Hi readers, this is Sandra, Backchannel’s executive editor, with this week’s letter.
Yesterday afternoon I was reflecting on life and death at the hands of robots: the fatal Tesla crash while the driver was using autopilot, the robot-assisted killing of the mass murderer in Dallas, and the injuring of a toddler by a security robot patrolling the Stanford Mall. Then up popped a CNN alert: a truck attack in Nice.
Over the next hour I kept hitting refresh on Twitter and reloading Google News. I thought about checking Periscope but was afraid of what I might see. In that moment the issue of violent robots felt impossibly remote. Here was a person with a toxic mind and a truck, destroying lives. That’s all it took.
Religious, racial and political tensions have seemed especially acute this summer. Nice, Brexit, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas: the last month on Planet Earth has not been one to inspire hope.
At BACKCHANNEL we believe in the long view, and I found myself hungering for a better context in which to understand these troubling incidents. Are we in fact splintering apart? How can we know for sure?
If you do believe that the center isn’t holding, the rising trend of terrorism may support your fears. In the last decade, all regions but South Asia have experienced a heightened impact from terrorism, according to the 2016 Global Peace Index. Deaths from terrorism grew by 80 percent over last year, and political instability is on the rise.
But by one very important metric — perhaps the most important, affecting the largest number of people— I argue that we are in fact on a positive track.
That measure is poverty. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 a day in 2011 PPP dollars. In 1981, 44 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. It’s easy to gloss over numbers, so let’s pause on that: almost half of all people lived in extreme poverty just 35 years ago. By 2012 the figure had fallen to 12.7 percent (896 million people).
We can also look to other signs of hope. In the U.S., violent crime rates have dropped steeply since a peak in the early 1990s. And life expectancy continues to increase. When we wonder whether the world has finally gone to seed, it helps to consider the sources of positive momentum that will propel us forward. And it’s good to recall that global prosperity hinges on more than the isolated acts of extremists, as appalling and unspeakable as they are. As Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack wrote in Slate in 2014, though a focus on numbers can seem callous in the midst of tragedy, “a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one.” All humans deserve good lives rich with opportunity — this is where the tech sector’s unparalleled creativity can make enormous contributions.
It’s true that killer robots are a threat to be taken seriously. But advances such as self-driving cars will likely save many more lives than they will endanger, as long as we proceed with technical caution. How else can we help the world’s disadvantaged or disenfranchised? How else can we can harness what’s good in the world for the betterment of all? I’d love to hear your ideas for using technology to lift the world.
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