We are living in someone’s future.
I enjoy reading historical predictions of the future, especially those predictions whose dates we have since passed. In 1950, Harry Truman said that world peace would be achieved by 2000. In 1964, a New York Times writer foresaw among other things a future with no public transportation. There are correct predictions to be found, but one idea in particular stands out to me. There was this notion that the future would be a wonderful place, where because robots and machines handled much of our labor, we as humans would be swimming in an ocean of free time, able to enjoy life.
Only half of that vision has panned out. The robots are here. Assembly lines and factories are now occupied byautomated machines, capable of outproducing the best of human hands. Amazon has promised small flying robots to deliver packages, and slowly but surely the word drone is becoming associated more with entrepreneurial ideas than bombs in the Middle East. Google seems to be on the way to providing driverless cars. All of this has the feel of old science fiction. But, unable to come up with better ways of getting paid, we humans find that we still need to work.
This will be a problem, if it isn’t already one. When automation (or cheap overseas labor) replaces a worker, that worker has to compete with other humans for the jobs that remain. Left unchecked, the dystopian end product of automation’s growth is a world where robots do all the jobs and only the robot makers and factory owners have any money. We can’t all design or program robots. I will risk future embarrassment by predicting that the skills required for those tasks will remain limited to a small fraction of the population, at least in my lifetime. So I will pose the question that has bedeviled former assembly line workers for some time: how do you make money when machines do your job better for less?
It seems to me that we have three paths we can go down. We can stop the inexorable tide of technological advancement in the name of preserving human labor, but I don’t think that’s desirable or likely. We can continue to fight automation for jobs as robots and computers become increasingly efficient at increasing amounts of the work we do. Or, and this is a long shot, we can come up with new rationales for providing people the money they require to live.