Rise of the Machines

Right now, we’re living in one of the most momentous times in human history, and it could end up being one of the best (or, possibly, worst) things to unfold: our inevitable transition to what Maurice Conti calls the Augmented Age.

Computers have become part of mainstream life in every advanced economy, and basically all major cities around the world (into which people are packing in ever-greater numbers). The resulting efficiency gains have either been a huge boost to creativity and opportunity, or the death-knell of industries that employ tens of millions of people.

I’d like to share two different perspectives on this – both, conveniently, delivered as excellent TED talks. The first is by Maurice Conti, on how advances in computing have changed the way design could be done.

The most remarkable thing about the computer-derived inventions is how biological they look. It took nature millions of years to evolve a structure that their computers can do inside of a few days (referring to the drone chassis), and in future, could do on demand.

I think this is the best insight into how the leading edge of computing might change the way we design cities, vehicles, infrastructure, and the machines that help run our lives. It’s encouraging to note that human designers are still very much a part of the process, but will be able to do a lot more in a lot less time.

Which is a factor leading into the next TED talk – what happens when you centralize that amount of power (and consequently, the financial gains) in the hands of a relative few? People who are skilled at these technologies are able to create enormous value in a short space of time, relative to someone still doing the same task manually.

So what happens when you no longer have a need for the manual labor?

Another excellent talk that takes an unbiased view of Unconditional (I prefer Universal) Basic Income. It raises some good points, but misses at least one point I need to make a note of:

While it’s true that the top 5 tech companies are enormously valuable and employ relatively few people, the platforms they create have in turn generated opportunities for millions more. There are companies, products, services and entertainment channels that could not have existed were it not for the infrastructure and tools that Facebook and the like provide.

Google basically pulled the web development industry up out of the ground when it became clear to businesses that having a well-built site was a competitive advantage. I’m not sure anyone can count the amount of new jobs created in web development, creative design, copywriting, SEO optimization, consulting and education as a result of the platform Google built.

(Yes, I know Google didn’t build the internet. And yes, I know all these websites run on the internet that Google didn’t build, but everyone who’s ever been paid to build one has done so at the request of a customer who believed that being discoverable online would be beneficial to their business, and Google is still the king of discovery on the internet.)

Same goes for the use-cases enabled by Apple hardware, Facebook’s networking, Amazon’s fulfillment infrastructure, and the productivity tools released by Microsoft. Those companies themselves may employ relatively few, but they have empowered millions more.

Moving on.

I think UBI is feasible not so much because of productivity gains due to automation, but because of the ever-declining costs of providing an acceptable standard of living. An excellent, recent example of this is Apis Cor’s house printer.

On the one hand: This technology might end up putting a lot of construction workers out of jobs. While you’ll still need workers for big buildings and the like, simple 1-2 person houses can probably be built quickly, and very cheaply, as a result of this innovation.

But on the flip-side, the cost of houses will plummet. You may not need to work for 20 years to pay off a mortgage for a house that only costs $10k to build. While construction workers might be worried about this, the people who should be a lot more worried are ones with heavy investments in residential development companies 😉

I like to imagine a future unconstrained by urbanization. Cities are where the opportunities are – the best jobs are in cities, the best entertainment, the best healthcare, and overall, the best opportunities to live a good life. This is because it’s a lot easier, with the current limitations, to pile a lot of services into one place.

I don’t believe civilization needs to be so centralized, though. If you could get the same quality of food, healthcare, entertainment and job opportunity in an area 200km outside a major city, plus it was cheaper to live there – wouldn’t you?

And there may come a time when we have to. Most major cities (and by extension, most of the world’s population) are located relatively close to a coastline. Historically, cities were founded and grew near coastlines because those afforded the best opportunities for global trade.

Well, that’s under threat. Depending on who you believe, climate change is either a myth, or it’s a reality already underway – and one of the most dire consequences will be the rise of the ocean level. Which, if that happens, will start to make the large, coastal cities unlivable.

We will be forced to start again – massive inland migrations, the design of new cities, infrastructure and services to support the population, while simultaneously ensuring people have a shot at an acceptable standard of living. With the lessons we’re learning today, I imagine those cities (and societies) will look very different.

Between the work of engineers like Maurice and researchers like Federico, I’m optimistic that we’ll be well-equipped to meet those challenges in future.

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