Currently Senior Maverick at Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly helped launch the magazine and was its executive editor for its first seven years. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, Science, TIME, and more, and is the bestselling author of The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. He recently sat down with Srinivas Rao on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss the surprising changes that society can expect in the next 20 years.
Srini: In The Inevitable, you said, “Right now in 2016 is the best time to start up. There’s never been a better time with more opportunity, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit-risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute, this is the moment that folks in the future will look back on and say, ‘Oh, to have been alive and well back then.’”
That really struck me, because it’s an overwhelmingly optimistic view of where we’re at. Can you tell me why you believe that?
Kevin: I truly do believe this is the very best time in the history of the world to make something, because the tools for creation have never been more easily gotten. They’ve never been cheaper, they’ve never been better, they’ve never been as diverse. So if you want to write a book, make a movie, or [record] a song, some of the tools to do that are just about free, which means that almost anybody in the world can get their hands on them. Many of these things in previous generations were prohibitively expensive and relegated to the elites, but now you can make a book that looks as good as the book that the hottest bestselling author can make, and you can distribute it, and it will cost very little to do. New things like web apps or websites are also much easier to make than before, and this is the best time for making hardware [because] there’s more and more tools.
We’re [also] on the cusp of all these transformative technologies and trends — so all the amazing things that we’ve had in the last 50 years, ten times as many are going to be coming in the next 50 years. You should be encouraged that all the good ideas are not behind us — they’re all in front of us. The degree of impact that, say, motors had on the world, or electricity had on the world, or printing had on the world, are going to pale compared to some of the things that are coming up. They’re likely to occur in the next 30 years, and you are going to be alive at that moment, and you will have access to the tools. This is something that people should be rejoicing in, and maybe people in the future will look back with envy that we were here at this time, and had all these opportunities and could have done amazing things if we had wanted to.
Srini: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I [recently] got to see somebody who had been on vacation in Costa Rica and shot aerial footage with a drone camera, and it looked like the opening sequence to a Hollywood film. He was like, “You can buy these drone cameras for $100 on Amazon.”
Can you give us an overview of what the 12 forces are, and how they’re going to impact our lives?
Kevin: I selected 12 umbrella categories [in the book], and each of these trends, these forces, are codependent. They’re intertwined and self-reinforcing. Among these categories is the idea that we’re going to increase the amount of tracking in our lives — recording, surveillance, all of these. Anything we do that can be tracked will be tracked. Anything that can be measured will be measured.
The same thing could be said about sharing — we’re going to be sharing more and more. And I don’t mean just swapping photos. I mean collaborating, cooperating — that’s what this technology is doing. It’s increasing the range, the reach, and the speed with which we’re able to collaborate and cooperate with each other, making things that could not [previously] be made because we can now have 1,000 people, or a million people, or a billion people together working at the same time on something, collaborating and cooperating at even planetary scales.
We are also cognifying, meaning that we are making everything smarter. We’re making some very inert things more lifelike, we’re making dumb things smarter, we’re making smart things very smart. So this artificial smartness is permeating our lives, and it will have an impact way beyond what happened when we electrified and motorized everything, when we built skyscrapers, trains, highways, and factories because we didn’t have to rely on the muscle power of animals or ourselves. Now we’re going to harness artificial intelligence, artificial minds, and that’s going to have a second transformation way beyond what happened with the industrial revolution.
There’s increasingly this shift from owning things to accessing things, because if you can deliver everything on demand, in real time, anywhere in the world, that’s in many cases better than owning it, so there’s a shift away from ownership — which is a foundation of capitalism, so that’s a big shift.
We are also shifting and overturning the way we manage attention. We may eventually even get paid for our attention to watch an ad, to read an email. Right now advertising has a big, outsized role in the internet world, but that could shift if we shifted the economics of attention. We’re seeing more and more filtering, more and more curating. That’s necessary because our attention is limited, and all the things we’re making are growing exponentially. So there has to be a new economics around attention because we will simply see a smaller percent of everything that is made.
