This era of information and communication technology (ICT) continues to influence our lifestyle both positively and negatively. This chapter seeks to explain some of the issues that result from the use of ICT in the society.
Issues resulting from the use of ICT
The use of ICT offers a different set of opportunities and challenges in our society. Some of the effects of ICT in our society are:
- Effects on employment.
- Effects on automated production.
- Issues of workers’ health.
- Cultural effects.
- Breakthroughs in ICT.
Effects on employment
The introductions of computers in the workplace have resulted in creation of new jobs, replacement of computer illiterate workers and displacement of jobs that were formerly manual.
ICT has introduced new employment opportunities that never existed before. The use of computers in financial institutions, reservation systems, educational institutions, communications etc. has created new job titles such as computer operators, programmers, network administrators, information technology or infof?1ation science managers, database administrators, software developers, system analysts etc.
Since the introduction of ICT in workplaces, some clerical and repetitive tasks that required a large number of employees have been made redundant. Computer illiterate people have been replaced with those who have the desired computer skills. The question in the mind of workers and managers is whether computers will in future take over all the work currently being done manually by human workers.
Unlike in replacement where an employee may lose the job, in displacement an employee is moved to another place or department where computer skills are not required. For example, a clerk may end up being an office messenger if computers are introduced at the workplace and such a person is not willing to acquire new skills of using the computerised system.
However, to avoid losing competent employees, most employers organise in-service training for their employees on regular basis in order to help them keep up with the rapid changes in ICT.
A number of manufacturing industries such as vehicle assembly plants, oil refineries and food processing companies are using computers to automate their processes with an aim of increasing production. Computer controlled robots and assembly lines are a common feature in manufacturing industries.
The advantages of using automated production are:
- Increased efficiency due to the balancing of workload and production capacity.
- Improved customer service. Adequate and high quality goods are produced in time.
- Efficient utilisation of resources such as raw materials, personnel and equipment hence less operating expenses are incurred.
However, automated production has its disadvantages too. These are:
- High initial cost of setting up 1an automated system. For example, the cost of buying one industrial robot is high compared to employing human resource.
- Automated production may lead to unemployment in some areas that are labour intensive. For example, what would have been done by thirty people may be done by one person using a machine.
Issues of workers’ health
The use of information and communication technology (ICT) and computers has some effect on our health. Some of the negative effects of ICT on our health include repetitive strain injuries, eye strain and headaches, electromagnetic emissions and environmental issues.
Repetitive strain injuries (RSI)
These are injuries resulting from wrist, hand, arm and muscle strain, tendonitis and neck strains due to forced repetitive movement e.g. when entering data using the keyboard. The cure for repetitive strain injuries is resting, sitting in a relaxed position and changing typing techniques.
Eye strain and headaches
Since computer users have their eyes at cross range with the monitor, there is danger of developing what is called computer vision syndrome (CYS). The syndrome is characterised by eye strain, headaches, double vision and other problems caused by the improper use of the monitors. The solution to this problem is to use monitors with good resolution and fitted with an antiglare screen that filters excess light. A computer user at all times must adjust the brightness of the screen to the intensity that is comfortable to the eyes.
Electromagnetic field emissions are waves of electrical and magnetic energy that are emitted by current carrying conductors. Computer users are advised to use low emission devices in order to avoid exposing themselves to excess emissions.
Some of the environmental effects of information and communication technology include energy consumption and radiation, pollution, paper consumption and disposal.
Energy consumption and radiation
Initially computers consumed a lot of energy thereby generating a lot of heat and emitting electromagnetic radiations. However in recent years, the Environmental Protection agency (EPA) launched energy star policy to encourage minimal use of power by electronic devices. Electronic devices have to be energy star compliant to be recognised under this policy. You can tell whether your computer complies to EPA if it displays the star during boot up
Information technology has also contributed to environmental pollution. For example, huge garbage dumps of dead computer parts, printers, ink toner cartridges, monitors and other computer accessories are disposed in landfills hence causing environmental pollution. There has been concern on the disposal of Nickel – Cadmium laptop batteries that contain toxic cadmium which when buried in a landfill can leak into underground water tables and catchments areas.
The rapid growth of information technology does not only provide us with different ways of working, playing and thinking but also presents challenges to our moral and cultural values. It is the moral standards that help in guiding human behavior. Information and communication technology has changed the way we talk, affected our privacy, human rights and integrity. For example Internet users are exposed to a form of communication called flaming. Flaming is writing on-line messages that use derogatory, obscene or of dirty language. Also through the Internet, one can view pornographic materials that affect moral values negatively. These free flows of immoral information have negatively influenced the behaviour of both the young and old in the society.
Computer related crimes such as hacking, eavesdropping, piracy are on the increase. This has been accelerated by the free for all Internets. Therefore, a lot has to be done to improve on privacy and security of information.
To some extent, people with eroded integrity have used computers as a tool to accomplish their vices. Take for example where a person would use a computer to forge certificates, passport and other documents. This means that the person is cheating and therefore his/her moral integrity has been compromised.
However, ICT has its advantages too especially where it has been used as a campaign platform against diseases like AIDS and drug abuse.
