Art, Science, and the Future of Work

Almost all technological and scientific progress is inevitable. New discoveries become possible due to the foundation of prior discoveries (and technologies). New technologies becomes possible due to the foundation of prior technologies (and discoveries). Both theory and experiment seem to find a time in which to emerge. They are buried things, and our thinking and tinkering erode the ground obscuring them.

Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly

No one laid this out better than Kevin Kelly did in his excellent and must-read work What Technology WantsOf course, had Kevin not written the book, someone else would have written one very similar. Because at its heart is this idea of technological and scientific inevitability, and that idea was out there, waiting to be discovered and written about. Kevin’s latest work, The Inevitable, continues this line of thinking to posit what lies ahead.

Even the greatest and most creative leaps are inevitable. The theory of natural selection and the calculus are both heralded as being way ahead of their time, and yet both were co-discovered in the lifetime of the people who get too much of the credit. The best a great mind can do is push us forward a few years earlier than we might otherwise hope. The collective mind — the accumulation of ideas and thoughts around the globe — lead us to the same place as singular genius, and often a mere half step behind.

History, then, becomes a tale of giving too much credit to too few people. More often than not, we pick someone out of the noise to represent the culmination of a breakthrough. Inventors and thinkers who market themselves (or are marketable) get credit solely when it deserves to be shared. But the appeal of the singular genius persists, because we love a story about people. Complex webs of interaction and precedent are more difficult to point to or understand. Far simpler to say Person A created X.

Art, perhaps, is the one area where things would go undiscovered without the individual. But this is because art has no underlying truth, waiting to emerge. It’s an expression of individuality. To lose an artist is a much greater loss than to lose a scientist, if scientific truths are inevitable. That undiscovered art may never be reproduced by anyone, anywhere.

But the calculus isn’t so simple. Science moves forward due to an accumulation of inertial mass. The more brains pushing, the faster we get where we’re going. There are some discoveries that are time sensitive: reducing our reliance on fossil fuels; saving species; getting off Earth; getting out of our solar system; curing disease and possibly even forestalling death. Every brain not pushing against this heavy cart might be thought of as a waste.

It is a trope of science fiction to lament the dollars spent on rockets we fire at each other when we could be sending rockets to the stars. All the wasted resources on tribalism and aggression that could be spent on discovery and self-preservation. There is a naive fantasy behind the Star Trek universe that humanity would find a common goal beyond. I feel similar frustrations with more immediately achievable goals.

We could have self-driving cars that free up our creative time and save millions of lives if we gave this advance moon-shot levels of focus and funding. We could have a world that runs on renewable energy if we had similar resolve in that arena. We could get off this rock and put eggs in another basket if we built rockets for the right reasons.

What’s crazy about this little list is that Elon Musk is working on all three, and he seems crazy enough to make it happen. And while he will get a lot of credit if (when) it does happen, we’ve learned from Kevin that these things are inevitable. There are other great minds pushing on this cart. There are thousands, millions of minds making contributions. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. Some of us are more impatient than others.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin

Elon’s SpaceX company is on target to launch over a dozen missions this year. They are recapturing their primary stages for reuse, which would help plummet the cost of launches. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has already reused a vertically-landed primary stage. This is a crazy accomplishment. The landing is one thing, but just as amazing to me is the ability for a private company to repurpose tech that has undergone such abuse, and must meet stringent QA processes, and then authorize it to fly to space a second time. At some point SpaceX will do the same. And Blue Origin seems bound to use its space tourism to finance a bigger booster, which will be a great competitor to SpaceX’s hauling capacity.

It all has the feel of inevitability. Darwin/Wallace, Newton/Leibniz, Musk/Bezos. It make me wonder if we landed on the moon a few decades earlier than we might have expected to, had technology unspooled at its own pace, simply because tribalism was turned for a single generation into a force for discovery. All the money and minds thrown into the problem were due to war, in this case with the U.S.S.R. That accumulation of minds was like the birth of singular genius, giving us a bit of a time jump forward. The Manhattan project did something similar with nuclear research, again due to the concentrating lens of tribalism.

When technology disappoints, perhaps it’s because of an accelerating leap that came too soon. We expect trends to continue along that slope, when what we really witnessed was a data point out along a future timeline. Space travel got us thinking too far ahead too soon, so that we’re now not appreciative of the strides being made in a sustainable and profitable manner. The majesty is gone by the time the mystery is solved. We finally get what we wanted right as we want way more or something else entirely.

I’ve written before about my hope for a jobless economy. A jobless economy would be a moon-shot worth pooling all our resources into. If we could automate our basic needs, so that the tools of automation were self-sustainable, self-repairing, self-reproducing, then every human being could live a comfortable life and choose their work based on passions rather than supply and demand. I know it seems like fantasy, but as a thought experiment, it’s worth entertaining. Because we are approaching this future asymptotically. It’s good to think about implications now.

