At the end of his documentary series on the history of the human race, the British journalist and broadcaster Andrew Marr said that for human history “The most fascinating time in all of human history… is just around the corner“.
And he is probably correct… the number of human beings on the planet at this time is unprecedented… the environmental and resource pressures… the ever-increasing march of technical transformation… the social-economic changes that are inevitably inter-woven with the technical advances… and the clash of religions and cultures which are occurring ever more frequently as our world becomes ever more smaller.
Now, it’s very hard to find a 100% reliable Nostradamus when you need one… and people who do commit their visions to paper (or the internet) tend to be setting themselves up for a fall… when future generations look back and read their prophecies and say to themselves “Well, that didn’t happen!”
I can remember watching a documentary as a young boy back in the late 1960s (yep, I am that old), made by the Disney Corporation, about the wonderful world of tomorrow… well, it’s over 50 years ago later… I am living in that world now… and not a flying car in sight… although, there are signs they might appear in the next 10 to 20 years… possibly.
… But at the same time, it is part of human nature to look ahead, to plan, to consider… it’s what makes us unique as a species… and it’s probably what fuels our drive to evolve and better ourselves.
So… when I look into my crystal ball (yep, I do have one)… what are some of the things which I see?
Well, one of the things which I can definitely see on the horizon…
A TSUNAMI OF WORRY AND ANXIETY…
In his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future,Kevin Kelly, who has been at the forefront of many of the momentous technical and social changes over the past 50 years, makes some well educated guesses about what technical changes the human race is likely to experience over the next 30 years.
And one of the big advances he sees is how Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will start to seep into more and more of our everyday lives… and literally change our world.
Whether for better or worse… that will be depend on which side of the winner / loser fence you stand (as we shall see)… but the world will be changed.
Now, we probably don’t need to worry about SkyNet taking over the planet, like in the Terminator movies, or human beings being replaced and enslaved by a super-race of evil robots…
… I am not ruling those possibilities out… but at the same time, it is a human trait to imagine the worst, and to project our own fears and failings on to what we create.
To be honest, if I was an Artificial Intelligence, I wouldn’t be thinking how to take control… more “How do I get off this crazy and insane planet?“… but that’s another post entirely.
Kevin Kelly argues that we assume that any Artificial Intelligence will be similar to our own… because that’s the only A.I. we are used to… but actually, Artificial Intelligence could and can come in all shapes and sizes.
But, here’s the thing… We are on the point in human history where… very soon… it will be possible for A.I.s and robots to replace human beings in 99% of the jobs currently being worked by people.
Just stop and think about that for a moment… 99% of the jobs currently providing a wage to someone may not be around in 100 hundred years.
Does that mean then that we are headed for a world of leisure and opportunity (ala Star Trek)… or a world of unimaginable unemployment?
Really, the question has to be asked… with 8 billion people on the planet… what are they expected to do with their time… with their lives?
And how are they expected to earn the money they need to survive?
Now in the Star Trek universe, the human race has eventually grown up, the capitalist society is a thing of the past, resources are shared, and everyone’s needs and aspirations are met.
Unfortunately, Gene Rodenberry never went into too much detail about how exactly this would be achieved… he just wove it into his Utopian future.
But if you look at similar periods in human history when we went through periods of such immense technical and social change… such as the Industrial Revolution… then it is important to realize… these were period when the human race stumbled blindly around for a better way of doing things… and a lot of individuals and populations suffered as a result.
Because no one was in charge… no one was in control… there was no road-map of how to best integrate the technical change into society.
There was a period of intense change, the human race went through a traumatic period, some groups benefited, other groups suffered and lost out… but then finally we came out the other end, decades later, having found a way to manage and stabilize the change.
That’s what happened during the Industrial Revolution… and that’s what’s coming again in the next few decades I believe.
Only, this time, the change is going to be more immense… in fact, you could argue that 99% of the human race will initially lose out to some degree. During the Industrial Revolution, it was all about pulling people into the factories to work the new powered steam-driven machines… but this time, it’s all about machines who don’t need humans to operate them… in fact, eventually there will probably be machines to fix the machines… (bad news for Charlie Bucket’s father over at the toothpaste factory).
I believe that some of that change will be for the good… and some other changes… well, they will have traumatic consequences for individuals and whole societies.
In fact, what I do believe is that it will create… a tsunami of worry and anxiety… which will have immense social and economic consequences.
Because currently the governments of the world are not planning for this (or if they are, they are keeping very quiet about it)… the media are only nibbling around the edges… and the large co-operations couldn’t give a F… sorry, do not have the fate of their current employees (the ones they will happily lay off) that high on their agenda.
One of the things we know is that the majority of human beings like to live within a comfort zone… which is composed of their beliefs, what they know, their skill set, their familiar relationships…
And all these employees… now considered surplus to requirement… and forced out into the economic wilderness, into an economy where it is happening over again across entire industries, and new work is scarce and hard to find…
… They will be forced out of their comfort zone, they will experience a period of worry / anxiety, until they can find a new balance point… but if the worry and anxiety continues too long, then it will seriously undermine their emotional and mental sense of self.
