The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 29, 2013

Our View: Technology should work for us

— Could a technology boom possibly be bad? Some experts think so. But before we conclude that today's incredible advances in technology will render humans obsolete -- along with our jobs -- we need to ask ourselves the big question: What must we do to ensure that the next wave of technology is managed properly, to minimize the disruptions and maximize the opportunities?

The newest game in economics these days is to predict how today's rapid innovations will effect jobs, and consumers. Popular books on the subject, such as Martin Ford's "The Lights in the Tunnel," argue that a disaster is looming, as machines render 75 percent of American workers unemployed by 2089. According to Ford, consumer spending tanks as there are too few workers to afford goods. The middle class disintegrates. People can't contribute to Social Security without jobs, so that's a disaster waiting to happen, too.

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University says, "What has always been true is that technology has destroyed jobs but also always created jobs."

Only the future knows how this will play out. But there's no doubt technological advances seem to be outpacing what most of us can only imagine. At the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, last week, one expert predicted that driverless cars (yes, cars that drive themselves) will be available to general consumers within 15 years.

It's helpful to point out that historically, game-changing inventions have created new jobs to replace the jobs lost. But Ford says those days are gone: Now machines are not only doing the jobs humans have done, they're thinking for them. He uses drone technology as an example: Just as the military uses drones and robots to wage war in Afghanistan, machines can and will be built in the working world that not only supply human muscle power, but brain power, too.

There are other issues to ponder, as well. If smarter machines do indeed displace more and more workers without replacing our jobs with new ones, will the rich become richer and the poorer poorer? Surely, in an advanced technological age, fewer workers will be needed to manage the super machines, and the salaries they make will dwarf the rest of us who suddenly have more leisure time on our hands.

It is good that we are having these discussions now. We humans are still at the top of the food chain. We know, from history, that major technological shakeups are upsetting for a time, but we have always been able to adjust in the long run and make technology serve us, rather than have it be the other way around.

Techology will indeed make our lives better. Our challenge is to ensure that it doesn't just make a few people's lives better, but all our lives better.

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