Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pitfalls of Technology?

The other day, I was going through one of the newer editions of New Scientist. It is an excellent magazine - and it gets one up to date on advances in science and technology. One of the articles in the magazine talked about little robots which can climb the wall and walk on the ceilings - a design inspired by the gecko. Essentially geckos have little hair on their feet, which allow them to cling on to the wall using intermolecular van-der-wall's forces. But this is not what the post is about.

The story was very nice, well written and all that. But one particular line left a jarring impression on me. It was regarding potential applications of the upside-down robots. The inventors reckoned that their little robots could be used by people to paint walls and ceilings.

This set me off on a tangent which has little to do with the actual nitty gritties of said technology. Are little robots scouting the walls excreting paint what the world needs right now, with hundreds of thousands of people (especially in the third world) paying their monthly rent and feeding their families with day jobs as painters? Should we, at this point in time, be encouraging technology which will result in further unemployment?

I also do understand that this line of thought is not new. Mulayam Singh Yadhav, head of the UP based Samajwadi party, came up with a manifesto recently (which Sonia Gandhi calls a 'stone age manifesto'). The manifesto promised to minimize the use of computers in government - among other things. The argument, of course, was that computers do the work that people could do instead - therefore, technology destroys employment.

Let us consider a thought example. Suppose a company makes a significant breakthrough in dish-washing technology. It is willing to sell dishwashers that cost Rs 10,000 - which use very little water and electricity (and therefore do not have a significant monthly running cost). What possible impacts could this have on the Indian society? What about the servant maids who labour twelve hours a day seven days a week? Would it be fair to say that technology did indeed destroy employment - or forced their wages down?

Of course, some jobs were created in the factory which manufactures these dishwashers. But these just cannot replace the jobs lost by the servant maids (in number). The argument goes, that the money saved by the people by utilizing this technology could actually go into further investment - and this could end up creating employment opportunities. (You could ultimately start a business if you kept saving money, employing more people). This is exactly how it has worked so far in the west. But the question is: is the same model valid in India - where poverty is more extreme - and when an immediate denial of employment will result in immense financial hardship? (It seems that India's disastrous experiment with socialism for the first 40 years after its independence would indicate that shunning technology is just not an option),

This seems to indicate to me that there's a certain type of technology that opens doors - and there's technology that destroys jobs. A computer is a good example of technology that creates more opportunities (Mulayam Singh's manifesto notwithstanding) - just by making information easier to access. Cell phone service in India alone has created a lot of employment . But robots that paint the roof could be a different story altogether.

I'm no economist. I'm just thinking on a tangent here. I would not be surprised to hear that there's a gazillion papers building upon, corroborating, disproving and downright rejecting this notion in the literature.

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