There is considerable anxiety and scarcity mindset surrounding the issue of the mechanisation of our work: What if robots take over our society? What if we become dispensable as a human workforce? What kind of jobs will be 'spared'? And what will this do to equality? Will the rich get richer?
Change is happening. And in my view, this is the main reason the world is in such disarray right now. The political gridlock we see today is the direct result of radical change. Half the world sees value in going forward, and the other half wants to turn around and go right back. We’re facing an actual paradigm shift, not unlike the start of the Industrial Age, which is something new in our lifetime. We’re scared because we sense that our skills are inadequate.
Most of the forecasts aren't pretty. And it's certainly true that any jump in technological advancement always brings the potential of negative, harmful side-effects. But what if we were to imagineer and manifest a different kind of result? And how might this be exciting given the widespread movements in reinventing business and soulful, democratic ways of running organisations?
Let's start from the 'beginning' of work. From the earliest of civilisations to the current day, humanity has had to ‘work’ to earn a living. In the past, and in some parts of the world still today, waking hours would be committed to work that was necessary to survival. We had to fetch water to bring to living quarters, gather food and wood for cooking and warmth, prepare fuel to light lamps. Nobody (or almost nobody) in the tribe was exempt from this labour — everybody needs to survive.
As we moved to a model of agriculture, people began to divide into areas of specialisation, and trade — tending to the soil for growing of crops, rearing of animals for food, wool and other products. Instead of spending our time gathering all necessary resources on an individual basis, we realised the potential of division of labour and trade, and thus choosing a specialisation or trade that we were able to contribute best to.
It would have been very difficult for someone of this era to imagine a time when clean, fresh water would run from a tap into their own home at the turn of a handle, and heat would be generated to a specific desired temperature at the turn of a thermostat. The very concept of pushing a button to receive instant light would have been viewed as nothing short of magic. Being freed of these burdensome tasks would have unlocked hours of time. People of ancient times would have wondered and marvelled at what they would do with so much time on their hands.
So now consider that most of the tasks described above, once so vital to human survival, have been largely taken care of thanks to our machines and technologies. What’s more, increasing power of computers, robotics, AI and automated systems are swiftly pointing to a scenario in the not-so-distant future where many repetitive, assembly-line jobs are going the same way. Considerable collective anxiety seems to seep from our society when confronting the truth of jobs ‘threatened’ by automation and mechanisation. While at a time it could be argued that computers and machine technology created more jobs than it took away, all economic indicators suggest that a drop in human-hours coincide with an increase in productivity. Cheap human labour is being replaced by a workforce that requires no training, feeding, health insurance nor pension, and on top of that, costs less.
And it is not just the blue-collar assembly line workers and lowly repetitive jobs that face automation, but many other vocations and professions too. Engineers, technicians, surgeons, scientists, doctors, architects may all be replaced by technology in the coming years. At first these will still require human co-ordination or input, but as intelligent technological systems evolve and gain trust and traction, human intervention may cease to be necessary too. Just last week scientists gathered at Imperial College to discuss 'How Soon Until Robots Win Arguments?' - robots outsmarting us seems to be a concern that is impossible to ignore.
That's without even considering that, due to the exponential rates of change observed - and laws such as Moore's Law and Kryder's Law, the future of technology may be physically impossible for us to imagine right now. Consider this: by 2011, the internet power generated by just 20 households (uploading, downloading, etc) compared with the entire power of the internet in 2008. The rate of evolution of things like the Internet, the sizes of hard-drives, and the intelligence of AI, is not evolving in a linear way - it is doubling exponentially. People like Ray Kurzweil, co-founder of Singularity University, posit that by 2040, internet computing power will be one billion as powerful as a human brain.
So what am I trying to do here? Feed your fear with more mind-boggling predictions or suggest an alternative way of thinking?
Technological unemployment has become a term in itself — but what if we could imagine a world where the mechanisation of technical, unskilled work granted more of the population a life of freedom, meaningful work and time for creative pursuits? If we had everything we needed, achieved new levels of fair distribution and equality, and could turn our focus inwards, to ourselves, and outwards, to each other, to learning and building?
