Worried that your job is about to be stolen by a lousy robot? According to social futurist Jamais Cascio, that might be one of the better economic futures available to us at this point. But why?
Writing for Fast Company, Cascio explores what he considers to be the most likely ways in which our economic systems will mutate and evolve in the 21st Century:
The social and economic structures underpinning the modern world are constantly evolving, and there will very likely soon come a point—probably in the next generation or so, if history is a guide—that we no longer see the socioeconomic world as belonging to the same "species" as back at the beginning of the 21st century. Instead, we'll probably see a period of experimentation with diverse economic forms; indeed, the mid-21st century could well be a truly exciting time for wonkery.
Cascio comes up with three possibilities:
1. Brittle Strength: The current global economy seems to exaggerate booms and busts, and the ongoing consolidation of corporate actors into "too big to fail" entities means that when busts happen—and they do—the system tends towards failure rather than "soft landing." It's getting harder and harder for governments to step in and serve as safety nets to prevent total collapse; the current economic downturn may well be the last one the system can stand.
2. Griefer Economics: Information is power, especially when it comes to finance, and the increasing use of ultra-fast computers to manipulate markets (and drive out "weaker" competitors) is moving us into a world where market position isn't determined by having the best offering, but by having the best tool. Rules are gamed, opponents are beaten before they even know they're playing, and it all feels very much like living on a PvP online game server where the referees have all gone home.
3. Robots Stole My Job!: Think you can't be replaced by a machine? Think again. Robots are becoming more dextrous, able to do a growing number of tasks requiring precision and strength, and computer systems are becoming smarter, able to tackle jobs needing pattern-matching and creative skills. Humans are still cheaper, for now, but this puts downward pressure on wages—and the old rule that new technology opens up entirely new fields of human labor won't hold true forever. Smarter, more capable machines will snap up those jobs, too.
Of those three, Cascio calls the final "what we all want, ultimately. C'mon, admit it," and speculates that Europe would be where it'd happen first, but not without trouble:
The U.S. slowed down, Japan took control, and Europe... well, Europe got wired. Or got weird, depending on your perspective... The big problem, though, is that everybody wants in. The EU borders are effectively closed to migration (with a few humanitarian exceptions, and basic "keep the population steady" immigration), patrolled by drones and the military. Every year, at least a hundred people are killed trying to get in. It's like the ultimate gated community, and nobody here likes it—but nobody has been able to figure out another solution.
The more we think about it, we're not sure that we agree with the Robonomics model is even necessarily a best case worst case scenario... and not just because we're always concerned about robotic overlords and the worshiping thereof.