3.4 The post-industrial stage
The post-industrial economy is based on knowledge-intensive services, which require even less land and labour than manufacturing. It requires huge capital investment and its appetite for science-rooted innovative technologies is ravenous; its market is truly global. The average-skilled workforce in the service sector while initially scalable due to its natural ability to self-learn, learn by association with others in the community or be trained in large groups, is no longer so. The skill levels required of even entry-level jobs have escalated rapidly and with it available jobs have further diminished. The middle class that expanded rapidly in the industrial stage is now poised to deflate equally rapidly because machines can now surpass most humans across the population in skills. Mr. Average of the middle class is on the verge of losing his identity and his dignity, not just his income.
The rise in AI has now begun to affect jobs that till recently required specialized training and PhD level education. The job market is churning, shrinking, and vaporizing. While machines can be easily fitted with AI, humans cannot. Ironically machines are neither looking for jobs nor do they need one; they are emotionless, oblivious of the past and the future, without any need for spiritual balms or companionship. Yet, they have the potential to obliterate humankind by unintentionally snatching their jobs because exceptional men configured machines to compute, while Nature has configured most other men for mere procreation. Machines are not even aware that men see them as competitors. The previous stages, though they were a dramatic break from the past, carried the pleasant prospect of improving humanity’s collective lot. The present break has caused fear that only a few can live in style amidst machines, while the rest will sink into poverty for want of a job.
Skilling people to meet market demand for highly skilled and gifted people with deep inter-disciplinary knowledge is not scalable–it requires world-class research universities. Moreover, such people must remain on a learning curve to be competitive. To bridge shortages, they must be imported or poached, usually from developing countries, whose development agenda then takes a hit. Finally, the post-industrial society, to maintain its economic growth, needs an informed citizenry, tight immigration policies, and undoubtedly, new forms of government and societal structure. Inaction and lapses on such matters can easily lead to catastrophes and mayhem if unemployment soars. The palliative for unemployment cannot be unemployment insurance, social security, etc.; it will require novel and perhaps untested means. Immigrants deemed a drain on a country’s economy would be shunned. Euthanasia on demand may become morally acceptable in lieu of suicide.
In the post-industrial society, economic growth will depend on its ability to create and efficiently use knowledge to produce marketable products and services and turn them into necessities. Physical stuff is subject to the laws of scarcity; prices of material goods depend on demand and supply. Knowledge is intangible, shareable, extendable, creatable, storable, and marketable. It spawns ideas. Modern-day communication services permit instant and global spreading of ideas. This has turbo-charged the global economy by accelerating innovation and their commercialization on a global scale.
Economists, as always, were caught by surprise by this tectonic shift and the acceleration with which the post-industrial economy began moving. Most of them are still focused on the scarcity of physical and human resources while the economy has already come under the iron grip of unpredictable, disruptive, breakthrough creativity that come from the mind. Their earlier theories based on land, labour, and capital productivity, and above all their irrational theory of rational expectations and efficient market hypothesis were anyway farcical. Today’s economist is eminently dispensable given that economic growth is now driven by human imagination and innovators for which no economic theory exists.
In 2008, Ellis Rubenstein wrote:
[I]n a post-industrial age the keys to economic sustainability for urban centers will be education, science, technology, finance, and a system that stimulates entrepreneurship. Urban centers whose researchers and university administrations remain “siloed”–disconnected from one another, from industry, and from venture capital–will fall behind. The achievement of excellence solely through the global collaborations of individual investigators will no longer guarantee the excellence of an institution, much less the region in which it resides.36
All these have come to pass. Upcoming technologies will be even more breathtaking given the R&D strides already made in biotechnology (stem cell manipulations, synthetic DNA, rapid DNA sequencing, etc.), nanotechnology (carbon nanotubes, graphene, etc.), superfast switching of quantum light sources, cloud computing, data analytics, efficient conversion of solar energy to electricity, etc. The source of economic growth is no longer the brawn but the brain, and above all artificial intelligence!