Here’s what it would look like: Factories of robots build and repair the robots that plant, harvest, deliver, cook, and serve our meals. All run on nuclear and solar. All automated. You ask for a meal, and a meal is delivered. The raw materials used for the construction of the machines (and things like fertilizer) all come from land designated the commons. So when you ask “where does the money come from to support this?” there is no money. There’s the upfront investment in the technology and the first factories. After that, it’s all self-running. Money is today only needed for material resources, energy, and labor. In the future, the resources will come from the commons (beneath the earth’s crust, mostly), the energy will be renewable (solar, mostly), and the labor will be designed and built by itself. At this point we will have a spinning top that lasts for as long as our sun does. The capture of asteroids (already being considered) expands the commons and makes it an infinite-enough resource. No one works for food ever again. Unless they wish to, which is the whole point.

The same tech will supply shelter and safety as well. Houses will be built to order. Land can be bought, or land in the commons given. One of the grandest benefits that I could see from this would be time spent with family. Much of time apart is due to labor concerns (moving to where the job is). And our celebration of work, because of its necessity, will move to a celebration of passion, due to its creativity.

I used to wrestle with the primacy of art over science or science over art. You have on the one hand the fact that art is not inevitable while science is — art lost will never be regained; all science will be discovered. On the other hand you have the knowledge that science only moves forward with an inertial mass of minds behind it. But the mind experiment of a jobless economy solves this paradox: Artistic minds in the future are freed by a concentration of science today. Imagine the moon-shot where we tailored the economy and workforce to achieve the jobless state. Beyond this state, when AI is making discoveries and robots are making things, people will be making ideas. Artistic ideas, but also scientific ones and technological ones for fun. People will work with the machines because they choose to. We are already in this transition, which makes it difficult to mock. We count as a “job,” the creation of video games, the profession of athletics, the filming of stories, the writing of stories, the making of music. These have always been jobs, back to gladiators and bards, but more and more of the workforce is doing something creative rather than tending to our basic needs, because fewer and fewer of the workforce is needed to feed ourselves. Tractors drive themselves by GPS and harvest our crops. IBM’s Deep Blue comes up with recipes. Fast food joints are working to automate the ordering, cooking, and serving. It’s already happening.

I believe that it will happen fully. I think in two hundred years, most of our needs will be met for us. I think the transition will be difficult because we won’t understand what is happening, and we won’t be talking about it. I think we will blame immigration for jobs that are really lost to innovation. This doesn’t make it easier to bear for those in transition, but it would be easier if we really understood the forces at play. And even easier if we planned for this transition, embraced it, and saw all that was good about it.

People like Musk and Bezos are pushing us forward faster than we would go without them. Not as fast as governments go when they are creatively at war with one another, but hopefully fast enough. Perhaps one of these tech billionaires’ side investments in fusion power or quantum computers will provide another leap ahead. I think so. I think it’s inevitable.

Check out Kevin Kelly’s work. Start with What Technology WantsThe beauty of this book is that while it may have been inevitable as an idea, how it is written is pure art. No one else could have written the same book, and I don’t think anyone could have expressed these ideas any better. Also check out Elon’s latest plan for Tesla. Flipping brilliant.



14 responses to “Art, Science, and the Future of Work”

  1. When I was much younger and more foolish, I thought that the SF I read with private corporations or billionaires as the heroes who pushed forward frontiers in space exploration and colonization were libertarian daydreams. If anyone was going to push forward humanity’s reach, it would be government. Then, I worked in government for a decade and saw how sloooowwww everything was — even the things that were at condition red and in need of immediate attention.

    So, now that I’m much older and hopefully less foolish, I see that it is precisely the entrepreneurs who are pushing forward, breaking barriers, and exploring new frontiers. They have the drive, the ambition, and the freedom to do so. It takes an entrepreneur who has vision and is not only focused on amassing wealth for wealth’s sake, but to really use it to push forward.

    I understand your point about technological progress being inevitable and how it builds on previous developments, etc. I don’t think advancement and progress are inevitable and it could go the other way completely, to a new dark age led by our folly. Or, it could be something exterior to us that does us in. Humanity’s existence is owed in large part to that comet back 65M years ago. That was a random event, probably kicked off 160 million years earlier in the asteroid belt by some random collision between space rocks left over from the formation of our solar system. Unless we develop a system to prevent the next big space rock from hitting, we could go the way of the dinosaurs. It will take someone with vision and determination and the freedom to pursue it to make sure that doesn’t happen. While I love reading about Musk and Bezos and their pursuit of colonization and affordable space travel (as well as other innovations back here on earth) I wish they could team up and invest money in surveillance systems and means of deflecting space rocks. All their lovely work might be for naught if one of them comes at us and we can do nothing about it.

