If we’re not careful, technology could expand the gap between the rich and the poor.
As robotics and AI start to take on manual, repetitive and mundane tasks, people will be free to enjoy more leisure time without sacrificing productivity or quality of life. Smarter cities will lead to happier, healthier and safer populations. Automated and electric vehicles will eliminate congestion and pollution. Access to better information will remove cultural divides and create more cohesive societies.
However, there is an equally good chance that technology will actually increase the gap between the rich and the poor, remove jobs and create disparity between nations and create more congestion in our networks. Indeed, left unchecked, this is the more likely scenario.
Yes, the automation of labor could conceivably allow every human being to work fewer hours and enjoy more leisure time. However, that assumes that the impacts of automation are evenly distributed and the benefits of automation are shared equally among all stakeholders. The more likely outcome is that laborers will be made redundant while knowledge workers continue to toil at their desks; shareholders will profit while workers lose out.
Automated cars could certainly reduce congestion, but only if automation leads to a reduction in the number of cars on the roads, and the number of vehicle miles traveled, not just the effort of driving. Smarter cities, if placed in the hands of authoritarian governments, could lead to less personal security and privacy, not more. And we are already seeing how increased access to information can build walls between groups rather than remove them.
In much the same way, the adoption and availability of technology could also increase the gap between the developing world and mature markets. However, it could also allow developing markets to leap ahead of the mature markets.
Consider, for example, the rapid adoption of solar generation in Africa, Asia and Latin America versus that in Europe and North America. Or the fact that the vast majority of smart cities are being built in the developing world while cities in the mature markets struggle to smarten up. Lacking legacy infrastructure and onerous or mis- focused regulation, developing markets could reap significant dividends from the advance of technology.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. There are no institutions dedicated to ensuring that the benefits of technology are shared equally. In fact, as governments and private companies vie for every competitive advantage and technological edge, the potential for the gap to widen is only growing.
We believe that governments at all levels must start to grapple with the question of equality now. When investing in new technologies, decision-makers will need to consider not only whether their investments make financial and operational sense, but also whether they make sense socially. Governments will need to return to their roots of securing the greatest benefits for the greatest numbers of people and to the modes of the less fortunate.
The alternative is that we allow technology to advance unchecked. And, in doing so, sow the seeds of our own discontent.