How Are People Like Aspen Trees?

Aspen trees are connected below ground through their roots, so an aspen grove can be thought of as a single, giant living organism. W. Brian Arthur, an expert on the economics of technology, thinks human beings are like aspen trees, and computer networks are like the roots that connect them. Arthur, an external professor of the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek about his vision during a break at the World Economic Forum.

Aspen groves are lovely, but Arthur’s vision isn’t: He worries that the computers will take over more and more of the functions that people used to perform, leaving them with little or nothing to do for paid work. Computers will create wealth, Arthur believes, but society will have to develop new ways of distributing that wealth to people who aren’t working for a living.

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