    1. Sela, the ultimate goal behind Musk’s SpaceX is even more ambitious than that; it’s to ensure that humanity survives an ELE that takes Earth out of play.

      If you haven’t stumbled across this series of posts about Musk/Tesla/USSolar/SpaceX yet, then fair warning: it’s hard to stop reading once you start, and it’s long… :)

  2. Have to disagree somewhat with you on this one Hugh. As a PhD scientist, MD physician, clinician and researcher, I state unequivocally that there are some scientific minds out there that are just beyond the reach of the rest of us. They take us in directions we would never go. Dr. Steven Hawking for one. Dr. Albert Einstein for another. Have you ever tried to read Dr. Hawking’s research? It is so far beyond the rest of us that, in essence, he is a “Scientific Artist”. There will never be another mind like his. He expanded the science of quantum physics in directions no one would have ever thought to go.

    Hundreds of Nazi minds tried to take atomic weaponry from the lab into the real world and could not do it. Dr. Einstein thought out of the box and did it. Perhaps the Nazi’s would have eventually gotten there but Einstein didn’t think so. He forever regretted his mental jump and personal responsibility for the resultant slaughter.

    Also, your idea for our basic needs being met so we can explore our passions is too idealistic. My job as a physician is so hard, so incredibly hard, that I doubt I would do it anymore if my basic needs were met. I doubt anyone would do it unless they were masochistic or felt it to be a true calling (like Mother Theresa).

    Thus, in your Utopian society, we would have a massive shortage of doctors. There would be no motivation for doing any of the really HARD, necessary jobs that computers could not do. Computers cannot be physicians. They’ve tried. It’s art and science combined.

    So good luck with that one. Human nature and the world veer toward entropy. It’s a scientific law.

    1. Relativity wasn’t that big of a leap. Several were working in this field and making strides. Einstein built on their work. I think you’ve fallen for the “lone genius” narrative. Of the time, Bohr and Dirac were both smarter and both pushed us further and faster than Albert. Albert was just more marketable.

      His only major prize was for his work on blackbody radiation. He was an adequate physicist. He deserves a tenth of his reputation (not because he wasn’t brilliant, but because his reputation, becoming synonymous for genius, is absurd).

      Hawking’s work is more impressive, but I haven’t seen anything that wouldn’t have been discovered otherwise. And the nuclear bomb was always going to be developed. Einstein had very little to do with this. The key insights were made by other physicists.

      1. Hugh,

        Einstein got his Nobel for the photoelectric effect, which is related, but different than blackbody radiation. Blackbody radiation is merely a function of the kinetic energy of atoms, while photoelectric radiation is a function of the structure of the atoms themselves. This is a profound distinction, because the photoelectric effect is an underlying principle of most non-invasive scanning from spectral analysis to fluorescence imaging to FRET and even including nuclear magnetic resonance, which is merely the photoelectric effect acting on nuclear components rather than electrons. The photoelectric effect is also key in LASER technology and will be the whole enchilada in achieving controlled, energy productive fusion.

        Einstein’s progression of thinking from the photoelectric effect to the mass-energy equivalence equation and special relativity was a breathtaking unearthing of hidden underlying components of the physical world that made Einstein a rockstar in the scientific world. Yes, humans hone in on individuals and wrongly want to attribute everything to one person. However, Dirac was not necessarily smarter. Dirac was far better at mathematics, but he did not unearth hidden information like Einstein did (or someone else would have in his place had he not existed). Antimatter merely fell out of Dirac’s equations as a function of symmetry. There’s a reason Dirac shared his Nobel prize with Shrodinger. He was smarter than Einstein in terms of his facility with equations, but his discovery was far less creative. Dirac was solving the known, quantitative problem while Einstein was solving the unknown, qualitative problem.

        The revelations of the photoelectric effect and mass-energy equivalence are as fundamental in the structure of matter as evolution is in biology. The differences are that Einstein wasn’t literally racing his rivals to publication, and unlike Darwin, his model still holds up today.

        Darwin’s notion that evolution is a progression toward better was completely wrong, and it is still having a pernicious impact on thinking today. The relatively simple housefly is no less evolved than humans are. The way taxonomic cladograms represent species implies that the humans have been evolving and the flies, gophers and apes of the world have remained static. Our common ancestors with these species were as much different from the other species as it was from ours.

        There seems to be an inherent self-organization of matter. This is evident in the entire biological history of the Earth. Bigger and more complex systems emerge over time. This is an illusion, however. This apparent self-organization is a product of fitness. That which can effectively seize resources and reproduce in the current environment will be the most prominent. This becomes more complex when there is a changing environment, and without change to cause these disruptions, we would have no actual evolution as we call it.

