Photo: dronepicr. Source: Wikimedia. CC-BY-2.0
The fears are as old as modern civilization: intelligent machines go crazy and turn on their creators. Two centuries ago, Mary Shelly wrote “Frankenstein” about an artificial man; William Shakespeare puts Caliban in “The Tempest,” a half-human creature who turns on his master; in 1675 a group of weavers in England destroyed the looms that were threatening their jobs. The problem became so widespread that in 1727 Parliament made such sabotage a capital offence.
But technology is always advancing. It’s been said that the factory of the future will have some robots, a person, and a dog: the human is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to make sure the person doesn’t mess with the robots. Pretty boring for the person! But it’s not just manufacturing: online computer courses threaten today’s universities; automated trading algos make stock exchanges unnecessary; restaurants are using tablets and fast-casual food lines to reduce or eliminate the need for servers. If robots can do it, they will do it.
Photo: Icaplants. Source: Wikimedia. CC-BY SA 3.0
Innovation comes in waves, and it disrupts everything around it. The dramatic improvements in agriculture in the 19th century created a depression in crop prices and spurred massive global migration. They also contributed to political chaos and a couple of world wars. That’s why it’s so important to manage the transition.
Technological progress is inevitable. It makes all of us better off collectively but makes some folks worse off in the process. The key is to have structures in place that provide meaningful assistance for those displaced by the process: retraining, pensions, or something else. But we can’t put toothpaste back in the tube, and we can’t go back to a utopian, romantic past that never really existed.
After all, “utopia” literally means “no place.”
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”