Pilfered from here
I am not an “Optimist”
Okay, I’ve been busy writing articles for H+ recently and I’ve been being accused rather frequently of being, “An Optimist.”
This post is about proving that I’m really not one.
To do this, I first need to clear up a few things by explaining that I am not a believer in AGW or many other “Green” ideologies, nor am I a “liberal” or “progressive” or any number of other “categories” that are made up to compartmentalize and divide humans into groups and cliques. I am a cynic first, last and always, and expect little more than the worst of the worst of human behavior to be the default operating mode of the human race.
So, don’t expect good news. There is none. It WILL get worse before it gets better. Pollution will continue, rainforests will be chopped down, and people are going to suffer and even die. There is no nice way to sugar coat this fact. No feel good story that will offset it. We are in a spiral downwards that will end with the complete destruction of the current economy, and quite probably even the end of many current world governments. There is no “solution”, no “quick fix”, no “positive thinking” that will prevent it. Our economy and many of the very most basic concepts we have built our civilization on are in the process of crashing down around our ears. Your job is unlikely to survive this event, your education is going to be meaningless when it happens, and this nice comfortable world we live in is doomed.
Actually, I lied. That WAS the good news.
You see, it’s something that more or less has to happen. It’s the only way to move beyond today and walk forward into a future beyond all imagination.
Humanity has built a house. It’s a very nice house, but as nice as this house is, it’s built on a foundation that can no longer support the house we’ve built. Like the House of Usher, it’s got cracks forming everywhere. We’ve got millions of people running everywhere trying to fix one crack or another, from Greenpeace to PETA to the AGW crowd to who knows who else is out there trying to fix this or that problem.
But all of those “fixes” are pointless, because none of them address the fact that the foundation itself is crumbling.
But to see this fact, you first have to understand what that foundation is, and that is where I feel that the majority of the human race makes a fundamental left turn away from reality. You see, we humans like to pretend that we are not animals, and that we do not have instincts. But this is pretty much a lie we tell ourselves.
Humans are driven by two primary instincts, and it is these instincts that lie behind not only our successes, but our failures. Those instincts are the co-operative survival instinct that drives us to create “collectives” which enable us to survive more easily by sharing the work and the resources needed to ensure survival, and the competitive instinct that then seeks to “divide” us into “alpha/beta” categories to ensure reproductive “success”.
When you accept these two instincts as the basic foundation of human behavior, you come to realize that regardless of the complexity of our present society, every action humans take comes down to an action intended to fulfill one of these two most basic instincts. I’ve discussed this rather extensively in a previous blog post at http://valkyrieice.blogspot.com/2010/07/on-government.html and trying to discuss it in this one would not only be redundant, but take up far too much of the post, but it’s vital that you understand this view in order to understand why I say that there is no way to fix the “house” that is our current civilization and economic reality. It cannot be saved, and we have no real need to save it anyway. In fact, the harder we try to “fix it” the worse we will hurt ourselves as a species.
Why? Because everything you believe about reality is wrong. And I am not talking about your religious beliefs, I’m talking about all those little things that you take for granted, like that person you see in the mirror, or that drudgery you trudge to day after day to earn your paycheck that you think is absolutely vital to your continued survival. I’m talking about that belief you have that tomorrow will be just like today, and that you will still be you, or that Bob down the street will still be Bob down the street.
Our entire civilization is built on a set of unchanging assumptions about ourselves. We talk about equality, but underneath our high minded ideals we all know that we are NOT equal. Some of us are smarter, some faster, some more agile, some prettier, some more creative. Our entire world is divided into one “clique” or another, from our earliest days to our last breath. We have countless ways to divide every human we meet into “us” or “them” and determine our “superiority” or “inferiority” to them on the social pecking order. Even “The Market” and “The Economy” are little more than proxies for this universal “pecking order” in which “money” is directly translatable into “social status”
It’s this “foundation” that is crumbling, and which cannot be saved. And the fact that this foundation needs to be destroyed in order to build a new civilization doesn’t make the reality of unemployment, human suffering, and authoritarian oppression attempting to prevent the collapse of the status quo any more palatable.
But like a forest fire clears away old debris to make way for new growth, what will come after is what makes it all worthwhile.
So, now that you’ve heard the bad news, let me go on to explain why that foundation is crumbling, which is more or less my main subject, but which wouldn’t have made much sense without the context. So now that I’ve proven to you that I’m a cynical pessimist, maybe you’ll spare me the accusations of being a starry eyed dreamer when you’ve finished the rest of this article.
