“Back in 1811, weavers in Britain’s Nottinghamshire took up the banner of the mythical Ned Ludd (who had supposedly smashed mechanical knitting machines thirty years earlier) and staged a rebellion, wrecking the machine looms that were threatening their livelihood. They were right to be afraid. The decades ahead were grim. Machines did replace human labor, and it took time for society to adjust.
But those weavers couldn’t imagine that their descendants would have more clothing than the kings and queens of Europe, that ordinary people would eat the fruits of summer in the depths of winter. They couldn’t imagine that we’d tunnel through mountains and under the sea, that we’d fly through the air, crossing continents in hours, that we’d build cities in the desert with buildings a half mile high, that we’d stand on the moon and put spacecraft in orbit around distant planets, that we would eliminate so many scourges of disease. And they couldn’t imagine that their children would find meaningful work bringing all of these things to life.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine last week. I've been to the event before, but it's been several years since I last attended. It's always an interesting experience, and this time was no different. Of the many thought provoking speakers, Tim O'Reilly's kickoff presentation stands out for me. O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media and a fixture on the tech scene for the last four decades. He spoke about his latest book, from which this issue's Quote of The Week is taken.
Tim's thoughts on Luddites previews his views on the possibilities facing us in the age of AI-equipped technologies of all kinds. The key word in that quote?
While technological developments disrupt jobs they do not eliminate work. Like England's 18th century weavers, we're psychologically predisposed to more significantly fear the losses brought on by automation than we are to see its possibilities. Since the Industrial Revolution conditioned us to think of work and jobs as synonymous, logic says if robots take our jobs, we'll be out of work.
But, as the above slide from O'Reilly's talk clearly demonstrates, there is plenty of work to be done. Just as the weavers' children learned to fly airplanes, ours will learn to deliver remote healthcare, teach children in other countries to code, or create new organizational models supercharging workforce engagement.
So, there won't be a shortage of work. The question is: Will we apply our vast collective imagination to finding ways to deliver economically valuable goods and services; things that others are willing to pay for?
We must. And, I saw examples in Maine that gave me real hope that we will.
Take CRISPR. Dr. Kevin Esvelt presented his team's work on what he calls “sculpting evolution,” gene editing technology's potential to modify plants and animals to make them, for example, more energy efficient. Or, to re-engineer mosquito DNA that makes malaria a thing of the past. Or, to increase agricultural production to bring safe, nutritious food to the starving millions in sub-Saharan Africa.
From a social perspective, Pop!Tech welcomed Mia Birdsong, who identified loneliness as one of the major public health threats in America. She described her mission as “finding our way back to the community that is in our DNA.” Birdsong spoke of creating experiences that use the love, care, and generosity of spirit that has always been at our core to craft a new version of American life.
What kinds of jobs could we create to enable ourselves to pull together instead of fostering isolation? What if the health benefits of that work could be appropriately valued by industries that rely on resilient, emotionally healthy workers? Could there be jobs there? Very likely.
There were more examples, but I think you get the picture. The future of work and jobs is yet to be written. Just as the Luddites feared losing all to machines, we too are in a moment of uncertainty about what could replace the jobs (so many of them tedious and soul-sapping) that we rely on today for our survival.
The future is an imagination laboratory. As we become increasingly reliant on machines to perform automatable tasks, we will be presented with new ways to make our lives fuller and richer. If we let our scarcity-rooted fears blind us to the possibilities we face, we'll likely fulfill some of our most dystopian stories. But if we use our most human of powers -- our imaginations -- to make realities of the abundant possibilities before us, there's no reason we can't tackle even the most intractable problems we face.