The effects of technology on our world have been astounding and largely beneficial to the advancement of our species. Despite the fact that we have used newer and more powerful weapons to do harm to each other, we have also been able to eradicate diseases, improve industrial and agricultural production, access new resources, and do work more efficiently all of which have contributed to a higher standard of living, even in places that are still impoverished.
The impact of technology on our daily lives raises two important questions: what can I do, and what can’t I do? Technology has raised my level of efficiency as a worker; I can work remotely, share documents, communicate with people all over the world, and access innumerable resources. A self-motivated and skilled person can use technology to innovate and keep pace in a world that is moving ever more rapidly. Indeed, the pace at which we innovate as technology builds upon itself encourages a new breed of competitor, and a more ferocious innovative environment. Those with the requisite skills have nearly limitless potential to create change in this world. What can’t I do?
But at the same time, technology is what makes me more efficient, meaning that I rely on it more, meaning that while I’m being more productive, I’m doing less of the work. As we create technology that will solve more of our problems for us, we create a big new problem, what can we do for ourselves? The answer sadly, is less and less. There were already plenty of tasks for which I relied upon other people, but now there are many things for which I rely upon technology, and in the absence of that technology I would struggle with basic necessities.
This strange dichotomy is hard to interpret. With all the positive power we have unleashed, we can and have bettered the world. At the same time, we are more and more dependent on machines, ceding responsibilities, and perhaps, part of what makes us human.
It is easy to imagine the worst case scenarios for what this reliance on technology looks like. A happy vision looks like Disney’s Wall-E, in which overweight and helpless humans float around in levitating chairs while robots do everything for them. A more sinister vision looks like Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” (or numerous other technological dystopias), in which technology becomes self-aware, runs amok, takes over, and ultimately enslaves us all or some such thing.
Perhaps neither of these worse case scenarios becomes reality, but certain other possibilities already have. Manufacturing jobs left America for China, and are leaving China for Vietnam, but at what point will the location stop mattering because labor costs are irrelevant? Machines work more cheaply - though not for free as fuel and maintenance are required - than human beings regardless of the country in which they are located. In a world with a growing population, how can we possibly provide jobs for billions of people when machines do an increasing share of the work? Will technology necessitate a rethinking of our entire economic model? Conversely, it may be that technology provides us with the means to feed those billions even if they are unemployed. Will technology force us to reimagine our entire economic model because machines are doing all of the work?
There is another realm in which machines are playing a larger and larger role: warfare. Over the course of the last two presidencies, the role taken on by unmanned, remotely-piloted drones has become increasingly important in military action. The efficacy of drones for military matters has led to a new age arms race between America and China as well as other nations, and recently led a UN official to call for a moratorium in the development of armed robots saying, “war without reflection is mechanical slaughter.” Even in this field there are pros and cons to the use of machines. While a drone certainly cannot reflect on killing, neither is it prone to a human’s baser desires, such as revenge. Will robot soldiers make warfare bloodier by unleashing emotionless killing machines that can wantonly slaughter, or will a new type of arms race prevent us from waging future conflicts the same way nuclear escalation and mutually assured destruction kept anyone from pushing the button during the Cold War?
Ultimately, technology will be what we make of it: either a force for good that will help us change our planet and our lives for the better and fix our problems; or a destructive force that will destroy the planet and us along with it. Human beings created technology, and we must be its stewards.