis. When it comes to oil, as with all administrations in the USA, Trump will take keen interest. But I keep coming back to is his total lack of experience in dealing with foreign governments, there are only common interests in global politics, never friendship and Trump is the sort of person who hates getting the less profitable side of the deal and he takes these things very personally. So I think it is safe to say, when it comes to foreign policy, things could become rather volatile. On the other hand he might take a back seat, delegating foreign policy and concentrating on the domestic interests of his business friends in the USA. With regard to the USA economy, I think he will borrow to spend on rebuilding the infrastructure (roads, bridges, power grids etc) of the country, which is in a desperate state of disrepair and if something is not done about it soon will have a direct effect on the economy.

Europe: With Brexit, Europe is losing its second largest economy, some of its biggest banks are in a fragile state and in Italy many of its smaller banks are in very bad health, if one of these small Italian banks were to fail it could start a cascade effect and potentially take the country out of the EU. Austerity has not worked as planned, wages are stagnant and populist political parties are on the rise. There will also be a massive business scandal to come out of Europe, which I’m not at liberty to talk about at the moment but the fall-out will be immense. In the Balkans, tensions simmer between Serbia and Bosnia, that war can happen again, in fact it would take very little for the region to erupt in violence. Terrorism in Europe is a continuing threat and will probably increase. The use of trucks to run down innocents is, sad to say, much more effective than someone with a AK47 and easier to get hold of for use as a weapon. I expect to see more attacks like these. I hate to say this, but I would not be surprised to see high speed trains being derailed as a means of terrorism. It is very easy to do and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.

There you have it. I think we will have an interesting 2017 for many different reasons.

The EU, dead man walking

The EU is dead, it just doesn’t know it yet. Chatting today to a friend who has been involved in the buying and selling of European banks. I asked him today about the situation of Deutsche Bank, he said it will be renamed DLB, (Deutsche Lehman Bank) Letting it fail would create a global financial meltdown. Germany will have to break every rule in the EU rulebook to keep Deutsche afloat. Then Italy will ask for the same treatment from the EU for its banking sector, which is also in crisis. There just won’t be enough money to go around and the result will be a political and financial fracture which will rip the EU apart.

Russia, Syria and the United Nations

In quite extraordinary scenes at the United Nations security council, Britain, France and the USA directly accused Russia of committing war crimes in Syria. The accusations are based on the use of bunker-busting bombs and other heavy weapons in east Aleppo where many civilians are trapped.

Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the UN said “Incendiary munitions, indiscriminate in their reach, are being dropped on to civilian areas so that, yet again, Aleppo is burning. And to cap it all, water supplies, so vital to millions, are now being targeted, depriving water to those most in need. In short, it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.” Then, along with his French and American counterparts, they walked out in protest before the Syrian government representative began speaking.

What all this shows is just how powerless the UN really is. Because each permanent member of the UN security council has a veto and can block any decisions it doesn’t like, the whole thing can be brought to a standstill. It is obvious that Russia and probably China will block any resolution about taking action to bring the blood, death and misery in Syria to an end.

Maybe the UK, France and the USA will invoke the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of November 1950 (resolution 377 (V)). This states ‘the Assembly may also take action if the Security Council fails to act, owing to the negative vote of a permanent member, in a case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The Assembly can consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to Members for collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.’

This resolution hasn’t been used very often but the feeling is that now there is genuine anger, spilling over into direct and less than diplomatic speech by certain security council members at the actions of Russia in Syria. At the end of the day, this resolution can only make recommendations. In 1980, the General Assembly convened in a “Uniting for Peace” session and passed a resolution demanding the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviets merely shrugged. Russia would mostly likely do the same if such a resolution were passed today.

The biggest irony for me regarding Russia’s actions in Syria is that it claims to be a christian country, in fact the link between the Orthodox church in Russia and the Kremlin would take many by surprise. It is directly influencing the making of laws in Russia. Where is the church’s role in this? Giving guidance on morality or where are the politicians who claim to be christian asking themselves, ‘what would Jesus do in my situation?’ You would have to wait a very long time indeed for that to happen.

There we have it, the UN is basically pointless, it can’t live up to its charter, it is unable to stop wars or give all the aid needed to the refugees caused by those wars. The big powers simply ignore the UN when it suits them. The UK, France, USA and China are just as guilty as Russia, it is basically a toothless old dog that needs to be put down. In fact if there were no UN it would make it much easier for countries, acting alone or as a group to take action and intervene. Instead they are all stuck in an organization which is unable or unwilling to do anything. Innocent people continue being slaughtered. Well done UN, you are 71 years old now, maybe it is time you were retired.

