The Robot Revolution is on their heels and catching up! By the second decade of the 21st century, everyone can see that “change” is speeding up. By the third decade, a quick glance in the rearview mirror and all you can see is the Robot Revolution. Robots are expected to take over half of the world’s jobs. Self-driving cars, banking on your mobile phone, order kiosks at McDonald’s, virtual reality, and automated factories are our future.
What about the human beings? You remember them? The rulers of the planet… the top of the food chain? It’s obvious that technology is changing our world, but is technology changing us? As more of our economy and our culture becomes robotic, will humanity could become nothing more than a wetware interface to the corporate machine? Technology could change the very definition of what it means to be human. But this isn’t the first time that the evolution of man has been dictated by technology.
Humans started out as nomadic hunters. After tens of thousands of years we developed tools to produce more food. Farming became a better option than hunting. We settled down. First in small settlements and then in cities. We discovered metals, which made better tools than bone or wood. Humanity experienced the bronze age. Then an iron age. And, a long time later, we built our civilization on steel. Soon, it will be carbon fiber and robots.
When the human race moved from settlements to cities, we went from individual self-sufficiency to becoming specialists. Specialists… such as blacksmiths… would make their specialty products (swords, shields, nails, and iron wheels) and then trade for foods and other necessities. Trade-based society requires other technologies… shipbuilders, gold miners, coin makers, horse breeders, paper mills, insurance… which fuel the trading routes that spread goods and technologies around the globe. Well, after we invent the globe, of course.
Other species ruled the earth before, but they changed themselves. They evolved into new species to fill in gaps in the environment. Humanity, on the other hand, makes the environment change until it suits us. We leveled mountains, changed the course of rivers, turned forests into farmland, and then our well-clothed ancestors moved into colder climates. As difficult as it is to believe, the next century will bring even bigger changes.
Human beings can change faster than any other species. In fact, humanity has changed so quickly in the last few centuries that the rest of the planet is having a hard time keeping up with us. We’ve heated up our atmosphere, wiped out countless species, emptied the ocean of fish, cleared away rainforests.
When archeologists examine ancient civilizations, they look for artifacts. These bits and pieces, a fragment of pottery here and an arrowhead there, tell us how this civilization came into being, how it’s people lived and how a new civilization came to replace them. For example, let’s consider Otzi.
Back in 1991, archaeologists discovered the body of Otzi. Otzi lived 5,000 years ago, during the end of the last ice age. One cold winter night, he froze to death. For thousands of years, Otzi and all of his possessions were entombed in ice, beneath an Alpine tundra. When the ice above Otzi melted, he was found by mountain climbers and whisked away to a local museum. His perfectly frozen body… and a knapsack full of artifacts… tell us all about his civilization and even Otzi’s last days on earth.
What if we could do the same? What if we could look at our world from the point of view of a future archaeologist? What would they think about our lives and culture? Imagine if one of our Millenials was found a thousand years from now? Along with an iPad clutched in his frozen hands? Let’s call our future corpse, Milo.
Meet Milo: Milo is a typical Millenial. He is ambitious, well educated, overly stressed, too often medicated, and a tad… ahhh… fat. Still, even though he has a few problems Milo, and all the Millenials, lived a long life. Longer than any generation before him.
Millenials are generally considered to be weak, soft and temperamental. And they are, at least compared to earlier generations. But they had problems unique to their generation. If we look back at our iceman, Otzi, we believe that he died escaping… someone. He was injured just before he died, possibly by a flint knife. He was carrying an ax with a copper blade, indicating that he was either wealthy or important. He might have trespassed on someone’s property, or he just might have made a good hostage. In either case, he escaped his pursuers by hiding in a ditch in the hills. Unfortunately, that’s where he froze to death and was later covered by an Alpine Glacier.
Milo never feared these life or death situations. Except when he plays Call Of Duty. His office job did not leave scars upon his body, although his bathroom scale would beg to differ. The unique thing about the Millenials, Milo included, were their brains. Just about every generation of workers in the world worked with their hands and their muscles. Milo’s was the first generation where Knowledge Workers dominated the workforce.