Because, you see, it’s what is causing that foundation to crumble that makes me look forward to the future that will emerge from the ruins.
To begin, I would like to introduce you to a concept you will likely be hearing a lot of in the next decade: Additive Manufacturing.
It’s a fancy name for something you’ve likely already heard of, 3d printing. In traditional manufacture, we start with a lump of something, then whittle it down into the “product” we want. Like Michelangelo, we cut away everything that is not “David”. There’s nothing wrong with this method, and we’ve made amazing advances in making devices this way, but simply put, we’re reaching the limits of what can be done by “milling away” a lump of material to leave behind the object we want. As impressive as such displays as this one ( http://singularityhub.com/2010/04/05/5-axis-robot-carves-metal-like-butter-video/ ) are, what if we wanted to incorporate electronics into the finished piece? Obviously, we would be able to make areas to enclose the electronics, and channels to run the wires through and so on, but that means we have to make a helmet with who knows how many parts, with individual sections produced on separate machines, via separate processes, and then assembled to make the final product. But, then we have to worry about how we attach all those pieces together to make the final product too, right?
We have, of course, made production lines and machines capable of making all those individual parts. It’s been one of the primary results of the industrial revolution. Being able to make millions of identical parts is one of the triumphs of modern technology, and has been a huge factor in enabling us to create our advanced civilization, but it’s become a stumbling block to further innovation. Why? Because it’s become a barrier to small scale industry. It’s not economical to build a complete assembly line to build five or six products. This has thus made it “too risky” for businesses to create a product that might sell only a few hundred or a few thousand items. It also means that in order to meet demand, manufacturers must make thousands to millions of items in the hope that all of them sell, and if demand is less than anticipated, essentially waste all those extra items. This in turn makes the mass market overly sensitive to economic upturns and downturns. Since it takes months to years to design, create an assembly process, and then actually make the product, manufacturers won’t bother with anything other than what they feel is going to be a 100% successful product. Because of this, subtractive manufacturing has become a “gateway” through which only a small number of innovations may pass, and which discourages “revolutionary” innovation in favor of “evolutionary” fine tuning of past successes.
There are many advantages that mass manufacturing has brought with it, such as the economies of scale which have enabled massive reductions in the cost of nearly everything, and the computer revolution certainly would have been impossible without it, but there are very definite limits to what can be made via subtractive manufacturing, and while we haven’t reached them yet, we are getting nearer to them with every passing year.
So what really makes “Additive Manufacturing” different than “Subtractive Manufacturing?” Right now, not much. We’re still perfecting the various processes and expanding the materials that can be used, but progress in this is proceeding at a massively fast rate. When the first 3D printers were created over a decade ago, they were little more than glorified printers. I can recall a model of the earth created by essentially cutting sheets of paper via laser into precise shapes that were then glued together layer by layer to make the finished globe. But since then we’ve made enormous progress, so much so that the army is researching a derivative of that original laser printer to fuse titanium particles into finished parts for instant tank repair. ( http://www.mitre.org/news/digest/advanced_research/08_10/layer.html ) We’ve also learned how to use different materials from plastic to stem cells to conductive metals and dyes. DuPont recently printed a 50 inch Oled display in under 2 minutes using various layers of conductive fast drying dyes laid down in precise patterns. ( http://www.slashgear.com/50-inch-dupont-oled-display-printed-in-under-two-minutes-1785704/ )
But it’s what we are likely going to be able to do within a decade that makes Additive Manufacturing so disruptive. To begin with, it’s going to eliminate mass production. Eric Drexler and I disagree about this fact, but to put it bluntly, when 3D printers have matured, assembly lines will be quickly phased out of existence. Why would you need an assembly line to make sub pieces of a final product when the printer can print every single sub assembly needed for something with moving parts, or can print an entire device that doesn’t require moving parts? 3D printing also makes it possible to create devices that are impossible to create with subtractive manufacturing, such as a tablet computer that is a single solid block of plastic in which every circuit is embedded, the entire surface is simultaneously a display and a camera, as well as a solar panel, and which is completely impervious to water, dust, sand, and effectively indestructible under most environmental conditions, which can be made for pennies per unit.
