Futurist: 'I Am Concerned for My Two Young Daughters'

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Serial tech entrepreneur James P. Clark shares an unsettling vision of the future in a new textbook, Surviving the Machine Age.

“I am concerned for my two young daughters (age 16 and 20 at the time of this writing). Their formal education is preparing them for a world that will not exist in 5 years, let alone 10. And how do I look them in the eye and encourage their career dreams while thinking that most jobs that are done by humans today soon won’t require them anymore.”

The textbook, edited by professor Kevin LaGrandeur of the New York Institute of Technology and James J. Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, features essays on accelerating societal disruption as A.I. replaces human jobs by the billions.

Clark, the chairman of the World Technology Network, warns that disruptive innovation has always had a dark side, often causing widespread job loss and political backlash; and that now change is happening faster than ever and with a chance that jobs won’t bounce back as they did in the past.

“We now live in an era where, due to the very nature of exponential technological change, there is simply no time for inter-generational scale preparation. In fact, a 4-year college degree is almost certainly out of date by the time a student graduates.”

What’s more, disruptive innovation is happening at “an unrelentingly continual rate and in almost every industry at once … in a globalized job market [with nowhere] to escape the pace of technological change, nowhere to hide from it.”

Clark argues that mankind is approaching a “phase change,” with a bigger shift coming in the next 20–30 years than in the past 2,000–3,000.

“We are gaining elemental control over the building blocks of life. We are on the verge of full control over matter — with the power to make anything out of anything, anytime, anywhere …. [and] although [A.I.] may be down the road a bit as the ultimate game change, the advent of full machine sentience is not necessary for enormous transformation of our civilization.”

What’s at risk is massive job loss, political backlash (Clark points to the election of Donald Trump as an example), rising inequality, and, in short, dystopia for billions of people, if not everyone. That’s not to say apocalypse is inevitable.

“The reader may find my perspective not particularly optimistic. I like to think of myself and others as simply being conscientious in the face of a massive potential challenge to human civilization.”

What can we do? Other than considering risks soberly on a global scale, Clark recommends one specific policy: universal basic income, an idea also shared by Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

“Eliminating much of the complex social welfare system and replacing the ‘social safety net’ (through which many have fallen) with a social safety floor with minimal, sufficient financial support to all, regardless of their current circumstances, may be the only way to avoid a social collapse. Also, it may lead to an unprecedented social flowering as the age-old condition of economic anxiety is removed.”

Other options, Clark mentions, include “micro-taxes on some kinds of digital transactions that use open source code and reducing working hours to spread jobs among people … [as well as] seeking to use new technologies to create new types of job opportunities and job markets.”

“In any case, and whatever the strategy, in the face of growing income inequality, new and bold thinking is required.”

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