Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur, a fellow at the Stanford center for Corporate Governance, and the head of research at Singularity University, a Silicone valley institution dedicated to studying how technology can and will shape our future. Here he is explaining his thoughts on the role of technology in the next decades:
This is exciting. I’ve seen massive change in our relationship with computers, even in my lifetime. 15 years ago, a computer was a machine sitting in my family’s basement, sometimes used for pong or word processing, but usually used for nothing. Now they’re omnipresent.
I think many people still live with the assumption that this dizzying rise in the ubiquity and utility of computers is more or less complete. The personal computer has arrived; it’s gotten small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Sure, it may get faster and more convenient, but how much can things really change from here?
The truth is, though, we’re only getting started. With faster processors and automation, the speed at which our technology changes is only going to increase. The novelty of technology has worn off some, and now it’s time for the real change. This is a new age, and within our lifetimes we should expect to see change on the scale of social structure. We’re at the point of the technological revolution right before things skyrocket.
Professor Wadhwa mentions the negative possibilities of technologies, but fails to properly contextualize them. I’ll allow that that’s probably due to the short format of the video, but I think he does a disservice to his audience in his failure to mention the gravest of the problems we face.
First, Prof. Wadhwa gives the example of delivery drones and violations of privacy. I don’t know if he was trying to appeal to a wider audience by making the situation more mundane, but nearly all other examples would have better represented the gravity of the problems we face. What about the privacy violations we’ve already seen? What about the fact that the US government is already using automated vehicles in the real world to assassinate “enemies” without a jury or a fair trial? Isn’t that too much power for a government to have? What if that security apparatus got into the wrong hands? I realize we’re a little numb after the threat of nuclear weapons, but this is a different story. Nuclear weapons were used twice. Drones are used daily. These are problems that are ahead of legislation. They’re problems we have now, and they have no easy solutions.
Prof. Wadhwa mentions structural unemployment as a probable negative outcome of widespread automation, and tells us that we must think about ways of addressing this issue. He is quite right, but I don’t think he goes far enough. The question we need to be asking is this: How do we make sure that we’re not repeating the mistakes of the industrial revolution? It’s 200 years later and while many people have seen improvements in their quality of life, nearly half of the world’s children live in poverty.
The tech revolution is an opportunity, but it’s also dangerous. We have the potential to fix the mistakes of the last two centuries and enter an era where everyone has enough to eat, where everyone can grow up and learn and create as equals. These advances are also coming at a time of increasing inequality, though, and in making these advances we run the risk of exacerbating instead of closing the already massive difference between rich and poor.
Edwin O. Wilson comes from a different angle, but deals with many of the same issues. His book The Future of Life is a little outdated with respect to the threats that biodiversity now faces, but its message about biodiversity’s importance to humanity and the world is timeless (Read it.).
In this video, Wilson states that it is estimated that half of all species will be pushed to extinction by currently known threats, many of them before we have a chance to catalog or understand them. The tech revolution, he acknowledges, will make our ecological footprint smaller, and the sooner we make conservation efforts, the more species we can save. (The tech revolution floats all boats, and conservation isn’t just about hugging trees anymore. In protecting life we also preserve valuable resources that we can use in the future, as biotech continues to explode.)
The most important point he makes though, is this: our future is only bright if everyone’s future is bright. Hippies and children’s movies have long pointed out that we are all connected. More recently, with the expansion of global trade, others have started catching on. Now it’s clear, though: if all of this comes down to overpopulation, economic and gender equality is absolutely essential to our survival.
New projections from the University of Washington suggest that overpopulation will indeed continue to become a problem in the next centuries. Current fertility rates in Africa are not falling like they were expected to, and at currently projected rates, we could reach 11 billion people by 2100. The solution? Many, including E.O. Wilson and Sir David Attenborough, think women’s reproductive rights are among the most important issues. Says Attenborough,
“We cannot continue to deny the problem. People have pushed aside the question of population sustainability and not considered it because it is too awkward, embarrassing and difficult. But we have to talk about it.
The only ray of hope I can see – and it’s not much – is that wherever women are put in control of their lives, both politically and socially; where medical facilities allow them to deal with birth control and where their husbands allow them to make those decisions, birth rate falls. Women don’t want to have 12 kids of whom nine will die.”
So reproductive rights and economic independence are the key to low population growth, and without lowering our population growth, we have no hope of stopping climate change or preserving biodiversity. What’s more, rising populations and (potentially) falling food supplies can mean more violence and instability.
A rising tide may not sink all cities, but it must float all boats. If we don’t harness the power of the tech revolution for universal good, it won’t just be a tragedy for those left behind. It will mean less for the most wealthy, a more difficult life, a more violent world.
It’s amazing to me the state of affairs we find ourselves in today. We’re running out of resources just on the cusp of better worldwide communication and understanding. We have a choice. Do we come together, do we cooperate, do we change ourselves, do we re-form what it means to be human? Or do we allow everything we’ve built to be degraded? And before you say “it’s impossible”, consider for a second how little time it has been since we lived in a world of kings and queens, how much less time it has been since the world was at war. We redefine who we are, what we are, every day. “You can’t change human nature” has never been anything but a shallow excuse. Now is the time to build something new.
(More on concrete solutions and the lessons of the Lester Brown and the Earth Policy institute over the next few weeks. If you haven’t read Plan B 4.0 or Full Planet, Empty Plates, please do so. I think Full Planet, Empty Plates should be universally required reading. It gives a clear, easily understandable view of where we’re at today and the chances we have at preserving our civilization, and gives a hopeful view of where we’re going. A free PDF download is available here (under publications), and it is also available for purchase here)