Singularity University, on the grounds of the NASA Research Center at Moffett Field in Silicon Valley, abounds in optimism, and, as Singularity’s vice president of innovation and research, I have understandably caught the bug. I have written about why I believe this will be the most innovative decade in human history, how we are headed for an era of abundant and affordable health care, and how robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing will lead to an era of local manufacturing in which the creative class flourishes.
But deep down I also worry about the dark side of advancing technology; specifically, how we could create doomsday viruses, be in ethical gray zones, and impact employment with new technologies. So my exchanges with Singularity University founders Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis often turn into lengthy debates. While we agree on the positives, we never quite reach an agreement on the risks and downsides. I usually run out of arguments, and their optimism always wins me over — until it wears off.
Kurzweil is the world’s most prominent futurist and author of the recently-released “How to Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.” With his permission, I am sharing our Oct. 15 email exchange. We discussed where the jobs of the future will be found and whether humanity will evolve fast enough to take advantage of the opportunities and new tools these future jobs will generate. Kurzweil’s optimism once again left me speechless. This exchange has been edited for clarity.
Me: … I still want to discuss the question of where [the] jobs of the future will be. I’m at Singularity University listening to [British scientist and former Northern Rock non-executive chairman] Matt Ridley’s talk. He is as optimistic as [you, Peter and I] are, but even he can’t answer that question well.
Ray Kurzweil: … People couldn’t answer that question in 1800 or 1900 either. A prescient futurist in 1900 would have said to an audience, “a third of you work in factories, another third [on] farms, but I predict that in a hundred years – by the year 2000 – that will be 3 percent and 3 percent. But don’t worry, a higher percentage of the population will have jobs, and the jobs will pay a lot more in constant dollars.” When asked what those jobs might be, he would respond that those jobs have not been invented yet.
Another point is that jobs today already contain a significant component of ongoing learning. That will continue to increase as people continually learn the new skills needed for the new jobs.
We have already expanded our intelligence with brain extenders (which are not yet inside our brains, but that is a distinction without a difference). That trend will also accelerate.
Me: I would argue that you can’t compare a time when things were moving at linear rates with the exponential era. In those days, we had decades … or even centuries to react to change and develop the skills, infrastructure, and social structures to adapt to changing technologies. The vast majority of the people in the world aren’t Internet savvy today — 15 years after the Internet went exponential. There have been revolutions in commerce, infrastructure, and society because of the Internet, yet we have only created 500,000 or so jobs in the mobile “app economy” — hardly the numbers to employ the populations that will be disrupted by technological change over the next decade.
The optimistic side of me would say that our work weeks will get shorter and we will have more time for leisure, so there may be service jobs created. But then I worry if mankind can evolve fast enough to share the abundance and prosperity that we will create.
Kurzweil: Everything was slow in the “old” days – the rate of change as well as the ability and tools people had to accommodate change. Both sides of the equation are much faster today. People can (and are) becoming “Internet savvy” very quickly. It doesn’t take long. The Web and mobile technology [are] invading the entire world, including Africa, at a very fast pace. Look how quickly Asia has adapted.
The answer is not more leisure time, but more time to learn and to be creative.
There will be an economic incentive for the haves to share the abundance and prosperity being created because they will need markets.
Also, there will be a robust open-source economy in fields such as software, music, videos, movies and books, and so on. That, by the way, has not killed the industries that provide proprietary forms of these information types. When information can create physical products, there will be open-source versions of that also, and access to 3D printing will be even more ubiquitous than computing platforms are today. There will be public 3D printing stations where people can go and print out clothes, modules to refurbish or build their house, and so on. So many — and ultimately all — of people’s basic needs can be met through open-source forms of information.
Me: Curtis Carlson, [President and] CEO of [research and development company] SRI, visited Singularity University today, during our fall executive program. He said that SRI had helped build the critical technologies for companies such as [SRI’s ventures] Intuitive Surgical and Nuance Communications and the original versions of Apple’s Siri. Technologies like these created hundreds of thousands of jobs, and we are potentially in a golden age for major new innovations. For example, SRI is building the next generation of artificial intelligence technologies that could tremendously improve productivity in the banking industry and the customer experience. But Carlson worries that these may end up reducing the overall number of jobs available. He is optimistic that his scientists will make breakthroughs that improve the lives of billions and do good for the world. But he worries that employment won’t keep pace because we are not pursing policies that will take advantage of all our opportunities and create the jobs that we need.
This is my worry too. I am not optimistic that governments and society can change fast enough to assimilate all these changes and to share prosperity. The robber barons of yesteryear hogged the resources and prosperity for themselves. Today, investment banks, special interest groups, and governments divert key resources. I don’t see human nature evolving as rapidly as technology will.
And then there is the issue of workforce training. Americans generally believe that education ends when they graduate from college. In the new world that you describe — and that I believe will surely become a reality, education must be a lifelong process; creativity will be the new currency. But the debate we are having in Silicon Valley is about whether children should even go to college. I have battled PayPal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel in national forums and lost the debates because many people agree with him that education is an overpriced luxury. Are we going to be able to change the mindsets of an entire population in a decade — which is about as much time as we have?
Now, let’s go to China. I expect that you will agree that manufacturing will become a local industry and that 3D printing, [artificial intelligence] and robotics will eliminate the need to ship raw materials all the way to China and then transport finished goods back to other countries. So, China’s manufacturing industry will begin to suffer a significant hollowing out in this decade. Even if America can re-educate its workforce, can China do this? What happens with the resulting unrest and upheaval?
Kurzweil: Automation always eliminates more jobs than it creates if you only look at the circumstances narrowly surrounding the automation. That’s what the Luddites saw in the early nineteenth century in the textile industry in England. The new jobs came from increased prosperity and new industries that were not seen. Your comment on robber barons is overly simplistic. There has been steady economic growth across the world for the past two centuries.
The issue of lifelong education is on a different level from the debate as to whether higher education as it is currently organized is the best way to provide education. That gets at the higher education topic we were discussing earlier.
China is already graduating massive numbers of people at every level up to and including the doctoral level in every field especially scientific and engineering fields.
Ray is the greatest futurist of our time and I love his optimism. All I can say is that I hope he is right.
This story was originally published on WashingtonPost.com.
[Top image credit: Nataliya Hora/Shutterstock]