Stuck between two schools of thought about the inexorable shift toward higher levels of technology, toward the further distillation of automatic, mobile, social, virtual — everywhere, at all times.
One school says (in cold, robot voice): “Get with the program, human. Grab a hand-held and stare into the flickering light. It’s useless to resist. And it’s good for the economy.”
Or is it?
Enter the other school of thought. It questions what, exactly, we’re gaining from the dizzying advance of technology. It sees high-tech gains as an efficiency freak’s dream but, increasingly, as a worker’s pink slip.
Don’t get me wrong. I use and benefit from technology. For some time, however, I’ve harbored doubts about where we’re going with all of this.
Those doubts bubbled up again a couple weeks ago. That’s when I attended an event held by Washington State University Vancouver. It included a talk by Hakan Gurocak, director of WSUV’s School of Engineering and Computer Science.
He described his research into haptic technology — a kind of feedback technology that allows you to not only work in a virtual reality but to also feel it. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton and watching a screen as you manipulate a tool with your mechanically gloved hand. Through forces and vibrations, haptic technology allows you to feel the weight of the tool in your hand.
Among other impacts, such technology has the power to eliminate the need to create physical mock-ups for the things we want to build. It has the power to revolutionize the training of people in a variety of professions. The applications are many: health care, the auto and fitness industries, the military. The results: more efficiency, lower costs, fewer workers.
As he moved through his slide presentation, Gurocak let his humor shine through. Referring to the exoskeleton, he said, “I can’t imagine working in my office hooked up to something like this.”
Eventually, though, the gear will be made more wearable, less clunky.
Gurocak’s presentation was dazzling. I admire his work. Still, I couldn’t help but let a question or two tug at my mind: Does the rapidly moving spearhead of technology improve most people’s lives? Who actually benefits?
Answers are emerging. They’re not pretty.
Jon Talton, writing for The Seattle Times, points to a University of Oxford study that says as many as 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by computerization and robots.”There is reason to be concerned that we are experiencing an era in which innovation benefits the few rather than the many,” the study says.
Don’t look to Facebook or Apple as saviors.
“Facebook and the Apple Watch are not equal to, say, the development of the steam locomotive, electricity or the semiconductor,” Talton writes. “These were transformative breakthroughs that spawned vast new industries and jobs, where productivity was widely shared.”
We’re already living in a time when broad prosperity, once a concrete aspect of the American economy, is increasingly lost in the nation’s rearview mirror.
And Talton doesn’t mince words: “If the gains from smart robots and other advances go only to the elite and jobs are widely destroyed, Americans might lose their faith in technology in a hurry. And this was a nation born in revolution.”