Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Some Predictions on the Impact of Technology on Society
Ray Kurzweil maintains that progress in genetics, nanotechnology (research at the molecular level) and robotic technology is accelerating at an exponential rate. One result of this is a declining need for human effort at the manual and mental levels. This movement started years ago with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Its hallmark is increased efficiency in the production of goods and services. Often, this means the reduction or replacement of human workers. Theoretically, any mental or physical activity done by a human can be duplicated more efficiently by a robot or computer program.
Business and industry have always been motivated to make production more efficient and less costly. Robots can work tirelessly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They do not receive wages or benefits. They make far less errors than humans when programmed correctly. Obviously, any firm that wants to remain competitive will have strong motivation to robotize their production.
Robotic and computer technology (including 3D printing fabrication) has the potential to replace business, industrial, service, and professional workers. Teachers, health providers, lawyers, accountants and others can all be affected. Inevitably, the workforce will decline in these areas. This trend will have a major impact on all levels of our society. A reduction in manual labor was the first to get underway. The increasing robotization of the automobile industry is an example. Soon, robots will be capable of producing electronic devices, including cell phones and computers. Finally, many professions will face reductions as software programs duplicate many of their duties.
Some technically oriented pursuits, like computers and robotics, development of esoteric materials, product design, medical research and prosthetics will continue to expand, but these will pale to the jobs that are lost. The entertainment industry will thrive as the quest for leisure activities grows. Certain service providers will remain as a portion of our population will prefer interaction with humans.
An idle work force may lead to increased governmental intervention in our economy. Taxation of industries and services will be in proportion to their degree of automated production. Most of these taxes will be used to provide “pensions” to the population who will in turn purchase goods and services. Prices will drop as robots increase work efficiency and reduce the cost of production.
A critical problem is what to do with an idle population. Federal and state governments, recognizing the inherent dangers of an idle, leisure society, will embark on a massive program to provide activities to the populace. These will include many varieties of competitive sports programs starting at the local level and progressing to the state and national levels. Those unable to participate in sports will have the opportunity to compete in more mental competitions, like chess and card games. The pursuit of hobbies will be encouraged also. The government will provide a monetary and status incentive based on a team’s or an individual’s accomplishment. Another possible endeavor will be the employment of a workforce for the creation and maintenance of parks throughout the country.
Changes in the Workforce
Technology has already affected many areas of business, industry, and the professions. Below is a brief review and projection of this trend.
Trades. Many trades will be replaced by robots. Trades that involve repetitive movements will continue their decline. This includes much of industrial production such as autos and electronics assembly. Some trades like large building construction will be less affected, but still undergo technical modification aimed at improved efficiency. New trades will emerge: The need to service robots will mean the development of a new workforce that is highly skilled in programming, mechanical and electrical maintenance.
Engineering. Engineering will expand greatly with a heavy emphasis on designing, developing and programming robots. Robotic applications include mining, construction, assembly of electronics and appliances, and heavy equipment manufacturing, including robots assembling robots. Innovation, especially in energy efficiency and material science will be facilitated by computers. The technologically skilled will be in high demand and be the most compensated.
Medicine. Minute chemical sensors will monitor our health continuously and provide diagnostic and treatment information when something goes wrong or when one’s lifestyle is creating pathology. Medical lab work will decline as people are fitted with these miniature sensors. Many surgical procedures will be done using robots – a process already underway. Each individual's medical history will be stored in a central database that is updated continuosly. Progress in genetics has the potential to extend our life span. This will result in an increase in population, especially at the senior level.
Service Industry. The use of robotics in service jobs is already underway. Robotic carts are being used to move materials to specific locations . Automating the moving of luggage and food in hotels is being contemplated. We are already experiencing automated calling services. Video stores are in rapid decline as we are able to order movies over the internet or pick up DVDs from an unattended kiosk. Farming is becoming more mechanized reducing the need for workers.
Education. Much instruction will be done on computers that deliver well developed educational programs. Our best teachers will play a role in the development of this software. Home schooling will increase at the K-12 level. Many K-12 and college courses will be provided on computers via the internet. About 250,000 high school students have attended on-line schools in 2010-2011. . Computer instruction via the internet is readily available today with some courses offered by private entities and others provided by colleges. Kahn Academy offers many online courses free of charge
The government will offer free education and training to those who demonstrate an aptitude for technology. There will always be a need for personnel charged with the responsibility to develop and maintain robots.
Libraries will transition into databases that loan literature or provide information over the internet. E-books, such as Kindle and Nook will become the primary delivery of the printed word. Town libraries loaning books via the internet will become the standard. Their buildings will serve more as community centers where people gather to hear lectures, participate in clubs, be entertained, and learn new skills. Similarly, colleges will sell or loan textbooks via the internet. All books will be stored and read on e-readers. Newspapers and magazines will increasingly be delivered electronically. The decline of the paper industry will accelerate with subsequent loss of jobs. Printing and bookbinding will be a dying trades. Access to information of any kind will be almost instantaneous as just about anyone with internet access will be able to retrieve data stored in the “cloud” (remote databases.)
Business. Marketing, sales, accounting, and finance will be facilitated by the use of computers and the internet. The selling of goods over the internet will increase. Stores will decline due to their more expensive operation and upkeep. Many will be replaced by automated warehouses that ship goods to consumers. Package delivery services will thrive as internet sales increase. Most of our postal service will be reduced to package delivery as letters and ads continue to decline. Advertising over the internet will largely replace ads appearing in newspapers and flyers. Many ads appearing on-line will be tailored to your known tastes. Computerized accounting will reduce the number of professionals in this field. The use of computers in the buying and selling of stocks will accelerate. Computers will play a major role in the making of financial decisions.
Armed Service. The use of surveillance technology, combat robots, and drones could theoretically reduce the number of men and woman needed in our armed services.
Many of my predictions are already underway. I expect that the next 20 years will witness rapid changes in the way we live and work. Some changes will be sudden like the rapid decline of video stores replaced by kiosks and online delivery of entertainment. Similarly, I would expect the publication of physical books to fall in a sharp decline in about five years. (Note: Read an excellent on-line article, "America's 10 Disappearing Jobs-24/7 Wall St." at http://247wallst.com/2012/08/29/americas-10-disappearing-jobs/3/)