“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.”
— John Lennon
“The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century . . . The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
— Jean-Luc Picard
Both the late Beatle and the captain of the starship Enterprise might be proved right — and in the not-too-distant future. Change, rapid change, is about to descend on us, a point underscored by a just-released report from the Pew Research Center, “Digital Life in 2025.” That’s just a scant decade from now. and the upheavals that its batch of experts predicts are seismic. And by the time 2035 or 2045 roll around? The nature of work — and leisure — may be fundamentally altered. It might be the utopia of the singer and the explorer, or it could prove a nightmare.
The causes of this change are computerization and rapidly advancing improvements in artificial intelligence. AI is the stuff that gave us the worlds of “The Matrix” and “Terminator.” But the present fear isn’t that computers go rogue; rather they simply replace us. For it seems almost certain that an increasing number of jobs — blue-collar and white-collar — will be soon performed by computers.
We’ve seen it already. There are no more toll-takers on the Tobin Bridge, for example, and soon there will be none anywhere. (A crisis for local pols, perhaps: The pool of hack jobs is growing ever smaller.) Tellers have been replaced by ATMs, typists by word processors, travel agents by on-line bookers, paralegals by search engines, and security guards by cameras.
But technology is on the edge of rapid advancement that will make all of these look relatively minor. I’ve written before about driver-less vehicles and their potential widespread adoption, if not 10 years from now, then certainly in 20 or 30. Imagine the jobs no longer needed: taxi and limo drivers, delivery drivers, bus operators, and truckers. Truckers alone represent 1.7 million jobs.
So too, technology will replace other professions. If Roomba can vacuum your floor, why not the equivalent for your yard? Most repetitive work — especially manufacturing — will eventually be replaced by robots. Boston-based Rethink Robotics has humanoid-like models available for sale right now. Computers and software will shortly replace everything from tellers to insurance appraisers to data entry clerks. Higher-skilled professions — such as lawyers — aren’t immune either, with software increasingly capable of handling much of their work. A widely quoted study from the Oxford Martin School predicts that technology threatens to replace 47 percent of all US jobs within 20 years. One of Pew experts even foresees the advent of “robotic sex partners.” The world’s oldest profession may be no more.
When all this happens, what, exactly, will people do? Half of those in the Pew report are relatively unconcerned, believing — as has happened in the past — that even as technology destroys jobs, it creates more new ones. But half are deeply worried, fearing burgeoning unemployment, a growing schism between the highly educated and everyone else, and potentially massive social dislocation. (The fact that Pew’s experts are evenly split also exposes one of the truths of prognostication: A coin flip might work just as well.)
Much of this debate over more or fewer jobs misses a key element, one brought up by some of those surveyed by Pew: These are primarily political issues; what happens is up to us. If lower-skilled jobs are no more, the solution, quite obviously, is training and education. Moreover, the coming world of increasingly ubiquitous robotics has the potential for significant increases in productivity. Picture, for instance, an entirely automated farm, with self-replicating and self-repairing machines planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and delivering. Food wouldn’t be free, but it could become so cheap that, like water (Detroit excepted), it’s essentially available to everyone for an almost nominal cost.
It’s a welfare state, of course, but at some point, with machines able to produce the basic necessities of life, why not? We’d have a world of less drudgery and more leisure. People would spend more time doing what they want to do rather than what they have to do. It might even cause us to rethink what it means to be human. Robots will allow us to use our “intelligence in new ways, freeing us up from menial tasks,” says Tiffany Shlain, host of AOL’s “The Future Starts Here.” Just as Lennon hoped and Star Trek predicted.
This column originally appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe on August 31, 2014.