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October 17, 2013

The Future of Work, Part 1

October 17, 2013

Let's play imagine. Look into the future, ten years from now, it's 2023. Everything is connected to the internet. We are connected to the internet. Think Google Glasses on steroids, devices that seamlessly integrates physical and virtual realities. Perhaps we have a device that even interacts directly with our mind on some level.

All existing knowledge is accessible at any moment. We may even have some type of "guided thinking." Everything we do will be recorded – visual, sound, smell, maybe even feelings, physical and emotional. Same with all our bio-signals. All of this data will be fed to powerful computers. Computers many times more powerful than IBM's Big Blue. Big Blue, as powerful as it is, is only a foreshadowing of future consumer electronics. Just as our cell phones are more powerful than the computers that took us to the moon. We will have amazing insights into how to live better, fuller lives. We will be on the cusp of becoming super-human.

How did we get here so quickly? Let’s go back 20 years, remember 1993? It was only 20 years ago and almost no one had cell phones, certainly not "smart" ones.

The Internet was mostly a plaything the nerds and scientists had built in their spare time.

If you wanted to communicate with someone chances are you would write a letter, call them on a landline or just stop by their house. The only place you could really experience cutting edge technology was at the movies. How did we go from that to augmented reality in only 30 years? For clues to how this will happen we need to go back in time yet again to 1968 when a Caltech professor Gordon Moore made a startling prediction which speaks to the changes we have seen and will be seeing in the future. We know this as Moore’s Law.

Moore's Law states that computing power (defined as the number of transistors on integrated circuits) will double every two years. This has held true since 1968 when the law was created. Doubling every two years means that the growth is on an exponential curve which also means it has to peak at some point, like a hockey stick. This is predicted to happen sometime around 2019/2020.

At that point we will have reached the physical limitations of transistor or chip technology. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, who was recently hired by Google as a director of engineering, predicts that as the transistor paradigm wraps up another one will be beginning that will follow its own exponential curve but at an even quicker pace. And another after that, etc. Just like transistors replaced vacuum tubes, which followed their own curve. The evolution of technology is happening at an ever-accelerating pace.

So what's this all leading to? Some have called it the "Singularity." A point at which technology evolves so quickly that we can only guess what's on the other side. Those that ascribe to this thinking, and I am one of them on most days, predict that the Singularity will occur sometime in the next 30-40 years. Of course there are many reasons this may not happen. Humans are very capable of sabotaging progress and there are also legitimate reasons to fear the Singularity. It is the unknown, much like death. But I prefer to think of it in a positive light.

Now I'm going to say some pretty far out things that may be hard to imagine, but stick with me, I'm going somewhere. I promise.

I believe that we were created to be creators and this, the Singularity, is our chance to realize that purpose. If you were raised in the Christian tradition, like I was, you will be familiar with the passage in Genesis that states that we were created in the likeness of God, the ultimate creator. Although I no longer ascribe to that tradition, I do believe that our purpose here on earth is to create. I also believe that the coming technology changes will fundamentally change who we are as humans, giving us the opportunity to realize this purpose. But there will be some strange things to get used to.

We will have to become comfortable with some fuzziness around what it means to be "human".

This is already happening. My father, who has Parkinson's, has a stimulator embedded into his brain to reduce the effects of the disease. He also has an artificial hip. In the future we may be in the curious position of having to choose when we die not if we will die since death may no longer be the omnipresent threat it currently is. We are already seeing progress in this direction as well.

At some point in our lifetimes we may experience life expectancy increasing 2 years for every year we live, then 3, 4, etc. Many living now may live well beyond 100, some may choose to live for centuries or beyond. I know that sounds a little crazy but I believe it will seem less so in the coming years. In general, our lives are increasingly becoming something out of a science fiction novel. In the past we have mostly let progress pull us along, in the future we will need to be more intentional about how it drags us forward. There is, and I believe should be, a tension between the logarithmic pace of technology's evolution and our more gradual physical linear evolution as humans.

So what the heck does all of this have to do with work?
Continue on to Part Two in this series.



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