And for many, their job, their skill-set, and their employment is a massive part of their comfort zone.
The only recent historical event which I can liken it to, I think, is the Great Economic Depression of the 1930s.
Over the next 30 to 40 years, the question will be… What happens when human society starts to seriously upgrade?
When admin assistants are replaced with A.I.s which can process the information more quickly?
When school janitors are replaced with robots who can do their job more efficiently?
When 3rd world factories are replaced with robot factories, which never need to close or sleep, and so can do their jobs even more cheaply… and so off-shoring becomes a thing of the past?
Vast numbers of people will be pushed out of their comfort zones, and start to experience high levels of anxiety at roughly the same time.
Are the politicians planning for it, are they even aware that it is going to happen… I doubt it… I doubt it even registers on their radar at the moment.
When the robots are stacking the shelves at your local supermarket, thus putting all the teenagers and retired pensioners out of work (and it’s started… the prototypes are currently being trialed)?
What we can safely say… from recent experience over the past decades, with outsourcing / offshoring… is that large multi-nationals will do what they believe will maximize their profitability without any regard for their workers… so this massive change on the horizon won’t be planned… it’ll just happen, and hang the consequences. The large corporations will just pass the buck to national governments… the same governments that they do their best to undermine.
But if countries leave it at that… then huge slices of the population will be made unemployed, unable to find suitable work, and also lack the money to afford all the stuff which the robots factories are producing…
So we’re in for a period of major social / economic destabilization… and huge transfers of wealth.
Because it is highly unlikely that the ruling elite… the Illuminati if they exist… will start thinking about what is best for the planet and the human race as a whole…
As we saw with the Industrial Revolution, our usual approach is to try and figure it out, over decades, and find a new balance point (plus, while we are doing that, we need to also figure out climate change, population growth, and limited resources… like I said at the start, the next 50 years will be a very interesting time in human history).
OK, you could argue, as many do, that with the robots doing all the jobs which people hate doing, it frees people up to do all the things they love doing (OK… let’s assume that Utopian future is possible to achieve).
But the question I am asking here… is how do we get there… how do we get to that Utopian society, ala Star Trek?
I can see the potential, I can see the opportunity… but based on our historical track record to date, the human race isn’t very good at social transitioning on a global scale.
So for the next 20 to 30 years, my prediction is:
- Large corporations will increasingly use A.I.s / robots to drive down costs and increase profitability
- More and more employees will be laid off, made redundant, which will push them into major worry / anxiety, and they will ask the question… What am I expected to do?
- Politicians won’t have an answer on hand… and the unscrupulous ones will try and manipulate the discontent for their own ends
- Not everyone will want to become an artist or musician… so a lot of people will ask themselves… What is the point of it all?
- There will be a tsunami of worry / anxiety sweeping across the planet
And I can see that we might even go back to the time of the Roman Empire, a time of bread and circuses.
And I am still unsure in this new economic system, with lots of people unemployed, who is going to have the money to pay for what the robots produce?
But in such a world, an intuitive business approach probably has a better chance of survival… because… it can respond more quickly to the changes when they appear.
Now, there are two pieces of advice which are very useful here:
First, some advice I was given when young… find what you love doing, and find a way to get paid for it.
It is highly likely that the jobs done by people who don’t know what they love doing, but need to find a way to earn money will be hit first… so the need to find a new job… and a life-purpose will be increasingly pushed up the agenda.
Next, some advice that Michael Caine was given by his father, never do a job that can be replaced by a machine, is useful here.
Although after Caine became an actor, the irony was that his first job was playing a robot in the translation of a Czech play (… and that was once the million dollar question on Who Wants to Be Millionaire… and I knew it… Yay me!)
If I was in charge, I would now be re-writing the school curriculum… I would throw out calculus… the machines will do that far better then any human… but I would be teaching the kids about how to deal effectively with their own worry / anxiety… for in the times ahead… that will be a far more useful skill to have.
And anyone who has an effective eCourse or product to help with worry / anxiety… you are the ones likely to be making money in this Brave New World, because that’s what lots of people will be dealing with.
Like I said… interesting times ahead.
Note: I can still see us needing policemen… if only to protect the robots. Back during the Industrial Revolution, a group known as the Luddites, former weavers who had been put out of work by the new steam-driven looms, would break into factories, and smash up the machinery. And I can see the same thing happening all over again… with people breaking into the new high-tech factories and attacking the production robots… Maybe the robots will start being programmed to defend themselves… Robots attacking humans? Issac Asimov will be turning in his grave (i.e. it violates his 3 Laws of Robotics). Maybe that will be the start of SkyNet after all?
(c) Brian Parsons, October 2016.