AAI Foresight Reports from the Second Future Work/Tech 2050 Workshop, Washington, D.C.
As previously reported, the Federal Foresight Community of Interest (FFCoI) and The Millennium Project held a workshop on April 25 to assess various prospects for global changes in the nature of work between now and the year 2050. Similar workshops had already been held in 17 countries, and still more are planned. Recommendations and suggestions offered by participants in these workshops are to be collected and offered without attribution to form the basis for a multinational initiative to facilitate a new concept of work as human engagement in meaningful activity. A follow-up workshop to further explore and refine ideas discussed at this April meeting took place on June 15 at the General Services Administration Building in downtown Washington D.C.
This second Future Work/Tech 2050 workshop closely followed the format of the first. Participants formed five thematic groups—Business and Labor, Science and Technology, Education, Government, and Culture. Each group explored how work and technology issues might be affected by developments in these areas between now and 2050. The groups each then reported on their progress, shared findings, and raised new questions. This pattern of alternating small group and large group sessions continued throughout the day and concluded with the presentation of key topics and issues by a representative from each focus group.
As AAI Foresight’s reporter, I again spent the day as a member of the group focused on Culture and here report the discussions that took place within this group. This report concludes with a brief summary of topics and issues highlighted in reports from the other four groups.
The Cultural Context of Work and Technology in 2050
Demographically, the Culture focus group consisted largely of individuals with extensive experience in government and futures consulting, with ages ranging from the mid-30s to the newly retired (60s and early 70s). The ratio of men to women was nearly equal.
The group addressed three specific aspects of culture related to changes in work and technology:
- What is work? How can people change what they say and do about the work experience?
- Are we together? Will U.S. government policy on work evolve in sync with other nations?
- Whose work? Should our discussions focus more on work in the United States or work in general?
“The future of work,” this group agreed, is about assessing long-term prospects for existing jobs and careers, while “work of the future” is about examining the new jobs and careers just now emerging or about to come into existence from new technologies and shifting attitudes toward life goals and values. Business, not government, now provides most of the funding for innovative development in technology, but government should remain responsible for setting and enforcing technological standards. In addition, governments can ease the transition to new forms of work and new modes of life/work balance by funding federal and regional programs as well as local initiatives (such as zoning laws) that make innovating easier while avoiding needless over-regulation.
Individual motivation is a crucial element in encouraging innovation in the nature and content of work. Nations such as Bhutan and the United Arab Emirates have already introduced systems that attempt to measure economic progress in terms of human happiness rather than simple gross national product, but motivating people to invest time and effort in serious gaming and improved storytelling skills may well hold the keys to long-term employability and career satisfaction.
The Culture focus group also observed that its own present-day biases could easily influence our recommendations for action. For example, were we right to assume that people’s sense of identity does and should come from their jobs? Are the incremental improvements in new technologies (biotechnology, nanotechnology, 3-D and 4-D printing, enhanced artificial intelligence, and so on) both inevitable and desirable? Historical perspectives also play a role in work/tech evolution. For instance, 20 years ago, conflicts between environmentalists and labor organizations were generally much sharper than today, while many in both camps now appreciate the logic of simultaneously developing a wide range of methods for clean power generation—including wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear—rather than simply praising or panning continued reliance on fossil fuel sources indefinitely.
The workshop organizers summoned us to meet briefly with the other four focus groups to exchange conclusions and to ask each other to consider important questions that still had us stumped. It was clear that everyone had hit upon considerations that seemed vital to their deliberations but fell outside their special focus areas.
Returning to our small group discussion, we next took up the matter of the “goals” we would like to see embodied in any long-term model for future work/life optimization. Participants offered terms such as empathy, ethics, and good behavior, and we debated what might be done to pass these values along to younger generations. We acknowledged the need for better deliberative structures in making business decisions and negotiating government policy initiatives.
We also addressed the potential benefits of actively promoting human/machine collaboration rather than simply trying to program computers to replace people. The challenge is to devise AI systems that allow both direct one-on-one communication and the kinds of subtle “group awareness” interactions that put humans at their ease and establish a sense of trust. For example, some of today’s videoconferencing tools only allow formal direct exchanges between participants to which every other member of the group is party. But other software solutions allow private conversations between individuals to take place at the same time that a formal presentation is being made. This much more closely matches the experience of attending a conference in person rather than beaming in from a remote location. Ultimately, we agreed we would like the true physical location of members to impose no limit on their sense of total participation in the meeting.
Recalling how Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 19th-century assessment of Democracy in America, had pointed to the number and importance of voluntary associations organized for social purposes in the United States as a distinguishing feature that made this country different from Europe, the workshop’s Culture group considered how membership in many voluntary U.S. associations (from labor unions to church congregations) had declined today. Yet, the rise of the Internet, with its many social networking and information exchange sites, suggests that continued improvements in computer technology might soon enable personal interaction from remote locations as immediate, “real,” and psychologically satisfying as direct face-to-face encounters in a small community. All that would be missing is the shared awareness of physical place. Voluntary associations in the future might no longer be defined by any geographical or even linguistic limits, but instead form a true “United World” of people who share common interests, not unlike the local communities of the United States in earlier days.
This led us to question the importance of government leadership in creating or even enabling new work norms and social expectations. In place of government-funded research and laws that enforce standards and acceptable behavior in the workplace and markets, interweaving networks of strong associations might develop to offer guidance and emotional support for individuals and help entrepreneurs, independent craftspeople, and start-up firms with new options for investment (e.g., crowdsourcing), technical advice, tools, and licensing assistance.
One step in this direction could be the establishment of worldwide multiplayer games that would simulate real-world business operations and decision-making strategies in much the same way that stationary-bicycle manufacturer Peleton has managed to link individuals in their homes to exercise classes in distant cities and invite competitive bike racers around the world to turn what had been a lonely and potentially dull round of physical exertion into an exciting and stimulating virtual meet.
