The end of this semester felt more like a philosophy class than a social media class. Big concepts of technological innovations with the potential to completely uproot the economy and daily lives can be difficult to grasp. It’s hard to picture a world driven by Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, 3D printing, and literally driven by self-driving cars. This sounds like some futuristic movie, but it’s already happening. Given everything we learned, here are my thoughts on how society will evolve with new technology.
The technologies of the future are here already.
The Gartner Hype Cycle plots technological innovations along a curve of society’s excitement. New innovations trigger inflated expectations, then reality squashes excitement into a trough of disillusionment. Eventually, bugs get fixed and imperfections are accepted until the technology reaches optimal productivity and mainstream adoption. A couple interesting points I’d like to highlight: Smart Robots are on their way up the hype cycle. They’re likely to be mainstream in 5-10 years, and people are just now starting to pay attention and get excited about the possibilities. Autonomous vehicles are at the peak of inflated expectations. Everyone knows they’re coming, and everyone is (perhaps unrealistically) excited. It’ll be so nice to relax in the car during your commute to work, right? Pretty soon, autonomous vehicles will meet reality. They will make mistakes, they will crash, and unfortunately, they will kill people. Society will have to face the reality that autonomous cars are not a perfect solution. Once their imperfections are accepted, that’s when autonomous vehicles will flourish and reach full potential and mainstream adoption. Similarly, cryptocurrency is in the trough of disillusionment right now. Bitcoin exploded a few years ago, but society perceived it to be complicated, useless, and not as exciting as it once seemed to be. Give it 2-5 years and we’ll see society begin to restructure around blockchain and Bitcoin. Once we accept the flaws and understand the system, the economy will be revolutionized.
The economy is changing, and so must we.
This is crazy and exciting stuff, but are we ready? Can we, as a society, wrap our heads around such sweeping societal changes and prepare for the incoming technological revolution? I think it might take a fundamental switch in mentality to accept these changes.
In order to adapt to a sharing economy such as Uber and AirBnB, systems of trust need to develop. Companies need to rethink corporate structure to understand where they fit into the digital ecosystem. In order for machine learning to understand our preferences and cater options to our preferences, we will need to accept unexpected and relatively creepy phenomena such as how liking curly fries on Facebook indicates high intelligence (Explanation here). Given all these shifts in mindset, we can’t give in to algorithms completely. We need to maintain human morals, values, and creativity–as this is what will define the human role in the economy.
When it’s likely that half of all jobs will be automated, problem solving and creative thinking will become crucial. With self-driving vehicles, say goodbye to truck drivers. With natural language question answering, say goodbye to customer service representatives. With smart robots, say goodbye to human labor in manufacturing. The economy may be uprooted in the future, and it’s important to prepare for that.
The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.”
How about investing government funds into the technology of the future, rather than holding onto a desperate hope of maintaining the economy of the past? I understand that jobs in manufacturing are a crucial component of the economy at the moment, but that will change soon. Investing in human manufacturing jobs is a short-term solution to boost the economy. These jobs will soon be automated. We should simultaneously invest in long-term solutions to keep our economy sustainable in the future. Wouldn’t it make sense to look towards the future and focus on new technologies and training programs for high-skill jobs?
Education for everyone will become even more crucial.
This places even more importance on education. A well-rounded education that teaches children to think critically, problem solve, imagine, create, and dream beyond their wildest dreams will prepare the children of the future. Although the current education system is increasingly placing more emphasis on innovation and critical thinking, it is seldom for the direct purpose of preparing children for jobs in a digital economy. Writing eloquently, solving complex math problems, and using lessons from our history to advise our future are all increasingly vital skills. How about taking it to the next level with technology such as virtual reality headsets and 3D printers in schools? When kids are exposed to VR technology or create their own products using AutoCAD and 3D printers, this will open their eyes to a future career in engineering. What about teaching kids to code in computer science classes from a young age? Encouraging a thirst for knowledge and curiosity?
Some schools, particularly those in affluent communities, are already investing in this. But a lack of funding holds back many other schools from having these same resources. Education will become especially crucial in at-risk communities. Nurturing an education-focused mindset in children who might have otherwise dropped out of school will be more important than ever before. When low-skill, high-repetition jobs become limited in a digital and automated economy, we as a society have to do more than ever before to prepare our children. This may come in the form of a typical college education or advanced vocational skills training. In the digital revolution, we cannot leave anyone behind.
This digital revolution is exciting!
While these technologies and the changing workforce are sometimes unsettling, they are also incredibly exciting. Think back to sweeping changes throughout history. The advent of farming allowed civilizations to flourish out of a hunting-and-gathering society. Increased efficiencies in farming cut labor costs and allowed civilizations to spend more time developing and advancing their societies, rather than just producing food. The Luddites protested the advent of machinery, but mechanization opened up free time for specialized jobs. After the Industrial Revolution, we have seen an explosion of human creativity and innovation. This digital revolution will open more doors to human creativity than ever before explored. We will have more time, opportunities, and resources to stretch the bounds of human innovation in all industries.
The digital revolution is coming, and some aspects of it are already here. We, as a society, must evolve along with the disruptions it will cause. For many people, technology will introduce a reality that requires learning new skills or changing mindsets. Perhaps the disruptions won’t be as drastic as I have described, but nevertheless, we must be ready for a new digital world. Yes, it’s a little unnerving. But if we prepare, the technological future will be incredibly exciting.