Are you the next buggy whip?

Recently a few billionaires have issued a stark warning. Bill Gates and Mark Cuban (among others) are worried that manual labor is about to go the way of the buggy whip. In a world increasingly filled with robots, computers, and automation,  these billionaires are concerned that there may soon come a day where you have nothing to offer today’s job market.  These billionaires have offered up ideas of taxing robots to make up for the social security and medical benefits of the workers they’ll offset. Are these ideas revolutionary, or are they a sign of the limits of our ability to see into the future?

In 1960,the Harvard Business Review published an article by Theodore Levitt’s titled “Marketing Myopia”. Although you may have never heard of this article, chances are that you’ve heard the tale of the buggy whip.  Levitt wrote if a “Myopic” (short-sighted) culture in which businesses failed to innovate and relied on tried-and-true business models. These models eventually and spectacularly failed when they were outmoded by a changing marketplace. The prime example of this phenomenon was in the buggy-whip market, which suddenly disappeared with the mainstream acceptance of the automobile.

Today, robots are building nearly everything we use on a daily basis. Glass blowers, piano tuners and horseshoe makers have went from mainstays of our economy, to quaint artisans versed in a craft no longer needed in our society. We’re quickly entering a world where computers design the next-generation of microprocessors themselves.  Data is being scanned, voices are converted to text, and entire factories are being ran with minimal human input.

Bill Gates and Elon Musk have recently gone on the record foreseeing a need to tax these robots to provide a “basic income” for those who will no longer be able to find gainful employment.  If a day is coming where we’ll only need a fraction of today’s workforce to oversee our robotic benefactors, what’s to become of the outmoded workforce?

It’s hard to imagine a world where human labor is largely unnecessary, however the day could come. The interesting thing that appears to be overlooked by these former visionaries is the simple law of supply and demand. The same companies using robots to produce the cell-phones, computers, and cars of tomorrow will need a steady supply of consumers to use their products. The free market cannot continue to supply products for which there is no demand or no customers who are able to pay. One thing seems obvious to me is that the value of near-mindless physical labor is dropping. The day may come where you will either use your mind to do something computers cannot do, or be forced to live off the scraps society has to offer.

For some, this may simply be an opportunity to live fully or partially off the grid. With our birth-rates actually at a plateau, it may again become a trend to “live off of the land”, growing our own food, producing our own energy, and (gasp) consuming less. Sure, if we want to partake of the soylent-green protein shakes made by the robots of tomorrow, we may need to tax robots and provide a menial existence for those without the brain power to cut it in tomorrow’s workforce.

Many of us, however, see the polar opposite of this dystopian world in our future. If we look to sci-fi (which draws quite a bit from history) as our guide, we could instead see a world where our collective brains are used to improve the human condition. Imagine a world where the drugs we need are designed and manufactured at break-neck speeds and low costs.  Imagine a world where we had the time and resources to care for our aging parents and disabled children ourselves. If robots were doing the heavy lifting of all things mundane, our limitations would be based on technology, imagination, and natural resources. We could focus our human efforts on protecting the environment, caring for each other, exploring space for additional resources, and researching even better technology.

In today’s world, we fill out mountains of paperwork in a vain effort to insure we all pay our share of what it costs to operate our society. The filing, managing, auditing and disposing of this largely unnecessary paperwork does generate jobs, but are those jobs really necessary in the first place? Would we need the bazillion-dollar infrastructure of roads and bridges if we didn’t all need to commute to and from work every day? Would we need as many medical facilities if we were able to care for the elderly and disabled at home? We’re already moving away from $200 cable bills by choice. I can only imagine the decreased need for entertainment options if we all had enough time to pursue our dreams.

This may be a huge fork in the road for society. Are we going to look to our robots to provide for our every need so we can spend our lives seeking out entertainment, or are we going to use this increase in efficiency to change the world for the better? If we look to people like Bill Gates, we see that several of them have indeed used their increased resources to help cure disease and raise the standard of living for so many. Imagine if we all saw the same increase in resources as the Elon Musk’s of the world? Those people have made electric-cars mainstream– they’ve created ships to more efficiently explore space!  These things, in turn, have created even more need for manufacturing plants and natural resources.

We humans are often shortsighted in our thoughts of the future. Even the best and brightest among us are sometimes blocked by the need to see a future much like our present. We see things through the eyes of taxes, government services, and attempts to fairly allocate the resources we have easy access to. I hope that our next set of visionaries can see past a world of many limited resources, and to one where a human’s time becomes the most precious of resources. A day will come when the things we see as luxuries today will be things we take for granted. I’m hopeful that the HD flat-screens and virtual reality headsets of tomorrow will be used to serve purposes greater than a entertainment-filled break from society.  If we can transform our collective mindset from “what can I get today” to “what can I do today”, instead of creating problems, these machines can potentially enable the next great awakening. Instead of eating a protein shake and living out a dark existence at the robot’s whims, we can spend our time caring, learning, and growing.

Much of this hinges on how you view society. If we cannot see past a world of limited resources and small minds always needing to subvert society; if we cannot see the difference between wealthy innovators and rich dictators, then perhaps we are destined for a more bleak outlook. If, however, we can pattern ourselves off of the Bill Gates and Elon Musks of society, we may one day have the resources to change the world for the better.