At first glance, the title of this article might unwillingly come across as misleading to some people. Not only have I used the word “consequences,” which, despite its actual meaning, tends to hold a negative connotation in our society, but given my career aspirations and trajectory, this may appear to be a strange choice of words. Indeed, I have dedicated most of my professional life to the information technology (IT) industry, and more specifically, the software industry. Additionally, I am a huge fan of video games, robotics, transhumanism, and other related topics, so why would I even consider implying that there should be limits to anything technological, when I am inspired by the countless ways that technology has improved our lives and pushed the human race forward?
Allow me to allay your concerns by saying that my hope is not to contradict my life’s work or to introduce doubt into the minds of budding technology entrepreneurs. Rather, my aim is to offer some topics to spur healthy discussion, and to inspire more introspection and exploration into some of the downstream effects of technology in our society, whether of the positive variety, or not.
When we read about technology or follow new developments and movements, we often hear terms and phrases such as “disruption,” “the sharing economy,” “big data,” “cloud computing,” and so on. What these terms imply is that there is massive change going on in the world, in society, and in our communities, and we ignore these changes at our peril. In fact, to some people, technology appears to be an unstoppable juggernaut that obliterates everything in its path, including old traditions, culture, and of course, jobs.
While these topics would be impossible to cover in single a blog entry, and might require a series of books to even give them justice, I would like to focus briefly on the last part: jobs.
I recently read a concise yet thought-provoking book by Jim Clifton called The Coming Jobs War. In this book, Clifton argues that according to all the polling his organization, Gallup, has conducted for more than 75 years, what would most change the current state of humankind in a positive fashion is the appearance of 1.8 billion jobs. The reasoning for this, Clifton states, is that there are 3 billion people on Earth aged 15 and older, who either work or want to work, but there are only 1.2 billion full-time, formal jobs. Thus, according to Clifton, there is a shortfall of about 1.8 billion good employment opportunities for these people.
Even if we debate the numbers presented above, Gallup’s massive and far-reaching World Poll, which the company began conducting in 2005, contains a vast body of behavioral economic data that represents the opinions of people across nearly every country and demographic and sociographic group. And the results of the World Poll so far state in no uncertain terms that what people want most now is a good job.
The reason this discussion has become more important than ever is that we are increasingly hearing about, and in fact, seeing, technology become a potential threat to possibly millions of jobs while at the same time also improving the quality of life for millions of people. What I am speaking about specifically is self-driving cars. What we are seeing is not just traditional automobile manufacturers working on autonomous, self-driving cars (and their components), but ridesharing companies as well, among others.
And the reason this matters so much is not because this technology is inherently “good” or “bad,” but rather, because the reality is very much grey, rather than black and white. Thus, this requires very deep and critical thinking on the part of our business and political leaders and, as a matter of fact, all of society. Indeed, with the advent of fully autonomous self-driving cars, we would be freed from having to focus so much of our attention and energy on what many consider the worst parts of our day: our morning and evening commutes. Imagine the amount of work we could get done in our cars if we did not have to focus on driving and instead let technology take care of this unpleasant, stressful, and nearly inescapable aspect of modern life. Further, imagine the millions of people who are unable to drive due to a physical disability. They too could take advantage of this technology to go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted; of course, assuming that this technology would be ubiquitous and affordable, relatively speaking.
However, every technology, no matter how helpful or positive, may also have unintended downstream effects. For example, the proliferation of self-driving cars and trucks may result in many truck and taxi drivers losing their jobs, because if we can program software to enable a car or truck to drive itself, companies might find less of a need to employ large numbers of humans to drive these vehicles. And employees would not be the only ones affected; self-employed drivers would be impacted as well, of course. If we set aside, just for a moment, the fact that this technology is still very new and that these self-driving vehicles still currently require intervention by humans in order to avoid accidents, this has very serious implications for our society given the grim job numbers provided by Mr. Clifton.
While it may be easy or tempting for those of us employed in the IT industry to brush aside this concern and state that the displacement of a large group of people or jobs is one of the unavoidable consequences of technological innovation, and that the people affected should focus on building new skills in order to get new jobs, start their own companies, or embark on new careers, the fact of the matter is that it may not be possible for many people to do so, given a whole host of factors, which include but are not limited to, their age, current skillset, geographic location, and more.
Simply put, we cannot just assume that millions of people will be able to start a new career or will have good job opportunities available to them after having been displaced out of the job or career that previously helped them provide for their families. One of the tragedies of modern society is that we have not been able to provide jobs or opportunities for everyone who has become unemployed, as the manufacturing sectors in certain developed countries can demonstrate. And while innovative technology companies have indeed brought forth products and services that have created many jobs, helped build new ecosystems such as the app economy, provided money-making opportunities for freelancers, and improved the quality of life for many people worldwide, it is unreasonable to assume that these same companies will be able to provide a good livelihood for the 1.8 billion people who still need a good opportunity.
