Will the future be filled with cool technologies and endless opportunities or will our own creations lead to eventual doom? I tend to think the former. Technology has seemingly endless ability to improve the health, freedom, and happiness of our lives. Even optimistic futurists like Ray Kurzweil and James Canton admit, however, that the road to advancing technology is fraught with dangers. Super viruses, artificial intelligence’s run amok, environmental calamity – science has its threats as well as its promises. Yet there could be one near term problem that even futurists tend to ignore – economic collapse. Martin Ford, a silicon valley computer engineer, entrepreneur, and blogger has written The Lights In The Tunnel, a book which explores the economic implications of a world which is becoming increasingly automated. Ford proposes that in the upcoming years robots and computer programs will edge human workers out of their jobs and that unless we take drastic actions this will reduce mass market purchasing power, destroy consumer confidence, and shut down the global economy. Ford has the reader envision these changes during a thought experiment where lights in a tunnel represent purchasing power in the mass market (hence the title). Even after discussing the book with the author, I’m not convinced that The Lights In The Tunnel is an accurate prediction of our future, but I wanted to spread the question: what does increased automation mean for our economy?
It’s hard to deny that robots and computers will eventually take over for humans in many industries. Already we’ve seen how robots like the Flexpicker and Adept Quattro excel at sorting and moving goods in a manufacturing environment. More humanoid creations, like Kawada’s Nextage or Honda’s ASIMO, could take on even more human-like tasks. And then there are the software programs. We’ve recently showcased how sports journalists and other news people could one day face serious competition from virtual writers and performers. Everywhere, automation is progressing and taking over more jobs. Even vending machines are starting to eliminate the needs for some human workers.
Yet even as technology removes some jobs, it creates others. For every worker taken off the assembly line there’s another added to the maintenance team, or two who become consultants. We’ll never automate away all the jobs, will we? Depends on how advanced the machines become.