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When you consider how rapidly technology is advancing, it’s hard to visualize what the world may look like in the year 2525, a time in the future popularized by Denny Zager and Rick Evans’ 1969 No. 1 hit song “In the Year 2525.” Evans wrote the song in 1964, the same year that the first commercial desktop personal computer, called the Programma 101, was launched at the New York World’s Fair by Olivetti. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks in early July 1969, which was the same month that the first man walked on the moon, and a year after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released at the box office. It’s unclear whether the space race and dawning of the personal computer age were inspiration for the song’s dark outlook on the dangers of technology or if its popularity among listeners was a direct reflection of the shared angst felt over a future overtaken and dominated by technological innovation. But, as the duo chronicled each century from 2525 to 9595, in the year 5555 the lyrics predict automation taking over human tasks, leaving humans with “arms hanging limp at your sides. … Some machine is doing that for you.”
The concern over advancing technology has been ongoing most likely since the advent of the wheel but certainly has taken on a serious tenor as automation continues to replace tasks and jobs once thought the exclusive realm of skilled workers. Now machines and the software that drives them have made inroads on the last vestige of what was considered the untouchable high ground of human intelligence. The ability to analyze digital data and create one or more proposals based on that data is a relatively new frontier for digital systems. It is a decision-making task devoid of human subjectivity that technology could and can perform faster and more reliably than humans. The conventional reaction to any such advancement in artificial intelligence is that it further threatens jobs and livelihoods, a thought process that limits the ability of workers and employers to think beyond those individual tasks being taken over by automation. If, by contrast, technology is viewed as a problem-solving partner, one that can complement rather than take away, then the business thought process can be pushed forward to take on more sophisticated and difficult cases and tasks that play to our mental strengths and are beyond the scope of automated hardware and software.
The Nebraskan duo Zager and Evans never had another hit song after topping the charts with “In the Year 2525”. As for their followers? They soon forgot their fears and went on to embrace Pong and the Walkman, the VCR and CD, the Palm Pilot and Facebook, the iPhone, SmartWatches, Amazon, and Google, and gave birth to new generations who in the next decades and centuries may be transported in bio-fueled self-driving cars, communicate using ultra-thin OLED touch surfaces, and navigate the world through sophisticated augmented reality glasses. And just maybe technology in the coming centuries can help us solve some of our most pressing humanitarian and environmental issues.