Trump, Brexit and ISIS are the symptoms, and technology is the problem
This article originally appeared on TechCrunch on August 16th, 2016
The world seems to be going mad with division. Religious fundamentalism versus the modern world. Nationalism versus openness. Old versus young. Us versus them. In each case, a group that used to have the upper hand is now angrily despondent at its place in society and future prospects.
In the Middle East, cynical leaders are taking advantage of the desperation and deep sense of insecurity in unemployed young men who are struggling to find a place of belonging and a source of pride. In Britain, racism and bigotry are flourishing spectacularly as the older generation seeks a scapegoat for their growing irrelevance in the modern, globalized economy. In the U.S., what was once a great political party has become an unrecognizable collection of resentments and prejudices.
This has been a steaming kettle for years, but is now peaking with the rise of political phenomenon that threaten to upend the progress of our civilization. If we dig a layer deeper to try to understand the real cause, it becomes clear that technology advancement is the real culprit.
The Agricultural Revolutions swept through different regions at different times and took hundreds of years to fully transform society. The First and Second Industrial Revolutions truly changed the standard of living in a period spanning more than 150 years. The Digital Revolution has been enriching our lives for the past three generations, while at the same time boiling the metaphorical frogs of our economic system.
While many blame the decline of U.S. manufacturing on trade agreements, in reality, a major cause is the gain in productivity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity for the manufacturing sector almost tripled from 1990–2007 compared to 1973–1990, with the great recession slowing things back down.
The jobs that left the U.S. and Europe to lower-cost areas in China and Southeast Asia are never coming back. Instead, they are going to continue the natural progression and move on to the next cheaper stop, except it won’t be another less-developed region, but rather robotics and AI.
All of these changes are culminating in what’s coming next: the Third Industrial Revolution. It promises unimaginable advances in technology and quality of life, and at once an economy that will seem unrecognizable to anyone today — a many-orders-of-magnitude jump compared to the slow buzz of the Digital Revolution… and all within the span of one generation.
As a venture investor, I have the duty and the exceptional privilege of living in the future. Along with the innovation in the way we generate, store and use energy, as I see it, these are the four transformational technology categories that will change our near-future world beyond recognition.
There was a lot of hype around 3D printing when the technology was commercialized for crude, home-based printers that could make simple, polymer figurines. Public interest has largely moved on to other buzzwords momentarily, but the technology has continued to evolve into much more impactful and interesting areas. Commercial 3D printers (like the HP Jet Fusion family) are production-grade digital furnaces that sit next to CNC machines. The technology has surpassed the rudimentary prototype use case and is now competitive with other forms of small-batch manufacturing.
What’s coming next is a rapid increase in speed and resolution (measured in voxels), and massive leaps in material science, allowing for seamless “printing” of complete, functioning products. In a few years, you will order tennis shoes online and print them. A few years after that, you will be able to print complete electro-mechanical devices, including the batteries.
This will completely transform manufacturing and logistics to a just-in-time, just-in-place paradigm. The effect on all of the related industries will be absolutely profound.
Internet of everything
During the dot-com wave, the letter “e” was attached to everything as the internet made itself felt on most business models. In the 15 years since, we have largely accepted that electronic communication and procurement have become the standard.
Today, “IoT” is a buzzword used to describe connecting devices to the cloud. There is a certain novelty to lifestyle peripherals and personal electronics that take advantage of having instant access to all of the world’s information. In the next several years, every product will be connected to the internet and be data-driven in some way.
This will be a generational transition in all devices and drive substantial efficiency in the way many things’ problems get solved. As one example, it will largely reduce the need for human intervention in the service sector.
After decades of hype, virtual reality has finally captured the world’s imagination. Immersive content and a new generation of games is just the beginning. Soon, VR headsets will replace computer displays and TVs as we know them. Once the display technology matures, sensors, optics and compute power catch up; AR will pick up the baton. All while new forms of human-computer interface, such as Leap Motion and a slew of voice recognition technologies, are already enhancing and will eventually replace the keyboard and mouse we’ve used for the past 50 years.
Not only does this mean that our computing devices will be more naturally integrated into our lives than carrying the pocket-size glass slabs we have adopted in the past decade, but they will quickly become our brain prosthetics. At first figuratively, but soon enough quite literally. This will certainly change the way we consume information, including how and what we learn.
The field of artificial intelligence has been a scientific focus area since the 1950s. For decades, the approach has been one of brute force and insatiable appetite for computing power. This hasn’t yielded results and researchers have turned their focus toward whole brain emulation. In recent years, combined with the labeled data from the internet, this has given us breakthrough techniques in componentizing the proverbial brain into specialized areas — computer vision for sight, natural language processing for communication, robotics for motion and manipulation, learning for deduction, reasoning and problem solving and emotional intelligence for social interaction.
Learning from nature while bypassing the physical limitations of size and speed of the human brain is bound to trigger an intelligence explosion that will transform every aspect of the world. The ultimate goal of AI is to create a machine that can emulate and surpass human cognitive and physical capabilities. Once these combined technologies fuse and reach parity with human intelligence (aka singularity), there will be a “take-off” period that may be slow (decades), medium (months) or fast (hours) until super intelligence is reached.
Where do we go from here?
Many philosophize that AI will be the last human invention. Though it is impossible to project what this will truly mean for our society, Gartner is predicting that one-third of current jobs will be taken over by software, robots and smart machines as soon as 2025.
There are more than three million Americans who today work in delivery and other driving or related jobs. With the recent advances in autonomous vehicles, it would be naïve to think that they will still be employed in 10 years. There are also more than four million retail sales people, three million cashiers and one million security guards. These, and many other professions, will all but disappear. Considering the entire U.S. labor force is fewer than 160 million people, these changes in labor demand will make the unemployment woes of 2009 feel insignificant in comparison. Now consider the effects worldwide.
While technology marches on at the pace of Moore’s Law, our governments and political systems at large are completely unprepared for these drastic changes already on the horizon. Society is busy playing tug of war with the world of the past, yet the future is going to change our reality as we know it.
The minimum education level needed to get any job not taken by a smart machine will quickly skyrocket. This has already been felt for decades in the decline of the American middle class relative incomes, all while the cost of basic needs in education, healthcare, housing and food has gone up. At the same time, companies — and the individuals at the top controlling them — are making more profit with fewer employees.
The Third Industrial Revolution is already happening. We now have a choice: Do we take advantage of technology and create an incredibly better world for the entire human race, or do we let all of the gains continue to consolidate and grow societal conflict to the breaking point? We’ve already gotten a preview of how society is responding to the growing inequities with the rise of Trump, Brexit and ISIS.
If we choose to take the collective red pill, society must realign its mission statement to the reality of what the future will bring. Beside protecting our environment and accelerating the shift to clean fuels, we need to prioritize access to education, make healthcare a human right and, yes, even seriously consider guaranteed basic income. No matter your political leanings, you can’t build a business without having customers to sell to. So if AI is going to replace an increasing number of professions, we must provide families the resources to sustain themselves in this brave new world.
While our overall social progress is encouraging, we must think about the reasons our divisions are getting more pronounced with each passing day. If we are to survive and thrive, we must be purposeful about how we prepare for a tomorrow ruled by the technology we are inventing today.