On 26th September 2019, my interview with Maxim Momot was published in RBC, the No. 1 Professional Business Magazine in Russia. This is a transcript of that article, translated into English from the original Russian.
The development of technology creates new social problems, but does not always seem to solve the old ones. Rudy de Waele, the well-known European techno-futurologist, spoke about how to use progress in the interests of people, not just corporations.
How will technology change the labour market in the next 10–20 years?
The most important thing is that jobs in which people carry out routine work will disappear. First of all, this will happen in an industry where absolutely all operations will be automated. Then, for white-collar workers who do the same thing every day, artificial intelligence will take away work. But in return, there will be many other jobs. There will be professions associated with the use of new technologies and there will be more work where human communication is important.
There is another trend: the number of people working remotely will increase by an order of magnitude. It will become the norm that a single project will engage employees all over the world. This means that managers will have to develop completely new approaches to personnel management. The process of preparation will also change: we are moving towards a system of continuous education, where everyone will have to improve their skills from time to time.
What professions will be most in-demand over the next decade?
There will be a huge demand for specialists in genetics and in health care in general, including psychology. Do not forget that in OECD countries, such as the USA, Japan, and European countries, about 50% of employees periodically burn out at work, falling into depression.
The modern pharmaceutical industry may seem to treat the symptoms of depression, but cannot cope with its causes. They will be addressed, along with others, by personal transformation specialists: psychologists and coaches who will help people find a way to create a good life and become happy. Many more jobs will be created in this area than in programming and working with data.
What breakthroughs should be expected in medicine?
The main breakthroughs will happen in genetics and synthetic biology – a direction that allows you to purposefully do what previously only nature could accomplish. For example, we can grow a human liver and other organs from individual cells. We can rewrite DNA in such a way that people do not have any hereditary diseases. Already, there are many advanced methods that allow you to diagnose diseases by cell samples. You can find out if you will have lung cancer by simply exhaling into a special device.
Such technologies are especially important for preventive medicine. By testing a sample of DNA can tell you what diseases the subject is predisposed to. Accordingly, you can recommend a diet and lifestyle that will help prevent these diseases. I did my DNA analysis for this reason eight years ago. These are the technologies that will change our life the most and we are just starting to use them.
“The use of artificial intelligence is causing more and more ethical issues”
What about the Internet of Things? Will it make our life safer and more comfortable?
In my opinion, there is too much hype around the Internet of Things (IoT). Yes, it will change our lives in many areas. For example, it allows you to collect data on how users handle a particular product in order to understand how it can be improved. Or it can allow cars to “communicate” with each other to make the situation on the roads safer. But IoT is very complex technology. For its development, you need a whole ecosystem, which is not yet available.
There are many issues related to the implementation of this technology, including compatibility, standardization, reliability of the connection. This means that projects progress slowly. So in this early stage of IoT development, mainly large corporations dominate. When the technology has developed sufficiently, we will even stop noticing that we are using it: it will be everywhere.
Does artificial intelligence have a better chance of success?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is perhaps the most revolutionary technology of all that exists today. Large corporations are dominating in this area as they can afford to buy expensive production solutions and hire the most experienced coders. But there is no imbalance in the areas of use: all the largest corporations invest in AI because this technology increases efficiency in a wide variety of industries. In the Health sector, AI allows you to process large amounts of data, finding correlations that are not obvious to a human. For example, between some indicators of analysis and a patient’s health problems.
It should be noted that the use of artificial intelligence causes more and more ethical problems. Companies allow algorithms to make increasingly serious decisions that can affect our lives. For example, the European Commission has created a special group to make recommendations on the development of AI. Over the past 20 years, such technologies have evolved without system regulation. It’s time to think about how they are useful to us as people. As long as we keep in mind that the ultimate goal of AI is to benefit us, everything will be fine.
What do you think about the prospects of unmanned vehicles? It is believed that AI already drives no worse than the average person, and the main threat to it is the unpredictability of the behaviour of human drivers on the road.
That’s right. Unmanned vehicles make mistakes, but if you look at the number of accidents they have in relative numbers and compare with the number of accidents that human drivers make, you will see that self-driving cars are already safer than ordinary ones. A person can fall asleep while driving, get distracted, or be drunk. But this type of transport is still developing slowly. According to current estimates, by 2030–2035 only 5% of cars on the roads will be unmanned.
Are things even less rosy with electric cars? Now only one in one hundred cars sold in the world is electric.
The catch with electric cars is that too many politicians have their own interests in an economy based on fossil fuels. When we decide to abandon combustion engine-powered cars on the government level, sales of electric cars will increase significantly. Germany already bans old diesel-powered cars. Many of my entrepreneur friends in other countries already drive a Tesla.
Russia is now heavily dependent on oil and gas. But what future awaits the oil and gas industry in the era of alternative energy?
Oil and gas has no future, full stop. This system will last another 30 years maximum. Then the time will come for electric vehicles. All industries need to transfer to new sources of energy. This is a serious challenge. Russia could become a leader in this regard – in any case, it will have to change, as will the countries of the Middle East. The UAE, for example, invests a lot in alternative energy: they well understand that their oil resources will be exhausted sooner or later. Russia needs to go the same way.
