For as long as mankind has had the capacity to imagine, we have imagined a life without the burden of work. Then, in the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, we first came face-to-face with the idea that machines might one day make such lives a reality. The steam engine, the threshing machine, the combine harvester: an army of new machines automated much of the agricultural work that had constituted life for millions of people. The result? Unprecedented economic growth and immense, widespread psycho-social upheaval.
It may seem that, today, our economies are no longer amenable to the same kind of upheaval via automation. After all, today many of us are knowledge workers: it’s our job to think, to ideate, to write, to inspire. No machine could ever do any of that. Right?
Not quite. Increasingly, a small but persistent group of technologists are warning that we are on the verge of another great automation. One, they say, with implications even more profound that those of the Industrial Revolution and likely to unfold at many times the speed. In short, the robots are coming. And they want your job.
It’s already possible to point to examples of automation that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. Take Narrative Science (www.narrativescience.com), the much heralded software that can take a mass of unstructured data – all the results from this week’s Major League baseball games, for example – and convert it into short, prose articles that might very well have been written by a human reporter. Interesting news if you happen to be one of those human sports reporters yourself. Still, Narrative Science is essentially about input, data crunch and output. Human beings still have the monopoly on real creativity, don’t they?
Meet Shimon, the robot marimba player. Created by computer scientists at Georgia Tech in the US, Shimon can listen to other musicians and improvise alongside them. It has played gigs all over the US and audiences have proven unable to distinguish the robot from a human musician. You might argue that Shimon relies on complex algorithmic calculations to create the music it plays and so isn’t really “creative”. But that argument only raises questions about the true nature of creativity. Doesn’t the human cognition, when it comes right down to it, rely on similar, subconsciously conducted, complex algorithms?
In the coming decades, vast swathes of our lives will be transformed by intelligent machines such as Narrative Science and Shimon that are able to work for us, entertain us and even think for us. What will such a world look like? And what will we do, when – as the leading technologist Kevin Kelly predicts – 70 per cent of current occupations are eradicated by automation? The answer to that question is likely to lie – as it did in the Industrial Revolution – in a whole new, currently unimaginable range of activities, made possible and meaningful by the new world in which we will find -ourselves.
And that world is coming sooner than you think. In 2008, a driverless car could travel around two blocks on a predetermined track, at 40 kilometres an hour. Today, the Google driverless car can operate in real-world traffic conditions, at speeds above 120kph – Google engineers frequently test the system in San Francisco’s busy traffic and have now logged 300,000 driving miles without accident.
Intelligent technology is about to bring us the existential freedom that, for generations past, was a dream far out of reach. But, as any good existentialist knows, true freedom comes at a price: the terror of true self-knowledge.
David Mattin is the lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com
•For more trends go to www.thenational.ae/trends