It can also print stemcells to manufacture organs, as Organovo has already proved. ( http://www.organovo.com/news/press/17 ) By mid decade, it could eliminate the need to have transplants, by simply printing out a new organ from the patient’s stem cells. By decade’s end, we could even be using it routinely for minor cosmetic surgeries. Want pointed ears like Spock’s? Just print them out, and have your surgeon replace your ears with the new pointed ones, and he’s even likely to use more stem cells to speed heal the wounds, using a layer of stemcells between your skull and the new ear to create new tissue in a matter of hours instead of weeks. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. ( http://hplusmagazine.com/2010/11/28/total-gender-change-within-decade/ )
But, let me ask you this. What’s the difference between growing a heart for a human, and growing a steak? They are both possible to produce with the correct stem cells, so what really separates the ability to create medically viable living organs, and the ability to create delicious muscle tissue from a cow?
Not really much at all. Once we’ve solved the problems of making organs, making ribeyes will be a walk in the park. Yes, there are numerous issues that need to be solved for mass production, but we are making such enormous progress in the field of bio-printing that it seems likely we could see “food printers” become a reality by decades end as well. That’s not to say they will be commonplace, or have eliminated the need for agriculture or the cattle industry, but functional commercial units are possible.
But even as marvelous a possibility as that is, it’s still not why 3D printers will be so majorly disruptive. It’s the fact that additive manufacturing will eradicate the entire concept of “stores” as places you “go to” to “buy stuff.” You see, while we will start off with large manufacturing companies developing and building massive and large scale printers to make cars and airplanes and ships, for the “average customer” it’s kind of pointless to stock a store full of small items that could be printed on demand. It’s a waste of money to pay a clerk to stock the shelves, a waste of space to have a physical store, and a waste of time to ship an item from a central location. While we will start out with printers in the hands of manufacturers, they won’t stay there, and it won’t be because we demand personal manufacturing devices. It’s going to be because as 3D printers become commonplace, manufacturers are going to realize that they can cut out the middlemen. There’s no need to make a product, store it, ship it, pay taxes to import or export it, or even keep an inventory when a customer can simply buy the product from your website and have it printed out right in their own home. We will start out with factory based printers, then shift to store based printers, and end up with home manufacturing units.
Did you grasp the inevitable logic of this occurrence, or did your mind immediately jump to dismiss its possibility? If you’re like most people I’ve discussed this with previously, you’ve probably missed the single factor that makes this inevitable. Cost-cutting. Look at this from the manufacturer’s side. The only cost they have incurred is the R&D cost of designing an item, and the cost of running a website. They don’t even have to concern themselves with obtaining the raw materials to make an item from, nor do they have to pay a staff to run the printers, pay the electric bills to run the printers, rent a building to house the printers, pay a transporter to haul the products to market, have a warehouse to store extra products. In fact, they will have put ALL of these issues off on the customer. All that they will have to be concerned about is designing a product, testing a few dozen prototypes to fix the rough edges, and viola, a market ready product at minimal cost that need only sell a few thousand copies to pay off design fees, at which point EVERYTHING ELSE IS PURE PROFIT
If I have faith in anything it’s in corporate greed. Once it’s cheap and easy to put a 3D printer in every home and eliminate every cost of manufacturing by the “manufacturer” by passing it on to the customer, they will do so in a heartbeat. And they won’t give a damn about the consequences, because the only concern will be the profit of the moment. Those CEO’s will be all too happy about the billions they will save by making their companies cost nearly zero to run while still selling the same number of products at the same price they used too. Corporations are all too predictable.
But the fact will still remain that by doing so, those very same corporations will be destroying themselves. They will be counting on name brand to continue to carry the same weight it did in the industrial era, and assume that by eliminating costs, they will be able to keep right on charging the same price while making almost pure profit. And they will be right, at first. Humans are nothing if not creatures of habit. In fact, if you look at the rise and fall of Second Life as a business platform, you’ll see a real life example of what will inevitably occur. Hundreds of Big Name businesses went to SecondLife expecting to be as successful there as in first life, but since the object creation ability in SL gives the little guys the exact same ability to compete as the brand names, they had a rather difficult time competing. Branding just doesn’t have the same impact when anyone with a little photoshop knowledge, and a smidgeon of talent can offer a product of equal quality for a fraction the cost. There were many other factors as well, but they went in expecting to be the big dogs, and found they were just another member of the pack.