Perhaps we could stop thinking that robots and mechanisation would replace everything we humans have got to offer. There could still very much be a place for working together, in creating and offering the world our individual and collective gifts for an ultimate purpose. We have 'meta-skills' that some predict will keep us ahead of the 'robot-curve' of job obsolescence. While the Industrial Age rewards robotic skills, the Robotic Age will reward human skills - the so-called 'soft skills' which we mocked in the past. Unique, imaginative and creative thinking, empathy, communication and a human-centric world design.
As social technologies enabling de-centralised decision-making, collaboration and communication continue to improve, our effectiveness and ease at working together will streamline time and energy-wasting work processes such as meetings. Realistically, at least a vast cut in working hours is easily attainable now — just take Sweden’s recent test-run of the a 6-hour work day for example. The entire belief that one has to work for the majority of hours and days of their life to earn a living is rapidly becoming obsolete.
I often say that I believe that we currently already have all of the technology, materials, and tools to build an astonishing and abundant world capable of meeting all of our needs. In fact, the most valuable, untapped resource today is human ingenuity and creativity. All human beings possess tremendous, untapped potential that they will finally be able to explore when they are free of the burden of work typical to our time. Realistically, it is not just the working hours that curb human potential, but the drain on time, energy and our health that the modern working life entails. This, coupled with life as a wage-slave until or unless a ‘secure’ position is earned, leaves the vast majority of human talent taken with us to the grave.
At present no government or industry has made necessary economic adjustments or plans to deal with the issues of the displacement of people by automated technology. Freedom from work does not need to mean an elimination of incentive and productive endeavour. Quite the opposite, with increased time for intellectual growth and free creativity, we could finally fully grow into what we all know we are capable of. It is interesting that this age of information, technology and opportunity coincides with the converging crisis of climate change, global health epidemics, income inequality, species extinction and resource depletion. Our over-grown cortexes got us into our current situation. And at this moment, more than ever, humanity needs its genius to solve the problems it has created.
We have been fast out-evolving our current ‘work’ situation for a while now, with many people feeling painfully aware of the lack of meaningful contribution, purpose and use of their current contribution to society. When top talent and sharp, hungry brains are dulling down to fit the slow rise up the ladder of labour, it is clear that we are in a system that just doesn’t make sense anymore. Menial tasks, little responsibility and no space to take initiative all characterise the typical graduate job. Vaughan Rowsell, Founder of a software company estimated at $100 mil, posits that in the future we may well see a tipping point where the majority of people will be entrepreneurs. After all, as we considered above, prior to the industrial revolution, requiring large-scale centralised labour, most tradespeople, farmers and merchants were entrepreneurs.
Our education system will also require a re-model. In education today, people attend schools to acquire the marketable skills, and sometimes just the piece of paper that will enable them to break into the “work-a-day” world. With the focus shifting onto maximising our limitless potential, and equipping humans to learn and grow throughout the extent of their lives, schools could become a place of rich, exciting and diverse energy exchange. They could cater for all ages, with the recognition that learning the unique combination of skills and tools to enable you to carry out your potential does not stop at 18. We could have less of a focus to ‘narrow down’ and specialise as soon as possible, often trapping young people in professions and paths that do not serve them or make full use of their gifts. A greater focus would also be necessary on the 'softer' skills mentioned - as well as the art of autodidactism, arguably the most powerful skill of all.
What is truly exciting is the realisation of how far we have come, and how much we have invented and created, while using such a tiny fraction of our collective potential. Technologies like the Internet and solar power and scientific progress in subjects like quantum physics and synthetic biology are already truly revolutionising the way we live and see the world. So imagine the extent of what is possible when we start living smart. Imagine also the abundant and equitable world we could inhabit if we learned how to use our Toys responsibly. Time and space for self-reflection, improvement and well-being could finally let our consciousness, intentions and morals catch up with the leaps that we have been making in technology and science. The global crisis we are now facing can be seen at its core as a crisis of consciousness — while we have prodigious technological powers, our consciousness and ability to find contentment within lags behind.
While we have great amounts of knowledge, we remain with very little wisdom. Deciphering how that knowledge is used; using discernment, evaluation and intuition — is what must follow. Peter Russell refers to this as the coming ‘Age of Wisdom’.
The Industrial Revolution allowed a great leap in civilisation’s development: it led to the harnessing of the untapped potential of material goods, natural reserves and minerals. Now we face harnessing a resource which is both less finite and without limits. Here’s to unlocking the greatest untapped resource of our time: our collective genius.