by Arun Kumar

Does Technology Make us Smart? Or Dumb?

Oct 21, 20134 mins
BusinessComputers and PeripheralsEnergy Industry

Does rapid advancement in technology make us smart or dumb? Will it create jobs for us or make us unemployed? Or will it simply make us idle, obese, and redundant?

Arun has covered the IT industry in India since the time 80386 was cutting edge, MS DOS was the predominant desktop OSWhat does all the advancement in technology mean to us as humans? Well, on the one hand it makes life easier and simpler, like doing a banking transaction while slouching on your couch with a handheld device or charting a route to your holiday destination while driving to it. Or doing many similar things, which during earlier times would have meant paying a visit to a place or two or speaking with a couple of perfect strangers.

On the other hand, does this advancement in technology make us lazy and idle? Perhaps, that is also equally true. We are no longer on our feet as much as we used to be. That’s all thanks to a lack of the need to move much more than just our fingers for many things. Forget the good old TV remote, today even toilets are smart—they flush themselves!

But, smart TVs and smart toilets are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There is more to come. All kinds of gadgets and appliances from light bulbs to refrigerators are turning smart–if there is no one in the room, the light will automatically switch off; when the milk is running low, the refrigerator will automatically place an order for more milk at the grocer. All done without human knowledge, let alone intervention. How smart, indeed. And if these aren’t enough, in the not-so-distant future, we may not even need to drive our cars ourselves. Thanks to Google’s self-driving cars—and the traditional auto makers are also acquiring this technology fast—coupled with maps from Google or Garmin or other such providers, reaching from point A to B might just mean sitting in a car and pushing a few buttons or perhaps just giving verbal instructions.

So, what will we humans do? With technology driving up productivity and efficiency and, in many cases, simply replacing humans, will the advancement in technology also make humans less employable in future?

In their book Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and co-author Andrew McAfee, associate director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management, argue that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. They believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States. And, they suspect, something similar is happening in other technologically advanced countries as well. According to them, for the last 15 years or so, while productivity has continued to rise robustly, employment has suddenly wilted, meaning economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. They call this as the ‘Great Decoupling’ and attribute technology to be behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

They say that digital technologies allow for the substitution of less-skilled and educated workers. And as computers and robots get more and more powerful while simultaneously getting cheaper—and readily available—this phenomenon spreads, to the point where economically rational employers prefer buying more technology over hiring more workers. And the situation will only accelerate as robots and computers learn to do more and more, and to take over jobs that we currently think of not as ‘routine,’ but as requiring a lot of skill and/or education.

But, this doesn’t end with replacement of blue-collar jobs. W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab and a former economics professor at Stanford University, calls this the “autonomous economy.” It’s far more subtle than the idea of robots and automation doing human jobs, he says. It involves “digital processes talking to other digital processes and creating new processes,” enabling us to do many things with fewer people and making yet other human jobs obsolete. He says that digital versions of human intelligence are replacing even those jobs once thought to require people. “It will change every profession in ways we have barely seen yet,” he warns.

So, does rapid advancement in technology make us humans smart or dumb? Will it create jobs for us or make us unemployed? Or will it simply make us idle, obese, and redundant? The jury is out and perhaps our children or grandchildren will find the answer. But, it’s certainly worth thinking about.