Technology could be the best or worst thing that happened to inequality

Technology: friend or foe in the fight against inequality? Image: REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

Vivek Wadhwa, Distinguished Fellow and Professor, Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley


I live in the future. I drive an amazing Tesla electric vehicle, which takes control of the steering wheel on highways. My house, in Menlo Park, California, is a “passive” home that expends minimal energy on heating or cooling. With the solar panels on my roof, my energy bills are close to zero — including running the car. My iPhone is encased in a cradle laced with electronic sensors that I can place against my chest to generate a detailed electrocardiogram. With this, I can take a reading virtually anywhere on Earth and send it to my doctors. Because I have a history of heart trouble, including a life-threatening heart attack, knowing that I can communicate with my doctors in seconds instead of hours takes the fear out of hiking the open space reserves in the hills.

I spend much of my time talking to entrepreneurs and researchers about breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. These entrepreneurs are building a better future, often at a breakneck pace. One team built a fully functioning surgical-glove prototype to deliver tactile guidance for doctors during examinations — in three weeks. Another built visualization software that can tell farmers the health of their crops using images taken by off-the-shelf video cameras flown on drones. That technology took four weeks. You get the idea. I do, in fact, live in the future as it is forming. It is forming far faster than most people realize, and far faster than the human mind can comfortably perceive.

Technology: the great leveler?

The distant future is no longer distant. The pace of technological change is rapidly accelerating, and those changes are coming to you very soon, whether you like it or not. Look at the way smartphones crept up on us. Just about everyone now has one. We are always checking email, receiving texts, ordering our goods online, and sharing our lives with distant friends and relatives on social media. These technologies changed our lives before we even realized it. Just as we blindly follow the directions that Google Maps gives us — even when we know better — we will comply with the constant advice that our digital doctor provides. I’m talking about the artificially intelligent app on our smartphone that will have read our medical data and monitor our lifestyles and habits. It will warn us not to eat that eat slice of cheesecake lest we gain another 10 pounds.

So you say that I live in a technobubble, a world that is not representative of the lives of the majority of people in the US or in the world? That’s true. I live a comfortable life in Silicon Valley and am fortunate to sit near the top of the technology and innovation food chain. So I see the future sooner than most people. The noted science-fiction writer William Gibson, who is a favourite of hackers and techies, once wrote: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet”. But, from my vantage point at its apex, I am watching that distribution curve flatten, and quickly. Simply put, the future is happening faster and faster. It is happening everywhere. Technology is the great leveler, the great unifier, the great creator of new and destroyer of old.

The greatest shift since the dawn of humankind

Once, technology could be put in a box, a discrete business dominated by business systems and some cool gadgets. It slowly but surely crept into more corners of our lives. Today the creep has become a headlong rush. Technology is taking over every part of our lives; every part of society; every waking moment of every day. Increasingly pervasive data networks and connected devices are causing rapid information flows from the source to the masses — and down the economic ladders from the developed societies to the poorest. From biology to energy to media to politics to food to transportation, we are witnessing unprecedented shifts that are redefining our future.

Perhaps my present life in the near future, in the technobubble in Silicon Valley, sounds unreal. Believe me, it is something we will laugh at within a decade as an extremely primitive existence. We are only just commencing the greatest shift that society has seen since the dawn of humankind. And, as in all other manifest shifts — from the use of fire for shelter and for cooking to the rise of agriculture and the development of sailing vessels, internal-combustion engines, and computing — this one will arise from breathtaking advances in technology. This shift, though, is both broader and deeper, and is happening far more quickly than the previous tectonic shift.

The dark side of the technological revolution — and how to avoid it

Such rapid, ubiquitous change has, of course, a dark side. Jobs as we know them will disappear. Our privacy will be further compromised. Our children may never drive a car or ride in one driven by a human being. We have to worry about biological terrorism and killer drones. Someone you know — maybe you — will have his or her DNA sequence and fingerprints stolen. Man and machine will begin to merge into a single entity. You will have as much food as you can possibly eat, for better and for worse.

The ugly state of politics in the United States and Britain illustrates the impact of income inequality and the widening technological divide. More and more people are being left behind and are protesting in every way they can. Technologies such as social media are being used to fan the flames and to exploit ignorance and bias. The situation will get only worse — unless we find ways to share the prosperity we are creating.

We have a choice: to build an amazing future such as we saw on Star Trek, or to head into the dystopia of Mad Max. It really is up to us; we must tell our policy-makers what choices we want them to make. The key is to ensure that the technologies we are building have the potential to benefit everyone equally; balance the risks and the rewards; and minimize the dependence that technologies create. But first, we must learn about these advances ourselves and be part of the future they are creating.

This article is based on Vivek Wadhwa’s upcoming book, Driver in the Driverless Car: How our technology choices will create the future, which will be released this winter.


Originally published at www.weforum.org.

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