Can Technology and Automation Help Make Human Lives Safer and Easier?
The air conditioner was invented one hundred years ago. It was developed in New York City, where an engineer was tasked with solving a humidity problem for a printing press.
That solution proved to be revolutionary. Air conditioning meant that people could live in comfort even if they were living in a desert. It also increased the demand for electricity to be basically universal. Suddenly, every home had a reason to receive electricity, opening the way for more appliances to make use of this increased connectivity, from phones to refrigerators to ovens.
Where are we one hundred and twenty years later? Technology has certain advanced. But has it made life more complicated and dangerous? Or is life safer and easier than a century ago?
Solving Problems and Creating Problems
The answer to that question can best be ascertained by looking at whether or not technology has solved more problems that it has created. Think back to the spread of electricity: Suddenly Americans could solve all sorts of problems with electrical appliances.
But at the same time, powerlines had to be strung up and power stations had to be built. So, what is the cost of technology and automation? Let’s start by looking at the home.
Technology at Home
Beginning with technology, electricity demands have changed in an unexpected way since the 1900s. Most people might think that more complex home appliances would increase electricity demands. The opposite is actually true: Appliances have gotten more energy efficient.
Whether it is toasters, blenders, or computers, most of the technology you will find at home creates less burden on the power grid. This not only means that the electricity is less expensive. It also opens the way for alternative energy sources, like water, wind, and solar power.
One could argue that technology is not as durable as it used to be. And indeed, materials are more fragile, and many appliances are designed to not last as long. This means more waste is produced over time, though this is mostly the fault of the companies making the appliances.
They have a choice: Make appliances that last, or require people rebuy appliances. They choose the greedy option.
Automation at Home
Automation finds itself in much the same situation. In fact, automation is great for making homes even more efficient. Automated lights and ovens can shut themselves off from the power grid when they detect they are not in use. They can even coordinate with other appliances for this.
Appliances have gotten safer in many ways, but automation is where the real safety features show themselves. Things like automatic kill-switches for technology that detects the user is doing something dangerous. That would not be possible before automation.
This is to say nothing of the advancements made in home security, which sees home security systems with outdoor cameras regularly saving people from brazen robberies.
Technology at Work
While technological advances and automation at home have been pretty universally good, things are a bit more mixed in the workplace. It is far easier to feel the benefits and ignore the downsides of technology and automation at home. The workforce is what deals with the issues.
Everything can be catalogued now, and every catalogued data point can be delivered to someone who can find a way to extract value from the information. But is this mass communication revolution a good thing or a bad thing?
It is hard to give a definitive answer, as the situation is still developing. But what we can say is that the scales are tipping more and more every day towards this mass communication being a bad thing. It has caused some things to move too fast and others to move too slow.
Take, for example, workplace training. It used to be that a workplace training would do no more than teach an employee how to do their job. But now the bureaucracy of insurance liability has taken over workplace training. A million little lessons have to be completed for a person to do a simple job: How to clean up blood, how to manage a child, how to put out a fire, and so on.
Important lessons? Undoubtably. But they do not exist to benefit the employee. They exist so that companies can keep track of which mistakes are their fault and which are not their fault.
The real problem is that there is no end to it. The amount of liability that can be put on the worker rather than the company that they work for is unlimited. But the amount of extra training an employee can receive is limited. And the former is quickly outpacing the latter.
Automation at Work
Automation at work is a lot more even-handed, though 50% good for the worker and 50% bad for the worker is still a worse split than most workers would like. What makes the issue really complicated is that what is good is unambiguously good, and what’s bad is terrible.
The good of automation is the massive amount of safety and ease it has brought to a workforce. Taking construction as an example, a lot of measurements that could lead to dangerous accidents are done by infallible computers rather than imprecise humans now.
The bad is that some automation has resulted in jobs disappearing completely. If a company finds that it is cheaper to repair a machine that hire a person, they will pick the machine.
Of course, machines might be precise, but they are not adaptable. Some automation has actually proven the importance of a human component rather than refuting it.
This is why things are so split: Some people’s jobs have gone from dangerous to safe. Other people’s jobs have gone away completely. And as adaptable as humans are compared to machines, they are not quite adaptable enough to deal with progress.
Technology and automation are on their way whether we like it or not. The need for them is just too strong. But if they cause more problems that they solve, then they will go away whether we like it or not. Remember, these things exist to serve humans—not the other way around.