Defend the future from the new Luddites

Only those that embrace technological advance will have the power to shape its outcome

If you have a son or daughter under the age of five, it’s possible they’ll never drive a car. Think about that for a second. One of the great human rites of passage is getting your driving licence, yet many of today’s children won’t do so, because there will be no need for one. Self-driving car technology is improving so quickly that, within 15 years, I expect the debate to focus not on whether robot-driven vehicles ought be allowed on the highway, but whether human-driven vehicles should be banned from it.

Humans make pretty lousy drivers. We are prone to road rage, drive when tired, and play with the stereo instead of watching the road. That’s why the world’s governments impose severe penalties for speeding, spend billions on accident-proof roads and road-safety measures, and make driving tests ever harder to pass. Thanks to humans’ inept approach to driving, much of the cost of building a new car goes on making it hard and safe to break. Within a few years, robots will be far better drivers than most Homo sapiens, and will save thousands of lives a year simply by keeping us off the highway. It’s the ultimate upside. Yet many see the prospect of humans outclassed at driving by robots as emblematic of a dark, machine-ruled future.

In truth, robocars are just an easy target. Much of the fearfulness around technological advance is nothing more than a new Luddism, in which most steps forward are decried rather than celebrated.

I prefer to live in the future. Safer roads populated by robocars apart, there are lots of good things about futuristic technology. My house in California is a so-called passive home that uses very little energy on heating or cooling. The solar panels on my roof mean that my energy bills are close to zero. As a chronic sufferer of heart trouble, the fact that my iPhone is cradled in electronic sensors that allow me to get an instant, detailed electrocardiogram and send it to my doctor improves my life in very real ways. Yet much of the discourse around innovation almost ignores the opportunities posed by technological development, and focuses on the threats.

There certainly are threats – change has its dark side. Like the cotton-weaving roles defended unsuccessfully by the first Luddites, many jobs will disappear. Some of life’s pleasures – as driving is for some of us – will simply become obsolete, or at least rendered the preserve of niche hobbyists. Thanks to biotechnologies like genetic modification and cloning, food – the ultimate scarce resource – will no longer be scarce. That will save millions of lives in the developing world. But it is likely to exacerbate the obesity epidemic that is killing Westerners.

The doom-mongering tech-resisters have much the easier brief; we optimistic embracers the harder sell.

Yet few of either camp can know the future, because it isn’t yet determined. So I set a challenge: do we want a Star Trek future, where technology is used for mostly good aims, where digitization and innovation has largely advanced the species? Or are we to submit to the dystopia of Mad Max? I think it’s up to us. The future is controllable by good management. But those that resist the march of technology cede control of that future to someone else, or to nobody at all. Worried about digital inequalities? Get involved in tech and do something about it. Washing our hands of advancement is the most likely way of ensuring it turns out badly.

Aim for a bright future, not a dark one. And imagine not your children stuck behind the wheel on a jammed up beltway, but taking a flight on a spaceship powered only by the sun.

 

Vivek Wadhwa is fellow at the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University