Breakthroughs in information and communication technology
As explained in the previous chapter, there has been a lot of breakthroughs in the fields of health care, education, communication, research, commerce, art and design, entertainment, transport since the inception of ICT . These breakthroughs have greatly changed our lifestyles such that it is hard to imagine how life would be today if information and communication technology is to be withdrawn.
Evolution of computer systems
The rapid evolution of computers and information technology has a lot of promise. It has always been fashionable for scholars and technologists to look out into the future and to try and predict the events of tomorrow. Future trends in information and communication technology will be characterised by:
- Rapid evolution in computer hardware and software.
- Artificial intelligence.
- Expanded information superhighway.
Rapid evolution in computer hardware and software
Since the introduction of computers in the business world in the 1950s, a lot
of technological improvements have been made both in hardware and software. The silicon revolution has seen rapid increase in microprocessor speeds and capabilities due to advanced research in the semi-conductor industry. Future trends will see reduction in size and cost of components but increase in capability. The capacity of computer memory is becoming larger and larger with reduced physical size and cost. Microprocessors of a thumb’s size can now execute instructions in a trillionth of a second hence leading to emergence of smaller but smart devices.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
Artificial intelligence can be defined as a branch of computer science that is concerned with the development of machines that emulate humanlike qualities such as learning, reasoning, communicating, seeing and hearing. The idea of artificial intelligence developed from a need to develop computer programs that would even challenge human beings in playing games such as chess and scrabble! Computer scientists and engineers are still working hard and carrying out intensive research with the aim of coming up with smarter computers which can almost simulate human thinking and learning, instead of relying on static programmed instructions.
However artificial intelligence is still in its infancy stage and scientists are still working hard to make it a reality in the near future.
There are four main application areas of artificial intelligence namely:
- Expert systems.
- Natural language processing.
- Artificial neural networks.
- Robotics/perception systems.
This is software designed to make a computer operate at the level of a human expert in a specific narrow area of specialisation. Such software simulates the reasoning process of experts in certain well defined areas such as medical diagnosis, financial forecasting etc. An expert system consists of three components namely:
Knowledge base: This is the expert system’s database of knowledge about a particular subject. It contains relevant facts, beliefs, assumptions and procedures for solving a particular problem.
Inference engine: This is the software that controls the search for knowledge in the knowledge base and produces conclusions. It takes the problem posed by the user and seeks to analyse it in order to arrive at a conclusion.
User interface: This is the display screen that enables the user interact with the system.
An example of an expert system is MYCIN developed at Stanford University, USA. MYCIN is used in diagnosis of blood and meningitis infections. Another application area of expert systems is in predicting mineral deposits in a particular geographical area by analysing composition of soil samples.
Natural language processing
Natural languages are ordinary human languages such as Kiswahili, English, French etc. The problem of natural languages is that they are ambiguous and may be interpreted differently by different people. For example the word ‘sack’ has two meanings i.e. “a type of bag” and “the act of dismissing a worker from gainful employment”. Computer languages on the other hand are clearly defined.
Natural language processing is aimed at coming up with programming languages that would make computers recognise and understand natural languages, whether spoken or written. Currently there are voice recognition input devices and voice synthesisers are available but are limited to just a few vocabularies. However, before using them, the computer program must be trained to recognise the voice and the pronunciation of words by the user.
Artificial neural networks
The artificial neural network is the use of electronic devices and software to emulate the neurological structure of the human brain. The idea is to try and emulate the cognitive learning process of the human brain and how it recognises patterns. The human brain works by receiving signals from special sensory cells called neurons. When the neurons receive information, they either excite the cell to send a signal to the brain or not. Artificial neurodes in artificial networks work in similar manner by perceiving environmental stimuli and hence deciding whether to pass it on to the system or not. The essential attributes of artificial neural networks are:
- The neurodes can be trained to distinguish between what constitutes a signal and what does not.
- They are capable of recognising patterns in large amount of data that are too complex for the human brain. From these patterns, they can make predictions and point out anomalies. For example, in banking the pattern of credit card usage can be tracked over time to try and generalise spending patterns of individual card owners. In case of loss or theft, the bank can notice the change of spending pattern and conclude that the card is in the wrong hands, hence take appropriate security measures even before loss of the card is reported.
A robot is a computer controlled device that emulates a human being in carrying out tasks that would otherwise be dangerous and difficult. Although robots are being used in workplaces research is going on in order to come up with robots that will incorporate perception systems.
Perception systems are sensing devices that emulate the five common senses of a human being i.e. sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Such devices would operate under the control of a microprocessor. This development will give robots artificial senses. Such artificial senses include feeling the shape of an object, listening to ultrasound; detecting smell of a leaking gas or chemicals tasting food is quality and seeing using two miniature video cameras
Expanded information superhighway
Expanded information superhighway involves the integration of cabled and wireless technologies for the purpose of data and information transmission. In line with advancement in the other areas of information and communication technology, there is vast increase in throughput of various transmission media like fiber optic and wireless technologies. Scientists have demonstrated a fiber optic cable whose diameter is the size of a single strand of hair which is capable of carrying a trillion bit per second Internet is growing tremendously causing what is generally referred to as a growth of the information superhighway to digital explosion or hurricane.