So there’s two main technological trends that we need to be aware of during our lifetimes.
1. Robots. The industrial revolution is far from over, and robots will soon be doing most of the traditional labor market jobs.
2. Virtual Reality. The computer revolution is far from over, and soon virtual reality 2.0 will lead us to create a parallel world that will take over many many people’s lives.
I’m serious this will happen in the next 20 years. This will affect your life. It’s not far off Sci-Fi. It’s happening now and it will be completely normal by 2030.
Now these can sound like frightful things, but I believe these developments could actually complement each other, and perhaps help alleviate some of the world’s mounting problems.
I will talk about this in three parts:
Part 1 – The Rise of the Robots
Part 2 – The Virtual World, for real this time
Part 3 – How VR & the Robots might save us
Part 1 – The Rise of the Robots (or what good can come from losing most of our jobs?)
When we picture robots in the future, Hollywood has us trained to think of them as devious humanoid doppelgängers ready to gain their own human-style consciousness and then have an uprising. While the Japanese are still very busy making humanoid robot prototypes(form over function, or fucktion over function), the whole idea of robots looking and acting like us is rather stupid (not to mention very creepy). We use tools to do things better than we ourselves can do them and robots will be no different than any other tool. If we want robots to do things we can’t easily do, then why should they have the same constraints as our bodies?
While you think robots might look like this:
Robots will much more likely look like this:
Why should a robot have legs, when a robot can fly?
Why should a robot have two eyes, when it can have thousands all connected to the web.
Why should a robot have one body when it can have many bodies all doing a different function in harmony.
Why should a robot have one brain, when it can have millions of brain cores.
Now robots won’t take over every job, just pretty much any job that involves repetition and physical motion.
Repetitious jobs include : Highway toll person, Grocery Store clerk, fast food cook. Physical jobs include: farm worker, factory worker, cleaner, security and transit driver.
So if you add up all those jobs, that’s actually a lot of jobs to take out of the workforce. So I will be straight with you, here is a hard truth – we are entering the age of not having enough jobs for the number of people on this planet. This decline in jobs will only get worse over time. One of the biggest challenges of our lives will be how we deal with this new reality.
The rise of easy global commerce and worldwide shipping will make it easy for just a few corporations to meet most of our daily needs. This corporate consolidation alongside the addition of a robotic work force will create an environment where there is not enough jobs for all the billions of people on this planet. The effects of this could create even further wealth inequality, crime, poverty and misery.
Now before you storm your local robot R&D lab with torches and pitchforks, lets think about how maybe the jobs that will be replaced are the jobs we don’t really want to spend our lives doing. The industrial revolution allowed the end of child labor and the end of many dangerous factory jobs. The rise of weekends and workers rights unions went along side the development of Industrial / Global commerce. Industrialization has set us free in the past and it can continue to do so in the future.
The main issue is how this next step in Industrialization, the robot workforce, gets implemented. Technology is not bad, it is a tool and therefore can be used towards whatever ends people have, be they altruistic or oppressive. The real issue is what type of society we will live in when robot labor becomes widespread.
What government will we have? One that cares about its citizens or one that sees the well being of its people as much lesser in importance than corporate interests?
What corporate culture will we have? One that cares about its workforce or one that just cares about its quarterly profit number going up above all else?
This coming robot infrastructure can improve human life by creating better, more affordable products for all, while also allowing workers to work less hours and enjoy a better quality of life. Or if human kind’s greediest and most short sided inclinations rule the day, then the robot infrastructure will just allow mass firings, poverty, and oppression the scale of which we have never seen before.
While these automatons will certainly trigger a new generation of Luddites, the robot revolution will not be stopped. Robot workers, by the second or third generation, will prove to be a cost saver when you factor in the costs of paying worker benefits, retirement, and law suits. And they will work 24/7. The costs savings will eventually make using robot workers obvious and inevitable. Just look at the rise of ATMs – No one is clamoring to go back to the days of waiting in line for a bank teller. A similar transformation will happen to many other services. Robots will help us do what we want faster and easier, and we will like it.
So what can be done to move to the better robotic future and away from the dystopian one? Well, there is one thing you can do: if you live in a democracy it’s important that you vote for people that care about people. If the rights and value of human lives rise in importance along side the advancement of a robotic work force, then more people could work less hours while getting paid a living wage and having more time for the things that really matter to them. I have no question that robots can be our friends, but the greater concern is can we elect politicians that will be our friends?
Part 2 – The Virtual World, for real this time
In the 90s there were a variety of films about virtual reality like Johnny Mnemonic, The Lawnmower Man, and the Matrix. These were inspired from cyber punk novels, but also the small trend of actual VR tech of the time. These early consumer targeted VR experiences were too expensive to own, so you would go to a mall VR arcade to try out a shooting game so basic that nowadays your phone graphics processor would laugh and laugh. The equipment was heavy, the graphics were basic, the engagement was not worth the effort, and you looked like a tool. The first wave of consumer VR was not a success.
Virtuality’s Dactyl Nightmare from 1991
The dream of virtual reality faded out of malls and our popular culture and seemed to be dead. But maybe VR has just been lurking, biding its time for when the technological advancements are ripe and ready for mass consumption.
