Having noted that there are seven billion human beings now weighing down the planet, most struggling for subsistence, the question that keeps corporations up at night is “How can we turn these poor wretches into consumers?” And more often than not the answer is “tether them with technology that we’ll constantly monitor and update.”
Due to the dispersed nature of talent and resources, high-tech expertise nests in niches, nooks, and crannies in all sorts of places, pursuing separate goals that may or may not be related. To maximize the market potential of up-and-coming makers and capitalize on it, corporate chiefs, technologists, government policy makers, non-governmental organizations, and academics have learned to meld minds to find ways and means to get the downtrodden up to speed in the digital economy. Many hard-striving institutions of higher learning have assumed the guise of problem-solvers-to-the-world to hone the bleeding edge of innovation to razor sharpness, and no one does it better than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Every spring since 2015, MIT has convened an extensive and expensive exhibitionist event called SOLVE, which amazingly doesn’t seem to be an acronym. If it were, it might signify Slough Off Luminaries’ Valuable Expertise. At the opening event, MIT’s President shatters glass to release from confinement panels of experts that run the gamut from CTOs to retired diplomats to venture capitalists to heads of NGOs, with a few professors mixed in, most of whom have founded companies.
SOLVE’s thirty-odd “solvers” sequester themselves in high-voltage working groups, generating creative energy by rubbing against dozens of invited “change agents” (who pony up from ten to one hundred thousand dollars in spare change for the privilege) to wrestle four major societal and environmental challenges into submission. That first year, they chewed through education, healthcare, energy, and infrastructure. Working groups were instructed to dissect the challenges into smaller, more manageable problems under the rubric “Learn, Cure, Fuel, Make” in a series of roundtables, demos, debates, plenaries, and oh, “Jeffersonian Dinners” over three days. SOLVE eventually publishes some of its solutions, but seems to keep most of them under wraps. The solvers, change agents, and their organizations get to keep most of the results.
SOLVE is institutionally linked to an MIT pitching contest called the Inclusive Innovation Challenge that urges organizations to put their best ideas and practices forward to win big prizes ($1M gets split up). IIC describes its charter like this:
We live in perhaps the greatest age of technological innovation in human history. Yet many people are not experiencing the benefits of this progress, despite actively seeking to more fully participate in and benefit from new educational, financial, and work opportunities. Many jobs that were once pathways to guaranteed prosperity have dramatically changed or disappeared. The IIC believes that Inclusive Innovators, wielding technology as a tool, are creating solutions to this challenge today. By reinventing the future of work, Inclusive Innovators are empowering people to improve their income and participate more fully in our rapidly evolving digital economy.
Last year’s IIC grand prizewinner is a startup called 99Degrees that’s rebirthing apparel manufacturing in the struggling ex-mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts (“Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution”). In the words of founder Brenna Nan Schneider, her firm produces “active-wear and wearable technology apparel for leading and emerging brands and over fastest turn production, on-demand customization, and agility to respond to shifts in demand. We are redefining the apparel manufacturing industry while creating jobs that catalyze opportunity and advancement.” Sounds great to me. I’ll have what she’s having.
Schneider says 99Degrees prides itself on being “agile, more collaborative, highly automated, and incredibly fast-changing,” all nouveau économie de rigeur buzzwords. She maintains that offshoring apparel is a moribund model that her company leapfrogs by rapidly responding to shifting consumer tastes and short-circuiting cumbersome supply chains to deliver new fashions on demand, all while training employees in new technologies and paying them living wages. What’s not to love?
Well, it might not be so adored by garment workers in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Haiti and Mexico when their starvation-wage jobs repatriate themselves, but that’s going to take a while. Hopefully they can look forward to remittances from their American cousins. And it’s far from obvious which of 99Degrees’s uplifting working conditions will survive after Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, or even Nike acquires it. After all, isn’t the raison d’être for startups to ramp up, cash in, and do it again?
