Machine Abundance

by Krishna on November 25, 2012

I was digging through old stuff when I found some notebooks I had filled up about 20 years ago. I used to be a trivia fan and copied down things like Olympics gold medal winners from reference books. The idea was that I could easily look up the information without having to go to some library. I cannot imagine how many hours I spent on those activities, which today seems silly considering how easily Wikipedia or Google provides the same information. Even though twenty years ago, I knew about computers, thinking of them as data storage devices instead of computing devices still hadn’t entered my mind.

It is worse than a cliche to say this, but it is hard pressed to point out something that will not be made obsolete by technology. The list of things made outdated by handheld devices includes both old and new: cameras, alarm clocks, books, CD/DVD players, sound  recorders, paper, maps, encyclopedias, fax machines, envelopes, calculators, paint brushes, credit cards. Some will last longer than others by moving to the upscale market — You can still purchase a $10,000 camera if that is your living or you are into an expensive hobby. Or for reasons of sentiment or authenticity, you would rather have something that has less to do with modern technology. Though remember, physical books were once on the cutting edge of technology too.

Services performed by human beings seem immune to technology. But it is possible to see a future where much of the work is done by robots, both big and small. We already have dumb machines (dish washers, lawn mowers) doing a lot of work, but the last step is still done by human beings. The promise of Roomba is that much of those kinds of work will be taken over by robots, and you can just vegetate in front of the TV. One reason why this has not happened yet is the delicate financial situation across the globe, where household spending on newer technology has stalled, resulting in prices still being prohibitively high for the middle class. But that will change over time.

Similarly with medical care. We are close to a time when small robots the size of ants or smaller will be on or in your body monitoring and even fixing issues (“Hey, is that a tumor cell there? Zap!”) Less invasive, more precise surgeries performed by robots with minimal guidance from doctors. One issue is the massive amount of regulation that could slow the adoption of technology, but it is a question of when, not if. Over time, per unit health care costs will come down like it has in other areas. And it needs to as the human population is aging at a rate unprecedented in world history.

I think Paul Graham is right about this. Computing technology has reached a critical level where we are going to see all kinds of amazingly useful (and not just quirky) gadgets. And then people then will find ways to bring them together into single robot models. The jobs of the future will be be in how to make things that are going to make obsolete the things that human beings do. But don’t think we will only have the robot makers in the future. By then, the machines will have become intelligent enough to create copies of themselves and put the engineers out of work too. In all seriousness, though, barring politics or climate driven disasters, the next 15–20 years will be an era of fundamental change in the relationship between man and machine. Machines are going to be become smarter and more versatile, and take over much of what we do. And how we approach that world will have to be different, starting from schools to all the other institutions we have built.

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