There is a division among the global elite that was apparent at the World Economic Forum held recently in Davos, Switzerland. On the one side you have the tech revolutionaries from Silicon Valley loudly touting technology's benefit to humanity. According to Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com who was on a panel that opened the forum, "there's never been a more exciting, more fun, more energetic time."
But some economists and politicians are starting to highlight the downsides of rapid technological disruption. They are worried that technology is widening the gap between the rich and poor across the globe. After decades of gains, income inequality is on the rise as low-skilled workers are being displaced by not only cheaper labor in overseas factories but also new technologies.
As robotics and artificial intelligence advance, many expect this trend will spread to service industries and start hitting traditionally "white collar" workers, like researchers, academics and lawyers.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt spoke about this in a WEF briefing, saying that it's "a race between people and computers [that] people need to win."
Schmidt might know what he's talking about. Google recently paid a reported $500 million for DeepMind, a secretive company focused on artificial intelligence and "machine learning,"
A machine learning expert at Carnegie Mellon who is familiar with DeepMind wrote that it is "trying to build a system that thinks" without human input.
In order for humans to win and equally benefit from rapid technological advance, economist and Former US Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers said that there needs to be more investment in education and social protection. But he doesn't think political leaders are strong enough to take sufficient action.
If they don't, the gap will widen between those who have the education and skills to use and exploit technology for their benefit and those who don't. The rich will continue to get a lot richer, the middle class will continue to get smaller and the number of poor people will increase. This is not a new trend but even the elite leaders in Davos acknowledged that it is accelerating.
So far the tech industry has avoided popular backlash. A new global study from Edelman, a PR company, found that 79% of people trust technology companies while only 51% trust banks.
As we enter this accelerated phase of the technology revolution, with the "internet of things," automation and artificial intelligence, we need to make sure that we keep up with the technology. Technological advance has the amazing potential to create wealth and improve the quality of life, but it can also be damaging and disruptive to those who aren't prepared.
In Davos there were lots of comparisons to the industrial revolution, which led to an unprecedented and dramatic re-shaping of the world.
Are we ready for what's coming next?