Let’s step back for a moment and take a look at the big picture in terms of what might be coming in our futures. We spend a lot of time here talking about the possibilities that could come if energy is cheap and abundant — especially when energy developments are combined with so many other technological advances that are taking place at a dizzying pace.
An opinion piece in the Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa looks at where we might be heading. He spends a lot of time thinking about future — his current professional responsibilities are as a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University.
Wadhwa’s conclusion is that we are heading towards a future without jobs as we currently know them. He writes, “Within two decades, we will have almost unlimited energy, food, and clean water; advances in medicine will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores.” He reckons we have only 10-15 years left of work as we know it, before robots, sensors, drones and other technologies start to do all the laborious work that humans have done throughout the ages.
Wadha says that in the West we will actually increase jobs in the near term as we build the plants and machines that will power our future — but that the job loss has already started in China, a manufacturing economy, where robots can now do work more cheaply than human labor.
For everyone who depends on a paycheck from a job for survival this may come across as a worrying scenario. Yes, the essential goods we need to survive may become far cheaper than before as energy and labor costs are drastically reduced — but it is highly doubtful that things are going to become free overnight, and if a jobless world is just two decades away we don’t have a lot of time to transition from our current economy to a completely new reality. We might turn to government to help us sort out this transition, but Wadha says government doesn’t really know what to do:
“They can barely keep up with the advances that are happening in technology, let alone develop economic policies for employment. Even the courts are struggling to understand the legal and ethical issues of advancing technologies.”
The only proposed solution that Wadha puts forward to help with the issue is to shorten the work week to 10-20 hours. I think most people, if economically secure, would gladly spend less time at work, but many people these days need to work as much as possible — sometimes multiple jobs — just to stay financially afloat, and probably would not voluntarily cut back unless they were sure they could survive.
Regarding employment Wadha says, “There is surely a possibility for social unrest because of this; but we could also create the utopian future we have long dreamed of, with a large part of humanity focused on creativity and enlightenment. ”
There doesn’t seem to be any let-up in the pace of technological change; in fact it seems to be accelerating. Personally, I welcome every useful advance out there and I see technology as being a key to solving some of the most challenging problems we face in the world. But there are going to be difficult issues to face, and the employment issue could be the most challenging one of all.
I am glad to see this topic raised in an influential newspaper like the Washington Post. I think it’s something that should be widely discussed. It’s going to take wisdom and creativity to be able to come up with innovative solutions that could help the world move into what I do consider to be a bright and inviting future.