A swarm of people surrounded a demonstration of the latest Virtual reality game. Wearing a bulky headset and body suit filled with sensors, a middle-aged man kicked and screamed at non-existent enemies.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas and got to see remarkable progress in technologies like self-driving cars, drones and virtual reality. In this Mecca of technology, there was a palpable excitement around the ability of technology to make people’s lives better. Industry experts talked about how a utopian future lay just ahead. Some believed it was inevitable while others held a cautious optimism bemoaning those that just didn’t have the vision or audacity to pursue this future.
In this Utopia, machines would do most of what humans do today; People will occupy themselves with fulfilling activities like raising a family, socializing, sports and arts; Economy will be built on sharing, efficiency and sustainability; Algorithms will enable enlightened cooperation; Innovation and creative destruction will continue unhindered enhancing the life of people and their environment.
But, there are some unanswered questions.
What about unemployment, declining wages and income inequality? What if informal work with minimal benefits creates a life of anxiety?
What if the state does not offer assistance to the displaced but focuses on protecting those that are privileged?
What if those in power and privilege no longer need to care about a workforce and the consumer markets they create?
What if technology creates a state that manipulates, divides and controls people?
Realities of today’s technologically advanced world are: Eight of the richest people in the world have the same wealth as half of the world’s population. Even in developed nation like the US, 1% of the wealthiest control 40% of the wealth. 1 in 7 people in the world live on less than $1 a day and even in developed countries 11% of the population is below poverty.
Why has technology so far not delivered on its promises? What should we do differently?
As a first step, as a society we need to prioritize technology not just by their commercial potential but by their broad societal benefits.
Consider some of the technologies that had a lot of buzz at CES but whose impact on society is not clear
- 5G mobile networks can enable people to stream videos more easily but can it help increase internet penetration in remotes parts of Africa?
- Autonomous vehicles can make the roads safe, but will it reduce congestion or reduce CO2 emissions?
- 3D Printing can help make highly customized products but will it be relevant to people living below the poverty line who don’t have access to basic goods?
On the other hand, there are technologies that can have a positive social impact:-
- “Internet of Things” technologies can lower the cost of the electronic products and democratize their use. It has the potential to increase visibility, transparency and accountability throughout our society.
- “Smart City” programs can make cities more accommodating and sustainable and it is impactful as most of the world’s population live in cities.
Our success as a society will come from differentiating what is cool from what is meaningful.
Also, we need to transform systems, institutions & policies to support technology disruption.
Disruptive technologies require the presence of an expansive social welfare state that ensures people who are dislocated continue to remain productive. It should include a minimal livable wage and affordable quality public housing, education, health care and transportation.
Disruptive changes will have far reaching economic, social, environment and geopolitical costs. We need to ensure that organizations and individuals fully internalize such costs through regulations or taxes. While fostering innovation, we need to ensure its benefits are dispersed widely.
As local communities cannot fully compensate for disruption caused by innovation, we need to enable people to move freely to find gainful employment without worrying about losing social protection.
In short, dramatic technology adoption requires dramatic socio-political change.
Can the Tech industry bring about such change?
It will require companies to think beyond their narrow economic interest and have a greater social conscience.
There is reason for optimism.
Companies like Amazon are focused less on short term profits and more on delivering exceptional long term value to a broad base of customers. Google’s guiding philosophy is to “do no evil” which is reflected in its emphasis on products that have social benefit. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has committed to giving away most of his wealth to charity which shows his commitment to social welfare.
Benefits of technology are immense. It continues to lift many people out of poverty; it has created a new generation of digital natives who are connected and empathetic. Enlightened leadership and greater social activism will ensure we unlock technologies its potential.