There’s an old curse: “may you live in interesting times.” Right now, we live on the cusp of one of the most interesting times in the history of mankind. A number of incredible and incredibly terrifying technologies loom just over the horizon. Few people seem to understand just how fast they’re coming.
As a society we won’t be ready.
At least not in the short term. The long term is still up for grabs. Let’s look at why. But before we get there, we need to back up and understand the difference between disruptive technologies and revolutionary tech.
Disruptive technologies are the kind that they teach you about in business school. You build a better mousetrap. A perfect example is the Dyson bag less vacuum. Until Dyson’s invention, the major vacuum companies all sold endless disposable bags to their customers. And they liked it. They had no incentive to change. Why not? It’s a subscription model. Instead of selling people something once, you peddle it to them multiple times. They created bag less tech themselves and buried it to keep their bag cartel operating.
Then Dyson came along and brought his tech to market. The results were predictable.
First the big companies ignored him, then they laughed at him, wondering how he would make any money with such an expensive product and then the product took off like wildfire, the only way a product ever does, on the winds of peer to peer recommendations.
Soon after, the big companies got scared. They fought back, nearly suing him out of existence. At one point Dyson went from something like 70 engineers and 3 lawyers to 5 engineers and 50 lawyers as he battled against the terrified companies.
Eventually he won. The industry was forced to change. Whole revenue streams evaporated overnight. But of course, society didn’t change all that much. Some companies had to change business models, others went out of business and some people got fired. Of course, none of this is fun for the various people involved in the change, but the overall effect on the rest of the world is minimal.
That’s the essence of disruptive tech. It changes industries. It effects businesses and the people who work there, but day-to-day life doesn’t change all that much.
Revolutionary tech remakes society. It changes the very way we live.
Some examples of revolutionary technologies:
- Printing press
- The Internet
- Double entry accounting
I won’t go into each of these and it’s by no means an exhaustive list but each and every one of these technologies remade how the world worked.
The printing press accelerated the spread of knowledge. Before the press the only books were generally religious books, copied over and over laboriously by hand. Few people owned them and few people could read. The printing press democratized knowledge and let people rapidly print anything they wanted. All kinds of subjects went down on paper as never before. Now for the first time, people could learn from the past and because of that they could build on the discoveries of their forefathers, producing rapid iterations, dramatically increasing our understanding of the world around us and letting us build bigger and better technology.
Farming changed how societies formed and coalesced. Before farming we roamed the world, following the migration of animals, hunting and gathering. After farming we settled into permanent homes and communities. From the rise of farming came centralization: organized government, bigger and bigger villages and cities, corporations.
Now a number of new revolutionary technologies are just around the corner. The difference is this time we’ve got a bunch of them coming together. Usually these technologies come one at a time or in very small clusters. They take decades or centuries to absorb. But these new technologies are coming like an avalanche and they’re about to happen all at once.
They are the following:
- Self driving vehicles
- Service robots
- Automation technology
- Autonomous killer robots
- Personal factories
- Gene editing
Tech writers recently spilled a lot of ink on self-driving cars and how they have the potential to destroy 10 million jobs rapidly. If I can take 1000 automatic-taxis, spread them evenly around NYC and replace a 100,000 taxis that’s more violently disruptive then Uber by miles. Not only could I replace those 100,000 taxis, which cost millions of dollars just to get a single medallion and are regulated to the point of absurdity, I can get them to anyone in 30 seconds to a minute and I can do it cheaper. No human could compete. Instead of paying salaries I pay maintenance fees to fix the vehicles. But taxis are just one example. How about getting an ambulance or firetruck to someone that fast? How many lives will that save?
The driverless revolution will start with commercial vehicles. In the next five years more and more truck drivers will be looking for work. The trucks themselves will get redesigns to be able to carry more load and they can drive all night without rest, something a human can’t compete with, and never will.
It won’t take long before personal vehicles become driverless. Elon Musk even suggests that in 20 or 30 years it will probably be illegal to drive yourself, because the error rates of humans driving will cause so many more accidents. It’s also likely that if I live in a city area I won’t even want a car. If I can have one to my door faster than I could have a butler fetch the one in the old world, why bother? Most cars get used about 3% of the time anyway, so best to save that money for more interesting things. That eliminates a whole host of service jobs like maintenance detail, lube changers, mechanics and the like.
Now I disagree with the overall 10 million number, mostly because I disagree with the Factor article that nobody will want to own cars. Human psychology is a strange and interesting beast. Sometimes we want things just because we want them and not because they have a practical purpose. Lots of people will choose not to have a car but many people will still want them for status or because they are now rolling personal offices with sleeper beds and desks and other things that make working or reading or watching media fun, not to mention we’re away from the kids while doing it and we don’t have to pay attention to the road. Once you take out forward facing seats and all the other stuff necessary to drive today, you have a cool personal space that is mobile. You can do a lot with that. Nevertheless some of these jobs are definitely going away. How many and how fast is anyone’s guess until it happens. Right now Uber is on the right side of the new-fangled “sharing” economy, allowing people who are out of work to work when they want to, or pick up extra money to pay that mortgage. Tomorrow they could be on the wrong side, putting those people already out of work out of work again.