Hence, this is why having a deep discussion on the merits and downsides of such technologies is so crucial. Because we are at a sort of crossroads now, and because the actions we take may have both very positive and potentially harmful consequences for society, we owe it to ourselves to very carefully consider the downstream effects of technology and not just flippantly move toward a future we may not necessarily be happy with.
To be clear, I am all for technologies that move the human race forward, and I do not believe that we should stop working on self-driving cars just because it may result in many people losing their jobs, since at the same time, many people would benefit from this technology. I would add, however, that we should also look at complementary actions, such as companies providing further training, job opportunities, or freelancing opportunities for employees who become displaced as a result of technological innovation.
In fact, one could even argue that producing self-driving cars, which are actually still based on pollutive, outdated technology (no one can argue that the internal combustion engine is a groundbreaking technology in the 21st century), is not quite enough to move our society forward, since this would still entail bone-crushing commutes in large cities such as Sao Paulo, Bangkok, and Los Angeles. And although people who are physically unable to drive would then be able to get around easier, there would be more cars on the road. Even if we were to extrapolate and assume that self-driving cars would make better decisions than humans and drive more efficiently, the end-result would still be the same: many more cars on the road. Of course, we would also reach the same conclusion even if all cars were electric, rather than gasoline-powered, although one added benefit would be less pollution.
In a sense, the proliferation of self-driving cars could be offered as a critique of our elected (and unelected) leaders – why have we built entire cities and regions that are lacking in high-quality and ubiquitous public transport, are energy inefficient, technologically uninspiring, and are built completely around the automobile? One reason for this, I suppose, is that building extensive public transportation systems requires substantial initial investments. This would also be the case for the proposed Chinese elevated bus, but both the elevated bus and extensive public transportation systems would go a long way toward alleviating some, or in many cases, much of, the brutish traffic we encounter while driving, not to mention the ruinous pollution.
We could go even further and argue that real technological innovation would entail not just self-driving cars, trains, or elevated buses, but also, eliminating or reducing greatly the daily commute. We could let our imaginations run wild and envision teleportation technology that whisks us to and from locations, but, since there are multiple challenges associated with making this a reality, we could instead discuss technologies such as virtual reality and improved videoconferencing, which could help reduce daily soul-destroying commutes to work on crowded roads. In addition to the massive time savings this would result in, we could also cut down on pollution, energy usage (since even if we completely got rid of gasoline-powered cars, we would still require energy to generate the electricity that powers electric cars), and increase productivity at the same time. However, if we wanted to provide options for nearly everyone, we could develop and/or build upon technologies that would help us avoid commuting so much, while at the same time build out mass transit and produce self-driving cars.
Several years ago, while working at Hewlett-Packard in China, I came across a conference room that was referred to as the “Halo Room.” In this room we had a superb videoconferencing system, along with several enormous TVs. Using this technology, we were able to hold a live meeting with our colleagues at HP Japan, with crystal-clear video quality and zero latency. In fact, the sound and picture were so clear that it appeared that our colleagues were sitting right in front of us, as opposed to more than 1,000 miles away. This necessarily begs the question, if this technology was available in office buildings in the year 2010 (and earlier), why couldn’t we have this sort of technology in our homes?
Another related idea would be for residential communities across the world to have business centers, supplied with Wi-Fi, TV screens, desks, and work areas/conference rooms, where residents could gather to not only telecommute and get their daily work done, but also to possibly hold serendipitous meetings with other community residents. This would not only increase flexibility and efficiency for workers, reduce commuting, and save time and money, but it would also result in more people meeting each other and building out new hubs and social groups. I understand that this is currently being done in business districts through companies that offer shared workspaces and offices, and while this is certainly a move in the right direction, and definitely benefits people who live and work downtown, it still involves many other people enduring long, stressful commutes in order to reach those shared workspaces downtown, whether those people are employees or self-employed.
In any case, the point I am trying to make here is that technologies such as self-driving cars are not a slam dunk and we should avoid blindly attempting to move forward in a given direction without seriously considering the implications of such a move. I am not saying that this is not happening currently, but given the haphazard nature of some of the decisions made by national, city, and local governments, not to mention management teams of companies, I believe we should be putting more focus on the consequences of technology, both positive and negative, and make well-informed, considerate, and intellectual arguments for the paths we decide to take.
With that being said, I want to make it very clear that I agree with the tagline presented by the video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – you can’t kill progress. I would never want to kill progress, and I believe technology has always held the key to massively improving the quality of life for billions of people on Earth. It’s just that we should always be mindful of the people who may be negatively affected by our march toward progress, and thus, we should find ways to include them in our path toward increased prosperity.