By Andrew B. Raupp

The increasing use of technology in our society means that we’ll soon have a host of new potential solutions for some of our most persistent social problems. But we also must face the reality that technology might actually exacerbate some of these issues as well.

By taking a proactive, clear-eyed stance about both the benefits and potential drawbacks of increased access to new technological systems – including automation and artificial intelligence (AI) – we can begin to imagine a world in which humans ground all future digital advancements in a solid foundation of shared ethics and values. If we succeed at doing so, we may hold the keys to unlocking one of the most challenging social issues: intergenerational poverty. But if we are not careful, the very innovations we’re currently working on can actually doom our most vulnerable community members to an even steeper climb out of the cycle of poverty.

The Cycle Of Poverty (And How Technology May Accelerate Intergenerational Poverty)

When we talk about intergenerational poverty, we’re talking about a cycle that limits access to opportunity and social mobility. When families experience poverty and lack the tangible financial resources to change their situation, they may often have difficulty sharing skills or tools with their children for exiting the cycle. The stress of meeting basic needs takes all precedent in the family, and children learn that the only way to survive is to focus on getting basic needs met. Often times, people trapped in this cycle are forced to use all of their time, energy and resources on dealing with the significant challenges of meeting their immediate needs, never getting the opportunity to connect to longer-term resources.

As reported in The Atlantic, Dr. Elisabeth Babcock, the President and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), explained that intergenerational poverty creates, “vicious cycles where stress leads to bad decision-making, compounding other problems and reinforcing the idea that they can’t improve their own lives.” So, can technological tools help people break this cycle and live better lives? Perhaps, but it’s important to note that technological advancements may actually reinforce these painful cycles.

The fears around automation are myriad: Workers are afraid of losing their jobs, and, as a recent article in The Verge made clear, the rise in automation may actually stymie workers who rely on entry-level jobs to boost their social mobility. The article reveals that studies suggest that the retraining made necessary by automation will be challenging for the working poor, while “individuals from wealthier backgrounds [will be] more able to do so.” However, those “with working class or poorer backgrounds [will be] far less likely to retrain after university.”

But Does Technology Also Hold The Key To Reversing The Cycle Of Poverty?

Despite the real concerns about automation and AI actually widening the equity gap, there is hope on the horizon as well.

For starters, we can look to the 23 Asilomar AI Principles put forth by the Future of Life Institute in 2017. These 23 guiding principles can serve as an ethical foundation for integrating technology without leaving already-marginalized people behind. Highlights from this list include:

No. 14, Shared Benefit. “AI technologies should benefit and empower as many people as possible.”

No. 23, Common Good. “Superintelligence should only be developed in the service of widely-shared ethical ideals, and for the benefit of all humanity rather than one state or organization.” Technology is also already helping organizations and individuals, in concrete ways, build bridges to equity and access. A recent guidebook from Penn State examines the ways in which technology can connect people across generations to help strengthen family and community ties, as well as overall health and wellness. The guidebook suggests that “Technology is being used in ways that build and nurture new relationships that contribute to new opportunities for learning and community engagement. One important theme noted by several respondents is how reducing digital exclusion can contribute to a reduction in social exclusion.” By reducing exclusion, people stuck in cycles of poverty can better engage with resources and support systems that provide access to opportunities.

In addition, technology is also helping to inform communities about better providing opportunities to people whose brains have literally been altered by the constant stress of poverty. Dr. Elisabeth D. Babcock, whose EMPath program is all about helping people break out of the cycle of poverty, said in a 2014 report, “Although brain science is just beginning to produce information on how social bias, persistent poverty and trauma affect executive functioning, many practical steps can be taken to apply this knowledge to improve policies and programs. Very little is known at this point about the actual impact created by such applications, but research suggests that the potential is great.”

Harnessing information about the brain to create more meaningful solutions for people trapped in intergenerational poverty is a concrete way in which technology can make a serious impact on this issue. Pursuing research and developing concrete digital systems that tap the great potential of humanity is what living in this new digital landscape should be all about. By creating and adhering to ethical principles designed to prevent a widening equity gap, then working to identify better ways for engaging people who are in poverty, we can collectively help children emerge from the cycle. When people are able to break free, they can then go on to be productive members of society who are more than capable of creating solutions to the problems that plague us today – problems that will become just a memory of tomorrow.