This is a rehearsal script from from a talk I gave at Work In Progress 2017, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Sam Jarman. Firstly, let say how much of an honour it is to be here speaking to all of you here at Work in Progress. I want to thank John and the organising team for the opportunity, it’s absolutely amazing.
So! You’re probably wondering, “What is this guy doing on the stage talking to us?” Well, uh, good question. Let’s be honest, I’m here to spin a bit of a yarn about the future. I do a lot of reading, consuming, digest of futurism stuff. Some could call me a futurist, but generally I like to think I just keep an ear to the ground about the future, and I use my computer science and programming background to dream a bit bigger.
So, today, I want to talk to you about the future, specifically I’m going to talk to the economy very far in the future. But if what I say ends up sounding completely crazy, well, that’s probably fair, but so did today’s ideas just a few short years ago. Confused? Let me show you.
Who here is a parent of a teenager? Cool. Now think back 10 years to 2007. Now, I’m going to tell you, instead of asking them to drive home themselves, I want you to instruct your son or daughter to do this: ignore the safe and trusted taxis, take our your phone, flip it open, get in touch with a complete stranger, who probably isn’t registered to take passengers, and get them to drive to you, get in their car and get driven home by them. Hopefully.
Yeah, exactly some laughs, some scared faces, but now in 2017 we do that in droves with Uber and Lyft, and we don’t even blink twice about it. In fact, it’s probably a parent's best choice today for safety, much safer than teens driving themselves home.
So let’s talk about the years to come, my ideas might sound crazy, but just remember Uber, and how batshit crazy that sounded just a few short years ago.
Computers are getting good at helping us. We call it Automation. Now even though it might seem it, automation is nothing new, if you have a dishwasher at home you’re experiencing automation. Been to Car Wash, used a fridge, you’re there. It’s not new and it’s not conceptually hard to understand. Automation is a computer doing things you tell it to.
But now we’re putting smarter computers in these machines, and they’re able to use statistics to guess at what is needed, based on a few key data points. Take spam filters for example, I see “millions”, I see “prince”, I see “help”,... it’s probably spam. This is 300 year old maths being put to use. A mathematician called Thomas Bayes came up with the theory of this stuff and it forms the basis for all of this technology. .
But in the 1950s, this got a bit more applicable with computers. What was boring to do by hand got more exciting. Now, to put everyone’s mind at ease and get everyone excited, some computer scientists, who, as we all know, have in depth knowledge of human psychology and emotion, had the bright idea to call this technology Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, because those are the most calming terms. Yeah right!
So, initially, we invented all this stuff to help us. Take the load off. Trade Me let people sell stuff with automated bidding, Xero helped accountants do reconciliations, whatever those are and Sailthru let’s marketers automate campaigns. These tools can be thought of Iron Man from Marvel’s comic series. A person driving a set of tools, the human mostly in control, with help from computers when needed. Perhaps the computer suggests something, but doesn’t get angry when you ignore it. Although, as an aside, I always liked the idea of a passive aggressive GPS system. “Fine, take the next left then. You’ll be a minute late but hey, you’re in charge so whatevs”. Anyway, the help is and has been useful.
But now, these tools we’re making, combined with that calming and safe sounding term, MACHINE LEARNING don’t need us. They’ve seen enough and can figure out how to do exactly the same. That’s right, even Tony Stark Iron Man himself, was out of a job later in the series.
But, lets’ think about that Job Loss for a bit more. It’s happening. And it’s happening now. Look around you. Self checkouts, Automated Carparks, Prefab buildings, self driving trucks, these are all areas where job loss or reduced hours has been caused by automation. Hell, go to Maccas across the road now and you deal with a screen (you can also order the most random stuff, it’s so fun, please go try it). The screens are great, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them isn’t also the assistant manager.
As we see this automation trend continue, more and more hours will be reduced, and more and more jobs will disappear. Now, society has suffered job losses before. The great depression in the US had a maximum unemployment rate of about 25%, (NZ is at about 5% now), but the current predictions for unemployment due to automation for the next 30ish years are at 30-40%, and some think that is optimistic, and it could actually raise up to 75% by 2100. These are alarmingly high rates.
So what are we going to do with these unemployed people? What are they going to fill their days with? What are they going to do for money?
Some of you might say just retrain, you’ll be fine, take some personal responsibility and own your future, and that’s great if you live in Epsom. But we technologists know that might not be enough with the pace of automation. You’ll enter a 3 year degree only to graduate for a job that doesn’t exist, and a 3 month bootcamp couldn’t teach you something that hasn’t been automated by then – so just retraining might be a bit harder than most people think, and it’ll only get harder.
One solution to all of this is something called a Universal Basic Income. A small income paid from the government to all citizens regardless of age, employment, means - anything. This would be enough to get by on, it’d pay your rent and food and maybe a bit of leisure money.
Don’t forget, things will get cheaper! As automation increases, a free market would suggest things will get cheaper as human labour of manufacture and supply chain costs approach zero. So something like $200 a week could even be sufficient, and especially so in the future.
At first, unemployment will start slowly, people will drop from 40 hours a week to maybe 25, and how will those extra hours will be used? I’d like to think for community projects? Volunteering? Ultimately, contributing back to the collective good for society. Wellington is a great example of this with so much arts funding and so many cool projects happening all the time.
