A conference entitled ‘The future of technology: Will everybody benefit?’ was organized on the fourth day of the Web Summit 2017, during which guests were invited to discuss their arguments for and against the thesis that technology development is beneficial to the entire human population. Among those taking part were:
Pat Gelsinger – CEO, VMware, presenting the arguments for.
Ross Mason – Founder, MuleSoft, presenting the arguments in rebuttal.
Jeremy Wilks – Presenter, Euronews, moderator of the debate.
Pat Gelsinger started off with the fairly obvious statement that technological progress cannot be held back, so we just have to learn to live with it. The world is still developing, and at this point in time four major trends can be identified:
- Internet of Things (IoT),
- mobile technologies,
- Artificial Intelligence (AI),
- cloud solutions.
Leaving aside the fact that progress in these areas cannot be stopped, it turns out that we are no longer able to live without it – yet these are relatively new solutions, and we can all remember the world without them. But technology makes life so much easier for us that we have become addicted to it. Sometimes it’s good, as in the case of healthtech, where technology helps to treat patients more effectively, and we can detect and prevent disease faster thanks to more accurate diagnostic techniques.
The same is true in other areas such as smart houses or smart cars – these technologies greatly enhance the comfort level of our everyday lives. With these solutions we can not only live more comfortably, but also safer. We control what happens at home when we are not around, as the sensor system will let us know if someone is trying to break in, a window is open or the washing machine has been left on. Meanwhile, a smart car will take us from Point A to Point B, and then park automatically, reducing the risk of a collision or a dangerous accident.
The CEO of VMware also referred to specific numbers that undermine the oft-repeated belief that technology and automation take jobs off humans. According to him, paradoxically, technology has in fact created more jobs than it has eliminated. In addition, the jobs that have been rendered obsolete are the most dangerous, the hardest and even the most pointless ones (like street lamp lighters, or ice suppliers, which used to be very common occupations), creating space for more creative professions. People are the source of technology and innovation. Technology cannot reproduce or improve completely by itself – someone needs to create, supervise or repair it. New areas of the economy are also developing, because technology creates demand for completely new services, and allows us, and our products or services, to reach places we would not have been able to get to in the past.
The technology of exclusion
In countering these arguments, Ross Mason, the founder of MuleSoft, presented a far less optimistic perspective of the impact of technology on social development. He focused on the dangers of technology above all, such as exclusion, information chaos and cyberterrorism.
In contrast to Pat Gelsinger’s enchantment with the development of healthtech, he pointed out that many people and entire families are living in poverty in the world today, on less than a dollar a day, so they can’t – and in the near future still won’t be able to – afford treatment based on modern technologies. As with smart houses and smart cars, the technologies used in medicine increase the quality of life for people whose quality of life is already relatively high. On the other hand, the poorest people are excluded from these benefits, nor do they usually have the chance to get jobs generated by technological development. Such jobs are primarily for highly skilled professionals, which requires an expensive education. Technology is so conducive to inequality that it can itself be regarded as a threat to communities on the periphery of the global economy.
Politics constitutes another threat, as we saw in the recent US elections which Russia is highly likely to have been involved in. In fact, after recent events in the US and around the world, we will never be sure whether elections are truly democratic. This example makes it very clear that modern technology can lead to us being controlled from the outside. Political deals are made to the benefit of those that have enough resources and a clear goal to achieve, but for whom the good of John Q. Citizen is not necessarily the most important priority. Technology can be a terrible, powerful weapon, and a lethal threat in the hands of the wrong people.
Automation, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence
We create new, intelligent solutions which we are proud of. But we must be careful not to create something that will come back to threaten us in the future. We cannot predict all the potential effects of creating artificial intelligence, yet we strive to create the most intelligent machines in our own image. Brilliant minds are working on AI, robotics and other powerful technologies, but we do not know what all this will lead to. And we can’t turn back the clock.
Of course the counter-argument here is that everything is a matter of proper regulation and legal provisions.
“Let’s shape the future but in a sustainable way” – concluded Pat Gelsinger.
We should not be afraid of progress, because otherwise we would never have emerged from the Stone Age. We need to engage in political discussions on technology, in order to have some control over the direction in which technology is headed. Most importantly, we should focus on how to use technology in the best way, focusing on the benefits: for the planet, for health, for the economy.