Pokemon Go, Watching You!

The Pokemon Go craze is beyond me but I’ve never been into computer games. As the craze kicked off and I learned what the game is about and how it works it got me thinking. Is there something more to this game than meets the eye?

How the game works is cool, no denying it. Get people running around their local towns, chasing down Pokemons which are computer graphic characters layered on top of the real world view of your smart phone camera. But then I started thinking more about how the creators of the game could use it in other ways. When you play the game, a huge amount of information is collected, it has access to your GPS location, camera and microphone. For this reason I began to understand how Pokemon Go could quite simply be the biggest intelligence gathering tool of the digital age. In general Pokemons are scattered around, waiting to be caught in parks and on the street etc. But they can also be inside buildings and other private spaces. Today I was reading in the Independent newspaper, the Israeli army have been banned from playing because of the fear of sensitive information being leaked. The article also tells of a Palestinian player in Gaza who was playing but couldn’t capture a Pokemon because it was inside a Hamas run government building.

This is the point, if you want to collect information about locations and what is happening there, plant a Pokemon and wait for a player to go after it. If there is a player who works in the Hamas run government building and is not aware of security, they could be running around the building capturing all sorts of camera footage for whoever runs the data collection for the creators of the game.

In fact, some companies I know, have banned playing the game on their premises due to the risk of sensitive information being leaked. With data security being such a big issue these days, even if the game is not being used deliberately to gather intelligence the fact remains, your data from the game, camera footage and GPS location plus most of the other permissions on your phone, are being captured stored. This is a goldmine of information for hackers, you can be sure they will try to steal it. So either way, I will not be touching Pokemon Go with a barge-pole

Turkey, where goes the future?

Whether Fethullah Gulen was behind the failed coup attempt or if President Erdogan staged it himself is unimportant. What is important is what is happening now. The general impression appears to be that a large part of the population supports Erdogan, if only because it is better to have a bad politician as leader rather than a military leadership. The Syrians I know who live in Turkey support Erdogan, the last thing they want to see is the country slide into chaos after escaping the bloodshed of Syria.

This does not mean the dangers have receded and the country will not yet face fresh instability in the future. With emergency powers in place, actions are happening which I believe to be part of a longer term strategy.

The main consequence so far is the ongoing purge, not only and understandably of the military but also of judges, civil servants, teachers and heads of universities. Leaving the military purge to one side, the purge of civil institutions reminds me of the purges that happened in the USSR under Lenin and Stalin. It also makes me think about what happened in Iraq after the fall of Sadaam Hussein. His Baath party ran all the institutions of the country, the USA decided to remove everybody connected to the Baath party, the institutions that ran the country were hollowed out and is a major reason for the chaos we see in Iraq today. Erdogan is going down the same road, by removing so many people for ideological reasons he is weakening the institutions that hold the country together. Many people are losing their jobs and on a practical level dealing with the civil service will become much harder. With so many judges having been fired, the legal process is grinding to a halt. Any country without a functioning legal system is on a very slippery slope.

We can all see what is happening but more interesting are the potential reasons why. Obviously Erdogan wants all the power for himself, he is authoritarian. But more interesting is how he is using religion, Islam, as an instrument of power and the part it plays in his long term objective. The Turkish constitution is secular, Erdogan is Islamist, for the last two years he has been increasing the role of religion in politics. His ambition is for Turkey to once again be the spiritual leader of the Sunni muslim world as it was during the time of the Ottoman empire. For now, that role is held by Saudi Arabia and Erdogan wants it back. This is the reason for his purge, he is clearing out secularists from the judicial system, education and the civil service. The replacements will be Islamists. In so doing Turkey will be able to promote itself as more ideologicaly pure than the Saudi kingdom, where outside of the elite class many see only corruption in their leaders. Erdogan is also pushing his anti-USA rhetoric as part of the plan, many Islamists have negative feelings about the USA, with its drone strikes and bombings that often kill innocent people and its ‘corruption’ of the muslim world with its military bases, particularly in Saudi Arabia. As a part of that I can see the real possibility of Turkey refusing to allow the USA to continue using its air bases to launch strikes against Daesh (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. I would go as far as saying that Turkey could well withdraw from NATO, if it isn’t pushed out first, as part of Erdogan’s ideological drive. Turkey is no longer looking west, its gaze is now firmly set on the middle east. Religion is just a tool used to increase power and influence

As part of that strategy it has repaired its relations with Russia and one of the main reasons for this is Syria. If Erdogan can offer Russia something of real value it may well withdraw its support for Bashar al Assad and force him to step down and bring some stability back to Syria. If Erdogan can pull this off he will outmaneuver both the USA and Saudi Arabia and his influence in the middle east would dramaticaly increase. Saudi Arabia is aware of this and is also trying to tempt Russia economically and strategically with influence in the middle east in exchange for withdrawing support from Bashar al Assad. There is now a power race between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, you can be sure there will be a lot of dirty tricks on the road ahead.

