Society must prepare for a technological tsunami

Industries too often prepare for fundamental technological change by finding ways to build a better buggy whip or by rationalizing an ever-shrinking production to meet the new realities of the marketplace. But the scale of the challenges facing global civilization today has not been seen since the advent of the industrial revolution, perhaps not even then.

While forces in the 19th century economy saw production reorganized into a mechanized process, with human beings as part of the machine, the new technological paradigms we are seeing emerge are swiftly removing human beings from the process entirely.

What we are seeing emerge now is not a case of technological advances allowing for greater production utilizing fewer bodies, as was seen with the introduction of steam power and electricity during the industrial revolution, or even the improved efficiencies of computerization and improved business models that came with the dawn of the information age.

In today’s world people are fast becoming totally obsolete and the pace of that obsolescence is travelling at an exponential rate.

In a few weeks the cream of technological conferences and conventions will be taking place, and front and centre in these events are advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous robotics. Barely a week goes by without some story appearing in the media on the advances in self driving cars and companies like Amazon experimenting with drone deliveries.

Alarms being sounded on this trend are generally dismissed as alarmist, luddite or Chicken Little fantasies, but the scale and pace of the trend to those who are paying attention is truly dizzying.

Speaking of Chicken Little, that science fiction trope (a never-ending slab of meat protein, not the sky falling children’s fable) is already coming to pass, with veal actually being created cheaper in a pitre dish now than in a cattleman’s herd.

Artificial intelligence may seem to be no threat to many occupations, but a closer examination of what is going on in those industries sends a different message. IBM’s Watson can already provide legal advice with a greater average accuracy than that provided by a human, and by a substantial degree. Estimates from studies on that particular example show that Artificial Intelligence (AI) delivers a 90 percent accuracy compared to an average 70-odd percent from a human.

There are few occupations that are immune to this trend, if any.

Physical presence is no longer any shield, as in an unnervingly short period of time cheap robotics are anticipated to revolutionize the agricultural labour industry—think $100 robots trundling through the fields controlled by a handheld cellphone. This isn’t a distant, far off flying cars Popular Mechanics projection for the next century, this is anticipated to start happening in the next couple of years.

Did we mention the exponential age? Change is coming far faster than humans have been traditionally used to adjusting to, ever.

While wealth and privilege might seem to be a shield against the impact of this new age, think Marie Antoinette and the French aristocracy. When there is no hope, no way out, no future, no job, no avenue for social mobility available to the disadvantaged, no matter how tenuous or ethereal that path may be in reality, the rise of demagogues and populists will soon turn the anger of the mob toward the privileged.

We must begin to find ways in which we deal with the coming change. Guaranteed income plans are one plank that may build a bridge to the future, but even that revolutionary concept will likely provide only a small part of a solution.

Unlike the 1960s Rolling Stones, time is definitely not on our side. With the speed that change is coming, yesterday is already coming late to the party. We need policymakers to take the situation seriously and start planning for a future where human beings are no longer a key part of the economic machine.