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Ideas in Motion

3 Negative Consequences of Technological Change

The pace of technological change is speeding up, which has profound implications for individuals, businesses, and societies. In a little more than 100 years, technological development has taken us from the first telephone call (1876) to the first website (1991). A mere 16 years elapsed between the appearance of the Internet and the first iPhone (2007). Since then, significant technological breakthroughs have included autonomous vehicles, electric cars, tablets, augmented reality, the bionic eye, social media, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering, to list a few. Each new development builds on earlier ones to create ever more powerful technologies. As these technologies proliferate and become more sophisticated, they change how we live, work, learn, and play.

Along with faster technological innovation has come faster user adoption. For example, consider how quickly people have adopted technology through the years. The AM/FM radio had 50 million users 38 years after its invention, TV 12 years, the Internet 3 years, and Twitter 9 months.

Noted futurist and author Ray Kurzweil wrote about the pace of change within the context of what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns. The concept is simple yet profound: more advanced societies can progress faster than less advanced societies precisely because they are more advanced. Kurzweil suggests that the developments in the 20th century would have occurred in 20 years had they begun in the year 2000 because the rate of progress in 2000 was five times faster than in the entire 20th century.

At some point in the near future, he thinks a 20th century's worth of progress will happen in less than one month – a rate of progress 1,000 times that of the century itself. Whether Kurzweil's prediction about the rate of progress will come true or not, it is clear that "automation" is changing the way we live our lives and is occurring faster than ever before. Anyone who owns a cell phone surely understands how quickly one model becomes "obsolete" because a successor model has more or better capabilities.

With the accelerating development and adoption of advanced technologies, we, as a society, must have an even more acute understanding of the ethical consequences (good and bad) of adopting these technologies to make wise choices and regulate uses. Governmental organizations must be equipped to address new issues related to technology and have the mechanisms to study their effects on society and propose solutions.

For better or for worse, technology drives social change. Many of the changes are clearly positive, such as advances in medical technologies that ease suffering and cure illness, but there are three types of unintended adverse side effects of rapidly advancing technology that must be addressed to avoid civil discord or even war.

These adverse side effects are worker displacement, social disparity, and disagreements about values. Each issue on its own can cause widespread civil disruption within countries and even between countries, which could lead to war.

The first negative side-effect is worker displacement. Worker displacement happens when technology makes certain human jobs obsolete. For instance, self-checkout machines in grocery stores have replaced many cashiers, and robots are increasingly used in manufacturing. Self-driving trucks and cars are threatening to upend the entire transportation industry. Estimates vary, but up to 90% of all trucking jobs could become obsolete in as few as five years. There are currently 3.5 million truckers in the US alone. In this one industry alone, millions of workers will need to be retrained for new careers. It is a monumental undertaking that more likely than not, will take years.

The second negative side-effect is social disparity. The social disparity occurs when some people have access to new technology while others do not. This can happen within countries, as well as between countries. For example, people who live in rural areas may not have access to the same high-speed Internet service as those who live in urban areas. But what happens when the technological disparity is not just a matter of convenience but of life and death? Scientists are working on many life-extending technologies and even the cure for aging. What happens if they are successful and a form of immortality is available for those who can afford it? What if extended life became available for the entire population. Plunging death rates would put even more pressure on the environment and the international struggle for resources.

Third are disagreements around values. Value disagreements happen when people disagree about what is good or bad, right or wrong. These disagreements can be based on religious beliefs, cultural norms, or personal preferences. For example, some people believe that genetically modifying food is unnatural and morally wrong, while others believe it is a necessary way to feed the world's growing population. But what about issues such as genetically modifying pre-born babies. Designer babies are rapidly becoming a reality. What will happen when babies that were genetically designed to be smarter, faster, and stronger than naturally birthed babies become adults? Will they become a new ruling class or even a new species? It is a troubling development.

Rapidly changing technology has unintended consequences that must be addressed. The issues of worker displacement, social disparity, and value disagreements can cause widespread civil unrest and even war. We must be proactive in addressing these issues before they cause irreparable damage to society.

We would love to hear your thoughts on how we can address the social issues of technology. It is clear that these problems are only going to become more prevalent as our technologies continue to change rapidly and advance. We hope that by working together, we can find solutions to these complex challenges and create a better future for all.

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