        This applies to ideas within our culture as well. The prominent religions emerged as such because of their survival and ability to spread due to the appeal of their ideas and fear of the consequences of not believing to those inclined to religion. Scientific processes have proved economically powerful to those that exploit them, so they persist. If somehow our internal culture changes, it isn’t a given that the progress of these successful information systems will continue. All of the people will not believe in the same master religion and all of the science will not be discovered. We as individuals within this maelstrom of ideas are not individually moving anything, either, but there is no orderly procession to the obvious end.

  3. As I read this entry, I thought that what was being described was “retirement.” Made me think about why I work now to accumulate assets. Also made me think about what I want to do in my own retirement. First, I want to make sure that my kids have the foundation to be successful in their own right, and that includes not graduating from college under a mountain of debt. Second, I want to do the things I do now for enjoyment, except more. Reading, writing, play some music, travel and see the world. Third, I want to make sure we can continue to meet our basic needs.

    If my basic needs (food, shelter, medical care) are all met by society, would life continue to be interesting? What would be my goals? My accomplishments? Would I still want to do the things I currently look forward to doing (more than we are already doing, because I/we already do all of those things with the time and money we have)?

    It is an interesting thought experiment. Thanks for bringing it up.

  4. Your prediction is very much possible but there are three factors that you didn’t take into account.

    1. Today’s economy is still built on exploiting weaker countries for labor and resources. Once green energy and robots will take place no one will care about those countries any more. No kne will provide them basic income. There will be rich work free countries and chaos countries.

    2. A global climate crisis can shuffle all the cards. If economies collapse and global trade is slowed because there’s no yield of wheat, rice and corn – you cant feed not the rich and not the poor. Money wouldn’t worth anything unless you could eat or drink it.

    3. Like any technological progress. Any future progress will first benefit its owners and the upper class. It takes time untill products become mass produced and until the little man can get inexpensive services.

  5. The development of new technology depends SO much on economy that it’s impossible to be sure IF it will happen.

    You mention SpaceX and Blue Origin as inevitably going to achieve their goals. Well, all it takes is another 2008-type financial crash to delay or wipe them out. Same goes for NASA.

    It’s true that today’s economy is vastly more stable than ever before so I guess that the moment is right for SpaceX to happen now but longer term who knows?

  6. Tafea Polamalu Avatar
    Tafea Polamalu

    what about overpopulation?

    1. It isn’t a problem now, and it only stands to become less of a problem as Earth’s population declines.

  7. Phyllis Humphrey Avatar
    Phyllis Humphrey

    I wrote to you a bit over a year ago, wished you a happy 40th birthday birthday, and then told you I would be 90 years old on July 22, which I was. I also mentioned the five things my husband and I did during those five years ; finished raising our children, painted and sold art work at Art Shows, bought two condos on the island of Maui and both visited them ourselves and rented them out to others, I wrote more than 20 fiction books (husband wrote two); took up singing, dancing and acting when we moved into Sun City Palm Desert, and my husband sang with the Sun City Singers.

    However, in March of 2016, I fell down and broke my left leg. The doctor fixed that, but a day later I had a blood clot in my right leg, so I was reduced to getting around via walker or wheelchair. And – although my right leg is not as red or as swollen as it had been, I’m still taking drugs and I can only walk short distances without the walker in the house. During these four months, you’ve got divorced, sold your Florida home and live full-time on your new boat. What fun. I’m so happy for you. Thank you for your kind words a year ago. My three newest books are selling well, which makes me happy, and I’m starting to write a third “cozy mystery” to go with the first two published last November. My best to you forever.

  8. Hugh I love your phrase, “And our celebration of work, because of its necessity, will move to a celebration of passion, due to its creativity.”

    But Tracey Lewis brings out a very valid point: motivation. I would love to have a society where our basic needs are fulfilled. But, you have to motivate people in doing very hard things, because AI won’t ever replace the creativity of a human’s mind (although I don’t dismiss the possibility of building sentient AI at some point in the future, I don’t automatically assume that these sentient and independent AI will be interested in human’s problems).

    In order to have poor people, you must have rich ones. In order to motivate some people, you must allow them to become richer than others.

    If things become too much simple for everybody, there’s a risk that laziness will prevail, and that humanity will not evolve any longer.

    But I agree that in the future, in a utopian society, the obstacles preventing us from being richer would be artificially generated. That’s already the case, for example, when you are an author trying to reach the top 100 on Amazon Kindle store: the main obstacles are generated by sales algorithms.

  9. A workless society isn’t out of the realm of possibilities, but without solving the problem of addiction first, it will very quickly become a society even more dysfunctional than the one we live in now.

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