Our technological future: dystopia or utopia?

What will the world of the future be like given the inevitable march of technology? This is a question which pops up, unsurprisingly, quite a lot. Last Sunday the Observer became exercised enough about the question to devote a lengthy op-ed piece about it. And their take was decidedly pessimistic.

The outline that’s emerging is a troubling one. Computing and its associated technologies are becoming so powerful that we are having to rethink decades-old assumptions about what machines can and cannot do. Ten years ago, the idea of self-driving cars would have been regarded as fanciful. Ten years from now, they might be on our roads – and insurance companies may rate them as lower risk than human-controlled vehicles. The advantages of the technology are obvious: fewer deaths and injuries, more efficient use of roads and junctions, less time wasted driving to work and so on.
Less obvious – but just as real – are the potential downsides. In particular, what happens to the millions of people who currently earn a living from driving? The prevailing narrative regards them as the casualties of progress, the victims of the destructive side of Schumpeter’s wave.

However, there is another more optimistic take on the possibilities of automation. Father and son writing team Robert and Edward Skidelsky argue in their book that leisure time should increase with automation and wealth creation.

“In the 1930s Keynes asked the question: what will life be like in 100 years time. Given the march of technology and the economy he predicted that we would be four or five times as rich as we were then. And because that amount of production would be obtainable as a very small fraction of the effort which was then being employed, because of automation and things, he thought that we wouldn’t have to work more than 15 hours a week.” 

Edward Skidelsky says in a Royal Society of Arts talk on the subject that Keynes was almost exactly right about growth. But he was entirely wrong about working hours. Why is this? Firstly, wants are not finite. Wants are insatiable and the reason they are insatiable is because they are relative. Secondly pressure to consume, largely because of advertising, has become overwhelming.

Capitalism is failing, he says, because it is not supporting the Aristolean notion of the “good life” – basically stopping the continual drive to have more once a comfortable state has been attained. If we could overcome the urge to continue increasing consumption indefinitely then things such as job sharing to reduce hours worked and increase the quality of our rapidly automating  life could become a reality, he says.

The Observer isn’t convinced.

Delicious omelettes cannot be made without the breaking of eggs. Anxieties about the impact of automation are not new and, in the past, automation has often led to economic growth and increases in employment. But there are worrying signs that this time things might be different. The new capabilities of machines enable them to replace not just human muscle and dexterity, but even some aspects of human cognition. Jobs that were hitherto not at risk, including many white-collar occupations, are now becoming vulnerable to computing. Or as the economist Paul Krugman puts it: “Smart machines will end up devaluing the contribution of workers, including highly skilled workers whose skills suddenly become redundant.”

But does it need to be that way? What about spending our time in other ways? Take the development of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  Perhaps people with more time on their hands could spend it in continuous education – for the sake of it, rather than for specific career enhancement, for instance?

It is incredibly difficult to predict the outcome of technologies we can’t even anticipate. As Ben Hammersley illustrated perfectly in another recent RSA lecture Moore’s Law makes it impossible to understand the technology that is coming. It is popular to say that there is more computing power in the phone in your pocket than in the computers that took the Apollo mission to the moon. In fact, he says, there is more computing power in your washing machine!

He recounts how he has been advising Ministry of Defence planners looking at the implications of the technology which will be around in 2045 – a hopeless task.  “The computing power you will have in your pocket will be 2.42bn times as powerful as the phone you have in your pocket today.” This will lead inevitably for the first time in history to “a future where we will be surrounded by technology which we cannot imagine.”


Perhaps the dystopian vision of the future outlined by the Observer will instead by replaced by one more like the Culture, as described by Iain M Banks where superintelligent “minds” do all the hard stuff, leaving human(oid)s to get on with whatever takes their fancy? Let’s hope so.

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