The lesson of COVID-19 is that when you’re connected to the rest of the world, there’s going to be crises.
Let’s be ready for the next ones.
The bottom drops out
Five or six weeks ago, everything was fine in the USA. We were looking forward to the early spring foreseen by Phil the groundhog in Punxsatawney, PA.
Three weeks ago, most of us had heard rumors about a virus in far-away China, but it had nothing to do with us.
Today we have panic at pharmacies and grocery stores, no toilet paper to buy, thirty years of stock market gains gone in a week. We’re headed for a deep recession, and this time it’s not only people without $400 in cash for an emergency who are fearing financial ruin.
What the other countries of the world did was interesting. The Chinese tested everyone and quarantined the infected; within two months new cases were down to almost zero. Italy was hit very hard, with many deaths, but their government responded with drastic social measures such as temporarily suspending all mortgages. In South Korea they tested everyone for free, including immigrants, and pledged not to share information with other agencies.
Everyone knew about this. And yet the US government’s first response was denial. This came partly from American exceptionalism—other people’s reality doesn’t apply to us—but we were also in a policy bind. We’d just spent decades doing the opposite of those other countries—eroding social services, privatizing everything in sight—and now we were supposed to suspend all mortgages? Test all immigrants and not throw anyone out? Close down the stock market? That didn’t look like the American way.
Fortunately, that lasted about a week and a half. As of this morning our leaders are still flailing about, but at least they‘re trying to cobble together something that looks like the rest of the world.
The next crises
The novel coronavirus is our reminder that when you’re networked to the rest of the world night and day, with signals going out and coming in constantly, sooner or later you’re going to be breached. You should be ready for this, if not scientifically then at least socially.
No one knows what we’ll pay for our delay, but everyone now gets our connectedness. Live and learn we say—as long as we do the learning. Which brings us to what’s really on our minds: Are we prepared for the much bigger, permanent crises coming down the line? The ones that aren’t hidden, that everybody can see?
For example, the robots coming to take our jobs. Our major media have been wringing their hands over this for years. And naturally, that’s now the only story our citizens have in their heads. But the truth is that automation always creates more jobs than it eliminates.
Source: Harbor Research
The problem is, they’re different jobs and they require new training. Thus many jobs of the present are going unfilled because we can’t find people to do them. And the same scenario will apply to jobs of the distant future because human beings have a unique value that machines never will. The complete replacement of people with robots is rarely the most profitable way to go. In many cases, collaboration between “cobots” and people makes much greater sense.
We’re in a labor shortage right now, even though we have plenty of tools to re-train our work force. We have online education for free or very cheap. We have a strong network of community and technical colleges. We have AR and VR teaching technologies.
Vision and leadership are what’s missing, and in light of COVID-19 that’s disturbing.
The combinatorial fusion of disruptive technologies is going to remake the world. But it takes time. In some cases, such as AI and the Internet of Things, it takes longer than anyone predicted. These ideas require the meshing of many gears, and they all have to be spinning at the same speed, so to speak. And yet everyone knows that it will eventually happen, and we should therefore be ready when it does.
It’s happening now.
You probably first heard about 3D printing fifteen years ago when very large machines spit out costly plastic demonstrations that didn’t look like the future of anything. Today, 3D printing combined with new materials science and generative AI is producing lightweight airplane wings, airline seats, tires that don’t go flat.
Add more materials and the latest medical research and you get custom-printed synthetic joints. Functioning internal organs are next. Add a host of sensors and the latest architectural design and you get the tallest wind- and earthquake-proof skyscrapers ever built. Add an interface that lets ordinary people interact with these systems and soon you have customers specifying cheap, durable custom homes built on-demand with no waste to go into landfills.
Add genetics research and a CRISPR editor and deadly diseases are a thing of the past.
The list could go on endlessly. That’s our point. There will never be an end to human ingenuity or the opportunities for people to collaborate with each other and smart machines. The exact roles will always change over time, which is apparently too scary for our prime-time newscasters. Their fearful stories are in our way. ✦