Robots will be able to do almost anything, including what you do.

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about what our working future may look like. A few weeks ago I wrote about some of Faith Popcorn’s predictions. Quoting from the Popcorn slide deck,

“Work, as we know it, is dying. Careers and offices: Over. The robots are marching in, taking more and more skilled jobs. To keep humans from becoming totally obsolete, the government must intervene, incentivizing companies to keep people on the payroll. Otherwise, robots would job-eliminate them. For the class of highly-trained elite works, however, things have never been better. Maneuvering from project to project, these free-agents thrive. Employers, eager to secure their human talent, lavish them with luxurious benefits and unprecedented flexibility.  The gap between the Have’s and Have-Nots has never been wider.”

Now, I consider Popcorn to be a marketing futurist, she’s in the business to help brands. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I agree with almost all of her predictions. But she’s not the only one talking about the future of work. In a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (forwarded to me by a colleague) Rise Of The  Robots | Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford pretty much agrees. According to the review, “Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams.” Increasingly devices, like 3D printers or drones can do work that used to require a full-blown manufacturing plant or what was heretofore simply impossible. Ford’s book goes on to chronicle dozens of instances like this. The reviewer, Barbara Ehrenreich, states, “In ‘Rise of the Robots,’ Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work.”

In another article in Fast Company, Gwen Moran surveys a couple of PhD’s, one from MIT and another who’s executive director of the Society of Human Resource Management. The latter, Mark Schmit agrees that there will be a disparity in the work force. “this winner/loser scenario predicts a widening wealth gap, Schmit says. Workers will need to engage in lifelong education to remain on top of how job and career trends are shifting to remain viable in an ever-changing workplace, he says.” On the other end of the spectrum some see the future as more promising. The aforementioned MIT prof, Erik Brynjolfsson, “…thinks that technology has the potential for “shared prosperity,” giving us richer lives with more leisure time and freedom to do the types of work we like to do. But that’s going to require collaboration and a unified effort among developers, workers, governments, and other stakeholders…Machines could carry out tasks while programmed intelligence could act as our “digital agents” in the creation and sharing of products and knowledge.”

I’ve been re-accessing Stuart Candy’s PhD dissertation The Futures of Everyday Life, recently and he surfaces a great quote from science fiction writer Warren Ellis which itself was surfaced through Bruce Sterling’s State of the World Address at SXSW in 2006. It is,

“[T]here’s a middle distance between the complete collapse of infrastructure and some weird geek dream of electronically knowing where all your stuff is. Between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana, is the human dimension. How this stuff is taken on board, by smart people, at street level. … That’s where the story lies… in this spread of possible futures, and the people, on the ground, facing them. The story has to be about people trying to steer, or condemn other people, toward one future or another, using everything in their power. That’s a big story. “1

This is relevant for design, too, the topic of last week’s blog. It all ties into the future of the future, the stuff I research and blog about.  It’s about speculation and design fiction and other things on the fringes of our thinking. The problem is that I don’t think that enough people are thinking about it. I think it is still too fringe. What do people do after they read Mark Ford? Does it change anything? In a moment of original thinking I penned the following thought, and as is usually the case subsequently heard it stated in other words by other researchers:

If we could visit the future ”in person,” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present?

It is why we need more design fiction and the kind that shakes us up in the process.

Comments welcome.

1 http://www.warrenellis.com

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