And once there’s a printer in every home capable of making almost any product, there’s absolutely nothing that will stop someone from deciding they don’t care about a name brand but will be quite happy with a knock-off that does exactly the same thing, but costs almost nothing. So when people start realizing that ANYONE can design a product, and sell it online exactly like a corporation, that “name brand” is going to mean less and less, just like it did in SecondLife. By pushing the cost of manufacturing off on the consumer, corporations will open themselves up to competition from every quarter. Subtractive manufacturing requires massive resources to be competitive. Additive manufacturing will cost nearly nothing to be so. And unlike subtractive manufacturing, a product doesn’t need to sell millions of copies to be successful. This will be true regardless of what the product is, be it an electronic device, or a new type of roof shingle, or even a new biochemical concoction like a steak with garlic glands that activate when you cook it, to that pointed ear design I talked about earlier.
You will of course be thinking that the corporations won’t make it that easy, after all, they thrive on preventing competition, and you’d be right. I fully expect every effort will be made to try and lock a customer into “exclusive contracts” that would force the end user to buy a different printer for every brand name, and to create “DRM” for printer designs and products. But if the iPhone taught us anything, it’s that where there is a will, there is a way. “Jailbroken” printers that are “DRM free” will hit the market within hours to weeks of the corporate ones, as well as DIY printers like RepRap ( http://reprap.org/wiki/Main_Page ), and the Open Source market will eat them alive. I’m sure that like the MPAA and RIAA, a few sensational cases of prosecution by big companies against various open source products that are “too similar” to their “proprietary design” will make the news, but the sheer volume of competition will overload the ability of the courts to keep up, and the public will ignore the random few who get raked over the coals, and before you know it, the corporations will go bankrupt as product “costs” trend towards zero.
And note I said trend towards. It won’t reach zero because you will have to pay for the power and the raw materials needed to supply your 3D printer, but there are other factors that are likely to make those expenses minimal, among them numerous advances in such areas as solar, hydrogen fueled devices, ultracapacitance batteries and even various flavors of fusion for the power required, and developments in materials design too numerous to list just yet, since I will covering them a little later. However, I’m going to stress something here, a reason WHY the “open source” movement is going to do so well against corporations. Subtractive Manufacturing needs “workers” to man the factories. But Additive Manufacturing is more or less 90% automated. There will be no need for “workers” or “factories”, and thus no need for humans to be those workers. The “open source” DIY movement will overwhelm the corporations simply because with so many people out of work, making no income or minimal income, they will have little choice but to buy the “cheap knockoffs” and “almost free” designs. By “cutting costs” so drastically by eliminating factories, warehouses, delivery systems, and stores, the corporations will also be eliminating the “consumers” who they depend on to make those billions, because those “consumers” are the very same people they are firing in order to maximize profits. In their quest to wring one more bonus out of the market, they are in the process of killing their own cash cow. And with so many people out there jobless, where do you think they will turn to try and make money? With a few tutorials on product design, software assistants for making a web page and free 3D cad systems like Google’s Sketchup, you’re going to see a flood of new products being made available to anyone with a 3Dprinter. The “Gate” that currently exists that limits new product design will have come crashing down, and Joe Schmoe from Idaho will be on an equal footing with those “Brand Names”.
Now, this is not going to take place overnight, but I would be willing to bet it will take less than a decade from the time that Additive Manufacturing becomes a “commercial manufacturing process” (probably adopted by the electronics manufacturing industry first due to the need for shorter and shorter product development times between “generations”) and the home 3D manufacturing unit. At the current rate of progress, that starting date is likely to be within the next few years. There are already companies in the process of setting up those first additive manufacturing factories as I write this, ( http://nextbigfuture.com/2010/10/large-format-3d-printers-making-large.html ) and as I mentioned above the army is already researching the ability to use 3D printers in the field for immediate creation of parts for repairs. This is already much too far along to view as anything but a near certainty.
And as you can see, not much of it is good news for anyone looking for work, or for the old dreams of becoming wealthy. But it’s not really bad news either, because at the same time additive manufacturing is destroying the old systems of subtractive manufacturing, they will be continuing the reductions in costs that “economies of scale” enabled, only they will be extending it to EVERY scale. It’s no longer going to cost less to make millions of items than it does to make a dozen, it’s going to cost the same no matter how many or how few items are made, period. So even though there’s not really any improvement in the job situation on the horizon, it is likely not going to cost as much to meet people’s needs. This makes “Wealth” a lot less meaningful as a status marker, because lack of money isn’t going to mean a lack of material comforts, and quite hopefully, as 3Dprinters become able to print organic materials as well as inorganic ones, it’ll also mean that basic needs like food will no longer require significant portions of the limited incomes the growing numbers of unemployed will have. In this sense Additive manufacturing will be a “Great Leveller.”
