Software will change the world – but is it one we want to live in?

A robot’s piercing blue eyes stare out from the page. Below the picture the message reads:

Dear Students & Graduates, One day my friends and I will take you jobs. For now, you can go to Web Summit for FREE on Wednesday evening, November 5 to learn about the future of jobs. And yes, software will replace the professional classes and probably by the time you’re 35. Sorry…

It’s a striking ad and one that seems to have had the desired effect. Web Summit founder and CEO, Paddy Cosgrave, noted on Twitter that the event had received over 1,100 signups thanks to the aggressive android.

But should we be so comfortable that software will sweep away even bigger swathes of the workforce in the next few years?

The rise of the robots?

It isn’t fear of a Terminator-style future that makes me uneasy about the flippant way many in the technology world assume that replacing humans with software is our inevitable and unavoidable fate.

Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has long been issuing predictions about when artificial intelligence will outstrip humans – his current bet for the technological singularity is 2029 – but we should spend more time thinking about whether that’s the kind of world we actually want to live in.

Just because we can replace humans with software doesn’t mean we should. When Marc Andreessen talks about “software eating the world” even he has to admit that many people will be left disenfranchised by the changes. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year:

…many workers in existing industries will be stranded on the wrong side of software-based disruption and may never be able to work in their fields again.

There’s no way through this problem other than education and we have a long way to go.

Beyond the valley of the buggy whip makers

Worrying about the fate of these workers and generations now leaving universities unequipped for the new world could make me sound like a writer witnessing the arrival of the automobile and worrying about the buggy whip makers.

The problem is that the technology industry thinks of those affected by its “disruptions” in the abstract. It should spend a little more time considering whether technology is the solution to problems rather than simply assuming that it must be.

Take the example of automated checkouts at supermarkets and extrapolate that out to a world where shops feature no workers, taxis are automated and all but the most high-end of restaurants have phased out waiting staff. It will be a more efficient world but it will also be one where human contact has been fundamentally reduced and more people will feel extremely isolated.

We can’t stop the progress of technology, nor should we wish to. But we should spend more time thinking about how we want to see it applied in society.

Simply saying we need “better education” is not enough to ensure that the future of work doesn’t leave even more people disenfranchised. I, for one, do not welcome our future robot overlords.