By Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman
In a recent experiment, a computer program correctly diagnosed 90 percent of lung cancer cases, while human doctors had a success rate of only 50 percent, as reported in the book “Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow,” by Yuval Noah Harari. CT scans and mammograms are routinely checked by computer programs that provide doctors with a second opinion.
Today, facial-recognition programs can identify people far more efficiently than humans can. Police and intelligence services now often use such programs.
In the past, machines competed with humans mainly in manual skills. Now they are competing in cognitive skills. The implications of this technological revolution, which will fundamentally alter the way we live and work, are troubling and exciting and raise ethical issues, as well. Transition can be very disruptive, as the Industrial Revolution during the 19thcentury demonstrated. Production increased tremendously, bringing wealth and power to Great Britain, but this wealth did not initially go to the working class.
Landowners were enclosing common village lands; people flocked to towns and factories to get work.
Life expectancy of 45 years
From 1790 to the 1840s, laborers, including children, worked 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. In pre-industrial society over 80 percent of people lived in rural areas. By 1850 most people lived in cities, which were overcrowded and filthy. Cholera, tuberculosis, typhus and influenza ravaged the new industrial towns. In 1841 the average life expectancy was 45 years, but only 37 in London. We hope the technological disruptions will not be as painful in the 21st century.
Let’s consider some problems. What are the health implications of sitting in front of a computer screen for hours? Are there health implications in the use of cell phones? Most important, what is the impact of technological changes on the workplace? What will the job market be like?
According to the World Health Organization, mobile phone use increases exposure levels to electro-magnetic fields and increases the risk of cancer. The type of radiation coming out of cell phones is called non-ionizing. It is not like an X-ray. Results from the largest international study on cell-phone use and possible cancer development, released in 2010, showed that participants who used cell phones for 10 years or more had double the rate of brain glioma, a type of tumor.
One of this column’s authors, Reba Goodman, was involved in the fundamental research on the effects of electromagnetic fields on DNA and the implications from cell-phone use.
Technology’s effect on job market
Technology, especially automation, machine-learning and artificial intelligence, will drastically reduce the number of available jobs in the near future, perhaps within 20 years. Some contend that the same technology that is taking away jobs will open up new job opportunities. One thing is certain: The job market will change. New jobs will require more education and skills.
A 2017 report by consultants McKinsey and Company concluded that current technological developments have the potential to eliminate over one billion jobs. An even more pessimistic assessment in 2013 by an Oxford University study concluded that in the United States approximately half of all jobs would disappear in 20 years.
Annual guaranteed income
What to do? One controversial proposal to cope with this eventual massive unemployment is an annual guaranteed income, and a number of countries have introduced experimental pilot programs. Martin Luther King Jr., in his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here,” in 1967 said, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a new widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
Technological developments can create many benefits but these benefits should be shared.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman, are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.