Which is good, because I have a lot more bad news for anyone looking to “succeed” in our current economy of scarcity. You see, just a few days ago as I am writing this, they created a working nanoprocessor. ( http://www.mitre.org/news/releases/11/nanoprocessor_02_10_2011.html ) Additionally, they created a solution to the last major problem with constructing graphene processors, which was a low “Band Gap”. If you aren’t familiar with how a transistor works, basically if you visualize a stream, with a dam across it, and a gate in the middle of it, you have the basic idea of what a transistor does. When the gate is closed, it stops the flow of water, when it’s open, it passes water through. That “dam” also has a “height”, if the height is too low, water just goes over the top of it even when the gate is closed. That “height” is the band gap. For all its advantages, graphene had a very low band gap, which meant that it didn’t make a good “dam”. However, if you’ve read my article on graphene ( http://hplusmagazine.com/2010/05/03/graphene-next/ ) you’ll recall I talked about how the shape of graphene affected it’s electrical properties? Well, it turns out that a squared u-shape bend ( http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/02/u-bend-graphene-transistor-breakthrough.html ) is all it takes to make a band gap high enough to create transistors every bit as functional as silicon. Additionally, a new material Molybdenite ( http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/45056 ) is looking to be just as useful as graphene in nanoelectronics. The irony is at almost the same time we discovered molybdenite as a possible solution to graphenes low band gap, we solved the low band gap problem.
So why is any of this bad news? Well, the answer to that involves several factors. First, it means that most of the barriers to manufacturing THz speed computers have been overcome. One way or another, we are about to make computers a thousand times more powerful than any that have ever existed before. Think about that while you are looking at that monitor reading this. Imagine that computer you are using is just one node of a thousand. That behind the screen you are looking at is a computer with all the power of the new Chinese supercomputer. ( http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-11-chinese-supercomputer-world-fastest.html ) Have you done that? Good. Now look at your cell phone and imagine all that computing power has been packed into something the exact same size. Then, once you’ve managed to wrap your mind around that, watch as IBM’s Watson plays Jeopardy. ( http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2376035,00.asp )
If you failed to make the connection there, I won’t be surprised. Watson is an entirely new type of computer that many people probably do not comprehend the ramifications of. In fact, I had a friend completely dismiss Watson’s importance by comparing it to Big Blue, a highly specialized computer doing a highly specialized task. What she failed to understand is that Watson is a demonstration of a semantic UI, or what John Smart calls a “Conversational User Interface.” ( http://www.accelerationwatch.com/lui.html ) In other words, unlike any computer program ever existing before, Watson UNDERSTANDS ENGLISH. That’s right, Watson isn’t comparing individual letters like most search engines. It comprehends what WORDS mean in the same way that humans do, and it’s doing so at the same speed that a human does. Even if Watson loses in the official match, it is still a breakthrough that has dire consequences for the future of the Economy of Scarcity.
You see, Watson isn’t searching the net for information, It’s actually read hundreds to thousands of general knowledge books and built a data base in which it comprehends the CONTEXT of the data, not just the letter combinations. Where Google’s search engine can offer you thousands of links in which the specific letters you type in can be found, Watson understands the QUESTION and can provide ANSWERS.
Now, I’m sure most of you have read about how the internet is a vast information network connecting all of humanity. And I’m sure all of you are just as aware of the fact that there is SO MUCH information on it that finding any specific article of information can be difficult. Put any query you wish into Google and odds are good you will find at least a hundred links, all of which may only partially apply to the question you have. From there, you have to sort out yourself what information is good, and what is bad.
