I recently spent some time in a Tesla Model X at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The salesman on the stand at the show excitedly walked me through some of the technology on the vehicle and told me about the car’s ability to drive and park itself. I came away from that stand with newfound respect for Tesla cars – the technology on display really is a snapshot of the future of motoring. A car that is able to drive you down the motorway at 70mph in heavy traffic without any input from the driver is likely to dramatically cut the number of road deaths each year. After all, a study by Stanford University found that 90% of road traffic accidents are caused, at least in part, by human error. With Google, Uber and others working on driverless car technology, we can fairly safely assume that driverless cars will become the norm in a few years’ time.
However, not everyone is happy about this new driverless car technology. Those who rely on driving to make a living look set to see their job opportunities dry up in the future. Taxi and lorry drivers are particularly worried about the new developments. “What of the millions more whose livelihoods depend on the truckers coming up and down the country, stopping for food, drinks and sleep? “It’s going to be a huge problem,” says Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. There are around 3.5 million truckers in the United States alone – which means 3.5 million people are at risk of losing their jobs in the future and will almost certainly need to change their career entirely.
The motoring industry is not the only victim of technological progress.
Many of us use social applications such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to communicate. Every day, 30 billion messages are sent on WhatsApp alone. In response to pressure from consumers, WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption for messaging on their service, meaning that only the sender and the receiver of messages can know what they say. They cannot be intercepted by hackers. This is a major victory for privacy, but a catastrophic problem for law enforcement. Encrypted messages give criminals and terrorists a way to communicate and co-ordinate without any danger of being caught by law-enforcement. Whether encryption will result in more terror attacks and more crime remains to be seen, but it is a concern.
Furthermore, there are a number of studies which suggest that the rise of social media has also led to a rise in mental health problems, particularly among teenagers. Rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers have risen by 75% in the last 25 years. People who post to social media naturally cherry pick the best bits of their lives to show to the world. This gives people a warped perception of how beautiful a person is and how good their lives are. Airbrushed magazine covers and exciting Instagram profiles lead some people to feel they cannot compete and gives them a sense of worthlessness.
Mental health has become such a problem that the UK government pledged a record £11.7bn to mental health services in the NHS, but many feel that this is not even close to what is required to tackle the problem.
But is it all bad news?
Not at all. Going back to driverless cars, since 2012, the self-driving cars tested by Google, Delphi and Audi have logged more than a million miles on public roads, and have been involved in 11 accidents. That’s one accident every 91,000 miles – hardly a regular occurrence. As the technology improves, the number of accidents will be cut further. It is not unreasonable to expect that driverless cars will stop all accidents at some point. Given that nearly 1.3 million people die on the roads across the world annually, driverless technology is ultimately hugely beneficial.
The progression of cloud technology has allowed people to transfer information amongst each other securely and instantly. Scientists can collaborate on research in real-time, colleagues can communicate with each other across the world instantly and students can find out about that important subject for their essays without trundling through stacks of books.
Technological progress helps us to live longer, communicate better and provides us with more spare time to do the things we love, rather than tedious tasks.
The benefits of technology mean that there isn’t really a good reason to put the brakes on technological growth.
How can we make technology work for all of us?
Not all of us will benefit from technological advancement. Improvements to transportation in the 20th century killed off industrial jobs in the west, as globalisation led to cheaper, foreign industry out-competing the more expensive western industry products such as coal and steel. These communities still haven’t recovered as former miners and steel workers have been unable to find new work.
Technology works best when it augments the skills of a worker, not removes the need for one. Technology that empowers people to be more efficient benefits the workers, the employers and society. Focus on improving efficiency rather than removing labour means that wealth is spread out among society and not just concentrated at the top – removing the need for human workers depresses wages while those in power grow their wealth exponentially.
Cloud technology is a great example of this. With its focus on improving communication between workers, advancing information flows and providing the freedom to work anywhere – the cloud seeks to augment workers rather than replace them.
There is a certain inevitability that technological progress will replace workers in some sectors. For those unfortunate ones, it is important that investment in re-education occurs in order to return these workers to the labour market. That way we can avoid the depression of whole communities across the west and can make technological progress work for all of us.