Coming back to the situation inside Turkey today, yes a large part of the population are Islamists and support Erdogan but there are also many who are secular and educated, the military has never wanted to see the power of religion increased in Turkey. It is by nature secular. The purges will remove as many secularists as possible but in my opinion I think the seeds for civil war are being sown as we speak and it will be a religious war, for and against.

The rise of the machines. How they will change your life

I’m fascinated by technology, I love it. I was born when the world was still mostly analogue and the few computers that did exist would take up an entire room. Televisions still had electronic valves and the IC (integrated circuit) had not long been in mass production. I think my interest in science started when I was seven years old, I had a big magnet and one day while watching TV alone in the room I had the bright idea of putting the magnet on the TV screen. Imagine this seven year old being blown away as he moved the magnet around on the screen and the picture distorted and followed the magnet, the effect was psychedelic. Then imagine as the fascination turned to horror when I took the magnet off the screen and the picture didn’t go back to normal. I turned the TV off and ran up to my room and started reading a book as if nothing had happened. A while later I heard my mother say, ‘whats happened to the TV!!!’ Then she came up to my room and asked if I had seen anything wrong with it. Like any good seven year old, I denied all knowledge. When the TV engineer came out to fix it, it didn’t take long, he took a look at me and said ‘someone has a magnet’, I was busted. But that experience kickstarted my interest, how could a magnet have such a powerful yet invisible force. In high school I loved physics and I got my first computer in 1982, a Sinclair ZX81 and learnt how to program it. Also, when I first got into photography when I was ten, I was as much interested in the science as the art, how light works and how it can interact to create images.

So this article is based on how I see technology impacting the world of work and its effect on society as well as also looking forward to see what can be in the next five, ten and beyond years. I have been speaking to people who work in automation and robotics, designers and programmers. It is a fascinating world but one that will also raise many challenges for people in the world of work.

A lot of my conversations have been with people who design and build production lines for the automotive industry, one of the most highly automated industries in the world. While robots have been used for many years now, for instance in welding panels together, and conveyors automatically moving everything along, these systems are relatively ‘dumb’ compared to what is being developed and implemented today.

Today, the sensor technology that is used for quality control can work to very tight tolerances and very quickly. Vision systems can optically analyse a part to see if it has been made correctly, measuring systems with touch sensors can operate very accurately and rapidly. Pressure and leak testing systems are now fully automatic. What ties all these different parts together is the PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) as it tells the different robots and sensors what to do and collects, controls and coordinates the data that is sent back. In fact, a major area of development today is in traceability, with all the data being collected, if something does go wrong in production, the data exists to pinpoint the precise reason why, whether it be a design fault, machine fault or human error. This leads us to another point, with all the technology available, the need for human workers in mass production is being reduced and from conversations it is clear that number of human workers in automotive production is going to be cut even further over the next five years.

What is really fascinating is the idea that in future we won’t even need programmers to program the robots and sensors beyond entering the basic parameters of what is needed. With the rapid development of Machine Learning (ML) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) as most call it, the time is coming when machines will be able to program other machines. Earlier this year, Google pitched its AlphaGo computer against the best Go players in the world and won. It is a very complex game that requires a certain level of intuition, Chess is simple in comparison. As ML is refined and developed there will be the possibility to use it to teach other machines what to do. For example, nowadays a production line is built and has different stations for the different robots and quality control systems. A programmer must write the code to tell each station exactly what to do and how, with robots working in close proximity care also has to be taken that there are no collisions between the different stations. The programmer also has to write the code which studies the data sent back from the robots and sensors to check no errors have been made. With ML, there is no reason why, in the not so distant future, it will not be possible to build a production line, and have a Machine Teaching system (MT) do this work. All that will be needed is to tell it the role of each station, the order of component assembly and then let the MT get on with it. Programming is logic, mathematics, perfect work for a system that functions on mathematics and logic, able to analyse vast numbers of possibilities and outcomes in a short time to find the best solution. Each robot and sensor station works on repeated cycles, there is no reason why in the future it won’t be possible, using Machine Teaching to take the role of a human programmer.

Increasing automation is used for two different reasons; quality and cost control. Machines don’t need lunch breaks or holidays, they don’t break down very often and they don’t get tired and make mistakes. The rapid refinement of automation machines means they can take on increasingly delicate jobs, which before demanded the dexterity of human hands. Of course there are still some jobs robots can’t do and I don’t think will be able to do for a very long time, stitching the leather to a Rolls Royce steering wheel is definitely one job that needs a human. But in general, the machines will take over.

