Managing our New Digital Technology Robots Is Our Biggest Challenge

Technology is improving our lives. But society’s response to the wealth created by corporate access to the Internet’s free ‘big data’ is our greatest challenge.

Technology is essential to my wellbeing. An implanted ICD regulating my heart sends data to a wireless computer by my bedside, which forwards it to Boston Scientific in Massachusetts, permitting my local physician to analyze the data. He sent me a letter saying he’s pleased with the results and will see me in four months. I see fewer of his assistants and am pleased to sleep with his machine assistant emitting a green light indicating everything is fine.

Everything is not fine according to a software pioneer in digital technology, Jaron Lanier, profiled in the January Smithsonian. He’s also a musician who helped create free digital data for music. Lanier sees giants like Google and Apple making big money from big data, but his middle class friends in music publishing losing their jobs. It changed his focus from software design to the world of finance.

“I realized it was a hopeless, stupid design of society. Whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage and concentrate wealth and power. Meanwhile it’s shrinking the economy. I think it’s the mistake of our age.”

Robotic technology is adding pressure on workers. Andrew McAfee, at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, said digital technology’s power to replace human work has increased (TED video, September, 2012). Google’s driverless car is licensed to drive the streets of California, ultimately threatening 3.5 million truck drivers nationwide. DARPA, the US defense department’s research agency, is investing in more robots to save lives in warfare.

The controversy over drones signals the problems with managing robotic technology. 

“We are going to transition into an economy that is very productive but just doesn’t need a lot of human workers and managing that transition is the greatest challenge society faces,” said McAfee.

McAfee’s blog shows the US economy has grown 20 percent for ten years, but the number of workers and hours worked has barely changed. His analysis is blunt.

“It means that employment changes [are] due to machine labor becoming at least as capable as, and cheaper than, humans,” he wrote.

Paul Krugman, Nobel winner in economics, says the decade’s slow job growth is not about a lack of skills or college education, it’s a strong shift in favor of capital over labor for mind power. He’s been surprised by the speedy development of the driverless automobile and voice recognition for automated operators.

“On the hundred year horizon maybe we can be sure that everybody will benefit… but maybe not,” he said on Business recently. “Because part of what’s happening here is that we are seeing machines doing things that we thought had to be done by human intelligence.”

With joblessness looming, social institutions need to respond. Institutions to manage major job displacements have included education, jobless benefits, tax credits, unions, and similar programs. Agencies offering healthcare, law enforcement and mental health must respond to the sociological and psychological problems from joblessness. Those educational institutions, social agencies and governments are deep in debt and short of revenue.

Meanwhile organizations investing capital are enjoying wealth from replacing human wages. The DOW has passed 14,000, corporate profits are at record levels and cash hoards are huge.

We have to revive old institutions and create new agencies to manage our marvelous technology,

“Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences, ” said Freeman Dyson, the renowned physicist and philosopher.

Resolving the job losses and increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth is a daunting challenge. We must begin by recognizing the problem first. Then we can be soothed by Dyson’s advice.

“It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they are not to be approached without some humor and some bewilderment,” he said.

We humans will need to do the hard work. Fortunately work is good news according to Voltaire.

“Work banishes those three great evils: boredom, vice and need,” he said. 

About Russellsclearskies

Writing to poke fun at a retired klutz like me who's curiously exploring the absurdities and complexities of the good life. .
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