You are about to become obsolete. You think that you are special, unique, and that whatever it is that you are doing is impossible to replace. You are wrong.
As we speak, millions of algorithms created by computer scientists are frantically running on servers all over the world with one sole purpose: do whatever we used to do, but better. These algorithms are intelligent computer programs, permeating the substrateof our society. They make financial decisions, they predict the weather, they suggest which countries will wage war next. Soon, there will be little left for us to do: machines will take over.
Does that sound like a futuristic fantasy? Maybe so. This argument is proposed by a growing, yet still fringe, community of thinkers, scientists and academics, who see the advancement of technology as a
disruptive force which will soon transform our entire socio-economic system, forever. According to them, the displacement of labour by machines and computer intelligence will increase dramatically over the next decades. Such changes will be so drastic and quick that the market will not be able to abide in creating new opportunities for workers who lost their job, making unemployment not just part of a cycle, but structural in nature and chronically irreversible. It will be the end of work as we now it.
Most economists discard such arguments. Many of them don’t even address the issue in the first place. And those who do claim that the market always finds a way. As old jobs are replaced by machines, new jobs are created. Thanks to the ingenuity of the human mind and the need for growth, markets always find a way, especially in the ever-connected and globalized mass-market we live in today.
I don’t think we should approach this issue based on our beliefs, hunches, or gut feeling. Rather, let’s use logic and reason based on the evidence that we have so far.
Consider this. The exponential expansion of technology has been growing remarkably smoothly for a long time. And I’m not referring to the well-known Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. Integrated circuits are just a tiny fraction of the whole spectrum of change that pervades technological advancement.
Kurzweil notes that Moore’s Law was not the first to do so, but rather the fifth paradigm to provide accelerating price-performance. Computing devices have been consistently multiplying in power (per unit of time),
from the mechanical calculating devices used in the 1890 U.S. Census, to Turing’s relay-based “Robinson” machine that cracked the Nazi enigma code, to the CBS vacuum tube computer that predicted the election of Eisenhower, to the transistor-based machines used in the first space launches, to the integrated-circuit-based personal computer which Kurzweil used to dictate the very essay that described this phenomenon in 2001.
To get an idea of what exponential growth means, look at top graph below, which represents the difference between a linear trend and an exponential one.
A curve that explodes out of the normal graph looks like a straight line on a logarithmic plot. You’ll understand why we utilise logarithms when talking about exponentials: there simply isn’t enough space to show the curve.
The other graph, underneath, represents growth of computing over the last 110 years, on a logarithmic plot.
It is not a straight line. It is another exponential curve. In other words, there is exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. That’s fast.
Computer speed (per unit cost) doubled every three years between 1910 and 1950, doubled every two years between 1950 and 1966, and is now doubling every year. Computer power is not simply increasing. It is increasing faster and faster.
We can see already the consequences of this today, as technology progresses at an unprecedented rate. Computers used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars; they required huge rooms for storage, cooling, maintenance, and a lot of power. Now they can easily fit in your pocket. They are thousands of times more powerful and cost millions of times less. That’s a billions-fold increase in just thirty years. As we progress even more, the changes will be so rapid that we will hardly be able to keep up. Things will change dramatically in a matter of months. Or weeks. The long awaited dreams of science fiction are becoming a reality.
We already have autonomous cars that drive hundreds of thousands of miles without a problem, and with no human intervention. They are perfectly safe, and they even outperform highly trained human drivers.
And, unlike us, they can only get better and better.
We have coordinated groups of autonomous robots that can do the job of building workers, constructing a six meter high tower without any human intervention.
We have new and smart ways of building houses. Typically, it can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to build a 2,800-square-foot, two-story house in the U.S., mostly because dozens of human beings do all the work. But a new prospect may change everything. It is possible than within this decade Contour Crafting (a sort of large scale additive manufacturing) will have become so advanced that we will be able to upload design specifications to a massive robot, press print, and watch as it spits out a concrete house in less than a day. No humans required, except for a few supervisors and designers.
