All futurists are wrong, some less than others.
Whenever listening to someone pontificate about humanity’s future there are usually two major stories being told. One is utopian where everything is perfect (heaven). The second is dystopian where we’re all doomed for eternity (hell). – It sounds a lot like a book I was told to read as a kid… Hmm…
But the one thing that is certain about all of these different predictions is that they’re not guaranteed. That’s why we call it “the future”. Each fictional scenario we come up with is still unfolding and every action we take today has a direct impact on the outcome for tomorrow. This is the mindset Yuval has taken in this week’s book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”.
The title here is a bit deceiving… A more accurate title would be “21 Questions for a terrifyingly uncertain future”. Ha! Yuval does a great job coming up with some crazy sci-fi futures based on the current technological developments today, but I find it useful to a point when it gets a little old… Kind of like when you go to a beautiful museum, but after an hour of art you slowly become desensitized to the beauty.
Instead of regurgitating the book, I’ve pulled out the most interesting and practical ideas.
The final trinity
There are many concerns for humanity today and in the future, but the three that Yuval consistently came back to throughout this book were a nuclear war, ecological collapse (e.g. climate change), and technical disruption (AI + Biotech). After a bit of thought, I’ve mostly come to agree with Yuval… When you think about all the possible scenarios that could completely wipe out humanity or make living on Earth a horrible experience these three tend to pop out in some way.
The one that scares Yuval the most is the same that keeps me up at night, which is tech disruption. There are many reasons why AI + biotech is a terrifying combination, but I’ll give you two…
Mystery – Of the three concerns he’s mapped out “Tech Disruption” is the most mysterious. The AI race happening today is only happening between a few countries (China, the U.S., & a few others), which means there’s a big chance this power will be consolidated into a few hands. This race isn’t slowing down anytime soon and any global safety frameworks agreed on will be a formality that neither country follows, which leads to both countries secretly developing these algorithms faster. Plus, as biotech evolves and we’re able to understand and manipulate our genetics the more useful this AI will become when catering to our wants/needs.
Unknown – It’s not all bad… The thing with “tech disruption” there’s always a positive to every negative. This not-so-subtle tradeoff we’re making as biotech and AI evolves boils down to a utopian or dystopian future. Sadly, it’s all unknown, so as we work quickly on building out this tech we’re keeping our fingers crossed that it ends positively.
My question to you is… What are you willing to outsource to AI? – The obvious answer might be NOTHING… But… Imagine a world where AI can track all your vital signs in your body constantly and then nudge you towards behaviors that prevent cancer, early aging, etc. I’m pretty sure I’d let AI take over in that area.
The “Useless Class”
1% of the population holds 50% of the world’s wealth… Or seen another way… The top 100 wealthiest have more money than the bottom 4 billion. This socioeconomic gap is massive, but it’s only going to grow.
The “useless class” is a term created by Yuval in this book purposely to scare and bring attention to this topic. In the past humanity has gone through some major changes in the world of work and monetary value, such as the agriculture revolution or the industrial revolution. The thing you need to keep in mind for both of these is that the labor force was able to transition from one low-skill job to the next, without too much damage – Moving from farms to factories.
In the future, this transition won’t be an option. In the short term, we’re aiming to replace all repetitive work, manual work, and eventually lower-level intellectual work… Leaving a huge portion of humanity jobless, but even worse they’ll begin to fall into Yuval’s wording as “useless”.
When there’s no work you’re able to do because the majority of it’s been automated away, then you start to ask yourself “What value do I bring to society?”. If we’re no longer functioning as a faithful cog in society’s well-oiled capitalistic machine, then what’s our purpose?
Universal Basic Income can solve some of the issues, but not the most important – Our collective psychology… When we no longer have a task or career to identify with, then where will we derive our meaning? This is a question we’ll face sooner, rather than later.
In the talks Yuval gave while promoting this book, it’s interesting to see that more than half of the questions from the audience were around this idea of a “useless class”. Russell Brand goes on an interesting rant in this interview, opening my eyes to how our traditional system of valuing others based on their monetary contribution and ability to produce is a little f****** up.
The Ultimate Future Skill
So if most of the jobs are going to be automated away over time, then what skills should we learn today? – This was another common question from a majority of the audience…
Yuval’s answer is a surprising, but very important one.
Psychological and emotional adaptability. Why this instead of something related to Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (S.T.E.M.)?
While machine learning continues to evolve our understanding of what future skills are relevant disappears. Meaning it’s impossible to predict what skills will be useful in 5, 10, or 15 years. The one thing we can predict is change.
Every 5 – 10 years we will need to consistently change our careers, which is an emotionally daunting task. Having the ability to detach from your old identity and attach to a new one will be the most useful skill of the 21st century.
An analogy from the book sums this up well…
Traditionally we built our careers similar to how we build sturdy homes, with a strong foundation deeply rooted in the ground. In the 21st century, we should build our careers similar to tents, so we’re able to quickly pick them up and move when needed.
From personal experience, I know this is difficult. I would recommend for anyone undergoing this deidentification process to journal like crazy… We all tell ourselves fictional stories consciously and subconsciously, but it’s the subconscious stories that mainly run the show. By proactively creating new positive and useful stories through journaling this process of transitioning from one identity to the next is way less painful.
Behind the scenes
After watching many talks Yuval has given about this book I came across four interesting useful ideas I plan on applying to my own life… Something you might find useful as well.
- Mapping the future – When Yuval pontificates about possible futures humanity could face he forces himself to think through multiple futures (5 minimum), instead of a single future. They’re all going to be wrong, but some less than others. He stressed that no scenario is guaranteed, so it’s our responsibility to shape the future ensuring humanity benefits instead of collapsing.
- Reading Books – Yuval has a unique approach to choosing the books he reads and how he goes about reading. He starts many books (roughly 10). Mentioning that all books are created equal and he tries not to discriminate against any book. With that said he’s ruthless when it comes to quitting books – of the 10 he’s started he stops 9 within the first ten pages. Then after 100 pages, he considers stopping again if the book hasn’t said anything interesting, useful, or novel. This open, but ruthless approach is something I appreciate and plan on incorporating into my own reading routine.
- Big questions – In today’s world it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information, especially when you’re aiming to go the self-learning route. Yuval avoids this overwhelm when exploring new topics with a simple tactic. He starts with a big relevant question, then consumes everything in relation to this question from multiple disciplines (e.g. biology, physics, philosophy, history, economics, etc.), using this question as a guiding light. This is a tactic I’ve found useful in the previous months as well.
- Flipping Perspectives – Yuval has a unique perspective on most topics and this shows through his writing and conversations. This muscle he’s built over time comes from years of practicing “perspective flipping” where he takes a traditional perspective and flips it on its head. There’s a great agriculture example from his first book Sapiens – When learning about the agriculture revolution instead of taking the traditional perspective of humans domesticating agriculture, Yuval instead, takes the perspective of the Wheat and how it’s actually domesticated, humans… This is a muscle I plan on developing throughout my process of learning and sharing new ideas.
If you’re intrigued by these four ideas, I highly recommend you check out the four interviews linked above.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a quote from the book that actually made me say “wow” out loud.
“When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful” – Yuval
Until next time my fellow wanderers! 😉