At this year’s SOLVE plenary, one speaker after another was obliged to point out that technology can be good, bad, or neutral; it’s “we” (researchers, technologists and entrepreneurs) who decide which pill to take. As former DoD Chief Ash Carter said there, “Think about your responsibilities as an innovator… It’s not a birthright that technology does only good things or only bad things. That’s a choice that we make. Historically the [impact] has been overwhelmingly positive.” Like his agency’s choices to spiff up the US nuclear arsenal, deploy dozens of new bases for drones across the globe, and conduct whale-incapacitating sonar experiments. And if Trump succeeds in raining down upon DoD forty-five extra gigabucks, it will be innovation galore in the invasion technology space. Were they directed to higher education, those bucks could make college free for every student enrolled in a public university. But we wouldn’t want that; it would stifle their motivation to study hard, graduate, and get a job in retailing to repay their student loans.
Now, if you are a technologist or work at an organization that creates, deploys, manages, fixes, or uses technology (and that’s pretty much all workplaces), you should be worrying over whether or not what you all do with technology does no harm.
Think carefully, because there are megatons of untoward side effects out there. Consider, you might, industrialized agriculture as it merrily tills, seeds, waters and often poisons vast expanses of monocrops. The external prices are many for such practices, regardless of whether robots or undocumented immigrants provide the labor. Consider the megatons of soil lost to erosion, between 2 and 10 tons per hectare per year in US agricultural lands alone. The destruction is worse in arid regions, where irrigation and modern farming methods have brought erosion, salinization and nutrient depletion, rendering 12 million hectares of arable land per year unfit for cultivation. That’s more land than exists in North Dakota going out of production. Every year.
“But hold on,” you might reply, “people themselves have always depleted land, regardless of their agricultural methods. Technology alone isn’t to blame.” True enough, but tell me then why is the rate of soil depletion increasing faster than the human population? Why are sea levels rising to eat away even more land? It’s because we’ve steadily gotten better at getting things to go wrong in major ways.
It’s because of bugs. Bugs and misapplications. Bugs, misapplications, and unforeseen consequences. Consequences that can be severe, even catastrophic, usually borne by those who had no hand in creating them. Consequences that might have been predicted and avoided before they required remediation. Let’s bottle that idea and label it technoquences. Every flourishing and even struggling technology company should have a Department of Technoquences. And the goal for companies that remediate them should be to put themselves out of business.
But regardless of your occupation, as a human being, what’s your relationship to technology, your take on it? What’s good, bad, or ugly? What technologies do you use? Do you know how they work, what problems they were invented to solve, where they came from and how? Do you ever consider what problems they have created or exacerbated?
Take robotics, one of high tech’s current darlings. The media love them too, because they’re cute, peppy, and caper for the camera. Though predicted generations ago by science fiction writers who generally described unhappy technoquences devolving from creating machines in man’s image, propagandizing droids hasn’t been accompanied by an abundance of common caution or technoquential thought. Once a distant possibility, we are now told that robots are an immanent imperative. Because AI has gotten them up to speed. Because they get cheaper and more capable all the time. Because they are tireless and efficient and will liberate humans from mindless repetitive drudgery.
To do what, though? To paint a masterpiece, publish a novel, become a concert pianist, or to shoot up droids in video games, kids in high schools, or opioids up your arm? With extra leisure, sure, we could golf more, bowl more, eat more, and get more sleep, but to what purpose and effect? Those that hate their work enough to go on the dole might actively wish to be involuntarily terminated, but many people doing creative work can’t get enough of it. Wherever you work or whatever you work at, if it gives you a sense of enlightened and expanding capability, you probably would not want to relinquish that to a droid.
But few of us are that lucky. The problem for many workers is that employers already treat them as robots. Flipping the coin, most people who design and build robots, especially if they run the lab or the company, have no desire to have robots replace them, and there lies the rub. Aside from wealth and fame, the technoquences of their creative passion, if they think about them at all, don’t include them.
