I want to preface this whole post by saying this is a non-academic, non-scientific, unbased set of predictions based on how I view current trends. I won't be making citations. I may reference some things to show a trend; however, the great majority of what follows is through personal observation, some little logic, but a great deal more speculation and conjecture.
This will be pretty heavy. It'll involve some very uneducated thoughts on economics and society and politics. Also, I have done much reading and much thought on this. It is invariable that I will have some ideas here that I thought were mine, but I've lifted from someone else. If I say something and it turns out to have been your idea, feel free to let me know. I'd be happy to give attribution, but a lot of what I'm going to say is really pretty sensical, if not bordering on bleedingly obvious. With all that out of the way, let's proceed.
My vision isn't quite so ambitious as Ray Kurzweil's, but I do think we're teetering on the brink of an enormous socio-economic shift. The impetus for this shift is largely technology based. If you think about how technology has affected humanity for the whole of its existence, you can see how many such shifts have happened. Think fire. Think agriculture. Think math and writing and history. Each of these world-changing in their impact. Well. World-changing eventually. Things moved slowly in the ancient world. Humanity was small, fragmented, and the individual groups didn't play nicely together.
But that's not the case today. Expanding on the ideas of writing and history and books and the printing press, we've become an intractably connected species. Almost every part of the world is instantaneously in contact with nearly every other part of the world via the Internet. Both the internet and other global communication systems--both terrestrial and not--have made for extremely rapid spread of ideas. The nearly instantaneous and almost infinite iteration of ideas has been the impetus for great change. See the Occupy movement. Egypt. Libya. Beijing. And countless others. These are the first pieces of a greater sociopolitical shift: The active generation is getting younger in many places. They're technically savvy, and that gives them a major advantage. This trend will continue, and the ability of protesting groups and unheard minorities to effect change will continue to grow. It's hard to stop a movement when you can't stay ahead of their communication.
A common factor between the protests that happened in the last year or two is a large feeling of disenfranchisement in many younger groups. This has happened for a number of reasons, different in the different places in the world, but is an important catalyzing factor. We'll get back to that in a moment.
Communication, however, is not the only aspect of modern society technology has made far more efficient. We're entering an era of great automation. To some extent, we're already there. Many factories are highly automated. Robots build the robots which drive our cars. But many of these tasks are so highly deterministic that automating them is, relatively, easy. The automation in a factory doesn't have to do much in the way of problem solving. Rather, it looks for a very specific, very defined set of parameters and if those aren't met, it signals the humans around to fix the aberration or it removes the offending piece and tries the next one. In either case, factory automation has a very specific, very limited set of rules.
But think about the other industries in which that also applies. Almost all fast-food is in a similar state. No doubt the factories that produce the food which gets assembled in the restaurants are largely automated by the same dumb machines as the auto factories. But the part where there are some differences, the assembly built to order, still has a human touch. Though, really, there's not much need for that human touch. The set of parameters in fast-food burger making are pretty simple. As for the logic, there's just a few choices, all of which are easy to turn on or off. The assembly-line style work in McDonald's could be done by a single, self-contained machine. As long as it's kept stocked with ingredients, it could happily churn out burger after burger built to order at a pace both much faster and much more accurately than the minimum wage workers who make them now. If for no other reason than the machine won't suffer the ennui of mind-numbing menial labor. So, from there, you lose your 3-4 people on the line. You lose your cashiers, who are error prone in both their money-counting and in their order inputting, and you're left with a person to stock the robot and some people to keep it working.
Now, you can have far fewer people working to keep far more machines running making far more burgers that make customers much happier because they will, almost invariably, be of higher quality. This, at some point, means a significant reduction in operating overhead. It seems to me that currently, the only reason this isn't already being done is that the robots are still prohibitively expensive. But guess what happens when the robots that make these robots are cheaper? Well.
So then, there's a shift here. For more burger-making robots, there'll need to be more burger-making robot designers and programmers. There's a massive reduction in the need for unskilled labor and an increase, though much more modest, in the number of skilled labor both in design and programming. In the past, this has led to a largely net gain the the sophistication and intelligence of the population. The new technology leaves time for self-investment, in social investment. It allows a society to focus a little less on survival and a little more on edification. From this sprang poetry and art and history and literature and song and so on. Now, however, I'm afraid we're in such a state where this process has been retarded to some extent. There's little to push people into self-improvement. Little to push people into social improvement. Little arts funding, little patronage. At least, relatively. It exists, to be sure, but seemingly not in the same way as it once did.
As automation continues to sweep across the less-skilled positions--transportation, janitorial services, logistics, etc--there will be a larger and larger gap between the haves and the havenots. This goes further than just income inequality. It also encompasses the skills gap, the locus of power for political change, and many other aspects of modern Western society. Some of this has already come to pass. However, these things will get worse as more and more unskilled workers are found without gainful employment.
As we progress, automation will work its way up the skill chain. Artificial intelligence will improve and soon computers will be able to handle nondeterministic problems. Some of them already can, to a degree, but much of this is very specifically handled and they're given a very broad set of conditions. Ultimately, these systems are still largely deterministic, but they're getting smarter and determinism is less important every day. In fact, a number of scientists and technologists, have pledged to make sure that AIs help humanity. The question remains, though: does "good for humanity" mean "good for the status quo?" I would almost have to think not.
