A few days ago, thanks to my algorithmic recommendations — not from the sources I usually read, but selected on the basis of subject matter of interest to me — I came across an article about a 57-year-old American who after being released following a 37-year jail term, was asked about his impressions of something as commonplace as a smartphone, or the internet.
The man entered prison at the age of 20, in 1983, when a cell phone weighed more than a kilo and was bigger than a brick, and when no one outside military or very academic circles had the slightest idea what the internet was. Now, after some time getting familiar with the use of technology, he was amazed at the things he could do: not only communicate, but renew his driver’s license, see his favorite team’s results, do the shopping, get directions on an interactive map that also spoke to him… one can only imagine the look on this man’s face the first time that the little gadget they had put in his hand said something like “at the next intersection turn right”.
How much has technology changed in the last few decades? When you are of a certain age and you teach young people, you realize that they regard as completely natural things that to you, even if you use them all the time, still have an aura of magic about them. As somebody who teaches innovation, I make a conscious effort to try to keep myself up to date: I can’t imagine an innovation teacher looking blankly when her students tell her about the latest app, game, service or company… but I can’t hide it: there are things that still seem like magic to me. Getting into my car and being able to choose practically any song from an immense repository that covers practically the entire history of music for several centuries, or the other way around: listening to something, and having an app tell me, after a few seconds, what it is and who is playing it… really, I’m still amazed by these things.
When we reflect on the progress of technology, it is difficult not to be surprised at how far we’ve come in such a short time. Some people may complain about digital distractions, but the internet provides conveniences and possibilities that only a short time ago were unimaginable.
What happens when we see technology behaving the way it does, with rapid improvements in performance over the years? What will happen when many of the developments we are beginning to see now, such as machine learning, continue evolving? A recent article by Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator and now CEO at OpenAI, properly entitled “Moore’s Law for everything”, claims that the development of artificial intelligence alone will also follow Moore’s Law like many other technologies, and will be able to generate an unconditional basic income for every inhabitant of the United States in less than ten years, that the increase in productivity generated by machines capable of doing many of the things that people do today, coupled with their ability to do those same things better and without errors, will lead us to the greatest era of wellbeing ever known.
Others, obviously, criticize his metrics and claim that these productivity gains must be made tangible, but what is more tangible than those factories in China that used to assemble our electronic devices with people dedicated to frighteningly repetitive tasks, and that are now overwhelmingly carried out by robots? In a very short time, the first companies to embark on this route have found that their competitors simply had no choice: either they imitated them or they ceased to be competitive. Will this lead to mass unemployment? No, instead, we will be retrained in new functions, such as tagging images to educate algorithms, otherwise there will be widespread unrest
Adapting our societies to understand the change in the role and definition of work will be an extremely complex task. In the near future, many of the jobs we know will be carried out by machines and algorithms. But we must manage this process differently to the way previous disruptions have been. To think that the greatest increase in productivity in history will trigger a problem of growing inequality that relegates many to absolute poverty is to have no faith in humanity — even if that position sometimes may seem justified.
We now need to have a serious debate as to the pros and cons of some kind of unconditional basic income, to shake off the absurd myths and ignorance around it, and to start thinking about what tomorrow’s world will be like and what economic model it will be based on. And there is no better time for this than after a pandemic.