THE UTOPIAN VERSION
According to a study by the Oxford Martin School, half our jobs will have been automated out of existence by 2033, and this opens the way to a happy future of leisure and learning, with our lives enhanced by remarkable new technology…
In 2033, work is optional. The knowledge, analysis and efficiency provided by robots and AI have created an abundance of goods, services and that most precious commodity, time. The need for adults to spend the vast part of their lives at work has now been eliminated.
The response to a post-work society is the Universal Basic Income that, after a series of experiments in the late 2010s, began rolling out in the 2020s. By 2033, every citizen is automatically paid sufficient income to make the threat of destitution disappear, while the quality of life has soared as the hyper efficiency of technology shrinks the cost of living.
Humans are far from surplus to requirements: the unique ingenuity and empathy of the human brain cannot be replicated by computer circuits. But the necessity of the five-day week has vanished. The business of gathering, inputting, sharing and analysing information is carried out instantly and constantly by an unseen network of connected machines. Physical atoms must also be reconfigured and moved around the world, and manufacturing and transportation is carried out seamlessly and automatically by more machines or else 3D-printed at the point of need. Humans intervene to bring judgement, creativity, invention, entertainment and human care to the table and this makes work feel like a joy. Your co-workers are algorithms and, while they do the dangerous, boring and exhausting jobs, you do the fun ones.
Because work is optional, companies of the future put as much effort into making great experiences for their workers and freelance contractors as they do today for customers. The so-called ‘gig economy’ of 2016, typified by part-time work at Uber, Task Rabbit and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and others, morphs into activities to be desired rather than resorted to.
New jobs, roles and activities bubble up and then pop as technology evolves, creates new opportunities and then displaces them. To get a feel of the alien but creative job landscape of 2033, consider that already in 2016 Microsoft hires poets and playwrights to imbue its Artificial Personal Assistant, Cortana, with personality and back story.
In 17 years from now, in other words, work is fun or you don’t do it because you don’t need to. Untroubled by the fear of poverty, society’s relationship with money begins to change and we enter a period that has been provocatively described as ‘fully automated luxury communism’.
The combination of AI, nanotechnology and molecular printing will steadily diminish illness, disease and physical and mental decline.
The current approach to healthcare is reactive but the development of genetics and the application of super intelligence to vast data pools will replace it with a predictive and preventative system. The work of, and need for, human healthcare professionals will transform because human empathy is what is in demand rather than humans with the technical skill of surgeons. As the marketing for the 2033 robotic eye surgeon will almost certainly point out, “Our robo- surgeon never sneezes.”
On the matter of eyesight, a 2016 meta study of 145 research studies forecasts that half of the world will be nearsighted by 2050 due to screen-based indoor lifestyles. That said, screens may be a thing of the past by then. Holograms may well be standard fare in 17 years’ time.
3D printing in 2016 is already being used to print replacement hip bones and foot bones and by 2033 organs will be 3D printed as routine. But this is only the beginning of the ways in which we will augment and improve upon today’s human limitations.
At Dubai’s Museum of the Future exhibition in 2016, the designers, Tellart, envisaged an Augmentation Spa dated 2035. On display were prototypes and imaginings of the way we will improve ourselves. One implant helps you assess the micro-expressions of people you’re talking to in order to understand their thoughts so that you can best manage a meeting or situation to your advantage. An aural implant enables you to understand any language in real time. And the Eat-It-All is a micropill that “extracts just what your body needs from anything you eat, rejecting the rest… for up to two weeks’ worry-free eating.”
Meanwhile, there is a trickle of devices on sale in 2016 that claim to make us more creative and more alert through the emerging field of transcranial direct current stimulation. A headband produced by UK-based fo.cus will, claim the manufacturers, “increase the plasticity of your brain” and “make your synapses faster”. In 17 years the managed throttling up and down of our concentration, awareness, openness, learning and restfulness will be routine.
This is just one strand of the technological advances that will make us faster, stronger and smarter, and live longer. In the world of fully automated luxury communism, everyone enjoys the fruits of technological innovation.
This has been the year when early adopters began to embrace virtual reality as VR headsets hit the consumer market. Over the next few years these headsets will infiltrate the mainstream and by 2033 the impact will be enormous.
You will be transported anywhere you wish, exploring new lands or meeting distant family and friends. The world will shrink and expand at the same time. You will be able to attend conferences where you can see a group of people in a room, observe what they are looking at and how they are responding to information and ideas, even though each of them may be in a physically different environment. Proximity will no longer determine who you spend your time with. And in the future you won’t visit websites, you’ll enter them.
