New technologies like connected cities, autonomous vehicles and machine learning may look and feel like the way of the future, but life on the bleeding-edge raises a key question: Just because we can, should we?
Most everyone in the public-sector IT community can map their careers — and many do — to key milestones in the Star Trek franchise that has spanned more than 50 years. The original television series debuted in 1966. Some 13 movies and multiple TV series have followed, including a much-anticipated return next year to The Next Generation timeline with Star Trek: Picard on CBS.
Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc, along with his crew, explored future scenarios for good or for ill. As popular culture sometimes does, Picard inspired, informed and occasionally chastened us.
Faced with the digital divide, technologists 30 years ago embraced the Picardian notion that “things are only impossible until they are not.” In the intervening period, they have pushed the widescale introduction of devices and connectivity to flip the ratio of haves to have-nots from about 30-70 to 70-30. While impressive on one level, those numbers ignore the subtleties of what is increasingly labeled digital equity, a reflection of contemporary concerns of inclusivity and diversity for marginalized populations. All of that should remind the aforementioned technologists of another Picard formulation: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.”
While the Internet has, to a great degree, collapsed the time and distance that historically constrained government service delivery, commerce, education and more, the conventional wisdom among many technologists and urbanists has pointed to cities as uniquely desirable places of opportunity to build the future.
But the literature around the smart cities movement, even the really compelling stuff, never asks whether we really want to do this, to build those future cities, forgetting Picard’s injunction that “You may test that assumption at your convenience.” Neither technologists nor urbanists asked, but a noted economist did.
MIT Economics Professor David H. Autor gave the prestigious Richard T. Ely lecture at this year’s American Economic Association, which showcased brand-new data that left the assembled group of hundreds of leading economists gobsmacked: Cities, it turns out, are only good places for as few as one in three people to live and work.
Unlike in earlier decades when cities provided a career escalator from entry-level positions to the executive suite, the contemporary urban workforce is rigidly bifurcated. The data shows there are now only high- and low-paying tiers, the latter in service to the former but occupied by people who would do better in lower-density communities outside of the city.
Add to this urban inequity something that feels truly futuristic even as it is increasingly used in industry and, to a lesser extent, government — artificial intelligence.
Last December, the Pew Research Center released a study on AI and the future of humans and developed five categories of concerns. They are included here not to address them definitively, but to encourage us to become conversant with the issues and think about responses that satisfy ourselves and our neighbors:
The good news is that we have time to prepare and develop thoughtful ways to address these concerns. And in considering any emerging technology, we must allow that the right answer may be “no.” Picard, however, was not one for one-syllable answers. He might put it this way: “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are.”