DANGERS are seen nowadays in everything technological, from robots to flying drones and two-wheeled "hoverboards". Physicist Stephen Hawking has warned that full artificial intelligence "could spell the end of the human race".
Such concerns are not new, says Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, co-director of the Oxford Martin programme on technology and employment. "Fears about technology, and certainly fears that technology will destroy our jobs, have been with us for as long as jobs have existed."
From the weaving machines of the industrial revolution to the bicycle, mechanisation has prompted concerns that technology will make people redundant, or alter society in unsettling ways.
In the early 1800s, Luddites smashed machines that put them out of work. Historians argue that later in the 19th century, the popularity of the bicycle aided female liberation, the growth of socialism, and the end of rigid class divisions, as people become more mobile.
But that changed after the industrial revolution, "as merchants saw the gains from technological progress, and they became increasing influential", Dr Frey says. Technological growth became linked to policy making, as the industrial revolution became both a political and an economic story.
"The more people benefit from technology, you see more rapid adoption of it."
Today’s greatest fears centre on robots and artificial intelligence. But even these are almost 100 years old.
The word "robot", from the Czech robota, meaning "slavery", was coined for writer Karel Capek’s 1920 play RUR. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In the drama, a sophisticated robot workforce (closer to the human-like replicants of 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner than machines) moves from subservience to eventually destroying humanity.
This dark threat seems to have hovered over our species, at least in fictional terms, ever since filmmaker Fritz Lang’s Metropolis of 1927. In Capek’s and Lang’s dystopias, companies create profits from marginalised, impoverished workforces while spoilt elites live privileged lives. Inevitably, the oppressed underlings rebel.
While drawing parallels with today’s wealth-divided society is almost irresistible, Frey does not see the same "rage against the machine" from the past that is reflected in these dramas.
"There are reasons to be concerned, but it is difficult to see which democracy would accept 1% of the population being dependent on machines and the rest of society deprived of work," he says.
However, the latest technological push has created few new jobs. Oxford Martin research found 8.2% of the US workforce moved into careers associated with new technologies in the 1980s. The equivalent number for the 1990s was 4.4%, while in the 2000s, it was 0.5%.
Frey says technology has increased the range of tasks skilled workers can perform.
"You would have assumed bank tellers would have been replaced by ATMs, but there are now more branch relationship managers, so jobs change," he says.
He adds that for every new tech job in London, about five jobs are added to the local economy as services from hairdressing to retail grow to meet demand, although in the future, automation may do away with some lower-skilled work.
Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School in the US who writes of the "unintended consequences" of technological change, says Silicon Valley is in too much of a hurry to profit.
"In previous times, it took technologies ages to advance to the stage where they could become a threat, so we had decades to discuss the transition from old to new. But that is no longer the case. Self-driving cars, for example, will be good for the elderly, but they will take away millions of jobs from people who drive cars for a living. Every technology has a dark side," he says.
Wadhwa predicts a science-fiction-like future, but says the outcome is not a certainty.
"I really see a Star Trek future, but the bad side would be Mad Max. It will be hard to work these things out, but I think we’ll get there. We need to be aware of the problems and start fixing them."
Perhaps, what is needed is better global regulatory models, possibly based on the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, to govern developments. The authority recently gave approval for experimental use of the DNA-editing process, Crispr, to switch genes on and off in a newly fertilised egg. Wadhwa thinks such a framework would be beneficial, but hard to enforce. "If we can’t agree between countries, how can we agree as the human race to a set of shared ethical standards?"
Instead of science-fiction, maybe we should consider the commercial and ethical success of technologies that were once considered highly disruptive.
We have been here before: the introduction of hoverboards and drones has similarities to the birth of the bike and internal combustion engine.
Like hoverboards and drones, bikes and cars had commercial and leisure uses, and we have, with legislation and time, become used to them. They brought economic benefits in terms of jobs and transport, but as Wadhwa says, technology produces unintended consequences.
For example, in 2014, 3.6-million cycles were sold in Britain, producing sales of £771m. The total new and used motor vehicle market in the UK was reported to be £88.5bn in 2014, up from £79.4bn in 2013.
Sales mean prosperity and employment for many, but there is a human cost. In 2014, 113 cyclists were killed in Britain and 3,400 seriously injured, mostly after accidents with cars. More than 1,700 UK citizens died in car crashes in 2013. This is before the effects of car pollution on human health and greenhouse gases have been counted, and these figures are for one country.
New technologies are likely to have similar side effects. In 1979, Robert Williams, a Michigan Ford car worker, gained a dubious Guinness World Records mention for becoming the first person to be killed by an industrial robot.
In December, a boy fell off a hoverboard in northwest London and was killed by a bus, the first such UK death.
© Financial Times Limited 2016