Paul Solman of PBS Newshour recently went to a conference run by a California think tank called Singularity University to learn the future of human workers.
Solman noted that as far back as the Roman empire, people had worried about being displaced by machines. Emperor Vespasian, who built the Coliseum, refused to use labor-saving technology to move heavy columns. In more recent times, thinkers have worried that technological progression and increasing automation will only benefit the highly-educated and wealthy, leaving everyone behind.
“We don’t want it to be that there’ll 20 or 30 billionaires controlling everything, and the rest of us struggling for the one or two jobs that are out there,” said economist Richard Freeman.
But futurist Ray Kurzweil disagrees, believing that technological progress will benefit everyone.
“I don’t agree that there’s a have-have-not divide,” he explained. “You know, 20 years ago, if you took out a cell phone in a movie, that was a signal that you are a member of the power elite. Today, there are five billion or six billion cell phones. All of them will be smartphones within a few years.”
“In fact, anybody with a device like this or any of these devices is carrying around billions of dollars of capability circa 20 or 30 years ago,” Kurzweil added.
But Freeman is not convinced.
“This is a very optimistic group that is pushing for technology which will make us all a million times better off,” he said. “I don’t think they actually think all that much about how it will get distributed. That’s not their business. That’s the business of another set of people in this society, who I think have not done a very good job of worrying about that problem.”