I've been thinking a lot lately about the future. The trigger for this recent bout of techno-daydreaming was a Wired article, posted to Reddit.com. The shutdown of the US Federal Government and sequestration furloughs during the Summer already had me thinking about the economy. The tenuous, and reportedly uneven economic recovery the US has been experiencing had me starting to wonder whether or not this economic cycle really is different than those preceding it.

There has been a lot of talk about the jobless economic recovery. And although some companies are bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US, they are not the types of manufacturing jobs my parents and grandparents knew. These new high tech manufacturing plants are highly automated. They do create jobs and pump some money into the local economies. But while a new manufacturing facility in the past would have brought thousands of new jobs, the new ones bring in hundreds.

That reminded me of a recent lecture series I attended by a Professor from Creighton University. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember his name. I'll update this blog post if I can locate it). The lecture series was about the history and culture of China. One of the topics was Marxism. Marx viewed Capitalism as a bad, and ultimately self-destructive system. In thinking about Capitalism, Marx believed that the costs of labor would be under constant pressure. Automation would reduce the costs of labor and ultimately make workers largely unnecessary.

So, the question rolling around in my head has been, are we at that point? Have technology and automation reached a point where people are no longer necessary? We have a 40 hour work week across the Western economies, but is there enough work to be done? How many genetic engineers, particle physicists, nuclear scientists and electronics engineers do we really need? And how many people are capable of working at those levels?

The pressure on societies by automation is only going to increase. Imagine what impact self-driving cars would have. No more taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers. No more speeding tickets, no more DUIs, no more traffic stops. What about hotels along the Interstates? You don't need a hotel if you can sleep in your car, while it drives you from New York to Los Angeles. What happens to package shippers like FedEx and retailers like Amazon? The entire notion of cars and trucks falls away when the driver is no longer a required feature of the vehicle. A single-person commuter pod suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. Military drones are rapidly eliminating the need for pilots. Imagine a fleet of remotely piloted (or computer controlled) micro-submarines. RFID technology could virtually eliminate cashier jobs. You fill up your shopping cart, push it through the scanner, and it instantly totals up your purchase.

Are we dooming ourselves? Are humans becoming irrelevant? I was feeling pretty down until I watched the latest Star Trek movie. There was a great scene where spaceships were being built in orbital manufacturing facilities. After watching that I decided that we still have a long way to go. We are still in a time of tremendous change and advancement, and I think the pace of change is only going to increase. But, I also think there is a lot left to look forward to. As we finally start moving beyond our atmosphere and into space, a lot of new opportunities are made available: space mining, lunar colonization, and orbital (low gravity) manufacturing facilities to name a few. There are amazing scientific discoveries that will be made, which will unleash entire industries that don't yet exist.

It probably won't be easy, change almost never is. I don't think this is the time when the pattern of history breaks. Either way, it's guaranteed to be interesting!