I recently read a book ‘The Lights in the Tunnel’ by Martin Ford. He wasn’t the first and I doubt he’ll be the last author to write about the trend towards further job automation.
Nevertheless, as the founder of an established Silicon Valley IT firm, not only did Martin have some pithy observations about the ongoing trend to automating jobs, he also had various recommendations (mostly for governments) about how to prepare for and mitigate significant social disruption in the coming decades. What are the chances that global governments will see the trend and mitigate its effects before it reaches critical mass? Not high.
For my part, my concern is mainly for my kid’s generation and my university employer (in that order). I’ve already done some work to identify opportunities and threats for my employer (sent to my boss’s boss) as job automation increases in pace. What my kids and their generation make of the growing trend is a lot more uncertain.
I guess there has never been a sense of fairness between the generations. Some generations always face bigger challenges, whether; Slavery, Pollution, Sexism (women’s role & women’s voting rights), Class inflexibility, Civil War, Disease Pandemic, World War or Great Depression.
There’s a saying that rich families plan for three generations, while poor families plan for Saturday night. We cannot and we should not be luddites, campaigning to stand in the way of technological progress. Except where it’s progress without ethics. What my generation can do however is create a nest egg to help their descendants (future generations) ease their way through troubled waters, to increase their chances of emerging intact.
But will machines really take over the ‘driving seat’ in the future? OK, a small digression. In one sense, we’re living in a closed system, planet Earth, with only so many resources to be shared and used. An ecosystem that for large periods of time is/was in a reasonable state of equilibrium, albeit upset from time to time by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, the occasional meteorite, forest fire or disease outbreak.
We’re taught in chemistry that closed systems undergo entropy i.e. tend towards disorder over time. But taking another look at planet Earth. Arguably it’s an open system – the Sun’s energy is the input and heat energy in the form of infrared radiation escapes the Earth’s environment and leaks back into Space, making it an open system.
A Russian Nobel prize winner (Ilya Prigogine) recently discovered that with open systems, the system (Earth in this case) doesn’t break down, but instead, the system reorganises itself at a higher level of complexity, providing the inputs keep flowing in. Our common word for this is biological evolution. And once started, competition ensures the evolution creates lifeforms more complex and more specialised (in the sense of developing brains that allow the organisms to handle more difficult problems).
Back to the rise of the machines. We’re developing artificial intelligence at breakneck speed to obtain economic advantage (through trade or warfare). At some future point, we can expect machines to become self-organising (exhibit synthetic evolution). And it’s likely that their rate of evolution (to comprehend problems and fix them) will continue to eclipse our biological one.
So where does that leave humans? If automation is to be a relentless juggernaut, primed to take over core everyday tasks and make important decisions for us in milliseconds (with the benefits going to owners of the capital used to finance that automation), then best case, the least we can do is invest as stakeholders and work hard to promote ethics and ethical behaviour from those machines (design in self-organising regulatory systems).
The stakeholder returns (from a more ethical regime) will then over future time periods (the coming decades), offset some of the negative effects that future generations of our direct descendants will likely experience. As shares in the ‘Silicon Valley’ and translational technology investment funds rise in value over the long run, the gains from those investments can smooth out inter-generational bumps in the road.
Note to self: Find the right kind of investment fund and start the investment process soon. Future generations are depending on you.