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Bits, Bots & Biology: The ABC of the 21st century

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Bits, Bots & Biology: The ABC of the 21st century

Marco Moreira

Just like everyone I know who cares to speak about his/her school experience, I have been thinking about how most of the knowledge I learned during that time is just not good enough for today’s economy. The arguments are many against our educational system, but they all share the same theme that what & how we learn today in schools is really, really outdated. As the foundations of capitalism shake beneath our feet and businesses cut out the non-essentials, we get a very clear picture of what’s considered essential for growth. And guess what? The nerds are definitely not in the bulls eye of the pink-slip.

PROGRAM OR BE PROGRAMMED

Economically speaking, what the crisis is teaching us is that technology literacy is to the 21st century what basic literacy was to the 20th century. In the same way that you had to know the 3 R’s (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic; awful acronym, I know) to survive the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, you now need to fundamentally understand, manipulate and create ideas, or knowledge, to live in the digital economy and beyond. Needless to say, you and I didn’t hear this story when we were teenagers; we were told to execute, not to innovate.

WHEN THERE’S BLOOD ON THE STREETS…

This transition, just like the previous one, is an ugly one. Folks in the developed world who are tech illiterate today are faced with what experts call “structural unemployment“, which is the economic term for “we don’t know what the hell we’re gonna do with you from now on.” That’s because companies now have a globalized workforce and robots available to take care of the routine work; all management needed to put the boot to $70/hr assembly line workers in Michigan for cheap overseas labor was a little turbulence in the marketplace to strike fear in the hearts of shareholders. Boy, did they seize the opportunity!

Therefore, as the world gets “flatter” and machines get smarter, the only jobs left to the tech illiterates in the developed world are the ones that 1) require you to be physically there (ie. nurses, builders, etc) and 2) machines can’t do (yet). Since technology evolves exponentially, there is not a whole lot of time for folks to start getting themselves the skills needed to remain productive in a developed economy.

Given this evolution (ie. the World Wide Web is just a tad older than Justin Bieber), it’s not inconceivable that robots and automated systems will be the biggest threats to unskilled labor in the near future. China, growing at 8-9%/year, is only going to provide cheap labor for so long.

IN THE END, THERE SHALL BE LIFE. AND ROBOTS. AND SUNSHINE.

Biotech, Robotics and Energy Tech (ET) are the growth areas of the foreseeable future, at least if humanity wishes to make it to the 22nd century in relative peace. To those of us who are fortunate enough to be tech literate, the world is your oyster; pretty much any high tech experience, even if it’s on the business side of things, is a great place to be for a professional in post-crisis America. If you’re an engineer or plan to put in the hard work of becoming one, you will be stalked for the next 30 years by recruiters and head hunters; life is good.

The worrying thing is that I cannot possibly see where unskilled labor fits in this picture. Every country has plenty of it, but in a flat world, a pair of hands in Southeast Asia is equally productive as a pair of hands in America at a tenth of the cost, and both are no match for a 24/7 robot.

The logical conclusion then is that we’re headed for two possible scenarios: on the negative side, the tech literacy gap widens so much that those who can innovate prosper while those who simply execute are replaced by ever cheaper labor and eventually machines.

On the positive side, the sheer number of innovators and their ideas turn out to be so amazingly revolutionary that the tech literacy gap will be a much simpler issue to solve, given that we will know so much more about our bodies, our brains and our ever more complex world. As Thomas Friedman would be quick to point out, “whatever can be done, will be done. It’s only a matter of whether it will be done TO you or BY you.”

I wish they taught me that in school.