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One of the most contentious debates in technology is around the question of automation and jobs. At issue is whether advances in automation, specifically with regards to artificial intelligence and robotics, will spell trouble for today’s workers. This debate is played out in the media daily, and passions run deep on both sides of the issue. In the past, however, automation has created jobs and increased real wages.
A widespread concern with the current scenario is that the workers most likely to be displaced by technology lack the skills needed to do the new jobs that same technology will create.
Let’s look at this concern in detail. Those who fear automation will hurt workers start by pointing out that there is a wide range of jobs, from low-pay, low-skill to high-pay, high-skill ones. This can be represented as follows:
They then point out that technology primarily creates high-paying jobs, like geneticists, as shown in the diagram below.
Meanwhile, technology destroys low-wage, low-skill jobs like those in fast food restaurants, as shown below:
Then, those who are worried about this dynamic often pose the question, “Do you really think a fast-food worker is going to become a geneticist?”
They worry that we are about to face a huge amount of systemic permanent unemployment, as the unskilled displaced workers are ill-equipped to do the jobs of tomorrow.
It is important to note that both sides of the debate are in agreement at this point. Unquestionably, technology destroys low-skilled, low-paying jobs while creating high-skilled, high-paying ones.
So, is that the end of the story? As a society are we destined to bifurcate into two groups, those who have training and earn high salaries in the new jobs, and those with less training who see their jobs vanishing to machines? Is this latter group forever locked out of economic plenty because they lack training?
The question, “Can a fast food worker become a geneticist?” is where the error comes in. Fast food workers don’t become geneticists. What happens is that a college biology professor becomes a geneticist. Then a high-school biology teacher gets the college job. Then the substitute teacher gets hired on full-time to fill the high school teaching job. All the way down.
The question is not whether those in the lowest-skilled jobs can do the high-skilled work. Instead the question is, “Can everyone do a job just a little harder than the job they have today?” If so, and I believe very deeply that this is the case, then every time technology creates a new job “at the top,” everyone gets a promotion.
This isn’t just an academic theory—it’s 200 years of economic history in the west. For 200 years, with the exception of the Great Depression, unemployment in the US has been between 2 percent and 13 percent. Always. Europe’s range is a bit wider, but not much.
If I took 200 years of unemployment rates and graphed them, and asked you to find where the assembly line took over manufacturing, or where steam power rapidly replaced animal power, or the lightning-fast adoption of electricity by industry, you wouldn’t be able to find those spots. They aren’t even blips in the unemployment record.
You don’t even have to look back as far as the assembly line to see this happening. It has happened non-stop for 200 years. Every fifty years, we lose about half of all jobs, and this has been pretty steady since 1800.
How is it that for 200 years we have lost half of all jobs every half century, but never has this process caused unemployment? Not only has it not caused unemployment, but during that time, we have had full employment against the backdrop of rising wages.
How can wages rise while half of all jobs are constantly being destroyed? Simple. Because new technology always increases worker productivity. It creates new jobs, like web designer and programmer, while destroying low-wage backbreaking work. When this happens, everyone along the way gets a better job.
Our current situation isn’t any different than the past. The nature of technology has always been to create high-skilled jobs and increase worker productivity. This is good news for everyone.
People often ask me what their children should study to make sure they have a job in the future. I usually say it doesn’t really matter. If I knew everything I know now and went back to the mid 1980s, what could I have taken in high school to make me better prepared for today? There is only one class, and it wasn’t computer science. It was typing. Who would have guessed?
The great skill is to be able to learn new things, and luckily, we all have that. In fact, that is our singular ability as a species. What I do in my day-to-day job consists largely of skills I have learned as the years have passed. In my experience, if you ask people at all job levels,“Would you like a little more challenging job to make a little more money?” almost everyone says yes.
That’s all it has taken for us to collectively get here today, and that’s all we need going forward.
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When we think of wisdom, we often think of ancient philosophers, mystics, or spiritual leaders. Wisdom is associated with the past. Yet some intellectual leaders are challenging us to reconsider wisdom in the context of the technological evolution of the future.
With the rise of exponential technologies like virtual reality, big data, artificial intelligence, and robotics, people are gaining access to increasingly powerful tools. These tools are neither malevolent nor benevolent on their own; human values and decision-making influence how they are used.
