You Can’t Outrun the Future

When I bring up the idea of technological unemployment (which I obviously do a lot), it strikes me that people suddenly seem ready to admit that it really could constitute a systematic threat to our modern way of life. But even in the same breath as admitting to the imminence of change, people inevitably fall back on the idea that they are somehow going to escape the effects of it.

In response to this, I want to say this in no uncertain terms: If you think you are going to be able to keep up with the future, then you aren’t paying attention. 

Below are a few examples of the kinds of arguments that people make when in discussion about the future, as well as some of my responses to these arguments. Some are new, and some are based on previous articles I have written over this first year of Thought Infections.

“I work in retail, people are always going to want to buy things.”

Retail is probably the sector most obviously threatened by the move to an online sales model. The market share of online retail grows every year, now representing somewhere in the range of 8-10% of overall retail sales in the United States. I would not be surprised if online retail accounts for more than 50% of total sales within the next decade.

Of course, retailers will need to employ many people to market, sell and deliver goods whether online or off, but online retailers can do it much more efficiently. For a real world example we can look at Amazon and Target, two companies which have quite similar overall revenue but whereas Target employs some 361 000 people, Amazon employs less than a third of this number at around 110 000.

With their purchase of the robotic warehousing systems manufacturer, Kiva SystemsAmazon has made it clear they are looking to increase their overall efficiency by aggressively automating their warehouse operations. Amazon has also recently announced that they are researching the use of delivery drones to provide high speed delivery of goods right to your door. While I see this as more of a PR stunt, the rapid development of automated vehicles is sure to have a huge impact on overall employment in transportation and delivery over the next decade. The jobs are never coming back, it is time that we start to deal with that reality. 

“I am a teacher, kids are always going to need to go to school”

Education is currently undergoing a revolution, as technology is making it easier to educate children at home. I can’t say it any better than CGP Grey in his excellent youtube video about the emergence of a digital Aritstotle, so just go watch the video now. Suffice it to say that it is very difficult to compete with science. Even disregarding the likelihood of advanced artificial intelligence coming online to aid in this endeavour, the development of even simple algorithms to deliver lessons and monitor the development of each student directly is nothing less than a revolution.

For another example of just effective computerized learning tools can be, check out the language learning website Duolingo. I can personally attest that Duolingo is an extremely effective tool for learning at least the basics of a language. Is it better than a class with a top notch language teacher? No. But is it better than a crappy language teacher? Absolutely, and it is only getting better.

Will there be teachers in the future? Absolutely. But, I am confident that technologies like that being developed by the Khan Academy are opening the door to a new type of learning that will be more efficient, cheaper, and involve radically less human labour than the rote system of learning currently being practised across much of the world.

“I am an artist, a computer will never be able to create art”

While I am generally bullish on the creative arts as a human career path for the medium term, I do not think that they will be able to outrun the onslaught of automation forever. For many years computer scientists have sought to be able to simulate and/or replicate the creative process using computer algorithms. There are actually many programs which have been developed to produce both visual art and music.

Computers are also making amazing progress in the generation of written word. The company Narrative Science has developed algorithms capable of taking complex data and turning it into a written narrative which most people can understand.  Here is an example of the kinds of articles that this program is already writing. Other algorithms have even made attempts at creative writing, with some success.

These forays into the creative world may seem rudimentary now, but I think they serve as proof of concept and given the exponential nature of computer advancement I think we will likely see a time when computational creativity will match our biological ones.  In our lifetime, I believe it will be possible for a computer to write, develop, and create an entire movie which is customized in content and style to your particular preferences in real timeGiven the access that these algorithms will have to the wealth of data about their audience (namely you), I am not sure how it is it that a human artist will be able to compete.

“I am a scientist, my job is to innovate, how can a computer ever do science?”

Being a scientist myself, being aware of my own limitations and deficiencies I actually think that people make pretty lousy scientists (see my series the Confessions of a Biological Scientist). We strive for a goal of beautiful impartiality but inevitably fail miserably. The next generation of algorithmic scientists will make today’s scientists look like nothing more than children in a sandbox, and it’s already started. The march of progress in robotic science will also spell the end for the people who work in those related fields where we also strive for impartiality, such as medicine.

The irony that I see, is that it may very well be those researchers working on the cutting edge who are rapidly replaced by robotic scientists before we see the eradication of menial labor jobs. We may simply end up the janitors to the machines, sweeping up around the silicon minds that replace the meat-based scientists of today.

“I am rich, I am protected from the chaotic changes of the world”

Wealth has never made people anything much more then well-dressed, why do we think that would change now? Despite the poignant debate surrounding the growing gap between rich and poor, it is important to keep in mind that tectonic technological change has consistently made a mockery of the power structures that predate it. For an example of this, try visiting a grand palace of the monarchs of even the 19th century. Of course you will see the ornate decorative splendor of great wealth, but look a bit closer and you will see that they slept in a small bed, no electricity, no running water, slow transportation, and information came in at but a trickle.

I would gladly take the lot of an average man in 2014, than even the richest man 20 years ago (given that that man is in the western world, but that is for another post…)

We also live in a world where the idea of wealth itself is changing. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies represents a whole new form of wealth, and may ultimately mean the waning of fiat currency which has dominated the modern world. Other asset classes that people use to hold wealth, such as real-estate or commodities like gold, could easily also see a depression with the rise of cryptocurrencies. Ultimately, Bitcoin may or may not turn out to be the spark that ignites a revolution in the financial world, but what it should prove to us is that such a spark can exist. In time, the current paradigm of world power (like all that preceded it) will be turned upside down.

“I am a futurist, I embrace change, I am ready for the future”

There is some merit in the argument that being aware of the future makes one prepared for it. But if we accelerate towards some grand explosion of artificial intelligence, as some have predicted, I don’t think that anyone can really be ready for what is going to happen. You can have the future, but you can take nothing with you.

“So what does all this mean?”

My intent here is to remind you that we all live in a changing world from which none of us can escape. Even death might be only a temporary escape in a future which eats our digital crumbs and spits out minds. Yes it seems that we are utterly trapped by progress, but we do not need to surrender to it; we must push to reshape the world for the better.

Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. We must strive to express our humanity in the systems we build, if we wish to see a humane future. If we give over to our lesser angels of greed and violence, we will see a future dominated by these traits. Technology is fundamentally amoral, it will serve to magnify our successes and our sins, it is up to us to choose which ones


4 thoughts on “You Can’t Outrun the Future

  1. Some of us have been shouting this for quite a time. Others before me could see it coming. It’s happening people. The only problem in the future will be boredom and that’s your own personal issue to work out.

  2. Pingback: The Existential Threat of Algorithmic Trading | Desultory Heroics

  3. I must completely disagree here. I lived in Japan for 6 years. It is the most automated country by far, so by this theory of technological unemployment, there should be rampant unemployment in Japan, but there isn’t, they have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. How could this be? On the flip side, “third world” countries with little technology should have low unemployment rates, but that’s clearly not the case. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Sorry, but this theory just does not hold water. Here’s a couple reasons why. First, take Japan, robotics and automation have opened up vast new fields in the technology sector. Someone has to design and build all the robots(and vending machines). Second, lets say you want to hire a carpenter to build your house. 2 carpenters apply who are equally skilled. However, one only has a hammer while the other owns a pneumatic tool gun and will be able to finish the job in half the time at half the price. Who are you going to hire? Point is, technology greatly increases production units per worker, thus INCREASES employment opportunities for those who have technology. Labor saving tools and technology does not mean we will have greater unemployment, but means that we will have more STUFF because of our greater productivity.

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