“The young generation does not want to have a centralised power over itself”
Many technologies that recently caused hype are now almost at a deadlock. A vivid example is cryptocurrencies, which so far are mainly used for speculative purposes.
When any new technology appears, the dark part of human nature is the first to manifest itself. In the case of cryptocurrencies, this is greed, which greatly damaged their reputation. But the blockchain technology on which they are built is very promising, we are just at an early stage of its use. Anyone who understands technology understands that humanity is moving towards some kind of digital way of determining value.
Look, we are now most often dispensed with cash, and even ten years ago it would have seemed fantastic. Money has a digital future. In fact, the blockchain is still repeating the fate of the Internet itself: when the Network first appeared, millions poured into it with the expectation of quick enrichment. Then the dot-com bubble burst and the Internet became what it was intended to be – a platform for personal and business communication. The same thing will happen with blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
There is still a political aspect…
Yes, blockchain is more than just technology. It is built on the idea of decentralisation. The younger generation does not want to have a centralised power over itself, which is associated with old industrial thinking – strong industrial powers that are always preparing to fight each other. Young people believe that in the digital world we can live without a single centre of power. But, by the way, cryptocurrencies here are not the most successful example. We are used to believing that they are decentralized, but in fact, this is not so: most of the miners are owned by venture companies. Power again fell into the hands of people with money.
I know development teams that are already creating the next blockchain – an improved version that will not give in to control. As technology advances, old power systems will collapse. Yes, people with money still run the game, and they might last another five, ten, who knows, maybe twenty, thirty years. But everything is changing – youth no longer wants to play by the old rules.
Nevertheless, the competition between the powers has not disappeared. For example, Europe is increasingly lagging behind the United States and even China in terms of technology. Amazon, Facebook, Google – these are all American companies.
In fact, Europe is far ahead, although many do not understand this. Europe is the only continent with very humanist ethics, which can only prevail in the longer term. In Europe, we have respect for each other, a thousand-year philosophical and cultural tradition is alive there.
The US is still dominated by old thinking and ego-profit-seeking corporations. This system is doomed to collapse. The world is moving in a completely different direction – to make all decisions in the interests of people, to build a happy and safe society. And Europe is at the forefront of this movement. In the US, people are unhappy. The well-being of the middle class there has long come to an end: over the past 30 years, its standard of living has not grown.
In China, the wealth of the middle class is growing, but the state tightly controls citizens. People do not imagine a happy life like that! The main question that is associated with technology is not “what will they allow us to achieve in the future?” but “what kind of life will we humans choose?” I believe in a future that is consciously chosen on the basis of human values.
“The current generation has less wealth than their parents’ generation”
Let’s put the social injustice system in the US aside. You can’t deny that powerful American corporations can squeeze smaller European companies to the sidelines?
America has very strong businesses, I agree. But if consumers refuse to use their products, these corporations will quickly become an anachronism. For example, when Facebook was accused of abusing user data, the social network lost many customers. Among my friends, no one uses it. People are not stupid and quickly understand what’s what. I believe that it is time for the world to change the paradigm of thinking.
Our current way of thinking is based on a four-hundred-year-old rationalistic tradition. We try to approach everything from a logical point of view. What about the other human qualities that we love – the ability to dream, collaborate and create? These characteristics will be increasingly important in the age of machines. After all, machines are pure ratios: they can only do what is based on logic.
What will be the role of Russia in this new world?
Russia needs to return to its origins, to draw strength in its culture. Now your country is not very popular, due to the press abroad, they rarely talk about it – everyone is attracted to what the United States and China are doing. Russia needs to believe in its own strengths, correlate goals with its values, and start developing a vision of prosperity for its citizens.
It seems that technology does not help to solve social problems. For example, aggregators have actually increased the stratification of society into billionaires – owners of technology and “poor Uber drivers”. What is there to do?
This is another example of how we stumble upon the same rake: we are trying to build a new system in the old paradigm. Now we are sending children to school so that they learn the basics of the old industrial system and get prepared for work that will no longer exist. You need to change the rules of the game at the system level, think about how best to distribute wealth.
Why does it seem that capitalism is entering its final phase? Because the current generation lives worse than their parents lived. They cannot afford a car or a house any longer. Where is the progress? It is necessary to rebalance the system, to find options that will allow employees to get more from the welfare of the companies in which they work.
Is universal basic income a good idea?
This is a superficial solution. Something similar to unconditional basic income has already been operating in Europe over the past few decades: if you lose your job, you get benefits. This is normal, but you must continue to live. Many lose their jobs, and if you do not support them, what awaits us? Probably a revolution. Studies show that unemployment benefits help in reducing crime: thanks to it, people do not get down and can continue to think about their future.
Perhaps universal basic income will allow many to become freelancers or entrepreneurs. But you need to look deeper. How to prepare children for a new future? How to retrain adults to think in a new framework? Universal basic income is still an attempt to solve the problem within the framework of the existing system. We need to think beyond about how to design a different future.
Ultimately, any conversation about technology and reform depends on how to ensure a happy and meaningful life for people. This is the only thing that matters. Nothing else.