A few areas of technology have to get to a stage to make virtual reality have a real chance:
• Graphics Processors
• Compact High Resolution Screens
• Gesture based input
• Voice Recognition
• Wireless connectivity
• Robust Networked Communities
(as a side note: these technologies are also making the robotic worker revolution possible)
Within 1-3 years all of these things will be ready to make VR viable for the consumer market. 1 years for the rich(end of 2015), 3 years for the rest of us(2017).
We will have near photo-realistic images that can easily be shown through small head-tracking goggles that have a built in processors. We will use a combination of hand gestures and voice commands to operate in this new world.
And here’s the main distinction of this new medium – it will be a new world.
There will be an open source 3D engine that will allow modular upgrades to make a better and better replica of our world. Better clouds, better water effects, better gravity physics, better facial tracking, better lighting and shadows. It will also go beyond our world towards worlds we can only dream about now. But first it will busy itself with copying our own world. A 1:1 Google Earth will be the mark the physics engine will always be trying to rise to.
What will we do there? What will we be? It’ll be up to our ADHD, pleasure seeking whims. But we will do what we want, where we want, how we want, with whom we want. Most importantly we will be whatever we want, man or woman, human or animal, real or unreal. And we will fly, we will fly everywhere.
This level of self fulfillment will be unmatched in the real world. The real world will grow pale to some. The metaverse will become the world of choice for many many people (probably 25% of the connected population will spend the majority of their free time there.)
I won’t pretend this is paradise or utopia we are on the way to creating. I can begin to imagine the horrors of this unrestricted world where we can fully explore our darkest desires and worst impulses. Porn and gore drenched sadism will reach levels you will not want to imagine, and children will be drawn to the virtual world like a moth to a flame. But let us be honest with ourselves and realize that all technology and new mediums are always used to explore these dark parts of ourselves. We like books full of sex and violence too. Perhaps there’s even something healthy about having a way to better understand our shadow selves by exploring it through creation. At least more healthy than trying to completely repress those sides and pretend they do not exist.
There will be many reasons the virtual worlds will be preferred to the everyday world. It will be a true meritocracy. Race, class, and country will mean very little in the new world. You are as good as what you can create and be in this world. This world will be community focused. To accomplish great things and maintain great things, cooperation and sharing will need to take place. This will be a realm of tribal connection for better and worse. People will feel free here, people will get to explore in ways they do not allow themselves to IRL.
The metaverse will be like the hand of god reaching out for it’s creation as depicted in the Sistine Chapel, but we will play both roles and switch back and forth with a simple command. The metaverse will let us explore who and what we are in an endless multitude of ways, while the real world forces us to play one role and be one thing.
Now it will take awhile before VR reaches its full potential, and there will be many stumbles along the way. The first iteration of the Oculus Rift will probably lack the proper gesture tracking and ease of use that later systems will have. But rest assured VR is coming and it will happen sooner than you think, people will just need be patient before it gets really good.
Part 3 – how robots and the virtual world will both destroy the world as we know it now, and perhaps save us
So as robots replace enough of the workplace to create a world where there are not enough jobs for all the people on the planet and therefore a weaker consumer class (but also cheaper goods and services), the capitalist fantasy world of endless exponential profit growth will take a hard reality check and have to adapt. There will not be a strong enough base of employed consumers to make the system run up and up and up forever, in fact it will head the opposite direction – down, down, slowly down. Sustainability should be the core concern for capitalists, but it’s not in their nature to be able to think this way, as Capitalists are playing a numbers game, and the only way you know you are winning is if the numbers are going up. But lets not worry ourselves with the fates of the super rich. We need to worry about the jobless masses.
As the robots rise, so too will the virtual world. And this world will be not just a place to play games, but a place to work and a place with its own parallel economy.
As real world physical jobs fade away, there will be openings for those who can create digital experiences that they can sell to others seeking novel digital experiences.
What type of jobs will be needed? Programmers, 3D modelers, 3D animators, networkers, databasers, artists, sound designers / composers, architects, world designers, voice actors, physical actors, writers – it will take a lot of people working very hard to recreate and repopulate the worlds of our multifaceted dreams.
And if you aren’t talented in those skills, the oldest profession in the world will still be provide many opportunities, but now you won’t even have to touch anyone or risk getting a disease, you’ll just be an digital escort puppeteer. Or if you have no respect for yourself you can even be…ick… a social marketer.(j/k love you link baiters)
So let us not despair. Robots will be really cool and will be able to do much more for us than we can now predict. Virtual Reality will be more amazing then we can even begin to imagine, an endless wonderland. This could all lead to better living through technology. I have hope we can overcome the big problems that are coming. It’s possible that VR could help the environment by reducing the amount of people driving cars all day. The more people are focused on digital experiences, perhaps buying lots of real world objects will lose its appeal. Robots could be used to run organic gardens, plant trees, clean up the environment, and perhaps even take care of the young, old, and sick. In the future you do not have to fear robots acting like human beings. What you really have to fear humans acting like uncaring robots.