Incidentally, VR, like all new technology, will lead to wondrous, creative new jobs. Actors, for example, will find an abundance of work improvising as characters in real time VR games.
City centres will be radically reinvented. Enormous office blocks that bring hundreds of workers together under the watchful eye of their management will no longer be required. The jobs will not be there, after all, and those who do work will be doing so optionally.
The office space will be converted to creative spaces, galleries, living quarters, playgrounds and sites for ‘vertical agriculture’, where AI systems tend hydroponic fruit and vegetable crops and in-vitro cloned meat.
Siri, Cortana and the scores of other personal assistants that are embedded into our phones or other devices will be embedded into the environment, sensing you, your mood and your biology, and knowing your schedule and priorities. Your clothes will connect with the weather and your home lights will integrate with your biorhythms. It will be as if intelligence can be summoned from thin air with a word. Every table, wall and surface will have a screen or the ability to project information.
Robots will either look like people or be invisible. This will, incidentally, spell the end of what must surely be one of the fastest growing jobs in today’s 2016 economy – illustrating what robots of the future will look like.
Creativity and sociability will be core skills taught and developed at school. And the rise of online and then virtual reality-based education will support life-long learning, whether the impulse is to learn for the sake of learning or for work. The accelerating speed of technological change will lead to the development of nano-degrees, as people gain expertise in niche areas at great velocity in order to be able to do useful things with these new skills before they become obsolete.
For some, the most exciting aspect of 2033 will be the run up to the merger of humanity with technology that futurists call The Singularity. It’s an amorphous term that roughly describes the point at which humans will upload their consciousness to technology and become technology incarnate, in an explosion of personal and collective intelligence and eternal virtual life. Some of the leading thinkers, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe this will happen by 2045. In fact, it may already have happened by 2033: Zoltan Istvan, the entrepreneur and US presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, believes that the uploading of your entire self to a computer could happen as soon as 2030.
The promised land
This, then, is the world as it unfolds once its people and organisations decide to embrace a new way of living and a new distribution of abundance. It’s a world that views technological change as a wave to be surfed by all. The huge shifts in work, money and lifestyle that it necessitates are accommodated peacefully and to the satisfaction of everyone. There will be bumps, protests and difficult decisions along the way, of course. But perhaps, in the end, the navigation is helped because the great potential of artificial intelligence contributes to the debate.
THE DYSTOPIAN VERSION
According to a study by the Oxford Martin School, half our jobs will have been automated out of existence by 2033. This opens the way to a grim future of inequality in which life is a struggle for those on the wrong side of the digital divide…
According to a 2015 report produced for Citi by the authors of the original Oxford Martin paper that is the premise of this article, “Instead of labour, the greatest beneficiaries of the digital age have been shareholders. According to a recent estimate, the three leading companies of Silicon Valley employed some 137,000 workers in 2014 with a combined market capitalisation of $1.09trn.”
The funnelling of ever greater wealth to ever fewer people will reach extraordinary levels by 2033. In this vision of the future, the protests of the 2020s failed to change the order of things, a significant universal basic income was rejected, and inequality has become the defining characteristic of our lives.
In 2015 Johann Rupert, the CEO of Richemont, the luxury brands group that owns Cartier, Piaget, Montblanc and others, was the keynote speaker at the Financial Times ‘Business of Luxury Summit’. He stunned the audience when he said the key issues of the future were not matters of commerce such as “clicks versus bricks” but inequality. He asked: “How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and social warfare? That’s what keeps me awake at night.”
As the futurist and tech writer John Markoff has observed: “While exponential technologies will help individuals in all levels of society, unless there is significant governmental or societal change, it’s clear that they will disproportionately help the more affluent, who will have first access to them, leading to greater inequality, not less.”
A report by the Resolution Foundation think tank predicts that living standards for many low to middle income households in the UK are likely to be lower by 2020 than they were in 2008. In the absence of profound policy change, this divergence, based on the exponential technological development, will explode over the next 17 years.
Out of work in a time of fast-changing technology, you see your skills stagnate as knowledge, know-how and expertise accelerate away from you. McKinsey predicts, for example, that call-centre software such as Amelia, produced by the company IPsoft, could replace 250 million call-centre jobs around the world. In trials, the software can resolve ever higher proportions of customer complaints and rapidly improves above and beyond human results. It can absorb employee manuals and languages instantly while human workers may take weeks or months to learn the same.
An Artificial Intelligence system called Giraffe last year taught itself to play chess from scratch by watching videos of chess games. Within 72 hours it could compete at European Grand Master level. It is safe to assume that humans by 2033 will have long ago learnt the impossibility of outrunning the bots in intellectual horsepower.
