Peering into Pew’s crystal ball: robotics and work in the coming decades

We like to say that a resiliency mindset leaves us “ready for anything”—though that’s far easier said than done.  Among the most unfathomable yet clearly critical “known unknowns” barreling down the pike is the rapid maturation of robotics.  Just yesterday, the first self-driving tractor trailer truck was licensed for testing in highways in Nevada (don’t worry, there’s a driver; but he’s messing with a tablet, so maybe worry a little bit).

Last year, the Pew Research Center canvassed hundreds of tech professionals to get their thoughts on how robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) will change the economic and employment landscape.  As befitting a topic that’s so dynamic and unpredictable, their summary report touches on a range of possibilities that echo our diverse Future Forecasts, with the respondents very evenly split between those foreseeing a breakdown (mass unemployment, inequality, and social disruption) and others expressing a Driver’s faith in innovation and breakthroughs; there’s even a touch of relocalization  (ala the top row and left column of our RIM) tossed in, with the “hope that the coming changes will be an opportunity to reassess our society’s relationship to employment itself—by returning to a focus on small-scale or artisanal modes of production, or by giving people more time to spend on leisure, self-improvement, or time with loved ones.”

The one (web)page summary features short paragraphs from an array of thinkers, and the whole report could be a worthy Zone 3 task.  There’s something for everyone here; but along with the diversity comes this key conclusion:

Point of agreement: Technology is not destiny … we control the future we will inhabit

In the end, a number of these experts took pains to note that none of these potential outcomes—from the most utopian to most dystopian—are etched in stone. Although technological advancement often seems to take on a mind of its own, humans are in control of the political, social, and economic systems that will ultimately determine whether the coming wave of technological change has a positive or negative impact on jobs and employment.

Seth Finkelstein, a programmer, consultant and EFF Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award winner, responded, “A technological advance by itself can either be positive or negative for jobs, depending on the social structure as a whole….this is not a technological consequence; rather it’s a political choice.”

Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of the MIT Technology Review, responded, “There’s no economic law that says the jobs eliminated by new technologies will inevitably be replaced by new jobs in new markets… All of this is manageable by states and economies: but it will require wrestling with ideologically fraught solutions, such as a guaranteed minimum income, and a broadening of our social sense of what is valuable work.”

Or, as Stow Boyd of GigaOM Research (RIP) put it, “The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?”

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