[There’s also] the shift from answers being a foundational value to becoming a commodity. So if you want an answer, you ask a machine, and it will tell you the answer. Answers become cheap and ubiquitous, and I think we’ll shift to valuing questions and uncertainty much more than we do now, because in the world of free answers, a good question becomes more valuable.
The other shift is from solid things to processes, to services. This is a shift from atomic solids to dematerialized intangibles, and that’s the general shift that’s been showing in our economy — we have this intangible idea-based, bit-based world of services and processes.
“Now we’re going to harness artificial intelligence, artificial minds, and that’s going to have a second transformation way beyond what happened with the industrial revolution.”
Srini: What are the implications of all this for human behavior?
Kevin: There’s certainly going to be pushback. Humans crave novelty, but at the same time, our bodies and minds are [initially] resistant to change. Our minds are fairly plastic even as adults, and our bodies can learn, but it requires energy, so there is a built-in resistance to change that has to be overcome. A lot of this stuff is going to require new habits that I call “techno-literacy,” where we are going to become perpetual newbies, always having to learn new stuff. And that is tiresome. It’s like, “How many languages do I need to know? How many interfaces do I need to master? How many jobs do I need to have in my career?” And the answer is going to be: a lot of them. You’re going to be constantly changing.
For some people, that was not the bargain that they grew up with, or were taught, and I think there’s going to be some tough times for many people. But I firmly believe that people are capable of change. I think that with help from the government, we can move people, if they’re willing, to this new era where lifelong learning becomes the major skill you want. It doesn’t really matter what language you learn, or what interface you learn, as long as you can learn new ones.
That meta-skill of critical thinking becomes more important when we move towards this era where authorities don’t have as much weight, where you have to assemble your own truth on the screen rather than from the authorities of authors and books. So there’s a set of basic, essential meta-skills that I think should be taught not just to children but to adults. Our education systems were not set for that, but that, I think, is part of a transformation that we will continue.
We’re very malleable in the evolutionary sense. We are slowly inventing who we want to be, while at the same time trying to adapt to the things that we’re making.
Srini: Chris Sacca has an almost dystopian view of the future, where we’re going to have the 1% and everybody else is going to be driving their Ubers and serving them lattes. You mentioned that we’re going to have multiple jobs throughout the course of our lifetimes. What is that going to look like based on where we’re headed and the trends that you’ve seen? I know that there are so many jobs today that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.
Kevin: I think there is an element of truth to what Chris is saying in the sense that any role or task that can be defined in terms of efficiency will be a job that we give to the bots. Whether it’s manual labor or knowledge work, if it’s something where efficiency matters, then we give it to the bots, and that leaves us humans with a pretty wide open field of things where efficiency is not so critical.
If you think about science, which is fundamentally built on one failure after another, that’s terribly inefficient. And innovation is by definition inefficient because you’re trying stuff, you’re prototyping, you’re spending a lot of time on things that may be a dead end as you try to figure out the best solution. So innovation is an entirely inefficient process, and so, by the way, is human relationships.
Anything in which humans are working with other humans is this inherently inefficient time — you don’t want productivity in there. So some of the service [jobs] are inefficient in that sense. When you are [getting] help from somebody, you don’t want them to be concerned about efficiency — you want them to be concerned about effectiveness. Some of the things humans will do will be working with other humans, and right now we tend to denigrate that, but I think over the long term we may come to value that, because we humans cherish that kind of interaction. Having a nurse sit by your bedside for long periods of time is very inefficient, but very comforting to us. I think that’s something that we will begin to appreciate more. Having somebody [come] into your house to fix something is not very efficient, but it’s something that we like. That service component is [what] we’ll come to value even more.
Srini: Outside of serving lattes and driving Ubers — places where you could easily replace somebody with a bot — what are the not-so-obvious careers where people may not be thinking, “Hey, this is replaceable by a robot”? What are we overlooking?
