The future is often envisioned as some scenario between a utopian paradise and a dystopian nightmare. Sometimes, it is a utopia for an elite few and a dystopia for the rest of humanity. Technology almost always plays a central role in determining the fate of the world. As the year 2000 approached, the so-called Y2K Bug fueled fears modern technology would suddenly be lost. At the time, the modern lifestyles of those living in the developed world were increasingly dependent on technology. A programming oversight, i.e. the truncation of the year by the majority of software, had the potential to shutdown critical computer systems and infrastructure. Years later, the human race is unable to function without technology as it continually finds new technologies to do new things. While key advancements in automation and artificial intelligence have been made over decades, the introduction of Tesla’s semi-autonomous truck in 2017 may well prove to be a defining moment.
The Industrial Revolution transformed the lifestyles of the human race in many ways. Most significantly, it created a modern economy that allowed more and more people to move away from subsistence farming to formal employment. The human population was freed to grow as factory workers migrated to cities that were fed by professional farmers specializing in the mass production of food. Thanks to mass formal employment, most people were able to specialize their skill sets and devote their time to jobs that offered them the incomes needed to purchase what they needed. Because manufacturing utilized a massive amount of high-skilled, high-value labor , it provided the perfect vehicle for economic development for highly-populated, resource-rich nations like the United States. Further technological advances allowed workers to become increasingly productive while spawning new industries.
Unfortunately, technological advances have the tendency to decrease the number of workers needed. When the number of new jobs being created by technological advances started to lag behind the number of jobs destroyed by automation, people started losing their jobs and their incomes. Today, this trend has accelerated. Because jobs are the means by which wealth is distributed and wealth is the means by people are able to support their modern lifestyles, an insufficient number of jobs, as well as an insufficient level of income, prevents people from living in the modern world. For anyone who lacks an income, or has a perpetually insufficient income, living in the modern is a dystopian nightmare. Those not able to access the formal economy cannot access the benefits of society. Not only are they unable to thrive as individuals and contribute to society, they struggle to survive. Due the size of the world’s population, few can return to the struggle of the subsistence farmer, thus the problem is only likely to get worse.
As the manufacturing sector started to shrink in the face of free trade-accelerated globalization and outsourcing, service sector jobs were supposed to replace manufacturing jobs. In the “new economy,” logistics and transportation, which have provided high-income opportunities for workers, became the economic sector capable of providing for the incomes of average workers. With the advent of automated vehicles and the commercialization of drones, this pivotal source of jobs is now undergoing a transformation. At first, large companies will experiment with automated trucks, but most will be unable to afford automated vehicles. In time, however, trucking companies will build fleets of automated trucks that can be utilized by smaller companies at lower costs, thus automated vehicles will replace professional drivers.
From Amazon’s delivery drones to computerized kiosks at McDonald’s, automated vehicles are only part of a larger shift that will destroy service industry jobs. Machines are beginning to take over more and more basic tasks humans carry out. Machines are talking more and more jobs from people. The kind and numbers of jobs available today will not exist in the future. Unfortunately, what people will do when machines do everything is a question most visionaries tend to glaze over. Many assume a global socialist paradise will arise where people either enjoy a guaranteed income or money ceases to exist. It is easy to assume social welfare spending will increase, but the political reality is that it likely will not. More importantly, people on public welfare do not live in a paradise. It is a nightmare of stagnation and uncertainty that prevents enterprising individuals from seizing opportunities and capitalizing on their full potential. Most assume machines will perform menial tasks and humans will be freed to explore creative endeavors, but that can only happen if people have access to the resources needed to pursue their dreams.
In reality, the destruction of the “jobs economy” will continue to mean less and less wealth is distributed to the bulk of the human population. Today, growing income inequality and the concentration of wealth into the hands of a wealthy elite is only the beginning. If technology is truly to free humanity from menial tasks, thereby freeing people to fulfill their full potential, new economic mechanisms will have to be devised to distribute wealth. A technology-fueled utopian paradise will not spontaneous emerge with the creation of new technology. Society has always needed great leaders to become great. Instead of glancing over a very serious problem with assumptions, visionaries need to confront the human cost of automation. Society needs leaders who represent the Peoples of the world. People need leaders who will address their interests in a future where all work is done by machines.
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