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Debate: Will the Integration of Robotics and People Create More Social Inequality?

Amal Graafstra, Founder and CEO of Dangerous Things

Amal Graafstra: Embrace Our Bright Future

James J. Hughes, Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

James J. Hughes: All Cyborgs Are Not Created Equal

Instead of fearing cyborgs, we should be working toward a future when everyone has access to human-enhancing technologies.

Fear is a powerful tool. It has served us well in the past, helping us evade dangers and question the unknown so we proceed cautiously. Yet, when it comes to technology, our capabilities have outpaced our evolutionary survival toolkit.

I am a cyborg. Many people are afraid of what that means — to me, to them, and to humanity in general. In 2005, I implanted two RFID transponders, one into each hand. They are similar to the implants dogs and cats get at the vet office, only mine were different in two simple ways. First, the chips I used were not animal chips, they had different capabilities. Second, they were implanted into a human being, not a pet or animal. For some reason, these two minor differences caused quite an uproar back then.

Fast forward 10 years and we’re rocketing toward a very exciting future. Amazing advances in biotech, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, advanced prosthetics, and brain/neural interfaces (to name a few) are advancing at speeds that are challenging not only our evolutionary toolkits — but even our social constructs regarding what it even means to be human.

On a very practical level, all technology enhances us as humans. You wear shoes so you can walk or run for long periods without hurting your feet. You drive a car so you can travel huge distances without even thinking twice. You pick up a smartphone and suddenly you have the power of the entire world’s communications networks and data repositories at your thumb-tips. You are a God among mere mortals, and some people believe that’s a problem — that a coming “technology gap” will divide humanity in more fundamental ways than simply who does or doesn’t have a smartphone.

The concern is centered around the idea that advances in biotech will come so rapidly, but at such great cost, that only the wealthy will be able to afford to take advantage of these new technologies. Examples given include gene therapies that makes your bones more dense and your muscles several times stronger; eye modifications or hearing systems that give you night vision or let you hear conversations going on across the room; or even implantable devices that give you superhuman cognitive abilities, making you many times smarter and connecting your brain directly to the power of the Internet.

There are several reasons a technology gap is not a valid concern. First, technology is iterative — it builds on itself. You can’t suddenly snap your fingers and have a brain implant that makes you learn kung-fu. Innovations are built on existing technologies that are already mainstream and affordable. You don’t see biotech labs looking for materials that are extremely exotic and therefore extremely expensive or impossible to obtain. Rule No.1 of developing anything is to first look for “off the shelf” parts you can build with so your innovative solution will also be cheap. If it’s not, one of the primary goals of any business is to always find ways to drive down cost.

Second, the gap between new technology introduction and mass adoption is falling extremely quickly. Simple public utility electricity took from the early 1900s to about 1960 — that’s 50 years — to see mass adoption at nearly 100 percent. But each subsequent innovation — from radios to cellphones — took less time to achieve ubiquity. Accessibility drives production quantities up, which drives costs down, which drives accessibility up. Technology and its adoption is interactive and cyclical, and it can only get cheaper and more accessible in the future.

The final reason the technology gap isn’t a valid concern is our social morality. The idea of what constitutes a “critical service” today includes many modern technologies. It’s possible for an low-income person — or even a zero-income person — to access the Internet, create an email account, obtain subsidized electricity service in a subsidized or provided home and get a free cellular telephone with free minutes and data. But let’s think for a moment about how we handle restorative technologies like cochlear implants, prosthetics for amputees, pacemakers for people with faulty hearts — those people are considered by the majority of society to be disabled, and should be given assistance if they can’t afford to access a restorative technology. Outside of the typical insurance company payment to cover those costs, there are social programs, charities, and other systems that help people get access to those restorative technologies.

Now consider a future where most of humanity has been upgraded — the new “normal” is a human with several augmentations that are considered just as essential to living a normal life in their society as electricity and telephones are to us today. Social programs, insurance companies, charities, and other types of social safety nets will still be there to offer these augmentations to people without them, and at a greatly reduced price — or maybe even free.

