If you've hung out in tech circles for more than five minutes, you've no doubt heard of Moore's Law. It's the idea that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years (with a corresponding increase in computing power). Right now, $1000 buys you the computing power of one mouse brain. By 2050, the same $1000 will get you the computational power of every human brain on the planet.
Therein lies our salvation? That's the argument made by two SXSW panelists, Sunil Paul and Peter Diamandis. I'm intrigued, but not entirely convinced. (And, as it turns out, I'm not alone in my skepticism. Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, composer, artist, and author of the bestselling You Are Not a Gadget, A Manifesto, today gave a fascinating presentation asking what happens to the humans, once we've used technology to make ourselves obsolete.)
"CleanWeb" vs. CleanTech
Sunil Paul, Founding Partner at Spring Ventures and CEO of ShepherdIS, coined the term "CleanWeb" to describe the aggressive application of social, mobile, and the Internet to resource constraints. The result is the "resource cloud" -- access to goods and services when you need them, without the cost and hassle of full-time ownership. Examples include Zipcar, City Car Share, and Relay Rides (car sharing), AirBnB (peer-to-peer short-term rentals), and streaming entertainment options such as Netflix, Pandora, and iTunes.
The resource cloud harnesses the power of technology to use resources more efficiently, reducing waste and potentially saving gigatons of carbon in the process. Zipcar, for example, claims each car it puts into service eliminates the need for 15 other cars, and estimates suggest car sharing saves about 500,000 tons of carbon emissions a year. Research suggest AirBnB rentals generate only a third of the carbon emissions of a typical hotel stay, so, in theory, peer-to-peer room rentals could drastically reduce travel-related energy expenditures.
But, what happens when it's so easy, so cheap, and so fun to stay in AirBnB rooms around the globe? Isn't that just increasing the incentives for would-be globetrotters to hop on a plane? And...to offset their very virtuous AirBnB stays with carbon-spewing air travel?
Paul argues that we can use technology to be efficient in ways we've never imagined, and that seems generally true. High-resolution teleconferencing reduces the demand for business travel. Apple designers make thermostats cool, reducing energy consumption in the process. Cities develop mobile applications to turn playing field lights on when needed, rather than leaving them on all night.
This is all great, but arguably it's just chipping away at the margins. Sure, you're driving a Zipcar, but you're still driving!
Is CleanWeb really enough to save the day?
Abundance, or why the future will be better than you think
Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, co-Founder & Chairman of the Singularity University, and author of the recently released Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, goes even further, arguing that we've got more than enough resources (on the Earth, or orbiting nearby), if we can just figure out better ways of taking advantage of them. For example, more solar energy falls on the Earth in a few hours than we could use in an entire year. Harness this, his argument goes, and not only could we use as much energy as we want, we'll also have plenty of potable water, because we can just desalinate. Win!
On the one hand, this fundamentally optimistic approach sounds great. No more gloom-and-doom, no more water wars, or oil wars -- everyone will have enough. On the other hand, there's something a bit disturbing about looking to nearby asteroids to feed our rapacious hunger for more resources. Where does it end? What happens when all the easy-to-harvest asteroids are gone? Will we trade peak oil for peak orbiting space junk?
And what happens when we've outsourced all of our menial jobs to robots (another "exponentially growing" technology identified by Diamandis)? Super reliable and efficient, no doubt (think of all the money we'll save on food and health care), but what happens to the nice woman who currently does the laundry, or the cleaning?
Is technology making our lives richer or poorer?
It's this final question that concerns Jaron Lainer, computer scientist, composer, artist, and author of the bestselling You Are Not a Gadget, A Manifesto. How do the humans make a living, when the machines are doing all the work?
For Lainer, this question goes back to Aristotle, who pondered what happens when the lutes can pluck their own strings? Aristotle's answer: We can free the slaves. This wasn't a normative statement about the morality of slavery, as much as it was a recognition of the potential for societal transformation, when the source of labor shifts.
But, Lainer warns, the reality isn't as nice as the potential. After all, when you free the slaves, they're still unemployed. Going digital shrinks costs (by as much as 10x), but the things we need to survive still aren't free. If falling costs can't keep up with falling employment, you've got a serious societal problem on your hands.
The start of a solution, Lainer suggests, is to shift the gestalt (in the manner of the famous vase/two faces image), and rethink what's "real." Option one is to see the machines as the real actors. Option two is to see the people behind the machines as the real actors, and reward them accordingly. Heady stuff, but it goes back to the architectural decisions made in the early days of the Internet.
Ted Nelson, digital networking pioneer, envisioned a digital world with no copying. Every piece of information would have one canonical, networked source, and its creator would be financially rewarded when the content was accessed or used. Obviously this wasn't the way things played out (think of all the content you've provided to Facebook or Google without compensation), to the detriment of a number of content creators.
Lanier suggests a universal system of payment, to make it trivially easy to monetize contributions online. The idea could extend even further, so you'd get paid, for example, if a retail store used infrared scanning technology to scan your brain and retrieve valuable information about your mindset as you browsed the merchandise. This content has value, so you should get paid for it, he argues. (As a side benefit, you'd also know what was being taken from you, because the accountants and lawyers would have to keep track of what you were owed, and why.)
Frankly, I'm not convinced that this approach solves the whole "what will we do" problem, but it's a start. If you're someone interested in creating useful content (or if you're someone whose brain is an attractive candidate for scanning because you have money to spend), having access to easy payment systems can only help. But that still leaves a lot of people out in the cold, with no real livelihood.
Hopefully Diamandis is right, and there's really enough for everyone, but there's no time to waste! Lanier gives us 20 years to solve these problems, before the digital economy shrinks capitalism right out of existence.
So, what do you think? Should we just submit to our robot overlords, or will they make plenty of food for all?
Alison Monahan is a web developer, turned lawyer, turned entrepreneur. She runs The Girl’s Guide to Law School and co-founded the Law School Toolbox. You'll find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS.
Image via stock.xchng.