STANFORD – , California
What do the leaks of unflattering emails from the Democratic National Committee’s hacked servers during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and the deafening hour-long emergency-warning siren in Dallas have in common? It’s the same thing that links the North Korean nuclear threat and terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States: All represent the downsides of tremendously beneficial technologies — risks that increasingly demand a robust policy response.
The growing contentiousness of technology is exemplified in debates over so-called net neutrality and disputes between Apple and the FBI over unlocking suspected terrorists’ iPhones. This is hardly surprising: As technology has become increasingly consequential — affecting everything from our security (nuclear weapons and cyberwar) to our jobs (labor market disruptions from advanced software and robotics) — its impact has been good, bad and potentially ugly.
First, the good. Technology has eliminated diseases like smallpox and has all but eradicated others, like polio; enabled space exploration; sped up transportation; and opened new vistas of opportunity for finance, entertainment and much else. Cellular telephony alone has freed the vast majority of the world’s population from communications constraints.
Technical advances have also increased economic productivity. The invention of crop rotation and mechanized equipment dramatically increased agricultural productivity and enabled human civilization to shift from farms to cities. As recently as 1900, one-third of Americans lived on farms; today, that figure is just 2 percent.
Similarly, electrification, automation, software and, most recently, robotics have all brought major gains in manufacturing productivity. My colleague Larry Lau and I estimate that technical change is responsible for roughly half the economic growth of the Group of Seven economies in recent decades.
Pessimists worry that the productivity-enhancing benefits of technology are waning and unlikely to rebound. They claim that technologies like internet search engines and social networking cannot improve productivity to the same extent that electrification and the rise of the automobile did.
Optimists, by contrast, believe that advances like Big Data, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence herald a new era of technology-driven improvements. While it is impossible to predict the next “killer app” arising from these technologies, that is no reason, they argue, to assume there isn’t one. After all, important technologies sometimes derive their main commercial value from uses quite different from those the inventor had in mind.
For example, James Watt’s steam engine was created to pump water out of coal mines, not to power railroads or ships. Likewise, Guglielmo Marconi’s work on long-distance radio transmission was intended simply to create competition for the telegraph; Marconi never envisioned broadcast radio stations or modern wireless communications.
But technological change has also spurred considerable dislocation, harming many along the way. In the early 19th century, fear of such dislocation drove textile workers in Yorkshire and Lancashire — the “Luddites” — to smash new machines like automated looms and knitting frames.
The dislocation of workers continues today, with robotics displacing some manufacturing jobs in the more advanced economies. Many fear that artificial intelligence will bring further dislocation, though the situation may not be as dire as some expect. In the 1960s and early 1970s, many believed that computers and automation would lead to widespread structural unemployment. That never happened, because new kinds of jobs emerged to offset what dislocation that did occur.
In any case, job displacement is not the only negative side effect of new technology. The automobile has greatly advanced mobility, but at the cost of unhealthy air pollution. Cable TV, the internet and social media have given people unprecedented power over the information they share and receive; but they have also contributed to the balkanization of information and social interaction, with people choosing sources and networks that reinforce their own biases.
Modern information technology, moreover, tends to be dominated by just a few firms: Google, for example, is literally synonymous with internet search. Historically, such a concentration of economic power has been met with pushback, rooted in fears of monopoly. And, indeed, such firms are beginning to face scrutiny from antitrust officials, especially in Europe. Whether consumers’ generally tolerant attitudes toward these companies will be sufficient to offset historic concerns over size and abuse of market power remains to be seen.
But the downsides of technology have become far darker, with the enemies of a free society able to communicate, plan and conduct destructive acts more easily. The Islamic State and al-Qaida recruit online and provide virtual guidance on wreaking havoc; often, such groups do not even have to communicate directly with individuals to “inspire” them to perpetrate a terrorist attack. And, of course, nuclear technology provides not only emissions-free electricity but also massively destructive weapons.
All of these threats and consequences demand clear policy responses that look not just to the past and present, but also to the future. Too often, governments become entangled in narrow and immediate disputes, like that between the FBI and Apple, and lose sight of future risks and challenges. That can create space for something really ugly to occur, such as, say, a cyberattack that knocks out an electrical grid. Beyond the immediate consequences, such an incident could spur citizens to demand excessively stringent curbs on technology, risking freedom and prosperity in the quest for security.
What is really needed are new and improved institutions, policies and cooperation between law enforcement and private firms, as well as among governments. Such efforts must not just react to developments, but also anticipate them. Only then can we mitigate future risks, while continuing to tap new technologies’ potential to improve people’s lives.
Michael J. Boskin is a professor of economics at Stanford University. © Project Syndicate, 2017
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