Instead of approaching the future with fear, we should all embrace it with wonder and excitement.

Amal-DT-2-cropped-small-150x150Amal Graafstra is Founder and CEO of Dangerous Things.





All views expressed are those of the author.

Robotics promise to enhance human capabilities beyond our imagination, but for whom?

Industrialized societies are becoming more unequal, which is bad for our health, our democracies and our economic vitality. One of the culprits in growing inequality is technological innovation. So we should be very concerned about whether the acceleration of emerging technologies, such as robotics and human cyborgization, will make our societies even more unequal.

There are three ways that the human-robot relationship is already impacting inequality:
• First, the disabled do not have equitable access to increasingly powerful prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons.
• Second, although we are quickly shrinking the “digital divide,” online robots and the Net are allowing the lucky 1 percent to take jobs from the 99 percent.
• Third, automation is hollowing out the middle strata of jobs faster than it is eroding work at the top and the bottom.

Everyday in the United States, about 500 people have a limb amputated, often as a result of diabetes or heart disease. New prosthetics that provide direct motor control and sensory feedback offer a dramatic improvement in their quality of life…for the lucky few who can afford these new robot limbs. Standard prosthetic limbs already cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the fittings, rehabilitation and replacements can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the limits imposed by insurance companies, many amputees find the costs prohibitively expensive, restricting their choice of technology. This summer Medicare adopted new restrictions on patients’ access to advanced prosthetic limbs, such as denying access if the amputee had ever used a cane or crutch. Likewise, new motorized exoskeletons and implanted brain-computer chips offer people with degenerative nerve disorders and spinal cord injuries the possibility of walking and controlling their environment again, if there were insurers willing to pay for, and support a market, for them.

The rapid closing of the “digital divide” — inequality in our access to the online information and robots that determine so much about our economic prospects — is a more positive story. There are still one in 50 Americans who cannot afford a connected device, and pockets of the United States that have limited access to high bandwidth connections. But almost everyone in the developed world now owns a device that connects them to the Net, and even farmers in the developing world can afford smartphones.

One of the effects of online connectedness, however, is that some well-wired firms and workers can begin to do work that used to require a face-to-face encounter. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing as online retailers — with far fewer workers — grow. Online airline booking is displacing travel agents, one professor can now teach tens of thousands of students, and a lawyer with the right expert systems can do work that used to require a team of attorneys and paralegals. The coming decades will see advances in human enhancement — the boosting of the brains and bodies of the affluent with drugs, gene therapies and nanotechnology — which will allow them to be even more productive, and accelerate income inequality even further.

These trends are happening as rapid advances in robotics and automation are replacing jobs that involve the routine physical and mental tasks more common in middle-income jobs. Low wage jobs tend to require complex manual dexterity and interacting with people, while high-wage jobs tend to involve complex creative, analytical and social skills. So far, robots aren’t very good at manual dexterity, social and emotional intelligence, or creative and analytical work — although they are improving in all those areas. But even if some jobs remain immune to automation, the robot economy is likely to leave a growing number of us unemployable. For instance, automated trucking is poised to displace America’s three and half million truck drivers in the next decade, and then 3D printing will begin to reduce the need to move things from A to B.

Without radical public policy responses, these technological trends are poised to make us even more unequal and more economically insecure. Here are two key focus areas:

First, we need to ensure universal, equitable access to enabling technologies. Insurance coverage for advanced prosthetic replacement parts should be required. And as pharmaceutical, genetic and prosthetic enablements become more powerful, we will also need to ensure that those are accessible to everyone.

Second, we need policies to redistribute the wealth and leisure created by technological innovation, such as a shorter workweek, progressive taxation, and a universal basic income guarantee.

Our robotic and cyborg future can be one of more equally shared prosperity, but only if we begin to reverse the polarization already underway.

Hughes headshotJames J. Hughes is Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





All views expressed are those of the author.