For this post, I want to go beyond the day-to-day commentary on the robotics industry or our own business and take a look at longer term trends shaping society. Needless to say, this is a personal perspective and pure speculation. Making predictions about what’s to come is easy, getting it right is hard, so take this with a grain of salt. My hope is that this will spur some healthy discussions and drive additional innovations.
While predicting a specific future is tough, one prediction is easy to make: change is coming, and it’s coming faster than most of us realize. For many, this accelerating rate of change will feel uncomfortable. Some people may even try to hold onto or go back to the “good old days”. One problem: it’s not possible to turn back the clock.
As I think about the next decade or two, I can see a number of environmental, demographic, economic, cultural and technology trends converging to drive massive changes. Several of these elements have already been covered in fiction and non-fiction works, which have been percolating in my head and I am now trying to capture in a somewhat cohesive fashion.
One book that has made a strong impression is Jeff Booth’s The Price of Tomorrow. Full disclosure: I am extremely fortunate to count Jeff as a mentor. In his book, Jeff takes us on a journey across economics, psychology, entrepreneurship, game theory and more, to explain the reasons behind his fundamental thesis, which is that technology has a deflationary impact on the economy and our current economic model is not set up to deal with this.
In simpler terms, technology gives us more for less. Imagine the impact: more food for less, more housing for less, more health care for less.
Of all current technologies, robotics and autonomy will likely have the biggest impact because of their ability to impact the physical world. Today we already see applications of robotics in agriculture, construction, and hospitals. This is no longer theoretical. Add to this exponential acceleration, and within 15 years these uses of robots will become commonplace. If you’re skeptical, keep in mind that the original iPhone was launched 13 years ago and today there are 3.5 billion smartphone users.
At the same time, environmental factors are also accelerating. Just in the past few months, we are seeing a pandemic with COVID-19, the devastating fires in Australia, cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons in various continents resulting in loss of life, displacement, and impacting millions, if not billions, of people. Whether it’s air quality, flooding, mass extinction, water, or energy shortage, we are increasingly exposed to these risks.
To put it bluntly: being outdoors, in an unprotected location or in contact with other people may kill you and your family. In response to this, especially as these problems recur and spread, people’s behavior will inevitably change and society will adjust. For example, we are seeing today some large-scale experiments in remote school attendance. There has also been a spike in working from home in response to the novel coronavirus, but this has been largely limited to knowledge workers.
Now imagine if other jobs that today require being physically present (harvesting, building, cleaning, performing surgery, etc.) could be done remotely. Until recently, this wasn’t possible, but that’s changing rapidly. The future of work will be supervising robots with various degrees of autonomy.
Let’s play forward these trends and the impact of deflation as discussed in The Price of Tomorrow. As Gen Z (the post-Millenial generation currently ranging from elementary school age to young adults) comes of age, having grown up with their face glued to a phone or VR head-mounted display, they may tell their children (Gen Beta?) to not go outside and play. And why would they, when everything can come to them?
Food production, especially sustainable plant-based food sources, can be tended to by robots. Distribution to the home can be handled via autonomous systems, whether air- or ground-based. Distributed and abundant solar power will eliminate the need for oil and gas extraction, refining, and transport, while also making water and air processing (including recycling) also practical, yielding more efficient self-contained dwellings.
The need for social contact doesn’t go away, but it can change – and quickly. (If you have any doubts left about this, witness the rapid rise of TikTok.) As VR and AR mature and the hardware becomes more portable and unobtrusive, they will deliver not just immersive but highly social experiences, in ways that will make smartphones today seem as primitive as a rotary phone vs. a smartphone. This has the additional benefit of reducing chances of contagion as new diseases become a concern. It doesn’t mean we will become isolated, but our modes of interacting with the world will change: if we don’t need to go out to study, work, buy stuff or socialize,then we will develop new ways to connect.
The combination of abundance and changing cultural norms we discuss above in turn reduce our reliance on “work” as we understand it today, which for the most part is making up for avoidable inefficiencies. If we can get more for less, and more of our interactions are digital, this could usher in a new era for humanity.
Once our basic needs are fulfilled, and we liberate people from the obligation to spend most of their time toiling away just to keep up, this could open up new possibilities. We could spend time really focused on the well-being of our children. Perhaps artisanal work, whether digital or physical, now decoupled from its functional needs, will be highly regarded. Or maybe self-sustained living will allow us to go explore beyond Planet Earth.
Change can seem scary when it’s happening, but once it has become the new normal, it’s hard to imagine going back to the way things used to be. When was the last time you used a paper map?