If I’m born again, I want my job to be “Senior Futurist”. This is the job title of a gentleman by the name of Klaus Ægidius Mogensen, who works at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies and has recently released a 62-page report titled Future Technologies.
The report is only available to member organizations, but I want to thank my good friend Alessandra Losito and her employer Pictet for sharing it. Here are a few of the most intriguing possibilities that Mr. Mogensen throws our way (all dates, of course, “subject to some uncertainty”):
- 2020: Free GMO trade agreements between US and EU.
- 2025: The MARS ONE project sends the first colonists to Mars (however, also note the prediction for 2037: MARS ONE gives up sending more colonists to failed Mars colony.)
- 2034: Authorities finally give up censoring the Internet. (Yay!)
- 2040: 75% of cars worldwide are fully autonomous robot cars.
In 2035, the author also says, 50% of present-day job types are wholly or mostly automated. The rapidly growing use of robots (and more generally software, I guess, not just the variety with hardware attached) leads to jobless growth: adding to that, “individuals unemployed by automation have to find jobs in fields with lower productivity, causing a decline in overall productivity, in spite of increased productivity in industries where a lot of automation is possible.” And here is the wild card, or “possible extreme future event”:
In the long term, it is possible that robots and computers will handle all the necessary work, making it unnecessary for people to do other work. This can lead to an economy that is not based on work as a source of earning money; something that is central to present-day economics.
I have to admit that I find this scenario very extreme. It jars with a present-day reality where blue-collar jobs consume 40 hours a week and almost everybody I know in white-collar, corporate jobs is regularly working 50-60 hours per week (you’d think we’d be smarter than that). Is this prediction an extreme case of the “lump of labor” fallacy – in which case, we shouldn’t worry, because new work to be performed will keep popping out? Is it perhaps something that will truly happen, only a lot farther into the future than we think, as these things tend to do (re-read my rant about the Singularitarian future)?
But, on the other hand, unemployment is real, and jobless recoveries (where we have recoveries at all) are a fact. And well-documented authors such as Brynjolfsson and McAfee (The Second Machine Age) are worried about very much the same issues.
So, let’s go along with the futurist thought experiment and imagine a future where the work to be done by humans is vastly reduced: way after a brief moment of “peak jobs”, so to speak, that is already slightly behind us. What happens? Is this a scenario where billions of idle people consume all their time in adolescent ennui, addictive entertainment, and training for holy wars? Will capital (invested in robots) earn all the money, and labor none of it? Is Piketty right? Will the masses live in destitution? Will suicides skyrocket? And what can we do about it?
Evolutionary technologies may claim to be ethically neutral. Revolutionary technologies never are. We need ethicists along with educators, economists and technologists to help us craft a sustainable future – one that we want our children to live in. Forget about privacy, climate change, human cloning and Mars landings: the central ethical issue in 21st-century politics will be “peak jobs”. The search for a 21st-century John Rawls is open, and more urgent than it ever was.