The Culture group also discussed the importance of learning conflict-resolution techniques as a part of training for life, while also developing the ability to react to unexpected surprises and setbacks with resilience rather than resentment. Norms of civility need to be established and enhanced among humans everywhere if we are to avoid short-term deadlock and long-term despair. Progress in IT and other new technologies increasingly make it possible to engage in work as a form of enjoyment or “serious play.” As philosopher and social activist Ivan Illich (1926-2002) put it, “If work is to become play, then our tools must become toys.”
Next, the Culture group addressed two momentous but specific questions: “Who?” and “How?” Who are we, if we are no longer what we do? And How can the concept of a universal basic income be presented in a way that people raised in a largely capitalist economy like the United States find both acceptable and fair?
If, as seems most likely, new technologies and changing concepts of career success lead to a world in which many people are technically unemployed by today’s standards while others perform tasks that today are classified as part-time or volunteer duties, how will we balance excessive free time versus productivity in a way that can guarantee everyone has sufficient means to meet their basic needs?
Expanded population growth in places such as India and China, combined with smaller but older populations in Europe, North America, and Japan, may well provide the impetus for shifting from a social model that sees full employment as ideal to one where personal income no longer depends on work of any kind. In a future where high-tech robots and advanced AI systems develop to the point where they become both capable and reliable enough to produce and maintain the quality of goods and services on which modern civilization depends, it should be much easier to accept the notion that human labor—whether primarily physical or largely intellectual—becomes a privilege or even a luxury.
Under such conditions, the goal of education is likely to change from mainly equipping people with techniques that enable them to support themselves to providing training in how to live contentedly among others while selecting and pursuing activities they find personally challenging and worthwhile. Examples of this new curriculum could include courses (such as are already common in Quaker schools today) on how to peacefully resolve conflicts among groups and individuals and hands-on experiences promoting the value of volunteer public service activities for students of every age.
To encourage and ease the transition toward such a desired outcome, the Culture focus group concluded that one immediate goal should be to expand the role of the Federal Foresight Community of Interest and to encourage the addition of foresight activities in government departments and agencies at every level. But in practical terms, it is cities that most often take the lead in planning and implementing changes that directly affect employment and work conditions, such as through local standards, permitting, and zoning. Therefore, volunteer action by concerned individuals and neighborhood groups is likely the most promising avenue currently available for making foresight activities a greater part of regional and municipal planning through initiatives such as smart cities.
Small-scale solutions for almost any social or environmental problem have proven effective in many places. The problem remains how to recognize, find, and apply such solutions on a broader scale. Locating the world’s experts in different areas and coordinating their efforts to address urgent needs could be made much easier by establishing an interdisciplinary organization (some have called it “a DARPA for culture”) specifically for this purpose.
But exactly who must be persuaded that foresight is worth investing in and listening to? These might be political leaders at federal, state, and local levels; voluntary associations; and the general public. Levers of influence might also include corporations and nonprofit groups that are already active in trying to raise public awareness of the need for better long-term planning in specific areas and in encouraging cooperative action between experts in science and the arts and entertainment industry.
Without attempting to directly dictate content to artists, game designers, or media producers, government and private groups alike could encourage a better understanding of science to depict more-realistic options for a sustainable future in films and television shows, and encourage writers, musicians, and graphic artists to explore new possibilities for life in desirable future societies.
Highlights from Other Discussion Groups
Other topics addressed by groups in this second workshop, but not covered in our Culture discussions, include the following:
- The role of government itself is shifting from instruction and enforcement to persuasion.
- Governments must become more receptive to popular initiatives—more listening, less talking.
- Global cooperation among governments by 2050 could be modeled on current maritime rules.
- How will organic versus genetically modified or AI-enhanced humans interact?
- If there is no need to work, what will motivate people?
Science and Technology
- We need first to gauge the state of AI in 2025 to better anticipate conditions in 2050.
- Assuring that people can trust advanced AI will be a top priority.
- A successor to the former Office of Technology Assessment is a vital need.
- Devote more effort to making current science understandable to the public.
- Do more to anticipate potential negative outcomes to avoid repeating past disasters.
Business and Labor
- A universal basic income will become essential as AI continues to replace human workers.
- Physical augmentation of humans will lead to new human rights issues and conflicts.
- How will we measure social contribution if work is no longer related to income?
- Blockchain transactions can be expanded to validate the value of any human action.
- But will the monitoring required for such evaluation increasingly intrude on privacy?
- Tension between “training” and “education” goals will continue to intensify.
- New credentials will replace diplomas and licenses of today as AI assumes new roles.
- So much is wrong with today’s educational system that we wish we could start over from scratch.
- Lifelong learning, often delivered at a distance, will largely replace schools and campuses.
- Finding better measures of success in education will become a continuing problem.
Clearly, the discussions that took place during this second round of the Future Work/Tech 2050 workshop in D.C. were still not definitive. With this in mind, the organizers have proposed holding a third session sometime in the fall, which would include sitting members of Congress among the participants. No date has yet been set, but when it is you will read about it here.
For further information about the Future Work/Tech 2050 Workshop, contact Eric C. Popiel, chair of the Federal Foresight Community of Interest, at Eric.C.Popiel@uscg.mil, or Jerome C. Glenn, CEO of The Millennium Project, at Jerome.Glenn@millennium-project.org.
Lane Jennings worked as a writer and editor for the World Future Society for more than 30 years and retired in 2015 as managing editor of the World Future Review. He now freelances from his home in Columbia, Maryland, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Feedback: To submit feedback, contact Cindy Wagner, consulting editor, Foresight Signals, at CynthiaGWagner@gmail.com.