My Turn: Dangers will lurk in the new frontier

Before last week’s “Brexit” vote, there were a record 1,810 billionaires in the world, according to Forbes magazine.

Topping the list, of course, is Bill Gates, whose worth was pegged last spring at an astonishing $81.1 billion, the business magazine estimated. His good friend, Warren Buffett, is said to have a net worth of $73.8 billion, nearly doubling that of Charles and David Koch, each of whom is said to have some $39.6 billion in their respective holdings.

As the co-founder of Microsoft, Gates – it has been said – wouldn’t stoop to pick up a crisp $100 bill if it rained from the heavens and landed at his feet.

Mr. Microsoft’s rationale in snubbing his nose at a C-note, the story goes, is that a measly $100 isn’t worth a few seconds of his time as he marches smartly toward becoming the world’s first trillionaire.

Critics of the modern day Daddy Warbucks undoubtedly enjoy telling – and re-telling – the story, as if Gates has lost all touch with the financial reality of the times. Those who admire his breathtaking business feats justifiably take umbrage at the cold-hearted nature of the story, preferring instead to view Gates as the foremost pioneer of the software industry who is making more of a habit in recent years of spreading his wealth to various charitable concerns.

While he was still Microsoft’s CEO, Gates was asked what “motivates” him in a business sense, and his answer gave hope that his true genius had yet to be realized.

In laymen’s terms, Gates said he was ever mindful of one business mission: to make computers easy to use.

The statement offered graphic evidence that the U.S. has had a hard time harnessing a knowledge explosion beyond modern comprehension. The impact of science and technology, of computers, electronics, and high-speed communications is reshaping American society to new bounds.

Over the past two decades, technological advances have reduced both the size and cost of computer equipment, spurring the development of hand-held gizmos that seemingly pop out of everyone’s pocket.

Mobile units are now programmed to function as teachers, dieticians, bookkeepers, watchmen, matchmakers, and stock analysts. In effect, they have become household nerve centers. Whether this bodes well for the nation is conjecture at best, non-sense at worst.

Based on daily horror stories of mechanized marvels gone awry, evidence is mounting that Americans are becoming so frustrated by showdowns with computers and other automated devices that they have resorted to punching, kicking, and berating the silent machines that once were heralded as milestones of modern time.

All this comes on the eve of the era of autonomous cars, the so-called “driverless” automobiles that are fully capable of navigating their way along the highways and byways without the need for human input.

The rewards, proponents of autonomous cars contend, are great in terms of safety and convenience. Those on the flip side wonder if the auto companies may regret ever stepping into the new frontier, given the fact that the equipment is open to manipulation by computer hackers.

In other words, it may be time to order a reprinting of Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile.” It could be ripe reading for a nation that is grappling with a technological explosion that continues to raise moral and philosophical questions about the quality of life.

As the world takes its next step into the high tech age, the overriding question is not whether to adapt to the changing technology, but to what end it should be put. It’s a query certain to give a man named Gates cause for pause, perhaps even long enough to fetch that errant $100 bill.

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