Technology is accelerating at a rapid pace and changing the way we work and spend.
In particular, machine intelligence, artificial intelligence (AI) and computerized systems are leaving many jobs in the dust.
What does this all mean for our economic and social future?
Tesla founder and Twitter owner Elon Musk has fascinating thoughts about how automation will change the future of work and society.
The age of automation
AI and automation are progressing rapidly and becoming capable of replacing many former human positions in the workforce.
Automation is touching almost everything and will soon reach the point of transforming entire sectors such as trucking and transportation with self-driving rigs.
Millions could be out of work completely, or at least forced to retrain or specialize in different ways.
In the above scenario, an out-of-work truck driver, for example, might retrain to become a remotely-based fleet operator ensuring the operational fitness of many trucks and checking their systems rather than piloting an individual vehicle.
As far as Musk is concerned, the advance of AI and automation is a generally good thing for all involved.
“People will have time to do other things, more complex things, more interesting things. Certainly more leisure time,” he claims.
Musk believes that one result of growing automation will be the introduction of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in many developed nations.
UBI involves regular payouts from the government to each citizen and is one method for avoiding a major economic depression or social collapse from quickly disappearing jobs.
One scenario presented by Musk is a future in which the main employment is writing code for AI systems until the point that AI systems achieve the ability to do so for themselves and replace even their human programmers.
This kind of doomsday scenario and fears of an AI takeover or the rise of a human-hostile AI system is well documented.
Musk has been clear about some of his fears of out-of-control machine learning and how it could potentially eventually threaten all human life.
Yet the story doesn’t end here…
Contradictory messages from Musk?
Elsewhere, Musk has said the exact opposite of an AI takeover and automation replacing jobs.
In one interview he surprisingly claimed that there will continue to be a surplus of jobs for humans and a major “labor shortage” well into the future despite the growth of AI and automation.
Musk has famously warned that falling global birthrates are the single greatest threat to human civilization.
There simply won’t be enough humans to do the jobs that are still left to do and need doing.
While he says that some robotization and AI systems can help replace the lack of human labor, including Tesla products such as the Optimus, Musk seems torn over his past statements about an AI takeover.
He seems conflicted between believing AI will take over and replace our jobs and the contradictory belief that there will be too many jobs for humans to do.
On deeper investigation, this seems to be more a matter of timeline.
Musk believes that in the short term such as the next five to ten years there will continue to be a labor shortage, while in the long term UBI and automation might be the way of the world.
There’s no doubt that the COVID pandemic produced a massive labor shortage in the United States and many other developed nations.
Many more people have chosen to switch permanently to remote work and large chains like McDonalds are even cutting hours due to not finding enough workers with enough availability.
While automated systems are popping up in places like McDonalds, Musk believes that this won’t be sufficient to replace human labor shortages in the coming years and that the full “shift” still lies ahead in the longer term.
Melding with the machine
Anyone working today in almost any field is working in some way with technology that wasn’t dreamed of several decades ago, including in sectors like agriculture, mining, forestry, law, graphic design, retail, shipping, investing and urban design.
Increasingly, human beings are called on to merge with the machine, or to become “wired in” as it was put in the 2010 drama The Social Network about the rise of Facebook.
Of course, it’s important to remember that automation is nothing new and that even the introduction of the printing press left society in upheaval as has every new invention.
Mechanized automatization and the melding of man with machine on the production line was already widespread by the 1970s in auto manufacturing, for example.
This has only grown since that time, and analysts like PriceWaterhouseCoopers say that around 30% of all jobs will be done by robots and AI systems by the early 2030s.
Where do we go from here?
Musk foresees Optimus bots starting out their careers inside Tesla’s own factories. The humanoid creatures move at around five miles per hour and can deadlift 150 pounds, making them useful in places like shipping centers.
He also foresees a revolution in transport by way of self-driving fleets of taxis operated by his companies.
When you replace most on-road transport with automated vehicles, humanity will certainly reach a stepping stone, and many are already preparing for the day when many service jobs and transport jobs are gone.
In the intellectual field many jobs will also be fundamentally changed or replaced.
For his part, Musk believes this is a net plus, as discussed. He believes it will free up people’s time and energy for more interesting and fruitful pursuits and discoveries.
This is certainly possible.
But we would also do well to remember utopian promises of the past that have come along with every new technological era.
There is always a promise of more leisure time, enlightenment, prosperity and health.
Yet of course every time the reality tends to fall quite short of the ideal and more is demanded of us rather than less.