Today there are many narratives of the future ranging from the ‘singularity’ wherein Artificial Intelligence takes the helm of life on Earth, to the many chaotic narratives of climate apocalypse and social collapse. Despite the range of suggested outcomes, what these narratives share is an implicit powerlessness to forces that carry us inevitably into fate. I aspire to sketch another path based on a premise of active co-creation toward a world where we are more harmonious with nature and with ourselves. Whether one agrees with the future scenarios suggested, I hope this article encourages an active relationship to creating the future we want instead of simply consuming narratives of powerlessness.
As we speak of the future, one idea that looms large is that robotics and AI will depopulate the workforce leaving a widening and potentially permanent division of access to societal wealth. This is an understandable fear because to date, we have focused our robotics toward optimising industrial tasks which have displaced mechanical work and concentrated the benefit of increasing productivity toward a limited set of executives. But instead of maximising industrial productivity, let us ask a different question — namely, how might we use robotics to directly maximise the well-being of humanity and nature? Specifically, one could imagine a world where robotics are applied toward the base of Maslow’s hierarchy and a fleet of robots is deployed to reduce the cost of feeding, clothing, and sheltering the world. We could also imagine robotics applied toward the restoration of natural ecosystems, the maintenance of healthy hydrological cycles, and performing labor-saving work toward soil regenerative agriculture. In this scenario, as with any form of automation, we would be improving productivity — but the productivity improvements here would be directly driving human and ecological benefit instead of leaving it as a secondary activity to be initiated through government programs or philanthropy. While this is being posed as a hypothetical, this is exactly the work I have been investing in and contributing to over the last few years. Whether it be drones that plant trees and restore ecosystems (25 of these drones can plant 1M trees in a day), robotic greenhouse automation to dramatically reduce the cost (and land requirements) for healthy produce, or robots that plant coral reefs, the success of such programs can directly drive a healthier future. Having spent significant time in these efforts, one result I can report is that it is no harder to create robotics to restore ecosystems than it is to create robotics to more efficiently weld a car. It doesn’t require any deep skills retraining for engineers, only the addition of ecologists, plant scientists, and social/cultural leaders to help set the requirements landscape.
BioCarbon Engineering (www.biocarbonengineering.com)
An even more radical change is possible when we look toward addressing housing. Imagine for a moment two robots — one that works by a muddy lakeshore to create mud bricks, and another that takes those bricks and constructs houses. They could be sited near solar arrays that charge up battery systems to power them, and be set loose to build a community of homes for an extremely low production cost. As long as the sun is shining, homes will be built. Of course we may have human input to plan the community design and finish the homes (windows, fixtures, etc) once the basic structure is in place, but the net effect is a dramatic reduction in the cost to live in a well-built home. Between this and robotic agriculture, you start to approach a possible civilisation where food and shelter are easily accessible and families may not need to work as hard (or at all) to live and nourish themselves. This sounds great on paper, but we shouldn’t make light of the radical change that will take place as less labor is required to live in our modern society. In an economy that is built on people staying in the workforce to cover rent/mortgages, the reduction of housing cost as an economic driver amounts to a reset of our expectations. Instead of going to school to get a job to buy a home and service a mortgage, we may move to fully different personal and family economic narratives. For example, if food and shelter are radically more affordable, one starts to assume them as foundational and the purpose of education becomes connecting us to areas where we have curiosity or desire to contribute beyond the basics. So the new life arc may become: school to contribution, another school to another contribution, rest, another school to another contribution, rest.
3-D Printed Homes, by Tech Insider
This bring us to what the future of such contributions might be. After all, if robotics continues to transform labor as it has, then what work will be left for us? I would characterise the future of work simply as the three C’s – creativity, critical thinking, and compassion. These are skills that humans are comparatively excellent at and are essential to deeply fulfilling work.
There is a lot we’ll need to do in the 21st century on these fronts. Specifically, we will need lots of critical thinking to break down the industrial processes that are damaging to the Earth and move them to those that will be long-term regenerative. Every factory or industrial facility that is a net negative to nature (which today is effectively all of them) will need to be redone. We will also need critical thinking to turn over the systems of economic colonialism that still permeate many international dynamics.
As for creativity, there is the potential for the arts to become far more central in our lives, both enriching our day-to-day experience and becoming an activity that more of us take part in. In former times of great prosperity, the patronage of the arts often blossomed, and art became more of a staple of everyday life. We see this already in nascent form with the explosion of creative expressions we see in Instagram, Patreon, and Soundcloud.
Lastly, compassion will be more important than ever. We already foresee this emerging need based on a large aging population requiring care and community, but also in the large-scale environmental crises that are leading to a rise in climate refugees. While the dominant narrative today is more refugees necessarily leads to a more unstable and politically nationalist world, if compassion is taught widely and understood to be a deeply valuable skill, then I see the possibility that the 100s of millions refugees could be taken in to 100s of millions of homes, creating a direct experience of global community and connection.
We are not this civilisation yet, but before literacy, we had a very different civilisation as well. While it is a hypothesis yet to be proven, I suspect that widespread literacy in compassion could have as transformative an effect on the future.
I recently spent time in Dearborn Michigan, where there is a robust Arab community many decades after they came to the US to help with Ford factory production. It’s one of many examples of how we can find peace with each other as we embark on shared missions. In this age, the shared mission will be about improving the ecological health and resilience of every city and town while building and rebooting regenerative industry. Exactly who will be the industry and community leaders that make this possible is yet to be determined but each new generation has an updated vision of success and being the Henry Ford of regenerative economy could be one of those visions.
Lastly, I want to briefly touch upon how things will differ by cultural and geographic factors. My hope is that we find a new path between the extremes of isolationism and globalism. Instead we can take a nuanced path that looks to use democratised tech and social systems to make resilient and vibrant local communities. Global trade can focus on enriching our lives in the areas beyond the staples, but not hold us at the mercy of economic shocks from far off resources. In a world where the basics of food, shelter, and clothing are locally addressed at low cost and expressed in culturally and environmentally harmonious ways, then we can enjoy the privilege of goods from the rest of the globe without the tyranny of fragile and ever wealth-concentrating supply chains that can threaten our basic welfare.
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