Will Technology Help or Hinder the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots?

BY Paul Solman  July 26, 2012 at 12:08 PM EDT

smartphones at a mobile telecommunication fair
Potential customers try various models of smartphones at a mobile telecommunication fair in Bangkok. Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images.

Paul Solman frequently answers questions from the NewsHour audience on business and economic news here on his Making Sen$e page. Here is Thursday’s query:

Name: John Henne

Question: Ray Kurzweil doesn’t think there are haves and have nots? What arrogance! How about my neighbor? A 55 year-old man with a nerve disease leaving him wheelchair bound, no health insurance and unable to live independently. He lives by holding down a part-time job where his wife accompanies him to work to do the typing and filing. How does that smart phone (which he can’t afford) help him?

Paul Solman: Kurzweil recognizes the divide between the haves and have nots. He simply thinks that technology will reduce, not exacerbate, it.

Watch Paul’s interview with Kurweil: As Humans and Computers Merge … Immortality?

Let me reproduce his answers to this line of questioning in full, something we have room for here, if not on the air.

Paul Solman: Do you not worry about the increasing divide that already has existed in his country economic divide, in the last 30 years or more, being exacerbated by knowledge, sophisticated knowledge in technology driving the world?

Ray Kurzweil: I don’t agree that there’s the have/have-not divide. You know, 20 years ago if you got a cell phone, that was a signal that you were a member of the power elite. Today there are 5-6 billion cell phones. All of them will be smart phones in a few years. So this is very widespread technology. In fact, anybody with a device like this [he shows me his smart phone] or any of these devices is carrying around billions of dollars of capability circa 20 or 30 years ago. Now you could say, OK, so when it comes to things like cell phones, people have very powerful devices. But you can’t eat your cell phone. That’s not going to give you housing.

That’s the key understanding, that these information technologies are going to now begin to effect these other areas which have traditionally not been information technologies. Having printed out modules with a three-dimensional printer to create a Lego-style new structure, we had a project like that here at Singularity University. Water, using nanotechnology to clean it up Energy, using nano-engineered solar panels.

In fact, three-dimensional printing is going to allow us to print out things, like clothing and all the physical things we need, at almost no cost. So every area — health and medicine — is now information technology [and they] are also going to become subject to exponential growth.

So, you and I are not going to be, functionally-speaking, more wealthy than other people who don’t have our jobs or our skills or our luck? There’s going to be a closing of the gap you see in the future?

Ray Kurzweil: Well, I think there’s still going to be variance in income. Income will be buying intellectual property. There will be a very robust open-source repository of all these types of information. So today, for free, you can get lots of music and movies and books. People still pay money to buy proprietary forms of music and movies and books and so on, and news sources. That’s going to be the source of the economy in the future. So if you’re wealthier, you’ll have access to more unique forms of proprietary information, but the floor will be elevated because you’ll be able to actually live very well on open-source forms of information

You don’t see an increasing gap in terms of the importance to the economy of people like yourself compared to most everybody else, and that that in itself would be corrosive?

Ray Kurzweil: Well, actually I do a lot of traveling around the world. A lot of societies, if you go back just a couple of decades, were very poor agrarian economies where most people were pushing a plow. [They] now have thriving economies largely based on information technology. The young people are extremely eager to learn about, to use, to get access to these technologies and so they’re using them. And in many places they’re ahead of the United States. So I don’t see, even in a place like Silicon Valley, that we’re that far ahead of the universal questing for access to these technologies.

People like to stay in touch and we see the sort of revolutionary democratization that these technologies afford politically but also in other ways, just access to the tools to create new companies and so forth.

In the last two years more people have cried on camera to me than in my entire career because they’ve lost their houses, because they’ve lost their jobs. My vantage point may be odd but it’s one in which I see an increasing gap between people like ourselves and so many Americans.

Ray Kurzweil: I think it goes back to the great job you’re doing in bringing problems to the fore. If you look at a broad enough perspective of time, not week to week, but if you look at it over the decades, we are far wealthier and healthier than we’ve ever been. And look at the nations that are rising in power and economic capability. If you had to compare their situation to what it was a few decades ago, the world is definitely making positive progress.

But it’s not the case that problems have gone away. We should keep doing an ever better job of learning about troubles so we can solve them.


Our full web series on Ray Kurzweil:

Futurist Ray Kurzweil on Melding of Man and Machine

Ray Kurweil’s Immortality Cocktail

Ray Kurzweil on Bringing Back the Dead

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.