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New Year’s horn tooting spawns a plethora of predictions about the year to come. I’m partial to look-ahead stories that preview life changes over the next several years, beyond the forthcoming 12 months. I found one in The Wall Street Journal with an unexpected topic: drones. We know drone aircraft for their military capability of delivering devastation to targets without placing human soldiers in harm’s way. But clever people are finding a host of new, peaceable uses that promise to make us more productive. The fascinating details are in an article categorized “Marvels” by Holly Finn. Agriculture might be among the first civilian uses. “The drones will be taking aerial images and stitching them together, sending back real-time indicators of changes in the field — water and pesticide levels, plant health — that could be invaluable to farmers,” Finn writes. Another use, for which a startup already is hard at work, is delivering small packages — such as medicines and water — to people in remote locations. Finn reports that a “team at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology is developing drones for health-care workers to deliver vaccines.” Of course there are potential privacy, safety, and logistical issues, and these need to be addressed as the use of drones becomes more widespread. But other concerns popped into my head when I read that Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, predicts, “The sky will be dark with them one way or the other." Here are two of my concerns:
- Though drones may be able to do some jobs that simply didn’t exist before, they will take on other tasks that will have the side effect of putting some people out of work. This age-old fallout from technological advances will be repeated ad infinitum, which means we need to develop a robust way of retraining those whose livelihoods are snuffed.
- Drones are scientific creations, compact packages of engines, sensors, and telecommunications. There are no jobs for high-school dropouts at the drone factory, or at the drone deployment service. If anything, drones will help widen the opportunity gap between the educated and the un-/under-schooled. Not only must our educational system be repaired fast, but also we need to develop ways to keep that system dynamically attuned to new economic and social demands.
Drones represent the kind of progress we hope for in seeking to boost U.S. economic growth. But we ought not ignore the problems that usually tag along with progress.
2012 Economic Growth Fellow
John Prestbo is retired as editor and executive director of Dow Jones Indexes. Previously he was markets editor at The Wall Street Journal. He has co-authored or edited several books over the past 30 years. The most recent is “The Market’s Measure: An Illustrated History of America Told Through the Dow Jones Industrial Average,” published in 1999 by Dow Jones Indexes. His column, Indexed Investor, appears on the highly regarded “MarketWatch” business and finance website. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University.Full Bio