The way our economy is organized and the rules by which it operates are based around a core set of assumptions. And over the next 20 years, some of those assumptions are going to be challenged or undermined by emerging tech. As a result, our society will face some very big decisions about the rules of the road for this new economy.

In this chapter, we’ll discuss how emerging tech is likely to challenge some of the assumptions that underlie our economy and outline a strategy for thinking about our future while focusing on the problems we face today.

Robots, AI, and the Future of Labor

Without a working crystal ball, there’s no way to know what impact robots/AI will have on work. For example, we have no way to know:

  • How many jobs will be automated?
  • Will robots and AI will destroy more jobs than they create?
  • Of the new jobs created by robots and AI, how many will be good paying jobs?

The one thing we can be pretty sure of is that robots and AI are going to break some of the assumptions that our economy has been based on.

For example, our economy is based on the assumption that when businesses grow, many people will benefit because of the jobs the businesses will create. But in the future, even if robots and AI don’t create mass unemployment, there is a very real danger that many growing businesses won’t create enough good paying jobs.

As a result, we need to start asking questions such as:

  • How do we ensure everyone has financial security in a world where people may not be able to depend on having work?
  • Should people whose work is being automated away have some say in the process, and if so, how?
  • Should we try to create incentives so we automate away much of the work that no one wants to do?
  • As a society, do we want to ensure that the enormous profits and wealth that are being produced by automation help everyone? For example:
    • Should we try to move towards an economy where most people don’t have to work full time unless they want to?
    • Do we want to try to give everyone a real opportunity to express their creativity and explore their full potential?

For most people, these questions don’t have simple or easy answers. That’s why it’s crucial that we start creating space in our society to begin exploring them. As the Gershenfeld brothers argue at the beginning of Part 3, if we wait too long before asking these questions, it may be too late for our answers to matter.

Creative Works

In an economy increasingly dominated by emerging tech, often the greatest economic value won’t come from physical objects but from the creative works that power them:

  • A robot’s operating system and its “apps” that let it cook food
  • A recipe that tells a robot how to make an apple pie
  • A virtual pet in augmented reality
  • Code that can create different types of forests in virtual reality
  • A design for digitally fabricating a comfy chair
  • The patent for sensors that allow a robot to etch innovative patterns on glass – and the design and code that lets anyone digitally fabricate that sensor

Unlike physical objects, the cost of making a copy of a digital creative work is close to zero.

We can already get a glimpse of the potential of an economy where digital creative works are central and easily available:

  • If you want to learn a new skill, odds are there dozens of tutorials freely available on YouTube.
  • Many recent AI breakthroughs have been driven by techniques known as “deep learning,” which spread rapidly because both the ideas behind it and the open source programming libraries for implementing it are freely available.

Now imagine a world in which millions of people in communities across the globe are contributing to a body of emerging tech that is accessible to anyone. The potential of that pool of creative works is staggering.

But in a world where digital creative works are either freely or cheaply available, how do its creators make a living? If digital creative works are increasingly central to our economy, the experience of many musicians and newspaper reporters today may be our canary in the digital coal mine.

In short, one of the central economic questions we will need to grapple with in coming years is, how do we reward creative work while ensuring that the creative bounty it generates is widely shared?

Answering this question will be important regardless of the impact AI and robots have on employment. Even if AI and robotics destroy more jobs than they create, there will still be an abundance of opportunities for making creative works that many people value. The big question is how the new rules of the road will shape who benefits.  

Digital Fabrication

As we discussed in Part 3’s introduction, MIT’s ambitious plans for digital fabrication are just beginning to take off. So far, they’ve created a global network of over 1,000 community-based “Fab Labs,” filled with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other fabrication and electronics tools, as well as people who can teach you how to make an amazing array of objects. Fab Labs all use the same tools and processes, so if someone in the global network creates a design for a beautiful chair they build in their Fab Lab, anyone else in the network can also make it.

MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms believes that in the coming decades, between conducting primary research and testing out some of its ideas through the Fab Lab network, it will be able to accomplish a dramatic technological transformation:

From machines in a Fab Lab that make things, to machines that make parts of machines, to machines that self-reproduce, to building with digital materials, to materials that are programmable and can turn themselves into parts. In short, they are confident that by the end of journey, they will create a personal version of something like Star Trek’s replicators.

Even if they’re only partially successful, this transformation could have a wide range of effects. As some members of the Fab Labs movement like to ask, what if instead of having to take a job you don’t like to make money to buy an object, you could just make the object yourself? Even if it’s only true of some objects, it raises deep and profound questions about how we shape the rules of this new economy so everyone benefits.

As a result of those questions, spearheaded by Barcelona, there’s a growing network of “Fab Cities” dedicated to experimenting together to see if they can leverage Fab Labs to build a more just, democratic and sustainable future. Their goal: by 2054, to move

from ‘Products In Trash Out’ (PITO) to ‘Data In Data Out’ (DIDO). This means that more production occurs inside the city, along with recycling materials and meeting local needs through local inventiveness. A city’s imports and exports would mostly be found in the form of data (information, knowledge, design, code)…

We need to reinvent our cities and their relationship to people and nature by re-localising production so that cities are generative rather than extractive, restorative rather than destructive, and empowering rather than alienating, where prosperity flourishes, and people have purposeful, meaningful work that they enjoy, that enables them to use their passion and talent.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether this movement will come anywhere close to achieving its ambitious goals. But regardless of what you think of their approach, one thing is certain: the questions they’re raising and the scale of answers they are proposing is exactly the kind of work communities across the globe need to start engaging in if we are to take advantage of these potential opportunities.

Thinking Ahead While Focusing on Today

Given the impact emerging tech will eventually have on the economy, we need to begin raising the kinds of questions laid out in this chapter. We also need to start asking broader questions such as:

  • What role should work play in our society?
  • What are our needs as human beings?
  • What are our deepest values, and how can our economy help support them?

But there’s a limit to how helpful it is to wrestle with these questions today. The most profound impacts of emerging tech probably won’t affect us until two decades from now. In the meantime, given that so many communities are currently suffering, we need to spend the bulk of our energy on solving problems in the here and now.

Moreover, even if we could come up with detailed answers today as to how we want to influence the impact of emerging tech on our future economy, we couldn’t build a realistic roadmap to get to where we think we want to go. The endpoint is too far away to have any confidence as to how we’ll get there.

But if we do it right, it’s still extremely useful to think and debate about the future. Perhaps the best way to manage the tension between today’s immediate needs and tomorrow’s potential is to keep asking:

  • How can we use our answers to these long-term questions to shape today’s plans?
  • How can we design today’s plans so they open up space and create opportunities to build the future we want?
  • How can we use our work in the next few years to test out the ideas and assumptions we have about the future we think we want to build?

It is a rare and precious gift to have a glimpse of the dangers and opportunities we’ll face over the next 20 years. Let’s not squander it.  
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