In future-themed discussions we often focus on technological progress far more than on intellectual and moral advancements. In reality, the virtuous insights that future humans possess will be even more powerful than their technological tools.
Tom Lombardo and Ray Todd Blackwood are advocating for exactly this. In their interdisciplinary paper “Educating the Wise Cyborg of the Future,” they propose a new definition of wisdom—one that is relevant in the context of the future of humanity.
We Are Already Cyborgs
The core purpose of Lombardo and Blackwood’s paper is to explore revolutionary educational models that will prepare humans, soon-to-be-cyborgs, for the future. The idea of educating such “cyborgs” may sound like science fiction, but if you pay attention to yourself and the world around you, cyborgs came into being a long time ago.
Techno-philosophers like Jason Silva point out that our tech devices are an abstract form of brain-machine interfaces. We use smartphones to store and retrieve information, perform calculations, and communicate with each other. Our devices are an extension of our minds.
According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of the extended mind, we use this technology to expand the boundaries of our minds. We use tools like machine learning to enhance our cognitive skills or powerful telescopes to enhance our visual reach. Such is how technology has become a part of our exoskeletons, allowing us to push beyond our biological limitations.
In other words, you are already a cyborg. You have been all along.
Such an abstract definition of cyborgs is both relevant and thought-provoking. But it won’t stay abstract for much longer. The past few years have seen remarkable developments in both the hardware and software of brain-machine interfaces. Experts are designing more intricate electrodes while programming better algorithms to interpret the neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing people to communicate purely through brainwaves. Technologists like Ray Kurzweil believe that by 2030 we will connect the neocortex of our brains to the cloud via nanobots.
Given these trends, humans will continue to be increasingly cyborg-like. Our future schools may not necessarily educate people as we are today, but rather will be educating a new species of human-machine hybrid.
Whether you take an abstract or literal definition of a cyborg, we need to completely revamp our educational models. Even if you don’t buy into the scenario where humans integrate powerful brain-machine interfaces into our minds, there is still a desperate need for wisdom-based education to equip current generations to tackle 21st-century issues.
With an emphasis on isolated subjects, standardized assessments, and content knowledge, our current educational models were designed for the industrial era, with the intended goal of creating masses of efficient factory workers—not to empower critical thinkers, innovators, or wise cyborgs.
Currently, the goal of higher education is to provide students with the degree that society tells them they need, and ostensibly to prepare them for the workforce. In contrast, Lombardo and Blackwood argue that wisdom should be the central goal of higher education, and they elaborate on how we can practically make this happen. Lombardo has developed a comprehensive two-year foundational education program for incoming university students aimed at the development of wisdom.
What does such an educational model look like? Lombardo and Blackwood break wisdom down into individual traits and capacities, each of which can be developed and measured independently or in combination with others. The authors lay out an expansive list of traits that can influence our decision-making as we strive to tackle global challenges and pave a more exciting future. These include big-picture thinking, curiosity, wonder, compassion, self-transcendence, love of learning, optimism, and courage.
As the authors point out, “given the complex and transforming nature of the world we live in, the development of wisdom provides a holistic, perspicacious, and ethically informed foundation for understanding the world, identifying its critical problems and positive opportunities, and constructively addressing its challenges.”
After all, many of the challenges we see in our world today boil down to out-dated ways of thinking, be they regressive mindsets, superficial value systems, or egocentric mindsets. The development of wisdom would immunize future societies against such debilitating values; imagine what our world would be like if wisdom was ingrained in all leaders and participating members of society.
The Wise Cyborg
Lombardo and Blackwood invite us to imagine how the wise cyborgs of the future would live their lives. What would happen if the powerful human-machine hybrids of tomorrow were also purpose-driven, compassionate, and ethical?
They would perceive the evolving digital world through a lens of wonder, awe, and curiosity. They would use digital information as a tool for problem-solving and a source of infinite knowledge. They would leverage immersive mediums like virtual reality to enhance creative expression and experimentation. They would continue to adapt and thrive in an unpredictable world of accelerating change.
Our media often depict a dystopian future for our species. It is worth considering a radically positive yet plausible scenario where instead of the machines taking over, we converge with them into wise cyborgs. This is just a glimpse of what is possible if we combine transcendent wisdom with powerful exponential technologies.
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Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”
This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.
The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.
It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.
Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.
Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.
Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.
Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.
The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.
It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.
Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.
The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.
In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.
Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.
That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.
Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.
It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.
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