Developing technology to help… not hurt

For the majority of my formative years, I have been obsessed with automation. Seeing a robot perform a human (or superhuman for that matter) motion gives me goose-bumps. I’ve been known to laugh and clap my hands like a little boy while watching “How its Made” on the Discovery channel…

I love technology, and the freedom it has granted mankind from the mundane. File cabinets? Card catalogs? Long Division? Replaced with databases, kiosks and calculators. For the most part, the changes have been liberating.

No longer are we forced to categorize information by a single trait — databases allow us to organize our files however we choose, and form elaborate relationships among the various sources of information. That is, customers need not be sorted from A to Z only; now we can sort them by location, age, occupation, or shoe size (if we have such information…). The data itself has been set free.
Libraries – the great repositories of information – were once bound by the same. Books can only be sorted in one fashion, and finding a book based on subject matter or publication date was tedious at best. Maintaining this alternate index required constant maintenance, and hundreds of tiny drawers.

Automation comes at a cost, unfortunately. One auto assembly line robot can perform the work of several humans with super-human speed and accuracy; and they don’t go on strike.

Technology should be helping mankind. It should allow us to use our resources more effectively, and focus our energies on making the world a better place. When a dangerous job is performed by a robot instead of a man, that man does not get to move on to better jobs – he is unemployed.

There can be no doubt that technology has improved life for all people to some extent, but not nearly as much as it could.

In church last week, I heard about a nursing home in the Eau Claire area that is run down to the point of being dangerous. During the pastor’s visit, there was a single attendant for all the residents. The floors were dirty, with trash all over the place. People were standing in the hallway with every manner of assistive medical device precariously hanging off them. The woman the pastor was visiting was on a ventilator that became plugged while he was there.

What is the problem? Why is there only one attendant? Why can’t they keep the place clean?

Money. They cannot afford to hire enough people, and they cannot afford to pay the people what they deserve.

This is where automation technologies are needed; not in a toll-booth plaza.

There is, of course, a catch-22.

Say we develop a computerized system that makes it possible for a single person to manage a nursing home. Who will benefit from this system? If we can make it affordable, the run-down nursing home might become livable again. But, the swanky corporation-owned “assisted living” facility will also benefit — and lay of the majority of their staff. The reality is that these technologies are never affordable – only those that do not need them can afford them.

If we find a way to fill in the gap where another person genuinely cannot be afforded, companies that CAN afford it will seek to increase profits and fire everybody.

How then do we do it? How do we replace people without displacing them?

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