Published in the Guardian Observer, November 25, 2018
A global security futurist and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Washington DC, Zalman is the founder of the Strategic Narrative Institute, a futurist consultancy. Between 2014 and 2016 she was the CEO of the World Future Society.
There’s a lovely phrase, attributed to the futurist Roy Amara, that goes like this: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” With this in mind, let’s consider work. We’re already discussing what kinds of jobs will be affected by automation. We know that some of the losers will be those with white-collar qualifications whose work is relatively routine: accountants, much of the work of lawyers, some of the work of journalists. But by 2050 we’ll begin to see paradigmatic changes. We have all these assumptions about how work and the world is shifting. But the changes occurring now are too incipient for us to get our heads around. It’s not that automation will change work. It’s that work will change so drastically that we’ll need to give what we do an entirely different name.
The winners will be those people in jobs we don’t even know about yet, at the intersection of technology and other fields. Data and criminal justice. Data and homewares. Data and medical services. Data and biotechnology. It will be an exciting time for philosophers and ethicists. We’ll quickly realise the need to understand how we treat, use, manage and live with artificial intelligence. We’ll need philosophers and ethicists to legislate ourselves into the future.
If there is a significant displacement from automation, we’ll require a tweak in the social services system. We’ll send people back to school. We’ll find new ways for people to make money. There will be experiments in the universal basic income. Eventually, we’ll create new forms of work. We’re kind of an ingenious race that way.
But the one thing that seems unlikely to change in the next 30 years is wealth inequality. This will reverberate across generations. Some of us will continue to become really rich; some of us will continue to become very poor. Inequality won’t rise from automation alone. It will continue to develop from the kind of economic reward system we’ve already established: that money makes money. That will lead to a biological divide in society, too. There will be a class of people able to enhance not only their education, as people have been able to do for decades – you go to a private school, you get a better education – but their own bodies, through other kinds of augmentation. Genetic enhancement, let’s say. Biological augmentation and enhancements are coming – a tattoo that acts as a system that monitors the body, for example. That could be expensive, and not necessarily available to all. In the future, only some people will have access.