By 2033, the gig economy, which social commentators call the ‘precariat’ because workers have no security of income or employment, will be the way most of the population earn an income.
On the plus side, the forecasting company Forrester Data predicts that by 2025 12.7 million new US jobs will have been created building robots or the automation software that runs them. Alas, for reasons that don’t need stating, helping robots and AI work better and more independently is no guarantee of long-term employment.
Skills and learning
In 2016 The World Economic Forum in Davos focused on the Future of Jobs. A WEF briefing paper noted that today the most in demand occupations and specialities did not exist ten or even five years ago. Constant learning and reskilling to stay economically relevant will be a critical part of life by 2020, said the WEF, but it is not clear, when technologies and industries rise and fall at such speed, how job-seekers can predict what knowledge and skills will be in demand in 2033.
A study commissioned by the Foundation for Young Australians in 2015 found that 60 per cent of Australian students are currently studying or training for jobs that either won’t exist or will look completely different in the next ten to 15 years. The entry-level employee of today will on average have 17 jobs and five careers in their lifetime, it forecast.
The power of AI and big data will enable extremely accurate behavioural predictions (and thus manipulation) of us as individuals and as a species. Netflix and Amazon suggestions will be as nothing compared to the time your fridge prepares your smoothie before you feel hungry or turns off your video screen when a politician who raises your blood pressure is about to speak. The challenge to our notion of free will could lead to a collapse in our collective happiness. For people brought up to value economic independence and to find self-esteem in work, the experience of being forever displaced by robots will be miserable.
The mysterious process of creativity and imagination is, declare many commentators, a safe haven for humans. It’s an area of activity that is sacrosanct from the dry calculus of silicon chips. Yet earlier this year a computer wrote a musical called Beyond The Fence, which scored lukewarm reviews from critics. For a first effort, that’s not bad. And it will do better next time.
Meanwhile DARPA, the US Department of Defence’s robotics department, has started developing robots that can play jazz. It’s a serious undertaking that is being pursued because the ability to improvise is valuable in military decision-making.
Music, painting, filmmaking and animation are all in the crosshairs and astonishing work such as Bach-like fugues can be produced in seconds. Even in the field of creativity, it seems, the machines seem ready to undercut human prices and surpass human limitations.
The genomes of more than one billion people will have been mapped by 2040, George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, recently told the Guardian. Acting on this information to improve health and performance will, of course, cost money, which suggests some will benefit and others won’t. It is the same as it is today, you may say. But more so. Much more so.
The emerging field of ‘nootropics’ will be one of the many ways technology enables humans to become artificially smarter and stronger. Nootropics is the science of brain-boosting drugs. But, like any new technology, the newest and best nootropics will be expensive. Those who can afford early access to them will become much smarter than those who follow. This will enable them to make faster, smarter decisions and earn more money, which they can use to further enhance and augment their natural capabilities.
Once this ability to change outcomes can be acquired, commentators fear it might quickly lead to a bifurcation of the species into one that is continually augmented and another that, having been left behind once, is condemned to follow organic speeds of evolution.
It may not just be your DNA that is intimately known to a central AI. Your vulnerability to all sorts of messaging, media formats and times of day is also better understood by others than you. Personalised marketing is an unfair battle when it is your brain versus petabytes of data and a supercomputer. Advertising will be irresistible.
Today the internet is rife already with stories of people who have experimented with implants. In 2016 there are people who need only to pass their hand over the scanner for the implanted RFID chip to grant them access to the London Underground. This may be the harbinger of having all your identity information and financial information move from your omnipresent phone to your flesh-and-blood self, whether through an implant in your hipbone (as proposed by the chief futurist at VR company Magic Leap) or matched to the unique blood vessel pattern of your index finger (a more reliable method of identity verification than fingerprints).
Once this happens, your every movement will be known to advertisers, social networks and credit lenders as you pass through the blizzard of sensors that will be the everyday experience of 2033. Meanwhile, high-altitude drones continue to view the world from a distance, while insect-sized drones observe the world from close up.
Grab what you can
The astonishing thing about the dystopian version of 2033 is how fast society unravels. The potential wrong path appears to be allowing the digital divide to exist. If it does, then the scramble to land on the right side of it will be far from graceful. Yet there may be no other way. As Zoltan Istvan, the US presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, has warned, the most important race may be the one to build the first general-purpose artificial intelligence. If the smartest brain in the universe is subject to a malign set of rules, then being a member of the precariat may only be the beginning of our problems.
Posted by Richard Newton