Contemplating The Future Of Us As Technologists

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 14, 2015

This is the last column for 2015. Rather than do the standard year in review, I would like to explore a potentially darker view of the world, in particular, a look at the question: What does it mean to become obsolete?

Yup. Obsolete. Not needed, superfluous, expendable, redundant, useless – nothing more than a spare part.

Look at shopping malls. We have too many of them and the stores in them are not doing so well (Circuit City, Radio Shack, American Apparel – and so it goes). And online shopping has doubled in the last five years. So malls are now being repurposed. The former Highland Mall is now the Austin Community College.

Look at robots. Actually, you look at robots, I don’t want to. I have had Lasik, and I can see the future and I am aware that I am going to be little more than a replacement part for a cyborg. But I am over 60 and so my view of the world is more accepting, and I am equally grateful that I don’t have to go back to college.

But what about the young people, the millennials? What existential question threatens them when they realize there are lots more of them than are currently needed. How do they find a place to stand with dignity? Do they simply build another app?

Look at schoolteachers. They will always be needed – nope, not as many. Online learning will slowly do two things – improve education for all civilization and disintermediate the classic stand-up-in-front-of-the-class-and-lecture model – no matter how brilliant the professor or the Nobel prize he has won.

National Public Radio has created an online calculator to determine the risk to your profession. Creative artists have a 3.5 percent chance of being replaced – but football referees have a 98.3 percent chance. How many Michelangelos are there? Small odds of being replaced, but even smaller odds of making it in the sculpture/painter chapel-ceiling racket.

The safest jobs are thought to be in computing, science and engineering – the very skills that are putting the rest of us out of business. There is now robo-financial advice. It’s still lousy, but it costs a lot less. Goodbye, wealth managers of the universe.

Humans like to be productive, but to what effect if no one is buying your particular output? Futurist thinker Ray Kurzweil has envisioned a time when humans might become “purposeless” – being reduced to grazing animals. Kurzweil has written about the “singularity” – when machine intelligence outstrips our ability “to comprehend what the hell is going on.” Part of me thinks this is nuts, and part of me thinks what if he’s right and what hath man wrought.

There are very few “jobs” that are not being attacked by technology – from taxis to airlines to hotels to getting some good Chinese take-out delivered hot to my door. Where does it end? And what if you are just average? Not brilliant, can’t throw 97 over the outside corner, can’t discover the cure for cancer? Not everyone can be the valedictorian. Where is your purpose and will you have a place to stand in the next decade? Even certain surgical procedures are done more effectively by machines today than by trained physicians.

I do not have any answers. It is the time of year when we all turn to family (ironically, also a product that can be outsourced), and the deepest yearnings for love, acceptance, grace, gratitude and peace are at the tops of our hearts and minds. But lurking just beneath all the eggnog stuff is a painful awareness of a radically changing world – not just Paris or politics or religion, but of where can I live and can my life produce not just revenue, but meaning? Will anyone care – not only about me, but for me?

The chasm that faces us is not just about income or social inequality; it is about personal and professional irrelevance. Is the world destined to not only disintermediate every service, but also every one of us?

Do I have to compete to win the right to breathe, or am I entitled to the air?

Rule No. 447

Happiness is overrated.

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