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QUO VADIS?

24 Sep

San Diego — Under the radar of the current ugly scream and screed fest known as a Presidential Election, one of the ugliest since Andrew Jackson was able to sling more mud than his opponent, technology is muddying the waters of that great goal of higher employment like a great double edged broadsword slicing through friend and foe alike in close combat.

Alex Daley, editor of the Casey Extraordinary Technology newsletter noted that this year is seeing the foundations of several technologies that will certainly bring massive changes to our culture.  But one of those changes unmentioned (he was talking mostly about investment opportunities) is the commensurate need for fewer jobs.  Here are a few of the technologies he discussed.

  • The promise of a paperless future is unlikely to be met in full, but a promise of needing LESS hard copy paper for reading material is already being met.  From the iPad to the Kindle, the electronic book is becoming more and more accepted due to convenience and expense.  But it does not take publishing houses and major web/perfector printing presses to distribute millions of copies… it takes only a server.  A single person (at the moment) can be responsible for maintaining the system that distributes those electronic files and soon even the human will be replaced.
  • The rise of both industrial and service robotics is making repeatable precision possible in areas as far flung as manufacturing and surgery and developers are looking at the consumer arena as a major frontier to tackle.  That has idled car makers, some medical personnel, and perhaps, in the future, janitorial/custodial workers in both corporate and residential environments.  One warehouse now uses the robotics from Kiva Systems that turn warehouse operations on its ear by literally bring the bins and shelves to the people who box and distribute items and essentially eliminates the need for one of the last semi-skilled jobs of warehouse attendants.
  • The rise of “additive manufacturing” via 3D printers is invading not just industry but slowly working into the consumer area as well.  With a 3D printer if you have something break you can simply have your 3D printer make a new one.   The technology started in the 1980s but as the technology has improved the rise of additive manufacturing machines has risen, in the last few years, over 35,000%!  Now THAT is growth to notice.  Yet few have.
  • And a biological revolution is taking place following the mapping of the human genome creating amazing new drugs with genetic targeting and the potential to cure many types of fatal diseases and physiological issues.  Meaning that while other technologies are working hard to make the need for human workers obsolete, this area is working hard to make us live longer and longer and extending our working life.

And yet the two allegedly intelligent candidates we are left with are battling each other in exactly the way most wars are fought in the beginning, that is with tactics from the last war.  No one is addressing the complex issues that will arise when even for that increasingly small group of citizenry willing to actually work for their keep simply has been made obsolete by technology and there are not enough jobs to go around?  What then?  No matter how firmly entrenched their work ethic, if there is no place to apply it, it becomes a moot point.  And where goes the class warfare arguments when increased productivity and therefore revenue is being generated by increasingly smart machines and there is no one whose revenue can be confiscated by the government to carry those who will not (and at that point, CAN not) work?

These are not issues that will seriously impact us tomorrow or even the next day.  But given the exponential rise of technological abilities once a given technology reaches some critical mass, that day is probably not more than a few years away and once it happens then is not the time to wake up and ask, “Now what?”

What does this do to the educational world when there is no longer the major need to educate and train people as worker bees when there essentially are no more worker bees because the machines can now maintain, and perhaps build themselves?

Yes we will still need authors for the books, designers for the cars and for the items to be replaced, surgeons to determine what to do in the operating room.  But for how long.  We already have computers than can mimic the phraseology and cadence of famous writers, do a credible job at replicating a new symphony in the style of anyone, do a 3D scan of an item to be replaced, and soon will be able to read an MRI or X-Ray for a flawless diagnosis.

Star Trek painted a vision of a world where all of that had already happened and it was a lovely picture where needs were met by replicators working for free while mankind was free to pursue their human need for growth and exploration as they wished.  But is that a realistic vision for today’s human?  Or tomorrows?  How do we prepare for such a world?  I think we had better prepare for it, talk about it, discuss such issues, make them a part of the public debate and bring them into the open.

Because if we do not, then a country with 80% or more of its population out of work because they are not needed, with no plans, no safety net, no ability to meet the needs of simply living will simply stage a revolution and those are perhaps the most frightening of possibilities.  If we arrive upon that new stage unprepared then our world and environment will not look like that of star Trek, it will look like the future world in Terminator.

I have no answers to it because the potential is just slowly beginning to dawn on me.  Like all techies I was initially seduced by the wonder of the gadgets (I would DEARLY love to have a 3D printer and a robot housekeeper) and like most, was not thinking about the unintended consequences of those possibilities permeating the society.  But I would dearly love to see our so-called leaders talk about it, talk about their visions for the future, talk about ANYTHING other than how and why the other guy is an idiot, a criminal, and/or some other type of human vermin.

I once was privy to a major project in a then Fortune 100 company where I was under contract to provide content for training videos and documents.  An army of programmers was hired to create a huge, interrelated enterprise application.  They were quickly modularized into little fiefdoms each charged with a specific aspect of the program.  The company owned an IBM 3090 mainframe computer, one step down from a super computer.  But as the modules were finalized and uploaded it brought the computer to a crashing halt on a daily basis.

Each module was flawlessly authored but by groups who did not talk to one another.  Each working virtually autonomously, indeed each jealous of the other groups’ progress, were all producing modules than, when compiled, asked for exactly the same computer resources.  There was no leadership module that divied out resource allocations to spread the load on the mainframe, no generalist who could look at it and note that all of the parts were perfect, in a vacuum, but when united, would crash and burn.

We are now in an age of hyper specialization.  Generalists are an increasingly smaller group.  So there are fewer and fewer people who can look at the big picture and say that each part is wonderful but when put together they will blow up.

On a company level it was merely humorous to watch, but on a national, much less international level, it can be catastrophic.  I do not need my leader to know how to do everything down to the last technical “jot and tittle;” that is what specialists and experts are for.  I would rather they were domestic, economic, and geopolitical generalists who could see the big picture and identify those places and intersections of imminent disaster.

But I do not see any single individual on the political stage under any label that is showing themselves capable of doing that.  Each is so buried into the specifics of their own platforms, blind to the others and blind to the issues of what conflicts with what in a world filled with nations all on their own narrow agendae can lead to global catastrophe, that I think they are all to some degree dangerous to our futures.

There are bigger issues at stake than a person’s tax returns (a little disingenuous coming from a side that hires a known tax cheat to head the treasury department) or whether they managed to attend an ivy league school on a foreign student’s fee waiver.  It is our future at stake… not our past.

Both sides have a very different, perhaps a diametrically opposed view of the world and our place in it.  But neither has demonstrated that they can see beyond their narrow platforms, neither seems capable of seeing a true big picture based on an honest appraisal of all of the players and issues at stake, and neither seems to be looking at the very real and potentially chaotic world technology is on the verge of laying at our feet.

I find that pretty frightening.

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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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