Automated luxury communism?!?
In the scenario section of The Resilient Investor we talk briefly about the “Star Trek future,” where limitless energy, extraordinary but totally integrated tech, and breakthroughs of consciousness allow everyone to follow their highest calling and contribution. The Earth is without war or poverty (we need Klingons for dramatic conflict), racism and sexism are behind us, and benevolent scientists in concert with farmers, ranchers, and industry manage the climate. The dreamers who contemplate this possible future usually consider it hundreds of years in the future. Clearly we haven’t made much progress on transporters—or war, sexism, and racism, for that matter—but lately I’ve been thinking that the Star Trek future may be closer than we think.
An article in The Guardian provocatively titled “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” grabbed my attention recently. More like tickled my brain and scrunched my face into a “Say what?” Here’s the basic idea: robot tech and smart software is advancing rapidly and the time when we can dramatically reduce the need to work is soon upon us. If so, let’s be sure this doesn’t benefit just a few; let’s share it with everyone. The article promises a near-future “where machines do the heavy lifting not for profit but for the people.” I also have to say that any article mentioning Star Trek, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al is going to grab me. Let’s unpack what FALC is all about.
“Fully automated” refers to robots and software that pretty much do everything for us. We know that manufacturing work is increasingly being done by robots, and even some quality control is being automated. But what about the robot that could not just vacuum but fully clean your house? Or robots that can tend gardens and farms? It’s predicted that software will also start to replace even service jobs, moving from the low-skilled bottom of the scale and moving up. What will people do in the future?
“Luxury” is a loaded word for many of us, suggesting indolent Gatsby types lounging by the pool while the rest of us grind away. In a historical context, though, the word takes on a softer connotation. When we ponder that all but the very poorest in the United States have sufficient calories and central heating, the present is clearly more luxurious than the world of fifty years ago. Driverless cars, photovoltaic panels that drive the price of energy down dramatically, and 3D printed clothes will redefine how basic needs are met.
The “communism” piece of the idea is the biggest stretch for this investment advisor. The intention is to help ensure that gains in automation and software development accrue to the whole of society, not just the 1%. Similar to William Gibson’s quote, “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” this idea seeks a better distribution. I can see it a little more easily as a communitarian ideal, wherein we would develop community or collective structures that own access to various forms of automation, and others that serve people’s needs (for education, purpose, and societal contribution) during the transition to this new world.
What is the point of all of this from an investment perspective? What can any of us do to prepare for or profit from these rapidly advancing trends? There’s both an investment perspective and a jobs perspective on this. As an investor, make sure you have at least some exposure to the small cap end of the sector, though at the rate at which Google and Facebook are buying small companies, you’re probably covered if you own one of them. From the jobs angle, if you’re older this might be mostly a curiosity, but if I were younger I would think very carefully about how I positioned myself and my skills for the future. And don’t skimp on being sure you’re growing your personal assets in ways that will prepare you for rapid change in the world around you.
There’s a law of change to keep in mind in contemplating all this: we tend to overestimate the kind of change that can happen in the short term but underestimate the change that will happen in the longer term. Many of the changes in robotics and automation are happening just beyond our sight, perhaps faster than we seem to be able to detect and understand them. This is why it’s important to cultivate the personal qualities and skills that will enhance your own ability to stay aware of many possibilities, maintaining a big-picture integration of what you know of the world, so that you’re always at the ready to adapt quickly as needed and seize new opportunities as they arise.