And aside from things like garage door openers, automatic washers and self-defrosting refrigerators, the first appliance in my generation’s lives that intimated that smart devices would usurp our powers was the hand calculator. From the 70’s on, nobody who had one needed to know how to extract a square root, compute a logarithm, or even memorize what seven times nine equals. Fast forward to today to find most people carrying calculators bundled into some mobile device. And if they eschew typing, they can ask Siri for the cube root of eleventy-seven any time they need it.
So, you see what this deal involves and where it leads: Instead of supplementing our capabilities, many tech innovations substitute gizmos for them. Technoquentially, the gizmos make our skills redundant and subject to atrophy. In terms of human accomplishment, AI plus automation can be a zero-sum game: The smarter our devices, the less we need to learn or remember beyond how to use them and keep their little batteries charged.
Of course, it isn’t and needn’t always be this way. Some of us still read books, study arcane subjects, and gab about them face-to-face. But powerful forces—market-making R&D labs, glory-bound entrepreneurs, and shark investors—are hard at work to push all intellectual activity online and convince torpid consumers to crave convenience more than agency. They mine our laziness and take it to the bank, leaving us to balance the books on what a meaningful life adds up to after deducting personal expenses, such as direct human contact and physical exercise. (But lest we forget, there are apps for that.)
Back at the Cambridge Tech Ranch, solvers have convened to lasso this year’s ornery steer, “Does technology still create more opportunity than it destroys?” They’ll repair to four corrals to brand solutions on each of these professed challenges:
- How can disadvantaged youth learn the skills they need to prepare them for the workforce of the future and thrive in the 21st century?
- How can every person improve their brain health and mental resilience?
- How can urban communities increase their access to sustainable and resilient food and water sources?
- How can women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds use technology to fully participate and prosper in the economy?
These are hard questions, given the way things are going, but I’ll bet nearly every last solution will involve some new technology or an amalgam of them. And I’ll further wager that every one will eventually require some remediation, but that’s for next year’s challenges.
Nevertheless, even though I wasn’t invited to SOLVE, I’ll pitch some solutions that I’m pretty sure the solvers will miss:
- Stop policing disadvantaged youths directly to jail without stopping to pick up an education.
- Improve brain health and mental resilience by taking a long walk outside every day while looking at your surroundings and go dark on the Net at least one day a week. Maybe smoke pot while you’re at it.
As for sustainable food, redirect a few billion DoD dollars (or get them from a tax on securities and commodity trades) to:
- Turn vacant lots into community gardens
- Subsidize (maybe through tax credits) food distributors to deliver pesticide-free non-GMO foodstuffs to independent grocery and convenience stores in blighted areas, whether urban or rural.
Access to clean water requires more slippery solutions, I’ll admit, but government still could:
- Pwn water destined for golf course and swimming pools and divert it to inner cities, which by the way urgently need to
- Overhaul water pipes to fix ubiquitous leaks and get the lead out, and meanwhile
- Distribute to households water filters that remove bacteria and heavy metals.
Ripping up an urban fabric to run new water mains would truly be a disruptive innovation, one which those disadvantaged youths could earn college tuition working on while on summer vacation. Those not cut out for manual labor could distribute the water filters, conduct household surveys, and make friends out of neighbors. The surveys could reveal what residents really want—from the city, local businesses, landlords, the police, and life. Then SOLVE can get to work on parsing that data.
The last challenge, how women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds can use technology to fully participate and prosper in the economy, is a bit of a stumper for me. If I read SOLVE’s mood ring right, the focus is not primarily on women and girls. What I think they’re asking is “What technologies can we engineer to assist women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds to fully participate and prosper in the economy?” How about giving them glass-cutters to bust through ceilings with? Glass-cutters like equal pay, family leave, subsidized day care, and yes, more STEM in school. Oh, and a living wage for all workers, paid for by taxes on Wall Street and repatriated corporate earnings, no new apps required.
See, you don’t need to be an expert to play this game. So here’s my disruptive SOLVE innovation challenge for next year:
How can we pry apart the iron grip that financial, industrial, and media elites have on incumbent politicians and democratic institutions to create a humane civil society with sane priorities that will be much less subject to corruption?
Next year’s solvers might come up with an app for that, but somehow I doubt it.