Food: You can tell a culture by what the people eat. And drink. Otzi had a simple diet, and he burned off his calories running cross country, up and down and across the Alps. Otzi’s last meal was fatty meat, providing lots of energy for mountain climbing. It was probably an early form of bacon. Milo was not unfamiliar with bacon. While many Millenials were vegetarian, bacon was very popular. Still, when it comes to energy, Milo and the Millenials had a special secret. They called it…
Caffeine! The Millenials didn’t discover caffeine, but they may have perfected it. Sure there was coffee. Millenials love coffee. And soda. But it was Millenials that doubled down and became the energy drink generation. Milo loved coffee. On an average day, Milo drank 2 cups of coffee, a half cup of tea, 2-3 glasses of cola, plus an occasional energy drink.
You can understand why Otzi would need caffeine to elude his pursuers, but why did Milo need so many stimulants? When Milo graduated college with an MBA, he expected to become a corporate executive. Instead, he spent years in other low-level positions, including a job as a barista. A bit ironic, eh?
Milo had a much more varied diet that our Iceman. Otzi would have been jealous of Milo’s dietary choices. Rather than being thrilled with his choices, food made Milo anxious. Is today’s lunch special organic, or all natural? Is it gluten-free? The shrimp look good, but doesn’t shrimping destroy the sea floor? Can’t have the hamburger. Cattle make methane. Maybe almond milk? Nope! Almond trees use too much water. Millenials are hyper-aware of their environment and know that everything will doom them… eventually. For Millennial, life is like that line from GhostBusters, “Choose and perish!” Then the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attacks New York. I wonder if the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is free trade?
Education: Milo was privileged to belong to the most educated generation in history. Milo had an MBA, a degree in business. This late 20th-century invention was intended to make business management more predictable, reduce financial risks and make business more profitable. For Milo, an MBA was synonymous with debt. He needed two barista jobs to pay his school loans, while he waited for several years to land a “real” corporate job. Milo spent endless sleepless nights worrying about his loans. Good thing barista’s get a discount for that midnight coffee run!
But coffee alone won’t get you through school. It takes focus, determination, and willpower. Or Adderall. Traces of Adderal in Milo’s system tell our future archaeologists that he first tried Adderall in grade school, and became a daily user in high school and then in college. Of course, Milo didn’t have a prescription for Adderall. Milo didn’t have attention deficit or any other specific complaint. He just needed Adderall to give him the super-human focus needed to get into a highly ranked college.
Unlike the opioid crisis, or the anti-depressant crisis, or the sleeping pill crisis, or even the diet pill crisis, Adderall isn’t addictive. But Milo was never an “A” student, before Adderall. It got him into a good college. Of course, staying in a good college, meant 4 more years of Adderall. OK, 6 years. Milo had a few setbacks.
If we go through the files on his iPad we can see that it was easy for any Millenial to obtain Adderall. Just turn to Craigslist. Put in an order and have it delivered to your dorm room. Along with just about any other drug you need. Eventually, after Milo graduated and went through a few dead-end jobs, Milo went back to his Adderall addiction to compete for a high paying corporate job.
Work: Slavery and warfare fueled the prosperity of many civilizations. Work was long and hard and took place out in the fields. You worked on a farm, or dug in a mine, or traveled with a caravan. Perhaps you were a soldier. Very few workers, such as craftsmen and artists, worked indoors. Glorious, glorious indoors! You didn’t get rained on. There weren’t any wild animals. You rarely dealt with floods and avalanches.
Milo lived in the golden age of work. Milo works indoors in airconditioned splendor! As a knowledge worker, Milo is even allowed to sit… all day long. Most of America’s workforce has similar indoor jobs. That’s historically unprecedented! Yet, these spectacular working conditions led to the greatest paradox of the early 21st century.
Factory workers used to be the core of the economy. They manipulated materials, creating higher value goods. Knowledge workers manipulate data, also creating value. In the last quarter of the 20th-century knowledge workers… financial analysts, lawyers, computer specialists… were relatively rare. By the time Milo was promoted to a corporate executive, the workforce was full to the brim with knowledge workers. For example, Milo’s bank had tens of thousands of financial analysts. To manage this number of knowledge workers, positions needed to be more standardized and templated.
The irony, of course, if that you hired knowledge workers for their brains, for the independent decisions they could make. But as their numbers swelled it was more important to get everyone to work the same way. Like a factory. A Knowledge Factory. Banks, accountants, consulting and law firms have all “evolved” into knowledge factories. The rise of knowledge workers happened alongside the rise of computers.