Jobs on the lower end of the skill spectrum are hard to replace and the folks who do them often struggle to adapt to new jobs. If we wipe out millions of hauling jobs and put all the Uber and taxi drivers out of work, where do they go next? I’m not sure. Nobody seems to know. Historically something else has always developed but this time it’s not clear what that will look like.
It’s not just drivers that are about to get automated out of existence. Computers are getting better and better at doing more and more things. In my story, In the Cracks of the Machine, I write that the automation of service jobs will start in the fast food industry. It’s already happening and fast. You want $15 an hour? Companies will respond with how about $0 an hour? Everything has a cause and effect. They spend $50K on a machine that lasts a decade, pay it no wages and service it every so often. The robots don’t get bored, have discipline problems, take extra long breaks or piss in the drink of an angry customer. Every day more and more jobs are getting automated and those jobs are not coming back any time soon. The number of jobs that are invulnerable to automation is shrinking.
As we automate more and more jobs lots of futurists get very excited. They envision a society with little to no work where people can pursue leisure and time with their families. They expect a basic “universal living wage” to take care of all the necessities of life, when most jobs are done by machines. As a SF author I think it’s inevitable that we evolve to a point where a lot of the repetitive, boring jobs are done by machines, where we do in fact have the ability to pursue work if we want to or not at all. However, I don’t think we get there overnight and the path to get there from here is a very rocky one. What I worry about most is that we will delete all these jobs before we really know what to do with people. The likely outcomes from there are not pleasant: mass unemployment, no safety net, no way/will to create one and no alternatives leading to starvation and war.
In today’s political climate, where half the population thinks that anyone who doesn’t work is barely human, where illegal immigrants are stealing jobs they don’t want anyway and political groups that take opposing positions to everything just because, I can’t see us passing anything like a universal living wage, or even where the money would come from other than taxing the hell out of the few people who own all the tech that runs everything. That won’t fly and it’s not really ideal anyway. Who the hell wants to be dependent on the government for day to day living? Some alternative proposal is needed and I keep waiting to hear it. I haven’t heard it yet.
I read a book recently called the Joy of Not Working and the author spends a lot of pages to try to help people make the transition to not working in retirement or unemployment. He takes a surprisingly positive attitude to unemployment, arguing that we should love not working and enjoy it as some of the best times in our lives and yet as a society we are conditioned to need work and that when people become unemployed they suffer from depression and loss of purpose, even when most people hate their job. We have a love/hate relationship with our jobs. We don’t like them when we’re there but when they’re gone we miss them. He’s right. We should enjoy not working more but right now, in today’s world, that is a lot harder than it sounds.
I also don’t buy the idea that everyone will suddenly become an artist or craftsman overnight. That sounds a lot like a Utopia dreamed up by artists that will likely never exist. The love and pursuit of art is not universally shared. Lots of people consume art but not that many people would choose it as a full time career even now.
To make things worse we have other technologies coming down the pipeline that could exacerbate these conditions of war and strife, namely killer robots, where all you need to fight a war is some software and open source hardware. With the sorry state of our information security, that tech will get out. Don’t think so? Then how come all the Chinese military drones look exactly like ours? Because they stole the tech and/or reverse engineered it. In today’s world one person does the R&D and everyone else steals it.
Recently, such scientific luminaries as Hawkings and Elon Musk put together an open petition to keep the world from developing autonomous killing machines. It’s a noble ideal. Unfortunately, it simply won’t work.
What’s more likely to happen is that western governments will sign up and then do it anyway in secret and totalitarian and authoritarian regimes will charge ahead with it gleefully. A petition assumes everyone has the same moral values. This is never the case. There is a famous bumper sticker which says “Coexist” written in letters that represent different religions around the world. I saw an alternative sticker the other day that said “you can’t coexist with people who want to kill you.” In other words, high ideals are nice until someone doesn’t play by the same rules. In war and the arms race, everyone plays by the same rules: win.
You also have gene editing, namely via CRISPR technology. CRISPR technology has the potential to eliminate all kinds of disease, as it makes gene editing super simple and really, really cheap. Scientists are talking about editing out malaria from mosquitoes and targeting cancer cells with therapeutic smart bombs. Just program the code you are looking for, zero in on it and delete it. Of course, CRISPR tech also has the potential to be used as a terrifying weapon unlike any we have ever scene, including nukes. The Wired article I linked to above interviews one of the early innovators of CRISPR and asks him what his worst fear about the tech is and he mumbles something about weapons and doesn’t elaborate, saying he hopes to “take the idea to his grave.” Here’s the problem: it’s not that hard to figure out what he wasn’t saying if you think about it for even a little while. It’s not a stretch to think of micro robots or pills or sprays that can target populations of people based on genetic markers or traits which would be a boon to psychopathic, genocidal maniacs everywhere. In other words a genetic smart bomb. It’s easy to think of others, which I won’t elaborate on here either for fear of putting them out in the collective unconscious. It won’t matter. Someone else with psychopathic tendencies is likely thinking about it right now. Hell they may even be looking at it in a lab already.
