I vividly remember those way-over-my-head issues of Popular Science that were mixed in among the out-of-date Field and Stream magazines that were randomly arrayed on the coffee table in the Sparta (NC) Barbershop during my formative years.
Although I couldn’t understand most of the stuff in the magazine—and I was equally confused by Field and Stream—I immediately turned to the end section that contained all sorts of predictions about what our world would look like in twenty or thirty years. There, as I awaited my geeky trim, I was dazzled by flying cars (everyone would have one), robots that would do our bidding, and screens that would adorn our walls. Well, here we are in the future, where we will soon by flying in our driverless cars (flying down the freeway, that is), and are presently dealing with all sorts of robotic devices while living our lives on screen. We are forced to adopt a stay-tuned and FOMO (fear of missing out) mentality.
I came across an article during Thanksgiving that reminded me of my “back in the day” barbershop reading experiences. Writing in Advancing Technologies, Vivek Wadhwa (author of the forthcoming book, DRIVER IN A DIVERLESS CAR: HOW OUR TECHNOLOGY CHOICES WILL CREATE THE FUTURE), informs us about six new technological advances that will shape our future—which could be only days away. Needless to say, we are inundated by articles, tweets, and blogs about these predictions all the time, and it is probably a good thing that we stop every once in a while to ponder the meaning of how our lives are changing on a daily basis. So, let’s take a look at what Wadhwa has to say.
In what sounds a little old-fashioned by now, Wadhwa reminds us that “many of the old assumption that we have relied on will no longer apply. Technology is creating a new set of rules that will change our very existence.” How many times have we heard this? Nothing new here.
The first of Wadhwa’s six rules is that “Anything that can be digitized will be.” With the increasing evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), we will be hard pressed to find anything that isn’t digital. In his discussion, Wadhwa includes DNA sequencing, machine learning, and media such as music, movies, and books. I read today about how stores like Walmart and Target are experimenting with light fixtures that monitor our smartphones, reporting back to store managers on our shopping habits—and supposedly cutting down on shoplifting and other suspicious behavior at the same time. We should add constant and ubiquitous surveillance to Wadhwa’s list of how the world is becoming digitized.
The second rule is something we have come increasingly to fear—namely, “your job has a significant chance of being eliminated.” This fear is based on the presence of robotics in our daily lives. Here, Wadhwa makes reference as expected to the infamous 19th century Luddite movement, which was, contrary to what most people believe, not a revolt against technology, but a movement to regulate its use and to respect human workers. We have already seen some of the results of the robotic revolution—from more and more self-service and self-checkout lanes to automated tasks like all those little bots that gather social media statistics and Amazon.com orders and preferences. The growth of big data seems to go hand-in-hand with the use of non-human laborers and bean counters.
The third assumption is a little suspect. According to Wadhwa, life in the not-too-distant future “will be so affordable that survival won’t necessitate having a job.” This idea is based on cellphone minutes that are “practically free” (a very questionable assumption), computers that are getting more powerful and less expensive (Chromebooks maybe, but certainly not MacBooks and Surface Pro), and shared-car services like Uber (I guess it will be cheaper to hire Uber drivers than to make monthly car payments?). Do you agree that “health care, food, telecommunication, electricity and computation will all grow cheaper very quickly as technology reinvents the corresponding industries”? The jury is obviously still out on this one.
“Your fate and destiny will be in your own hands as never before,” is Wadhwa’s fourth rule. Here he refers to online learning, mobile medical apps like WebMD that will turn us into to amateur physicians, open-source information, and DIY and 3D printing solutions that will turn our home garages into miniature factories, freeing us from the familiar chains of manufacture and distribution. This rule sounds a little more plausible than the previous one. As we become less and less reliant on traditional “experts,” however, we should be very careful that we don’t lose sight of the necessity to verify our sources of information (the subject of last week’s column).
Fifth, “abundance will become a bigger problem than poverty.” What Wadhwa is referring to here is not so much our bank accounts as our tendency toward excess in all areas of our lives. With the grown of a digital economy, we will witness more and more reasons to be excessive—in our eating habits, our media consumption, our fashion choices, our egos, our religious and political beliefs, and our ever-shortening and impatient attention spans. I suppose we could refer to this as the “super-sized” economy. We see signs of these everywhere we look. And the Kardashians are our poster children for this development.
Wadhwa’s last point is that the “distinction between man and machine will become increasingly unclear.” Here I am reminded of the unsettling movies, “Ex Machina” and “Her,” that chillingly describe the parameters of the man-machine continuum where the lines are becoming very blurred and even non-existent. In his thought-provoking survey of the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, IN OUR OWN IMAGE, George Zarkadakis asks us to ponder the implications of “What a historical irony it would be if the intelligent machines that we created to be like us end up transforming us to become like them.” He then adds that the “future of humanity will be defined by this dilemma.” Some have described this as evolution toward a post-human or trans-human society. The scary part is that this assumption doesn’t sound like science-fiction anymore.
I will leave you to contemplate the consequences of living in a digitized world as I prepare to send my string of 1’s and 0’s to our fearless editor, Don.
See you next week, unless I am replaced by a robotic entity. But then, how would you know?