This year’s COVID-19 pandemic has been highly disruptive in many areas of our lives. As I type this article, there have been statistically nearly 5.5 million cases and almost 350,000 deaths from this pandemic around the world. In addition to the toll this virus has taken on peoples’ lives, there have been grave economic ramifications. Many businesses and industries have been hit hard and as a consequence millions of people have either lost their jobs or have had to take a pay cut.
The unstoppable growth of the internet over the last 20 years has had a profound effect on our lives. It could already be said that we live in both the physical world and the virtual world. Yet during the lockdown period of the last several weeks, we have been spending considerably more time in the latter world. The growth of the internet has already had a noticeable effect on the physical high street as more people do their shopping online. Yet, the lockdown restrictions, at times, have given people no choice, but to buy almost all their groceries online thus increasing greatly the rate of e-commerce transactions. We have also been interacting much more with other people virtually, both for work and pleasure. And as educational institutions remain shut, or at least severely restricted, we have been doing a lot more learning online.
In an article I wrote back in 2017, I discussed new and emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) and how they could change people lives, especially in the areas of education. As students are still currently unable to physically go to university and attend lectures, much of their courses and lectures are now online. In my 2017 article, I discussed how via VR technology one could be completely immersed in a setting and interact with it from anywhere with an internet connection. The education industry has long needed such a change. One of the biggest current problems facing young people is the unbelievably high costs of going to university. By the time they have graduated, they are saddled with staggering sums of debt. Yet I have long felt that it doesn’t always have to be that way and that given time, technology would soon provide a much needed solution to this issue. Even though I went to university and got my degree many years ago, I find that a lot of all the most recent knowledge I have gained has been via content online. I, of course, also supplement this knowledge with books in both physical and digital form. There is so much free and good quality educational content out there on the web. And I am also happy to pay for exceptional online resources too. Yet the total amount of money I pay is still far less than what I would pay going to universities, where tuition fees in the UK are currently still over £9k per year.
In an earlier article from 2016, I discuss how VR could potentially change all aspects of our lives, not just within the realms of education. During the lockdown period, the video communications app Zoom has taken off in a big way. Zoom has been the default option for not just video calls between family and friends, but also for remote working and playing. By the latter, I mean having a kind of ‘virtual night out’. Rather than physically going out to a bar or club with friends, Zoom has been used as a virtual platform for replicating a physical night out. VR and AR are both powerful emerging technologies and now is the perfect time for them to be harnessed to a greater level. Interacting via Zoom is still a 2D experience, yet VR and AR have the potential to make this a more immersive 3D experience. This would reduce the chasm greatly between the physical and virtual worlds.
There is no question that remote work will continue to grow and these new and emerging technologies will accelerate this growth. Yet will traditional office spaces be made completely redundant? It is tempting to go down this route and its currently all the rage to have the belief that this virus will make the traditional office space obsolete as an increasing number of workers find the option of remote work to be more appealing and perfectly feasible. To be clear, as I already stated, there is no doubt in my mind that remote/virtual work will grow, yet I think it’s at this stage too premature to say that the traditional physical office environment is dead. Even if technology develops exponentially, we are still, fundamentally, organic human beings and creatures of emotion more than logic. As long as we remain 100% organic human beings, we will still long for that human touch and physical interaction. I think to completely 100% forsake the physical world for the virtual world, we will need to physically merge with technology. I am with the futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil on his prediction for the coming Singularity in 2045 when Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be at the same level as human intelligence. This will be, arguably, the most significant event in human history and I will never bet against the infinite potential of AI. If software is currently eating the world, soon it will be AI. Yet as AI becomes further developed, the options for us to merge with technology will also arrive. AI, rather than posing an existential threat, I believe, will make our lives easier and more comfortable. What’s more, it will also enhance our lives and enable us to reach our fullest potential.