Once someone does it, we will do it too and eventually we will do it openly. The problem is the human mind: once we see an idea we can’t let it go. Someone will make it happen and that leads to another inevitable outcome. Life is an algorithm. It follows the same basic patterns over and over. You can try to ban human editing of embryos, but all it takes is for one person or place to do it and suddenly the cat is out of the bag. Scientists in China already attempted to edit an embryo. Others will follow.
Any time we have tried to suppress technology in human history, we’ve failed. The Luddites tried to hold back the textile machines. The Japanese tried to keep guns off the island. All of this works for a little while, right up until it inevitably doesn’t. We can outlaw genetic engineering of children, ban Terminators and insist on quotas for human drivers versus machine. It just won’t matter long term. In the short term, it will work, kind of, for a little bit and then it won’t.
A lot of people have pointed out the horse and buggy versus automobile as an example of new tech fears that never materialize. The car did not destroy whole industries, it made them. Very true. But today just might be different. When the automobile replaced the horse, horse populations rapidly declined and they exist at around 10% of their commercial peak today.
In this case, we are the horses.
And now we are out of a job.
Is our only possibility to decline? Are we living at the peak of human population growth? I don’t know but I don’t see any answers yet and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I do have a few possibilities though for a more rosy future, even if we have to go through some bumps to get there.
One of the technologies I mentioned that has the potential to disrupt work as we know it: personal factories, aka 3D printers and their inevitable successors, nanoscale factories and eventually atomic factories can change all this for the better. If I no longer have to centralize manufacturing and I can print up anything I need, do I really need to work anyway? It’s likely that all I would need to purchase are the raw materials to make whatever I want. Even better I can build anything that I need that is custom to me. In the days of 3D printing I can’t print up food (actually I can, just not food I really want – yet), so I would still need to grow food or barter for it, but as we move to nanoscale or atomic printing I can print that too.
Ironically, we may be able to look to our past for a solution to the coming problems. Before the industrial revolution the idea of full time employment was an incredibly rarity. Most people had a full time job called farming and raising children. They worked their asses off, but not for some centralized entity. They built their own house or inherited one that got passed down, farmed for all their food, traded for other things they needed and did odd or scattered jobs in the community. People had big families because they needed additional labor. The 3D printing revolution has the opportunity to take that to a new level. Now I am not just trading for things built by a limited number of local craftsman. I don’t need a big old family to build things for me because I can print them. I can download an infinite amount of amazing things.
There’s also the foundations of the sharing economy already in place: peer to peer trading/automatic routing/sharing/mutual ratings and money exchange that takes us well beyond just the local community. There’s an Uber for everything. AirBnB to rent a house. Want a bike? A power tool? Someone to pick you up? Dinner? How about a personal valet to park your car? There’s an app for that. Someone will show up with a scooter and park your car and fetch it when you need it. Need a dress of one event? How about a doctor to come check you out at home? Doctors haven’t made house calls since the 50s. They do now. That will help a society that needs to barter and trade things faster and wider. Maybe cities start to spread out again.
When it comes to eating, I can grow food in a compact location and farming tech has gotten more and more precise. Already the Japanese are using special lights built by GE to grow food indoors rapidly and without pesticides. In a short period of time I could have one of these in my house and have fresh, bug and pesticide free vegetables year round, regardless of weather conditions or season. If it’s not feasible to have them in my home I could have small collectives in the city or local towns that feed people the way energy companies supply electricity now via subscription. Perhaps the universal living wage is free 3D printing bar and food from indoor farms? Need some more housing? Print it up.
That’s just one way this could all go down. The future is hard to see, even for people who spend a lot of time looking at it. As Yoda said, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”
In the end, not working would be fantastic. I would love to spend all my time on my art, with my friends, eating, drinking, playing with family and my animals. I also happen to be a writer and enjoy making art. Not everyone does. I think as a society, a place where we all have micro-farms, print up most of things we need and trade for others is fantastic. Unfortunately, we can’t just leap to that place of a universal basic wage and post-scarcity. We likely have to go through a painful period where we have a lot of people who were born with the idea that work is the only purpose in life suddenly out of a job with no way to support themselves and no alternatives in sight. I hope that the old saying “necessity is the mother of invention” is true. When these problems hit, they are likely to shift the old political ideals of what is right and wrong and perhaps we can solve these issues before they get out of hand. Then again, if you’ve ever watched CSPAN, it’s hard to hold out much hope.
I only know one thing for sure:
You can’t fight the future.