Kevin: I mean, all the truck drivers will probably lose their jobs. But a friend [of mine just] did a workshop on auto-driven cars, and they were coming up with a bunch of different occupations that might relate. He was imagining these guys that would wait around areas where it looked really tough to navigate with auto-driven cars, and they would drive those cars through these parts, and then they’d get out. Their job [would be] to do the hard driving that AIs had not yet mastered.
That’s something I talk about in the book — humans and AIs working together. They’re like partners, and sometimes they do one job, then AI does another. If there are all these AIs around, then what we know about technology is that they’re going to break. So there will be a huge IT world of people keeping the AIs going. That’s both a manual job and a cerebral job. They’re repair guys, but it’s a very techie job nonetheless, and I think there’s going to be a huge need for that. It’s going to be like a horse wrangler — just keeping these beasts happy is going to be a pretty big thing.
I’m not worried at all about the new jobs that will come up. I think we’ll be surprised by how many new types of careers and roles and tasks are going to come up. They’ll be as weird to us as a web designer was to a farmer 150 years ago. You’d tell them, “Hey, you’re going to lose all your farming jobs.” And then they’d say, “What are we going to do?” “You’re going to be a web designer. You’re going to be a mortgage broker. You’re going to be a yoga teacher.” And they [would say,] “What? That doesn’t make any sense.”
These new jobs won’t make any sense to [us] either. There’s just going to be this never-ending surprise of the ways in which people will figure out new desires, new wants — it’s going to be amazing.
“We are slowly inventing who we want to be, while at the same time trying to adapt to the things that we’re making.”
Srini: What does a day-to-day routine look like 20 years from now?
Kevin: Well, the most obvious difference I think will be the degree to which AI [will have] permeated our lives, even though most of it won’t be visible. Like the Netflix or Amazon recommendation engines — you’re not aware them being AIs. They’re just throwing up suggestions for books. But that’s the level of AI that will be operating behind the scenes — it will have a huge impact on our lives.
There will be a few outward-facing AIs, and I suspect that the mode of interaction will be conversation and gestural. So they will [be like] the Amazon Echo, Alexa, and Siri where, like the movie Her, we’re having a conversation with them. That conversation will deepen over time and become very complex for many people, and I suggest that in 25, 30 years, the internet will be more of a conversation, a presence that we experience, rather than a place that we go to.
This ongoing presence is like a GPS for our life. If you go down the road and disobey the GPS’s instructions, the GPS is ready with an alternative route, and it’s anticipating your arrival time. If you again detour from that route, there’s no problem — it’s got another one.
So there will be a GPS for our lives in the sense that these AIs are anticipating what you’re doing — they’re getting stuff ready for you, figuring out, “You’re going to go to lunch now, you’ll be over here, so I’ll have this ready for you.” And you decide, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And then, “No problem, I have another plan for you. This will be ready for you [there instead].” There’s this forever patient anticipation of us in our lives that I think will definitely have outward-facing AI within 30 years.
Srini: I have one last question: What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Kevin: I think it goes back to the ability to see things differently. Every person on the planet — past, present, and future — has a slightly different mix of talents, just like our faces are different. And part of what technology is about is to invent different ways that that mix of talents can be expressed and shared — whether that means inventing musical instruments so that the genius of Mozart or Beethoven can be expressed and shared, or inventing the technology of cinema so that Alfred Hitchcock’s genius can be expressed and shared. Just imagine if we had never invented that technology — what a loss to them, and to us, that would have been. There are people born today whose technology has not been invented, and in a certain sense, we have a moral obligation to invent, to enable more people to express their genius.
But I think what “unmistakable” means is not just having that technology available, but actually coming to discover what it is about your mix that’s particularly distinctive. For people who have found that way to express their mix, then we call them “unmistakable,” and it’s in part because they are not living someone else’s movie — they are in their own movie. They are unmistakable in the sense that when that person is doing something, there’s nobody else who can do it like they’re doing. Just as most people have an unmistakable face, I hope that we can all grow to have unmistakable lives.