Two views of the near future

March 25, 2017 | Filed under: Uncategorized

Depending on my mood, and alcohol intake, I find that I flop between vastly varying views of what our future may look like. The pessimistic, dark one comes easily to me, but sometimes the positive one breaks through. I suspect we face a future of extremes and may end up in either, or both depending where you live, and what you earn. Here are my upbeat and downbeat views.

The pessimistic view:

Lots of forces are conspiring to change your world in a bad way. Nuclear proliferation has not gone away, nor has terrorism. The chances are, at some point, some terrorist will successfully use a nuclear weapon, even if its something as relatively trivial as a ‘dirty bomb‘. The impact of a dirty bomb isn’t measurable by deaths,m but by economic damage. Set it off in central park, or Time square, or outside the houses of parliament. The economic damage and panic would be off the scale. Even fukushima was hugely mitigated by being in a *relatively* low population area. Worse still, our abilities to spot such things are not good.  Even if you think that society *can* prevent all terrorism, do you want to live in the ‘total surveillance’ state that it would require? Its highly possible that the last twenty years may become remembered in history books as an anomaly of privacy at the start of the digital age.  We are one major terrorist strike away from compulsory ID cards, total internet monitoring and a ban on personal use of encryption.

When privacy goes, business will step in. I recommend you read super-crunchers if you think corporate collection of data is harmless. For all our lives we have assumed that we have nothing to hide, and no useful data to collect, because who cares so much about our buying habits. that’s before big data and smart AI makes it possible to adjust cliffs health insurance costs based on what he orders from Starbucks for lunch. We are hurtling at high speed towards a future where big business knows way, way more about you than you do, than your family does, than even your therapist does. Advertising will get smarter, more targeted, more manipulative. The idea of dumb ‘banner’ ads may disappear in a future where every word of text, every font choice, every image choice in every ad you see has been curated in real time to appeal to you, at this time of day, on this date. Multiply the creepy feeling of seeing ads ‘follow’ you around the web by a thousandfold.

Not that you will be able to buy anything anyway…because robots just took your job, and if you think you are smart, you better be ultra-smart because AI just took the other jobs too. Of course, you *might* have a job cleaning the expensive sports cars of the super-rich by hand (purely for show of course, even that will be done better by a real car cleaning robot), or be able to compete for one of the rapidly decreasing jobs that robots cannot yet do (or we prefer them not to).

If you do manage to get a job, its likely to be not for ‘the company‘, as thankfully there will still be more than one company on earth, but its likely to be one of a very small number. Remember those glory days when entrepreneurs could start a small company? thats kinda quaint in a future increasingly dominated by massive companies, like Amazon and Alphabet with a market cap larger than many small (and even medium sized) countries. The wealth will continue to concentrate, and the chances are it wont be in your hands.

Name Market cap
Alphabet $563bn
Sweden $517bn
Microsoft $500bn
Amazon $403bn
United Arab Emirates $375bn
Greece $195bn

Not that any of that matters because we are still doing nothing about climate change. It wont kill you directly, but it will make your life hell. Climate shifts will mean devastation to harvests pushing up food prices beyond breaking point for many societies, leading to increased war, massive migration to ‘the west’, and a huge squeeze on the cost of living (compounded by the robots taking your job anyway). Globalisation will not stop, so you will be competing for the last few human-viable jobs with desperate refugees all over the world.  A combination of climate instability, resource wars and food shortages will provide a fertile breeding ground for yet more terrorism, and lead to more extremist politics around the globe. By the way antibiotic resistance could fail soon due to over-prescription and help wipe us out, if a bird flu pandemic or something similar doesn’t get there first. And don’t even get me started on topsoil erosion.

We are fucked.

The optimistic view:

In 1900 a car cost a fortune, went at a pitiful speed, was unsafe, noisy, polluting, unreliable and a pain-in-the-ass to drive. In 2016 a car can be scarily fast, trivial to drive (or even self-drive at times), as comfortable as a sofa, eerily quiet, safer than ever before (by a vast margin), and emit zero pollution. A lot of that has changed in the last 10 years, and the rate of change is accelerating.

I’m 47. As a kid we knew that phonecalls (even local ones) were expensive. nobody could afford to phone another country, unless it was an emergency. These days, phonecalls are effectively free, and communication by high def image, video, voice or even virtual-prescence in a  game is virtually free. Access to vast amounts of human knowledge is virtually free online. the world has never been more connected. Global violence has never been lower. Poverty has never been lower.  Diseases that were commonplace are now virtually eradicated. the human genome is sequenced. Some people in the UK are getting ‘bionic eyes’ on the NHS.

Futurists who talk about the ‘singularity’ are excited at the idea that as tech advances, the rate of tech advancement also accelerates, as the output of that new tech leads to more educated and technologically literate people able to achieve more and more. Kids born today will take to computers and virtual reality in the same way someone my age took to television and books.

People worry about automation causing job losses, but this will just lead to an explosion of leisure. The huge extra wealth generated by an automated workforce that requires no pay, no healthcare, no pension, no breaks, so sleep, will allow society to capture the surplus as tax to pay for either a universal basic income, or for the state to pay for vast social enterprises that create employment. The arts budget could be multiplied by ten, or even a hundred, as the profits from robot-crammed factories pay for a life of creativity and leisure. the forty hour week will give way to a twenty hour week, maybe even a ten hour week.  Democracies will ensure that wealth cannot be forever hoarded by the few, and a need for people to actually afford to buy their products will persuade the super-rich than even the 10-hour weekers will ned to earn a decent wag for society to operate.

Automation and AI will lead to such an economic surplus that once unsolvable problems (climate change, global poverty, unaffordable housing, homelessness) become affordable, maybe even trivial to fix.  Advances in renewable energy point to a future where energy is effectively free, and where almost everything is done by robots and almost all they need is energy, we effectively live a life of pure exploration, enjoyment and leisure.

It sounds unlikely, but we already live relatively blissful lives thanks to the advance of robots. A robot washes my dishes, another washes my clothes. We already have robots that clean cars, that mow the lawn and that vacuum your house. Is it so hard to imagine a special purpose robot that takes out your trash, that irons your clothes, that drives you to and from work (or to the pub!), leaving you to do the ten or less hours a week of creative thinking that you already do, but without the tedious pen pushing or lifting/carrying nonsense that makes up the majority of so many jobs? We no more WANT to keep so many of us stacking shelves in shops than we WANT to go back to hand-washing of cars, or even hand-scything of crops. Technological advance has always given us greater wealth, greater comfort and more leisure and it always will.

We are so lucky.

2 Responses to “Two views of the near future”

  1. Wouter Lievens says:

    One small nitpick: you’re comparing Market Cap and (what appears to be) GDP.

    The analogue of Market Cap for an individual is Net Worth, the analogue for GDP is your yearly income. It’s apples and oranges: the real “Market Cap” of Sweden (i.e. the market’s appreciation of its assets minus its liabilities) is probably a lot more than it’s GDP.

  2. Bill Hammond says:

    It is quite a very narrow minded english view of the future, I would say.