Now, the question is twofold. How do we get to that point of automation, and what do we do when we get there?
Now, I will freely admit that my views on how we get there, and what's holding us back currently, are maybe a little colored by some science fiction I've been reading recently, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. To some of the scientists there, trying to terraform Mars for colonization, the only thing of import is releasing kilocalories into the system. Energy. Energy is the big thing. It's the big thing for humanity now and forever more. As it sits, while we may have an abundance of energy-producing resources, we won't forever, and certainly not as our use of them continues to increase. This, of course, not accounting for the devastating affects of climate change (which, admittedly, is an argument I am not prepared to have. Nor do I really wish to. It seems reasonably certain to me, but I also believe that we'll figure some way to contain it. We're an adaptable species. But for the sake of this essay, we'll otherwise leave it alone.).
That's, almost be necessity, got to be the next great human achievement: sustainable, clean, cheap energy. I am not a scientist. I don't have any idea what that looks like. Words like cold fusion and whatnot are bandied about, but I don't know if that's actually a real possibility. Ultimately, it doesn't much matter WHAT it is. It could be a system by which we harness the immense energies in the ocean, or the ever-increasing efficiency of wind and solar plants. Who cares. But this is the thing real galvanizing agent for the future. It seems it must be. If we have the energy, there's really no limit to almost anything else.
With enough energy, desalination is suddenly very cheap, highly sustainable. If desalination is cheap enough, we can turn vast swaths of land into farmable land. We can then rebuild rainforests and other places which were destroyed in the interest of farmland.
With enough energy, we can make sure water and food are available to everyone for, relatively, little money. With enough energy, we can do the work necessary to reduce the effect of greenhouse gases. With enough energy, we could scrub it from the atmosphere if we wanted. With enough energy, creating the machines for the aforementioned automation would be made drastically cheaper, both in terms of the construction but also in the collection of raw materials since the energy costs of recycling and reclaiming such materials.
So, then, what about those jobs? The ones for building the desalination plants and the water pumps and the air scrubbers? Well, initially that might be human-based, but like many other physical jobs, they will either be augmented by exo-skeletons or replaced entirely by robots in time. And why shouldn't they? They're taxing and dangerous for humans, so why not mitigate that?
But that brings us back to the idea of the haves and havenots. It seems to me that we're on the cusp of living a truly post-scarcity life. Honestly, the pinnacle of any species, I think. There's no shortage of life-sustaining material for the entire species, and we've figured out how to make that happen with a minimum of required human intervention.
But see, the way we live our lives now, the way the world works, is based entirely on the idea of scarcity. On the idea that some things are more valuable than others because I have it, you want it--or more severe--you NEED it. When we can lord life-saving medicine or food or water over other people because we have the energy capital required to create or manufacture it, we're not living post-scarcity. Because the maker had to expend part of her supply to do the making.
Once we've entered post-scarcity, the tune of the world, it seems to me, will be required to change. No longer will the idea of wealth accumulation make sense. In fact that very idea will be obsolete. Indeed the idea of almost all wealth accumulation is based on the idea of future prosperity. While there's some sense of "I want all of this to be mine," the idea of a legacy or other personal extension is a large part of having money. In a post-scarcity society, none of that will be necessary. Because in "retirement" the social system at large--made much more efficient and self-sustaining by technology--will be fully capable of caring for everyone in terms of both food and medicine and comfort.
But that's the problem. Creating all of these world-changing and humanity-enriching systems will cost money. And a lot of it. The haves will be fine with spending money to enrich themselves, but many won't care a whole lot about spending money to help everyone. Ironically, the more they work toward that end, the better off they will be, at least in the long run.
The movement to create such systems and technologies will be highly contested. There will be much shouting about socialism and entitlement. There will be a great deal of strife, indeed, I'm afraid, there will be war and violence. Such has been the way of the world, and until such time as the idea of having and not having are made obsolete, I'm afraid I don't see that changing much.
The transition will be long, and it will be painful, and it will almost undoubtedly result in the loss of much life and progress toward the very end that will ultimately move humanity forward to the next great human era. The real irony, I think, will be the grassroots fighters will be using the technologies that made the old regime so rich in the first place, much like the protesters in the last few years have been using new technologies against the stodgy old powers who don't yet understand their power.
At the end of the day, in the next 25-50 years, we'll be seeing a great many changes to our world, to our society. Many of our current professions will be phased out as ever-improving automation takes them over, and we'll see a temporary increase in unemployment, generational disenfranchisement, and general social anxiety. This will increase until we hit our next major human achievement with some form of clean, cheap, sustainable energy and the whole of our economic and sociopolitical structure becomes quickly obsolete. Then we'll start seeing the fireworks.
This is, of course, assuming we don't do something stupid and put ourselves back in the stone age. Climate change, atomic weapons, drought, infighting, who knows. But if we don't somehow screw that up, this is just my view of our near future. Sorry if it looks bleak to you. It looks exciting and wonderful to me. Or at least the potential end result does. I'm a little afraid of what may happen in the interim.