Going back to the topic of post COVID living, could the development of cities/urban spaces be affected? What if there was a growing trend whereby there was an increasing migration from cities to more rural areas? For some time, as technology improved – more specifically; internet speeds and bandwidth improved further – there has been already to a small degree such a trend. You can go and live in the remotest part of the country, but if you have access to a high speed internet connection over there, then you have full sophisticated access to the virtual world no different to that in a big city no matter how remote the physical environment may be. Yet will there ever be a complete deurbanisation type of migration where the physical location of people is much more fragmented? If such a migration were to happen in the near future and we are still 100% organic beings, we will be incredibly reliant on the virtual world and by extension the cell towers connected to our internet providers. Even if SpaceX, via its Starlink project, intends to beam super-fast satellite internet on all corners of the world in the next few years, for now we are still reliant on onshore cell towers as the source of the internet. This is quite a fragile situation, as any disruption to these cell towers disrupts the internet itself and thus a great chunk of our lives. We become instantly irritated with slow internet speeds let alone having no internet. It is amazing how dependent on the internet most of the world is. The cells towers providing the internet are powered by electricity and electricity is powered by energy from both renewable and non-renewable sources. In spite of all the technological advances since the first Industrial Revolution, we have still not found a permanent and workable solution to the long standing energy problem, that is, how do we generate an abundant and unlimited supply of energy for every corner of the world without having to tap into any non-renewable sources?
I sometimes feel that I overestimate the speed of technological development. Earlier in the last decade, I thought that within the next few years (now), every household would have a 3D printer and the smartphone would be replaced by some form of smart-glasses with fully integrated and advanced VR and AR technologies. This has simply not happened. Even if these technologies may be available in some shape or form, we still use smartphones. The smartphones of today may be more sophisticated than the smartphones of just a few years ago, but they are still smartphones. Our interaction with the virtual world remains a 2-D experience. This is why I feel that in order for us to live completely in the virtual world with little to no living in the physical world, we have to adopt some form of transhumanism where our minds and bodies are fully integrated with technology.
Going back to the economic ramifications of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I wonder whether, at least in the short to medium term, the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) may become more widely adopted? Already technology has been automating many menial and repetitive jobs that has resulted not only in vast swathes of people losing their jobs, but also in these same people being ‘left behind’ as technology marches on. This is a serious concern as such people become naturally angry and turn to political parties and figures who echo and amplify their frustrations rather than turn to transformative solutions. The virus has hit hard industries requiring a constant physical presence. Some of these industries that have been hit hard such as, for example, the physical high street retail industry, has long already been affected by the growth of the internet. This virus has almost been like the final nail in the coffin.
Technology never stands still and the number of people using the internet will only keep growing. If you look at the S&P 500 (the top 500 companies) you will see that the biggest companies today are all technology companies. My concern however is with the demise of all these low skilled repetitive jobs. Although I personally think that a lot of these jobs are time wasting jobs (and time is an increasingly scarce and valuable asset), which offer no spiritual or intellectual nourishment, many people are employed in such jobs and depend on the income for their survival. If such jobs disappeared on an even greater scale and the people employed in these jobs had little or few alternative skills for other jobs, how will they survive? I hear a lot of emphasis on ‘learning to code’. Whilst computer programming is very useful and currently provides a lot of employment opportunities, who’s to say that such jobs also won’t get disrupted? Furthermore, why would anyone want to learn something purely for the ’employment opportunities’ it will bring? Surely one would learn computer programming, because there are interested and fascinated by it? Learning it just purely to make money seems very flawed and short sighted to me. If we want to continue to live in a capitalist economy then a Universal Basic Income may have to become more widely adopted. Otherwise the alternative is a socialist economy. I do in the long run, however, believe that we will enter a brand new kind of post-scarcity and post-work environment of abundance created by exponential technological innovations. This would transcend any economic model of the past. I wrote about this in greater depth in my article from last year entitled ‘THE TRUE SINGULARITY: A Universe Of Unlimited Abundance And Eternal Harmony’. This kind of vision for the future is also outlined very clearly in the excellent 2011 book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler ‘Abundance’. Yet in order for this to become a closer reality, we also cannot take technological development for granted. One of the early internet pioneers and entrepreneurs, Marc Andreessen, wrote a recent article entitled ‘Its Time To Build’ talking about this. We cannot take innovation for granted and rest on the laurels of the technological advancements of the past. When the virus hit the world, we were unprepared. There was no available vaccine to protect us. Thus we had to adopt measures that have been very disruptive to our daily living. Several companies may currently be working on a cure and it could still be several more months before one is in place, but the point is there was no available permanent remedy at the time. Technology may have provided many vital solutions to long standing limitations, yet, as is currently clear, there are so many more limitations that require solutions. And it is only via continuing to innovate and build that we can ensure that these other limitations begging to be solved are solved.
By Nicholas Peart
Published on 24th May 2020
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