Watson can change that. Right now, it’s run by a pretty sophisticated supercomputer that’s probably of considerable size. But given all those advances in computer power I discussed above, how long do you really think it will be before a Watson level semantic UI can be run by any computer? And long before we see it on our personal “computerphone” we will see it used by Google and Bing, and all those other search engines to create a “Semantic Web.” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_Web )
Now, you are probably still wondering why I can say that any of that is “bad news,” but I haven’t given you all the pieces of the puzzle yet, so let me have you think about what the ramifications of computers able to understand semantics actually means. Semantics is all about interpreting “meaning” which is actually a very fluid concept. Words can sometimes say one thing and mean another. We humans excel at comprehending “puns” and “sarcasm” and various other forms of “wordplay.” In fact, Jeopardy is well known for these very kinds of wordplay. By having Watson play Jeopardy, IBM is demonstrating that Watson is not just able to comprehend Basic English, it’s capable of interpreting the nuances as well. You won’t have to talk to it in idiot simple language, but can communicate with it exactly like you can with a fellow human. As time goes by, Watson is only going to improve in this ability.
All of which means that Watson will be able to compete with humans in many jobs that cannot currently be automated. It also means that it will be used to make many jobs that currently are only partially automated fully so.
I used to be a Customer Service Rep for SONY. During my employment, SONY rolled out a new system it called SONY Maxx. Maxx was a voice based “operator” that could understand customer complaints in a very limited way, and through a menu based system, enable customers to get answers to common “problems”, mostly those that we service reps called ID:10t or PEBKAC errors, (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair). Only those calls which actually required a human capable of comprehending the nuances of language were passed through this system to the CSRs. And even most of those were of the “This doohickey that makes the arrow move about the screen isn’t working” variety, or of the “I just clicked yes on a whole bunch of neat stuff I found on the web and now I can’t get this purple ape off my screen.” kind of stuff. Most of us could provide solutions to customers without even needing to bother searching the database, but we still had to document step by step what we did to fix the problems. Every day, every call, we built a database of solutions for nearly every possible problem that a customer could have, from the most ridiculous to the actual serious problems. I myself contributed hundreds of problem solutions to that database, mostly about fixes and workarounds for issues caused by various software programs and the locations of where I found those fixes.
Watson could probably do my job, with very, very, few cases that it would have to pass along to an actual human tech. With one very crucial difference. SONY had several thousand CSR’s scattered around a dozen or so call centers. With Watson, and sufficient computing power, they could probably do the exact same job with less than a dozen top notch techs. Watson could read through that entire massive solutions database and provide an answer to nearly any question a customer could ask. And it could do so 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of call volume, and without ever needing a break, or food, or having to use insurance, or getting into a fight between CSRs, or having a bad day, or showing up to work drunk, or having any single human foible.
And for those of you who I hear protesting that humans would give “better customer service,” let me clue you in on a fact of life. The “Customer Service” division was controlled by “Marketing” and was primarily concerned with getting the customers registration info, like names, addresses and phone numbers. There was no concern with “fixing” a customer’s problem. Remember that “Purple Ape”? It was called the Bonzi Buddy, and it was actually fairly easy to uninstall. SONY’s “solution” to it? Reformat the computer to original configuration, wiping all the customers data. Had a driver conflict? Wipe. Had a malfunctioning program? Wipe. Had any software related problem at all? Wipe. We CSR’s would get lower “grades” for actually taking the time to walk a customer through an actual fix. SONY has just two “accepted” solutions to any problem. Wipe and reformat, or send the unit to be serviced. Every other solution in the database was “optional” if we weren’t “busy” with high call volume.
Are you still so certain that corporations actually give a damn about customer service? Personal experience has shown me that they only pay it lip service, otherwise you wouldn’t be calling CS these days to get someone who only barely speaks English. Believe me, Watson is the answer to the corporations problems with those pesky customers who actually have the unmitigated gall to actually want the company to provide SUPPORT for their products.
Now, understand, in order to have the CSR job at SONY, it was required to either possess an A+ certification, or to prove equivalent knowledge. That means that it was a “Knowledge Based Job” for a “Skilled worker”, and not an “Unskilled labor position.” It’s not a “Blue collar job” like those manufacturing jobs I discussed that were threatened by 3D printers. It’s a “White Collar Job” that is supposedly “safe” from automation. And if Watson can do a CSR job for a large extremely high profile company like SONY, which CSR job anywhere is safe? They all work EXACTLY the same way SONY does, after all, with those massive data bases of “solutions” created by decades of CSRs.