But how would we pay for this? Remember, with everyone out of work, the government isn’t collecting any income tax. The solution is to actually tax robots. That’s right, Ol’ Wall•E over there is gonna be filling in an IR330 and filing a PTS one day like the rest of us. Joy. Robot uprising making a bit more sense now, eh?
But seriously, Taxing your machines that replaced humans will continue an analogous income stream for the government. That money would then be used to keep a UBI like scheme afloat. The details on how we actually do that will need to be worked out, but even with tax, it's still in a company's best financial interest to use automation.
So, here we are, 2030ish and everyone gets $200 a week to sit around. Now, some people might think that Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, but I don’t think that’s really the case. Sure, some people will squander it, and just watch Netflix in 64K VR the whole day long, but consider this - do you ever wish you could have a monday off this weekend to finish painting that spare room? How about taking off a few days to smash out the new deck while the weather is good? As humans we’re constantly looking for some free time to do something extra, something innovative, something that will make us better.
So, yes, with UBI, we’ll be free to dream bigger, think bigger and achieve more. This is why we give startup founders funding, it’s why Google Pours millions into it’s Google X division, it’s why Elon musk had time to think up some crazy stuff, it’s why Mayor Lester is so generous with Arts grants... take away the worry of money and our worries turn to higher causes.
Some of our greatest societal contributors had some of the best ideas when they didn’t have to worry about money. Jobs and Gates were in their respective parent’s garages and Michael Jackson, the king of pop, had plenty of money to live on. Once again, take away the worry of money and our worries turn to higher causes. It’s as simple as that.
We can turn our focus to projects of cultural value, such as the arts, music, or non-profit or slowly-profit. Businesses where today we’d hear investors say “that’s a great idea but it can’t make money” will be a thing of the past. A renaissance is coming, and we should all be super excited about it.
But with all this innovation, reduced cost of manufacturing, production, shipping, we start to see ourselves in what we call a post scarcity society. Right now, things have value because of the scarcity of the item, or their materials. Coffee is $5 because it costs someone beans, a limited resource, (but not really, we hope) and a person’s time. Buy a car, it costs money, because it takes work and materials that cost money, because they are limited. But what if they weren’t limited?
Who here has seen or heard of the game called MineCraft? Well, in MineCraft, there is an unlimited creativity mode. In the game, you can use blocks of various materials to make whatever you like. People from ages 4 upwards have embellished this mode, and have created some truly spectacular things. With essentially no goals, their imaginations are the limit. There has been famous structures built, the whole of The Game of Thrones world has been built, and some have even, brick by brick, a team recreated a 8bit CPU. This is a great example of what happens when resources are unlimited, creativity is king, and nothing can stop it.
But I haven’t talked enough crap today yet, so let’s keep going.
We’ve all heard of 3D printing, and some of us are pretty excited about it. Some people are a bit too excited, and they need to chill out, but what does 3D printing actually represent? It represents a form of technology that cheaply and quickly mutates one type of matter into another. From plastic to little dinosaurs, spinning tops, or actually useful things like camera parts or phone cases. Think ahead a few more years to around 2070 and we get Replicators. These machines, will be able to take any matter, which is by definition infinite (thanks to asteroid mining, another talk for another time) and rearranges atoms to form the right molecules which react to form the right substances and eventually you’ve “printed” out a piece of chocolate cake, a cheese scone, a soft drink, a replacement hip, a car part and much more.
This is the post scarcity economy, where everything is pretty much free, and a UBI is… well, kinda pointless. Everyone has everything they need, and we’re just trying to come up with new stuff we might want. Knowledge of space, knowledge of all science, new art, new songs, new movies… whatever else!
But, I still think money will exist, it’ll have to. We’ll need to way to represent value and trade that value. But when you think of all the globalism that will have occurred by now in 2070,and the NZ dollar won't make sense, nor will the US dollar. So maybe we just call it a credit? And yeah, sure, you can use those Credits on the Elon Musk Mars colony too, the moon colony, or any of the hundreds of space stations. It’s just recognised everywhere.
So with moonshot thinking, bored citizens wanting to find new stuff, credits and replicators… Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Star Trek!
Sure, a lot of this talk has been tongue and cheek, but if it’s one point I want to make clear, it’s this.
In short, the economy is going to have it’s biggest challenges and changes over the next 50 years. Basic concepts we love and know, hard work, tax, training, supply and demand, supply chain management, and so much more will fundamentally change thanks to rapidly advancing technology.
You don’t have to be able to predict this stuff, leave that to me and the rest of the speakers today, but your business does have to be able to react. And we should also maneuver society into a state where we can react. We need governments that fundamentally understand reaction over solidification. Proactiveness rather than tried and true. That could come from either side, but it has to come.
You don’t have to predict but you must react.
Don’t be the blockbusters, the IBMs, the Blackberries, don’t be the Toys R Us and don’t be Sky TV next year. Please, position both yourself and your business in a position to react. Adaptation is survival over the next few years. It’s as simple as that. That next thing is coming, and faster than you think.
But, whatever that next thing is, I really hope I’m there with all of you to see it.
I’ve been Sam Jarman, thank you very much, enjoy the rest of the conference!