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The dark side of automation was once a figment of science fiction, where fears of intelligent machines taking over the world ran wild. Now, there’s a very real sense that intelligent machines pose a real threat to humankind — or at least a real threat to humankind’s earning potential.
In 2021, McKinsey estimated that one-quarter of the U.S. workforce could lose their jobs to automation by 2030. As things stand, only a handful of people will profit from increased automation. As machines take over manual, repetitive tasks that humans have traditionally performed across most industries, it is feared that the parties who control them will sap income from one-fourth of Americans and further aggravate the wealth gap.
An opportunity to benefit, collectively, from the age of automation lies in blockchain technology. For many, “blockchain” may still seem like a niche Twitter buzzword. Perhaps it makes you think of your cousin’s crypto investments or of celebrities snapping up Bored Ape NFTs for hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, have use cases beyond digital art collection. They are unique tokens stored on a digital ledger that can prove ownership, and connecting real-world machines to NFTs may be the solution to machines taking our jobs.
The ownership issue
The problem at the core of the dystopia we’re heading towards is not automation – it’s who gets to profit from automation, and who doesn’t. Most people don’t own machines or have the capital to purchase them. They use machines as a means to earn an income, but when cars can safely drive themselves, Uber drivers will become a thing of the past. Drones will make delivery drivers redundant. Robots will cook, prepare and serve food and drinks, and so on. Machine NFTs represent hope for a future in which this is not necessarily a bad thing.
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Machine NFTs enable forms of democratic ownership of machines. A Machine NFT is a contract on a public ledger that proves ownership of a machine, a pool of machines, or fractions of the aforementioned. In theory, they can allow anybody to verify that they own a machine or a stake in a machine without the need for a centralized authority, although relying on NFTs for this instead of governments is some years away. More interesting and imminent is the use of Machine NFTs which represent a stake in a pool of machines. Anybody with an internet connection can own a share of the machine economy so that the more machines do, the more holders of Machine NFTs earn.
Instead of Uber, imagine if communities collectively owned the autonomous vehicles in their neighborhood. Every member of the community would receive a share of the ride fares earned by the vehicles. The community could also decide to sell data gathered by the vehicles for additional profits or enable them to deliver packages and groceries when the demand for rides is low. The machines would provide passive income for the community, which could cover the costs for the community to use those same services.
Suddenly, 2030 is an idyllic world where anyone can profit from automation. While the robots go to work, humans can devote themselves to more meaningful or creative work without suffering a loss of income. We live in the age of abundance and the means to support this already exist, it’s just currently concentrated into the hands of a few Web2 companies.
Web3: Hope for a bright future
Machine NFTs will be used to align stakeholder incentives in today’s ‘’Economy of Things’’, and the fast-approaching autonomous age. Manufacturers, investors, owners, and users will have access to a stake in the machine economy. Machine NFTs ensure that people still have profit, ownership, and governance rights in the autonomous age, and everyone in a community will be able to extract increasing value from the machines that keep things running – without the need for Big Tech firms to intermediate. Automation is an issue that must be viewed from the human perspective, not simply as a tool for increasing profit margins.
NFTs broke into mainstream conversation through digital art and collectibles, but the full potential of this technology has yet to be unveiled. After all, non-fungible tokens are just another token format – there is nothing intrinsically artsy about them. Digital art demonstrated their viability. Over the next few years, the practical role that NFTs can play in distributing abundance will become clear. NFTs will become a crucial connector of the physical and digital worlds, giving individuals and communities independently-verifiable ownership of the world around them.
Max is an entrepreneur, writer and cofounder of peaq
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