As any regular reader of my blog knows, I rarely leave my house. There are entire months where I never step out my front door, and there are occasional months where I will venture outside, but a maximum of three or four times.
I have managed to create quite a cocoon over the last few years. Unquestionably, I am dependent on people who do go outside. But I expect that over the course of time, with the use of drones and improved telecommunications, the need to leave one’s home will universally decrease. As a simple example, in the near future, robotic chefs will be able to make a pizza and a driverless delivery motorcycle will bring it to your door.
It does amaze me that even 10 years ago, my present situation would be effectively impossible. The tools were simply not in place to allow me this degree of remote interaction with others. Had I developed my condition 10 years earlier, I may very well have had to stop my entire involvement with medicine and technology, all due to my inability to leave my house for any significant period of time. I hope that in the next 10 years, I will either find a solution to my situation or it will be just all the more convenient and simple to work entirely from my little cubicle at home.
It struck me the other day that my approach to interacting virtually with the world could end up really solving a great many problems with employment. It is already well-established that telecommuting can be an excellent way to increase productivity. Despite Marissa Mayer’s insistence that all Yahoo workers come into the office, I can personally say that my success would have been completely blunted in such an environment. To further discuss this point, allow me to imagine that we are talking about a video game developer, and whether a complete telepresence solution would be useful.
The reason why I select videogame developers is because these are highly skilled, extremely intelligent people who are an absolutely critical part of a multibillion-dollar industry, yet they lack stability in terms of employment. I was reading an article about the life of the videogame developer and it was noted that once a videogame was packaged for sale, the videogame developer could easily find him or herself unemployed. More so, this uniquely talented person could possibly need to move to an entirely new geographical area in order to take part in a new videogame project. Needless to say, such a lifestyle is hardly conducive to a stable marriage and a comfortable home life for children. This is apparently why many videogame developers eventually move on to other types of jobs that do provide a regular round the year income and a geographically fixed work location.
Imagine now that we are 20 to 30 years in the future and technology is able to truly and entirely emulate the physical work environment of an office. Imagine sitting down in front of your screens of your personal computer in your home and then being virtually transported to a totally immersive virtual reality. You would physically get up to walk over to another point in your home in order to virtually interact with another member of the team. You would have staff meetings that would be indistinguishable from a common physical presence in one location. Considering the advances in haptic technology, i.e. the ability to simulate touch in a virtual environment, it will likely be possible in the near future to shake the hand of a virtual colleague.
From an employment point of view, the potential is astounding. The same videogame developer that required physically moving from one city to the next in order to stay employed, would no longer have to travel. From one day to the next the same developer could be working on different projects across the world. The moment you eliminate the need to travel to a common workplace, employment options explode. Almost any non-labor type job could be done from a person’s lounge chair. It is a fact that certain types of jobs are in high demand in certain areas of the country but far less so in others. One company might pay far more for the same skill set than another. In this scenario, where the geo-position of a worker no longer has any significance, both the employer and the employee benefit from a far more competitive environment. The employer can find the best worker for the job anywhere in the world, and the employee can perform the most suitable job anywhere in the world.
What about jobs that require labor? How can you have a virtual plumber or electrician? As I noted above in regards to pizza delivery, someone has to make a pizza and then deliver it. In the pizza example, it’s not hard to imagine automation of the entire process. But then, the human labor component is eliminated and with it, employment for a human.
It is most likely that robotics will first develop the ability for extremely fine work which is completely guided by a remote human, before the same robots are able to complete complicated tasks on their own. The DA Vinci surgical robots were developed in order to perform surgery in space. The DA Vinci device itself would be on, for example, the international space station, but the human surgeon that operates the robot would be on earth. I am personal friends with an extremely talented surgeon who does a great deal of robotic surgery whereby he does not even need to scrub in order to perform very complicated surgeries.
It is not hard to imagine that in 20 years from now, we will have extremely mobile robots that can squeeze themselves into locations that a human could not reach. The same robots would have superhuman dexterity and could perform very delicate tasks in intolerable, to human, situations. So the electrician who must fix a problem inside a corrupted nuclear power station could do so without any personal risk. And that same electrician could be anywhere in the world. Just as a surgeon can perform a whole range of surgeries remotely via a robot, the same would be for a dentist, physiotherapist, and any other type of hands on healthcare. There will most likely be a few decades between the complete independence of robots versus the need to have a human remotely control and guide them. Therefore, the same model that I described above for videogame developers will also apply to laborers.
It is common today to speak of the threat of technology in terms of eliminating the need for human employment. It strikes me though that we can tremendously benefit from technology that allows us to apply our trade anywhere in the world at any time of day. It is true that certain types of employment will be eliminated. One only needs to look at China to realize that very standardized manufacturing truly does not need human involvement. This is in fact a problem for China as it struggles to find work for its billion and a half citizens. I am writing this post on the day after the Chinese markets have lost a third of their value and certain economists are already speaking of a depression in China equivalent to the 1929 worldwide crash. And a part of all of this has to do with failing to employee humans in sufficient quantity.
I won’t pretend that it is going to be a smooth ride. Some technologies will put a lot of people out of work. Other technologies will open the world to humans and allow them to find employment in ways that they never thought possible. It is pretty fair to say that the future of employment will greatly depend on ever increasing the skill set of human beings. A human being in the near future will likely not be able to survive without some type of in-depth vocational training. A master’s degree in English would allow a person to teach or to write for those who need those skills. But that same person with this masters degree should be ready to upgrade his or her skills in the event that automated teaching systems prove to be more effective than human educators.
I will share one piece of personal advice that I have employed in my own raising of my children. I have implored my own kids to always look for opportunities to increase their knowledge base and skill set. Whenever they had an opportunity to take a course and get a certificate of completion, I have strongly encouraged them to do so, unless of course they had no interest in the field. Two of my children have formal certification as coaches in Tae Kwon Do. This is in addition to their black belts. They worked hard to get the certification, but now, they could find employment in a martial arts school, or set one up by themselves. Despite anything else that they study and do throughout their lives, they will always have this certification. So you see, already with my own children, I have raised them to be prepared for a dynamic life where employment options could change dramatically from one moment to the next. Hopefully, I haven’t made them too crazy.
Thanks for listening.