Don’t think that’s possible? Think again.
3D printing is already a billion dollar industry. It’s growing exponentially, and it’s going to revolutionize the way we think about manufacturing forever. We can print a physical object ourselves, both as individuals and as part of small research centers. Not just toys, tools, and simple objects for the house, but also prosthesis, teeth, and even human organs. Things become better, more reliable, cheaper, customizable, personalized. And most important of all, easily sharable, either with a market place similar to iTunes, Amazon, and Android, or even for free. Legally. Or not. Either way, once the information is out there you can’t stop it. Once the technology becomes available, you can’t un-invent it. It’s out of your control.
Where does this lead us? I know some of you technoskeptics will think this whole thing is a fad, and very little will change. On the other side, I know there are many technoenthusiasts who believe this will finally liberate us from this 18th century mentality that keeps us behind, and project us into a Star Trek-like future of abundance, wonder, and exploration. But before that, there is a very real problem that needs addressing, right now. Not in 10 years time, not in 100 years time. Now.
The following data is taken from the U.S. Bureau Labor of Statistics, 2011.
Take a good look at the table above. Now answer this: how many occupations were created in the last 50 years? There are 7 main occupations listed above, making up 43.88% of the U.S. Workforce. How many new types of jobs were introduced because of the advances in technology? Not a single one.
The reality is that the new jobs created by technology employ a very small fraction of people, and they tend to disappear soon after they are created. They require a high level of education, flexibility, intelligence, and entrepreneurship. Most people have not been trained to be like that. In fact, our entire educational system was created just after the industrial revolution, with the idea of creating factory workers. Manual jobs. Repetitive jobs.
So, I have one simple question:
What will the millions of middle-age, unskilled workers do when they are displaced by technology?
I have discussed this with economists, entrepreneurs, futurists, and not a single one was able to give me a convincing answer. Technology is advancing simply too quickly for the newly unemployed to learn new jobs. In the past, we have seen automation cutting the workforce, but unskilled workers all gravitated towards places like Walmart to find an easy (even though very unsatisfying) job. Now, if Walmart begins automation, competitors will have to do the same, in order to stay alive in the market. There would be no coming back for the shopping industry. It is an irreversible process; the replaced jobs will not come back.
The same will happens for millions of drivers, construction workers, and many others. But having these jobs removed, what will people do? So far, nobody has been able to answer that question. The reason for this, I
think, is because there is no answer. Not in this system, not in the way it’s designed to work. The displacement of human labour in favor of automation will have a snowball effect on everything. With unemployment levels at 30% or 40%, the economy will collapse.
Without a backup plan to adjust to a new paradigm, we can expect the worst. Civil unrest, riots, police brutality, and general distress of the population will continue to rise until critical levels are reached, at which point the whole socioeconomic system will crumble upon itself. This has negative repercussions across the whole spectrum of the population, and it is against the interest of everyone on this planet, even of the richest and wealthiest people.
I think that if we want to solve this challenging problem of our time, we will have to rethink our whole economic and social structure. Rethink our lives, our roles, our purposes, our priorities, and our motivations. It’s time for a paradigm shift, one that will radically revolutionize our social system.
Have we ever considered the possibility that finding job replacements, no matter what, might be the wrong choice to being with? Have we ever stopped and wondered if the only possible economic systems are capitalists and socialists, and everything just lies in between? Have we ever conceived of the notion that maybe the need for constant growth is not just ecologically unsustainable, but also diminishes the quality of our lives?
Too often we treat things as separate subjects, not realizing the interconnected nature of our reality. This mistake has made us weak and vulnerable. Over the last 70 years, we have set the stage of our own demise, we have become increasingly discontent, the quality of our relationships has fallen, and we have lost track of what really matters. Today, everything is amazing, and nobody is happy. It’s time to take a step back and think about where we are going.
Let us begin the journey.
Federico Pistono is an award-winning journalist, writer, and activist, author of the non-fiction book Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK and the Sci-Fi novelette A Tale of Two Futures.