Knowledge workers combined with computer processing made a powerful… and irreversible… alliance. Now every corporation was becoming a knowledge factory. If we look at the files on Milo’s iPad, we can see that his job required him to fill out computer templates and fix templates from other workers. Everyone used the same software and the same templates. Milo was a cog in the machine. Or maybe a CPU cycle in the corporate computer. When all of the workers work in exactly the same way, it certainly increases efficiency. But it also means that the computer that assisted the Millenials could soon do their jobs. And, as we’ll see, they did.
Recreation: Previous civilizations had little time for leisure. Work was too tiring. By the time you were middle-aged, assuming that you lived that long, you were bent over and arthritic. When Milo was middle-aged, he stood up straight, need neither walking stick nor wheelchair. His blood pressure was too high, but he felt relatively good. And his lifespan was the longest in history so far.
Milo had more time for recreation than any generation before him. Workers in the mid 20th century watched Baseball and participated in urban team sports like Bowling and Pool. If Milo ever played bowling or pool it was on a game console. Milo’s preferred his recreation as video games. He also has binge nights streaming NetFlix and media services. A big part of Milo’s recreation is keeping up with his friends from college and the gaming world, who are spread around the globe.
Milo spends hours every week on his social network, what he did, ate and met. His iPod (and his iPhone and his computer) was central to his recreation. At work, he spent all day on the computer and at home he spent all night on a computer. Hey, those selfies aren’t going to take themselves! While the Millenials were very intelligent, they failed to notice that they were being shaped to fit the way that computers worked, and computers were being shaped to fit the way that Millenials lived. Millenials and microchips were co-evolving. Soon their work would be interchangeable.
Robot Revolution: And then it happened. The technology took over. The first self-driving cars were cool! It was great when his smart TV told Milo about a new movie to watch. As artificial intelligence improved, AIs arrived in the workplace. At first, AIs helped knowledge workers. But just a little while later, AIs replaced many of Milo’s friends. Every year computers became faster and cheaper. Alternatively, a Millenial’s brainpower peaks in the late 20’s or early 30’s, and every year they ask for a raise. If buying an AI isn’t a better deal than hiring a Millenial, just wait a year or two and it will be.
Every year computers got faster and cheaper, while the brainpower of a Millenial probably peaked by their late 20’s or early 30’s. Millenials expected a raise every year, compared to computers which got cheaper and faster with time. Inevitably, computers stopped assisting and started directing. With a small twist in job descriptions and a slight change in HR rules, Milo found himself reporting to an AI.
The computer revolution was a good thing. Computers improved our lives. Computer-driven cars eliminated the 35,000 deaths a year that human drivers caused. The stock market prospered when financial analysts like Milo selected the stocks for Mutual Funds. But computer managed funds consistently outperformed humans, including Milo.
As AI’s took over, the world became a safer place and everyday goods became cheaper. On the downside, a lot fewer people were employed. It used to be that new technology meant new jobs. AIs created new jobs, but they also took those jobs as quickly as they were created. Eventually, the government realized that it wasn’t getting anywhere with 6 months of unemployment insurance and job training for jobs that no longer exist. Slowly, the Federal government piloted UBI payments. UBI (Universal Basic Income) is basically a paycheck for being a citizen. The idea is that no matter how cheap things get in an AI world, people still need some money.
Some of Milo’s co-workers tried to keep up by taking higher doses of Adderall, using enough stimulants to work all night and even using electrical stimulation to improve brain functions. For a while, they were hyper-productive, but a year or two later a new AIs could outperform them.
By the mid-21st century, Millenials were pushed out of employment and forced to play game and binge TV watching all day long. With his bills paid by the UBI, Milo and his generation retreated to their man caves and worked no more. A terrible end for a promising generation, but a better ending than getting flash frozen and buried under a Tundra.
Life After Milo: Wipe away your tears for Milo. Remember, Milo life is a possible future. Like Scrooge said to the Ghost of Christmas Future, “I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” Maybe. Millenials still have a few years to change. The Robot Revolution will be focused on big corporations and manufacturers. Small firms will adopt far aggressive automation and will take longer to replace jobs. The creative economy will continue to make millionaires and billionaires, in art, music and innovative services.
Our Iceman, Otzi, was a victim of the dangerous times he lived in. He probably spent his entire life just one step ahead of the bandits that eventually killed him. Milo, on the other hand, never had to deal with physical violence. Just the same, those robots are catching up with Milo and the temperature is dropping. Will the Millenials learn and change their ways? Don’t ask me! In my house, Alexa gives all the advice!