And if Watson can do a “knowledge based job” like “IT technician” what makes you think ANY “knowledge based job” would be beyond it? Like, for example, Law. We have HUNDREDS of years worth of “databases” of “solutions” on file. With massive increases in computing power, and equally massive increases in memory storage, how long do you really think it will be before law firms are using Watson to build cases for them? And how long after that to do you think they will be firing all those legal researchers, paralegals, and junior attorneys? And how long after that do you imagine that a few disgruntled ex-employees start using Watson to file lawsuits against those companies for various reasons, all basically intended to allow those “ex-elites” to get back into the “status tier” they were so abruptly tossed out of?
How about medical technicians? How many of them do you think can compete with Watson? When after digesting millions of medical records it can diagnose an x-ray or read a cat scan better than a human? We are already developing a gestural based UI for surgeons so that a robot can replace scrub nurses at handing them instruments ( http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-02-future-surgeons-robotic-nurse-gesture.html ), and using Kinect’s to enable them to give force feed back information for remote robotic surgery ( http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2011/01/microsoft-kinect-hack-used-to.html ) so why would anyone assume that other computer based advances like Watson would leave the medical industry alone?
And how many other knowledge based jobs could we find for Watson to do? We like to tell ourselves that humans are too versatile to ever be replaced by robots or software in the labor market, but how much longer will this really be true? Computers actually able to comprehend language certainly are not “A.I.” but I know from experience how little “intelligence” is actually needed to perform many “knowledge based jobs.” All it takes is being able to provide a correct answer to a properly asked question. All the years of training, study and memorization that it takes to enable a human to be able to perform this task are meaningless to a computer, which needs only to access a database, a database that we humans have been building for decades already.
Feel free to find any excuses you want to try and give yourself some hope. I’m simply looking at this logically. Once Watson has made its way out of the lab, and into real world applications, your education will become meaningless. All those years you spent going to college to learn your specialized knowledge can be condensed by Watson to however long it takes for it to be connected to a database of that same specialized information and digest it the same way it digested all those general knowledge books to play Jeopardy. Somehow, I have this feeling that it will take considerably less time for a “Watson” to become an expert in any given field than it takes a human. Will every job be able to be reduced down to a “question asked/answer given” format? Of course not, but how willing are you to bet that Watson won’t improve and become more capable as computers continue to grow increasingly more powerful? Especially when you consider the advantages that Watson will give to not just businesses, but the common person as well. Because consider this, Watson will make “Instant Expert” apps possible.
If you think about that for a few seconds, it should be obvious that by connecting Watson to a database and creating a program that can answer nearly any question you could ask about a particular subject, what you’ve basically done is enabled ANYONE to gain the benefit of all of that knowledge. Not only will Watson “automate” millions of jobs that require years of specialized learning to do, it will enable good ole Joe Schmoe to have access to that same knowledge. Remember I was talking earlier about how anyone with a 3D printer and some design knowledge could compete on an equal footing with a giant corporation? Watson could enable anyone to have every bit as much “design knowledge” as the “pros” In fact, it would be like having a “pro” on hand 24 hours a day 7 days a week able to answer any and every question you might have. Yes, the corporations will have the advantage at first, but as time passes, and Watson programs improve and increase in functionality, that advantage will rapidly vanish.
How long that will take I can’t tell you, but I don’t expect it to be very long, because as Watson begins replacing all those professionals in the job market, what do you think those experts are going to be doing? I know what I would be doing… making improvements in the open source versions of Watson to put the company that sacked me so the CEO could keep making a bonus out of business.
But Watson has a lot more uses than just technical ones. Like I mentioned earlier Watson could also replace legal researchers, which could result in “Software Attorneys” which can not only advise you on the proper way to file your case, but provide for all the necessary “precedents” needed to ensure your case wins. I’m sure you could see also see how many other “professional services” could also be provided by a similar “Expert App”
Then think about how Watson technology could be applied in the field of education. Imagine having your professor on hand, regardless of subject. Imagine a child having access to such tutors from early childhood. Imagine having a forum discussion with Watson providing you data to support your arguments, or proving that the data fails to support them. Imagine how useful Watson is going to be to self education. Imagine a child in Africa having access to their own Watson’s.
In other words, Watson is a “Great Leveler” just like Additive Manufacturing. But it’s going to undermine the “marker” of “educational advantage” far more than 3dprinting will weaken the marker of “wealth.”
Which brings me to a third “marker” used to play our status games. Physical differences. You’ll remember I mentioned how Bioprinters would likely be used to produce human organs within the next decade or so correct? I even pointed out the “Spock ear” idea for cosmetic surgery?