But there are many other areas of work where automation using Machine Learning and Machine Teaching will be able to take over, accounting comes to mind as does insurance and certain areas of commercial law. I can even see how purchasing will become automated. In fact, this is already happening in the world of finance with electronic trading systems that buy and sell stocks automatically, they can react to price changes much faster than a human can, the system does have its weaknesses but in general works well. Even financial advice is now being automated using very complex algorithms to study stocks, bonds, commodities and company performance etc. So in the future buyers and sellers of a product will be able to use a system that can automatically negotiate with other buyers and sellers in order to get the best price, in the same way that is happening in the financial world today. Any job that is based on numbers, that doesn’t require genuine creativity will eventually be automated when it becomes cheaper to use a machine than a human. Machine Learning and Machine Teaching will make this happen, the technology is being developed more rapidly than many realise.

Where does this leave us? Eventually, most office jobs will go the way of factory jobs, where only a small number of people will be needed to keep a general eye on things. So what will happen? The effect on society will be dramatic, new jobs that people can do are not being created anywhere near as quickly as the jobs which are being automated, I doubt mass new jobs will ever be created. People need money to live and businesses need customers to consume. There is no point in automating yourself out of business because few people have a job and the money to buy your product or service. Only so many people can work in medicine, design engineering, building construction or infrastructure etc. Automation in conjunction with Machine Learning and Machine Teaching is a road from which there is no turning back, now started it won’t be stopped. So what is a possible solution to the social upheaval that is coming? The idea of a universal basic income is being considered in some countries but for it to work it will need to be more than a basic income if people are to have enough money to spend and not just live hand to mouth. So looking further into the future and being aware of how governments would like to move us toward a cashless society, I want to get a bit creative in a utopian/dystopian kind of way. Could it be that every year, every person is given a sum of money, the governments would use their central banks to ‘print’ the money even though it only exists in electronic form in your bank account. Then at the end of the year that money is deleted, wiped off the balance sheet of the central bank and any which is left over in your bank account before being recreated as the clock ticks over to the new year to start all over again. The downside of this is that the government would know everything you use the money for and could delete the money in your account if it decided it didn’t like you. Cold hard cash would no longer exist so you would be well and truly stuck. In this future, business would decide when you need to buy something, for instance, you have had your home entertainment system for two years, it is now time to upgrade. A new one will be delivered and installed after the money has been automatically deducted from your account. You are being paid to consume and consume you must. Everything must be done to keep business running, that is the point of government which is now just a subsidiary of a corporation. But what about schools and hospitals etc. Education would change, with machines doing most of the work most people wouldn’t need much of an education, the most important thing they would need to be taught is the importance of consumption and would consist of mainly watching advertainment videos as sponsored by Google, the biggest advertising company in the world. At that time all products and services will have to be approved for sale by Google, now the worlds most powerful company and de-facto government of Europe and the Americas. It will be extremely hard to make and sell something if you are not approved for listing on the only approved search engine in the western hemisphere, it happened a few years after the final death of Net Neutrality. In fact, at that time hand made items made on the ‘black market’ will be in demand but very dangerous to own. Once the Internet of Things, ‘IoT’ finally took off and there were so many ‘smart devices’ in people’s homes with cameras and microphones it became very easy to detect if there was a ‘black market’ object in the house, easily checked by image recognition software in seconds against the database of approved items from approved businesses. If you are caught, ‘your’ bank account could be emptied.

As for health, doctors and surgeons will still exist but many diagnosis will be made by machine bristling with sensor and scanning technology, although I’m not sure about the idea of a machine proctologist! None of the administration staff and middle management that absorb so much of a hospital’s budget will be needed, that work has been automated. But healthcare will be administered on a cost/benefit basis, can the patient be made well enough to keep consuming will always be the question.

Forgive me for going a bit sci-fi but everything I have written here about the technology is possible and under development. The technology of automation is accelerating and it is going to change the face of work across all levels of society. The impact can not be escaped. While I went off into rather an imaginative view of the future of business and government it is true that the current system of managing the coming change is seriously inadequate and will need drastic solutions if the advancements in technology today are not to be responsible for the upheaval of society tomorrow.

Time

The faster the weeks, months and years seem to fly by, the more I become convinced of the irrelevance of time. The only moment which truly matters is the present as it is the only moment which ever really exists. The past only exists because we can remember it in the present moment and the future has not yet happened, but when it does it will be in the present. The important thing is how we live now, in this everlasting moment