“Necessity is the mother of invention” no longer dominates; invention-driven necessity does. It began with the mobile telephone, the credit card, the Internet, and the Windows operating system–each became a daily necessity. AI-robots and humanoids will soon join them to serve those with a job.
3.5 Lessons learnt along the way
In terms of population growth rate, the world has seen three distinct phases. The first, pre-modernity, was characterized by very slow growth rate with equally low economic growth rate; the second, beginning with the onset of modernity, was characterized by, relative to the first, rapid increase in population yet supported by rising standards of living and improved health and longevity due to some amazing advances in science and technology. We are now in the third phase with an increasing population, a muted population growth rate and a downward trend in the creation of stable job opportunities while S&T advances continue to follow an exponential trajectory powered by AI and solar energy.
Generally, civil society establishes itself around a regulated set of social structures. Each structure stabilizes itself into a distinctive arrangement of institutions to facilitate and maintain human activities in myriad ways. Inter alia, through tradition, custom, and law, societies set up institutions for sexual reproduction, the care and education of the young, opportunities for gainful employment, and the care of the elderly in which marriage and kinship play important roles. For most of history, society gradually developed technology to avert risk to life and limb and the instinctive need to survive and propagate the species. Technology development began to rise sharply coinciding with the birth of the millennials. Fig. 3.1 summarizes the situation as it is developing for the millennials.
A distinctive aspect of emerging technologies is their ability to create necessities or a ‘must possess feel’ not felt before. This has led to aspiration-driven marketing. Much of this is visible in myriad digital communication-plus devices ubiquitously available and affordable. Now instant communication links that connect humans and devices via the Internet of Things (IoT) is increasingly taken for granted. It has set in motion a disruptive restructuring of society by an “unseen hand” into a malleable global structure where people are tagged with a profile matrix that includes lifestyle, nationality, education, employability, religion, etc., usually in that order of importance. Society increasingly celebrates the individual than the family. Weakened family ties amplify the mental stress of unemployed individuals and prod them to re-examine their religious beliefs usually inherited from the family. The first millennials were born in the incipient stages of this disruption when it began affecting family structure and lifestyle, employment, skilling and reskilling opportunities caused by rapid automation of many hitherto human activities (physical and mental), and the welfare management of a growing population of retirees who are culturally alienated from their millennial progenies in an environment where the progenies too find themselves facing an uncertain and unpredictable job market. The old socio-economic structure is crumbling, and a new stable structure is yet to take shape.
The times when monarchs or governments could change things by diktat are over. Today a tiny group with disruptive ideas can create a start-up that can not only change a country but the entire world. The star millennials will tend to bow out in their 40s, flush with wealth, drained by stress, and in dire need of oxygen. The world is flush with millennials who have a deep hunger to learn and forge dynamic partnerships to rapidly expand their enterprises. Only a few will succeed.
The world now moves on the power of ideas that are becoming grander by the day. Archaic traditions and conventions are passé. The industrial revolution put brawn power out of business; the post-industrial revolution is putting rote education out of business. AI-machines are rapidly replacing rote educated humans. The key to survival for them is to improvise and quickly sunset habits, institutions, and practices of the past that can no longer harmoniously blend with the future. At the level of individuals, the problem is identifying and deciding what to sunset because the future is unknown, and their individual talents are often over-shadowed by AI. The emerging technologies now shaping humanity’s future include AI and robotics, novel modes of transport and renewable power, data mining and data privacy. Their impact will be huge but for the moment quite unpredictable.
4 Language powers intelligence
How and when language evolved is not known; but it appears to have happened about 30,000 to 100,000 years ago. With language we express thoughts, gossip, create poetry, command and control, and much more. Our creativity, wealth of scientific knowledge, understanding of the Universe, memory of the past, etc. wholly depend on language. It even limits our ability to think and what we can think about. Language, intelligence, culture, and knowledge are intimately related.37
[ 36 ] Rubenstein (2008).
[ 37 ] See, e.g., Christiansen & Kirby (2003); Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002); Pinker & Jackendoff (2005).