Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

Prediction is very hard, particularly about the future. But I've been hearing a lot of low-key buzz lately about astonishingly transformative technologies that are not far off. 3-D printers are already not so uncommon. In fact the elementary school where my sister teaches has one. They can make any object you like out of metal, plastic or ceramics, and no doubt we'll soon have more sophisticated models that can use combinations of even more materials, such as made-to-order clothing on the spot. (Books can already be made and sold this way.) Cars that drive themselves are also on the horizon. As a matter of fact, they exist today. When it will be legal to let the car drive you to Grandma's house on the public roads I don't know, but it may well be the case very soon that robocars are safer than human drivers.

While we are oohing and ahhing over cool stuff, we often don't stop to think that technology drives major social transformations. When I was a youngster, my grandfather was a college professor and my grandmother was the secretary to a college professor. My grandfather's job still exists but my grandmother's doesn't. My secretary is Microsoft Office. Even low-level corporate managers who didn't rate their own secretaries would write their letters with a pen on yellow legal sheets or dictate into a tape recorder and send them to the typing pool, then they'd proofread the result and send it back for a final product. No more.

And in case you're agonizing over the decline of U.S. manufacturing, don't. The U.S. still has a robust manufacturing sector, but what we don't have is a robust manufacturing jobs sector, because the way to stay competitive in manufacturing in the U.S. is to replace labor with machinery as fast as possible. Of course people have to make the machinery and write the software, but that requires far fewer jobs than the products displace.

So imagine a world in which, instead of walking into a store and selecting from among the available coffee mugs or dinner plates, you look at samples on a touch screen, pick the one you want, and a machine makes a set for you while you wait. And no, you didn't get in your jalopy and drive to the store. You entered your destination into your smartphone, and the computer (which already knows where you are, obviously) dispatched the nearest car to pick you up and take you there.

Living that way is much cheaper than owning your own car. Cars are constantly in service so the world needs many fewer of them. They just about never crash, and they always know when they need maintenance and get it on time. Everyday manufactured goods are also much cheaper because they don't have to be shipped -- the materials to make them are shipped in bulk instead, which is a lot less expensive. Also you don't have to pay a truck driver. And there are no unsold surpluses -- every object that is made is sold, immediately.

Sounds great, huh? Could even have environmental benefits -- saves energy and waste. Or so it seems. Can anyone think of a downside?


robin andrea said...

How are people going to make money to buy all those cool, made-on-the-spot items? What kind of jobs will there be in this future world?

roger said...

we are already inundated with stuff. look at the proliferation of storage for rent. we should use up what we have. also computer systems have bugs once in a while. what if one falls into an endless loop making a badly designed widget.

and what if the 3d manufactured thing isn't really what i wanted? can the material be reused?

Anonymous said...

The ‘economic crisis’, actually a debt crisis caused by shady dealings, accounting fraud, and gambling, is in part the outcome of computing power. Madoff - old style Ponzi schemes - can be done without it (in fact Madoff did not use algorithms and so on.) Mechanical trading, high frequency trading, very complex trading, fakey mathematical models that execute and not only describe, were all made possible by the intermediary of computing power. Moreover, it created a kind of distancing, a false reliance, and a multiplication of actors, diluting responsibility and affecting comprehension.