There’s a general consensus that in the future, our region’s jobs will largely mirror today’s. However, my work with tech innovation has convinced me that the future is going to be very different from what we imagine.
Education and infrastructure needs will be challenged in significant new ways and even entrepreneurs will have their worlds rocked.
Advances in robotics and software are already eliminating human jobs. Banks are phasing out tellers in favor of kiosks that use intelligent software. In Europe, a convoy of autonomous trucks recently completed a cross-European trip without human intervention. Amy Ingram is all the rage; she is an artificial intelligence-enabled app who organizes meetings for a growing number of small businesses.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are developing business models that center around using DNA to build new life forms, or as a medium for data storage to replace magnetic hard disks. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson compete to create new businesses to transport tourists to space, while Boeing and Lockheed Martin develop tourist habitats for spacefarers. Facebook and others will unleash virtual reality later this year and, closer to home, Inova in Fairfax is making strides in cancer treatment on a personal genetic level.
All of these technology trends, and many others, are well under way and have taken root. Quite arguably, our society will change as much as it did when the U.S. industrialized away from farming in the 1800s. These changes are having a profound societal effect.
Two big social challenges arise from speedy technological change. First, conventional wisdom is stretched. For example, what is the definition of “life” when lifeforms can be created in labs or in production lines? What happens if we discover life on other celestial bodies? What if climate change is finally acknowledged and a “solution” is seeding clouds or genetically modifying trees? This is not just the preserve of science fiction — these questions are being asked today.
The second big social challenge as we zip into the future is the disappearance of jobs that can be done through repetition and brute force, and the threat to jobs requiring reasoning. Yes, the robotic trucks, meeting-organizing apps and others are swiping jobs, but the lawyer who gets paid to review piles of documents, the radiologist who looks for clues in an X-ray and even your favorite actor should all be worried, too.
Some argue the free market will solve these issues. I understand and value free markets and the opportunity that lower taxes and regulation allow Americans to become successful. However, people who benefit the most from technology investing must understand that if we create economic models that do not provide opportunities for others and treat technology solely as a way to reduce expenses, we are missing the point.
Our free market economy has proven that applied technology can still make room for people to be part of the value chain. Look at how the music industry rewards song writers by collecting royalties, or how Apple compensates app developers.
Consider how automatic pilots make flying safer by assisting pilots, instead of replacing them. How we use technology is ultimately a choice. To pretend that market efficiency will answer all questions is convenient and reassuring, but not a great path towards social stability.
The ability for an individual to create a better economic life must continue to be sacrosanct in this country. Yes, technological changes are coming, but free markets don’t hold all solutions, so let’s look at these changes through a more balanced approach.
Tech entrepreneurs will continue to enjoy success from harnessing new technology — but they’ll be even more successful if they are sensitive to what jobs are being affected by the advances and they work to foster job creation and professional satisfaction. Free enterprise that doesn’t worry about broader workforce implications won’t be free for very long.