There are acres of books, innumerable conferences and endless press speculation about the rise of the robot. We first witnessed IBM’s Big Blue defeat Jeopardy contestants and then go on to beat chess masters. But, we thought, robots can’t do easy stuff like walking up stairs – until we sat bewitched by the Boston Dynamics Big Dog robot which can positively scamper over obstacles. And to cap it all economists are reminding us that within the next decade up to 60% of jobs could be lost to advances in machine learning and robotics.
So it’s no surprise that when we let our minds speculate about the future we become fixated by the rise of the machines. We imagine that over the coming decades those wizards in Silicon Valley will be pumping out a continuous supply of technological products that will perform tasks we didn’t even know we needed and, as a result, we frame the future in terms of our consumption of these delights.
Speculations about the future are something I have been transfixed by as Andrew Scott and I have written our book The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. When we all live longer, then the context of these longer lives becomes fascinating.
But as we imagine the future, should we let technological developments be the major framing? It seems to me that this obsession about our robotic future is missing the point, and at a lecture given this week by Judy Wajcman, Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, I began to understand why – summarised here in nine bite-sized thoughts:
- It’s a geek's view of the world. Those wizards in Silicon Valley and other technological hot spots around the world are a homogenous bunch. They are mostly male, in their 30s, deeply into gaming and technology from childhood and often introvert. So as with any homogenous group, they are likely to view the world and the future through their own lens.
- It’s hard technological determinism. The result of this is the notion that somehow technology just develops and we humans have little impact on the velocity or speed of this development.
- It’s myopic. This single lens perspective leaves a great deal of the story untold. Five hundred years ago Thomas More wrote Utopia in which he described an imagined island community. He described their practices of engagement and marriage, their celebrations of life and death, and their laws and ways of living. His was a much richer and interesting view of the future.
- Images of the future leave women out. Well not quite – would the technology films Ex Machina or Her work if the robot or operating system was a man? So this technological future casts women in a certain role. But as inventors or creators or imaginers of the future - women are almost absent.
- It is ambivalent about time. So here is the paradox. Most machines are there to provide us with the gift of time and yet the technologies we create are the very same that seem to rob our time. Is the future really 300 emails a day, and is the only way out of this a cleverer machine?
- It takes away human resolve. Rather than imagining we are the central players in this vision of the future, we seem instead to be playing a walk on part unable to make our needs and hopes and aspirations felt.
- We see ourselves as hostages to the machines. And by doing so we focus on what we have lost (jobs, peace of mind) rather than what we could gain in the future.
- It reduces the big questions. As we try to frame the future and prepare for it, it seems to me that Thomas More was right – the big questions are about how we want to live with each other, what our communities could look like, what it is we value, how we might think about what we want to tell our children. So surely our questions about the future should center as much on this as on the technology?
- It makes us less human. In a world where technology has reduced some of our more onerous tasks (imagine life without a washing machine) surely our conversations should be about what makes us more human – how the future could be about creativity, innovation, intuition.
Perhaps now, in the year of the anniversary of More’s Utopia, it is time to re-imagine our future in its totality, embracing families and communities, work and rituals.