Now I want you to contemplate what both bioprinters and Watson type “Expert systems” will mean to the DIY bio crowd as well as what inorganic printers and ES software will mean for the DIY robotics crowd. Now let me also have you contemplate my previous articles on VR Pt 1: ( http://hplusmagazine.com/2010/01/17/virtualization-rise-avatar-open-sim-project/ ) Pt 2: ( http://hplusmagazine.com/2010/01/25/virtualization-avatar-mirrorworlds-part-two/) and Pt 3: ( http://hplusmagazine.com/2010/02/15/virtualization-virtual-reality-part-3/ )
Did a shudder just run down your spine? Did you just have visions of tails and horns and batwinged succubi?
Good, because I want you to seriously contemplate a world in which physical appearance is as changeable as what clothes you wear.
And no, I am not suggesting that biomodification is going to be as easy or cheap as changing hairstyles. Not at first. But with Watson class applications in the hands of the DIY crowd, do you really believe that we’re going to NOT start making modifications to ourselves? We’ve already got people doing it!
But with so many highly trained and skilled people suddenly out of work due to the other technologies I’ve discussed, and with the advantages those very technologies will grant to even the non-highly skilled and trained, I more or less expect to see a lot of extremely creative products made to cater to just about every non-mainstream kink, fetish, obsession, and desire. After all, once products don’t have to be “widely appealing” or “sell massive numbers” to be successful, the “Long Tail” effect is likely to become predominant.
That means I expect to see stemcell printers being used to create vampire fangs, pointed ears, and even tails eventually. I expect to see body suits able to cling like skin that are covered in animal fur. I expect to see face masks that perfectly fit the owner’s skull and alter its appearance to give the illusion of having an animal’s head. I expect “Arnie Suits” and “Pamela suits” and even “Tron suits” right along side Predators and Elf maidens. Storm Trooper armor next to Anime cat girls.
In short, I expect an extremely bored, out of work population using instant expert software and home based additive manufacturing units to turn real life into “Secondlife.” Toss in ever more sophisticated electronics, ever more sophisticated robotics, and ever increasing databases of functional designs, opensource programs, and ever growing numbers of people turning to creative “solutions” to cure boredom, frustration, and a sense of “purposelessness” caused by a lack of available jobs, and I think we’re probably going to go more than a little bit insane for awhile.
Why? Because everything we’ve built our lives and societies around is going to come crashing down around our ears, but at the same times, those problems we’ve spent those lives worrying about will be vanishing.
Do you understand how many people have built their entire identities on their job? Or their looks? Or their physical prowess? Or how many people have allowed themselves to be defined by struggles against various problems?
How will we react when wealth is no longer a marker that divides the “have’s” from the “have not’s” because 3Dprinters have made everyone a have? How will we react when knowledge and education no longer separate the “successful” from the “unsuccessful” How will we react when gender, race, appearance, even species are no longer defined for us, but are a matter of choice?
How will we react to a world in which every CERTAINTY we have depended upon to build a pecking order NO LONGER EXISTS?
We are facing a future beyond our wildest imaginations, and there are so many other factors beyond these that are going to eradicate every limit we have previously used to define our place in the social order. We’re no longer going to be bound by anything. Jocks can be Geeks can be Beauty Queens can be Goth Freaks can be Anthropomorphs. Star Wars meets Twilight meets World of Warcraft meets anime meets furry convention.
Can you TRULY imagine a world in which every single dream and nightmare of the human mind will suddenly become reality? In which unicorns can walk down the street next to speeder bikes and Starfighters are flying through the air next to dragons? Can you truly imagine a world in which Succubi literally exist?
I can. I have. And I can’t wait.
But no, I’m not an optimist, my friends. I don’t think that most of humanity is ready for it, and I don’t think most of us will cope with it that well at first. But ready or not, it’s coming on like a freight train with warp nacelles on full power. Long before we even come close to the “Singularity” our world is going to run headlong into Chaos in its purest form, as the human subconscious escapes into the real. We are truly entering an age of madness made manifest. I don’t doubt that we will survive it, and I don’t find myself the least bit concerned that humanity will adapt. It’s human nature after all. We are nothing if not survivors. We will eventually grow used to a world of unlimited choice and become accustomed to our newfound powers and new found abilities, and even to the possibilities we cannot even now imagine with our so very limited intelligences. We will even eventually grow used to being “Post Human.”
But we’re not going to enjoy having to face our Demons of the ID.