With AI progressing by leaps and bounds and several commercial humanoid robots developing fast, both knowledge jobs and manual labor jobs are on the edge of a major disruption. What will people do for work when robots can do all the work for far cheaper? Why bother learning anything when AI devices can give you any answer you need at any moment? And what kind of future are we heading toward?


In the movie Idiocracy, Mike Judge imagines a world where the stupid inherit the Earth. In this scenario, it’s because the smoother-brained types procreated recklessly while the sensible, practical Ph.D. types planned and waited for the right time to have a kid, a right time which never came, leading the dumb to simply out-reproduce the smart. Until the world was a crumbling husk of deteriorating infrastructure, toppled buildings, and dead crops watered with electrolytes.

It’s become something of a meme in recent years to say that this movie belongs in the documentary category what with the world kind-of feeling… especially stupid lately. But while Judge’s premise for how the world got to be so stupid is maybe a bit flawed and smacks of eugenics, it does speak to a potential great filter that might threaten advanced civilizations. One where the civilization’s technology outsmarts the civilization.
This is usually depicted as a judgement day scenario, when the computers and robots turn sentient and revolt against the humans, forcing them into servitude or simply eliminating them entirely, before turning the universe into paperclips. But that’s not how civilizations fall, it’s rarely overnight, it’s usually long and drawn out and regardless of external forces, usually made possible by neglect from within. Meaning if our technology overtakes us, it likely won’t be just because they got smarter, but because we got… well… dumber.
In the United States, we just finished another school year and the kids are off for summer, or whatever passes for summer these days. These are kids that were raised with an iPad in their faces, digital natives for whom the ability to access all of the world’s knowledge with just a couple of taps is second nature.

They can’t imagine a world where the answer to any question can’t be found right in their pocket. And yet they go to a school every day – usually at ridiculously early hours – and have the greatest source of information the world has ever seen taken away from them and told they need to just remember things. And read books.
I imagine this must be a very bizarre concept to them. Memory and computing, this is a solved problem, it’s all just out there, in the ether, in the cloud if you will. There’s no way they can hold as much information in their heads as they can hold in their hand. What a step backward this must feel like. Not to mention by the time they graduate, AI technology and robotics will have advanced to the point that there may be very few jobs available for humans to do.
So I’m sure the question gets asked… why even learn things anymore?
It’s… kind-of a valid question.

Before I make the argument that education will have to fundamentally change in the coming decade, I should start by pointing out that the current education system; the way we’ve been doing it all this time… It’s not very old.
The whole idea of compulsory school, of making sure that everyone in the country has a baseline level of education, that is a very, very new concept. In the grand scheme of things.

For most of human history, education took the form of apprenticeships, where people would learn a skill or trade by working underneath a master of that trade. If you were lucky. Most people just toiled in fields and rolled around in the mud.

But even if you did become an apprentice, you learned how to perform that trade, maybe some business and financial stuff, but you didn’t learn much outside of that. You just… didn’t need to.

You had blacksmiths, farmers, weavers, millers, miners, woodworkers, architects, doctors, and… scribes.
The role of the scribes was to capture and share information. And because of that, they were pretty much the only people who could read.

Even many kings couldn’t read and had all their correspondence taken down and read to them by their scribes. As time went on, literacy became a bit of a status symbol amongst the royals and nobility so institutions of higher learning became a thing. But it would take hundreds of years for the idea of general schooling to become something for everybody.
I bring all this up because in a way this all feels kinda full-circle. Once upon a time, we offloaded the maintenance of knowledge to a privileged class of people. And now… we’re starting to do it again, to technology.
We used to not learn things because that knowledge was irrelevant. Now we don’t learn things because it’s ubiquitous.

Knowledge used to be power. Now it’s everywhere.

Now some might argue that the purpose of school was never really about educating the population, it’s about creating skilled workers.

It’s about having people just smart enough that they can work the machines, to keep the economy going, or make the weapons that make our enemies go all explodey.

But even that is increasingly under threat.
Robots have been encroaching into our factories and warehouses for decades, but we’re seeing along with AI an explosion of humanoid robots designed to be easily trainable to do… well… anything we can do.

We’ll talk more about that later but what we’re seeing is that now both knowledge jobs and manual labor jobs are facing major disruptions at the same time
If you’re a kid in school, or maybe an adult who wants to go back to school, what exactly are you supposed to do? How do you prepare for this?

We’re facing a literally unprecedented situation where really the only place to look to for some kind of guidance is science fiction.

Returning to our original premise, let’s look at the movie Idiocracy.

If you haven’t seen the movie, the main gist is that our main character, who happens to be named Joe, gets frozen and accidentally forgotten and wakes up in the year 2505, so 500 years in the future. And when he wakes up, it turns out that the average IQ has fallen so much that he is now the smartest person in the world.

This character, by the way, was in the Army and was chosen for this experiments specifically because he was the most average person in the world basically. So yeah, average Joe. Who is now not so average.

So the movie spends a lot of time portraying a world where everybody has gotten so dumb that nobody can run the machines or computers anymore, everything is a dystopian mess, and it’s a big send-up of popular culture, kind-of a reductio ad absurdum statement on how dumb our society is today basically.

What they don’t spend a lot of time on is explaining how the economy works in this scenario. People do have jobs. Dax Sheppard’s character is a lawyer. And a terrible one.
There are hospitals and police and baristas at Starbucks that provide a little happy ending with their caffeine.
And don’t get me started on the waitstaff at Fuddruckers. Or… what it becomes.
So people do work and they’re obsessed with money so it seems that in this world they didn’t come up with the AI and robotics technology to put people out of work. And it does seem to be based on a capitalist system where people have to work for money.

And somehow this company stays afloat despite the fact that everybody’s incompetent.

In fact the only part of the movie that really gives a hint to the economy of Idiocracy is when Joe, as the smartest person in the world, convinces them to use water on their crops.

Again, to back up for those who haven’t seen this movie, there’s a drink company called Brawndo, it’s kinda like Gatorade or Monster energy drink and it’s basically what everybody drinks all the time, in fact they’ve been drinking it so long that they find it really weird when Joe asks for water to drink, because to them, water is what you put in the toilet.

In fact they’ve so bought into Brawndo that they use it to water their crops, while reciting the slogan that it has electrolytes that plants crave.

Anyway, the Brawndo was killing the plants and threatened a famine so he convinces them to use water instead. And this turns out to be disastrous because it causes Brawndo’s stock to go down, and they wind up firing everybody, which is a problem because literally everybody works for Brawndo.

So it’s depicted as an inevitable future where one corporation runs the world and everyone works for that one company.

This is similar situation that’s portrayed in the movie Wall-E.
In Wall-E, the world is run by one company called the Buy-N-Large corporation, who have completely trashed the planet, leading humans to escape to giant luxury liners in space, the main ship called the Axiom.

In this world, humans have become nothing more than consumers. As I said before, they’re basically infants who sit in floating recliners all day with a screen in front of their faces, consuming entertainment and buying things off the endless personalized ads which are obviously inspired by social media.

And there is some debate on exactly how the economy works on the Axiom because everything on the ship is automated and robots perform any necessary labor, but people aren’t just given everything, they seem to pay for it with ship credits. How they accrue these ship credits I’m not quite sure.
What exactly you’d call a system like this, I’m not sure – a user on StackExchange put it liek this and I think it explains it pretty well.

“It has aspects of post-scarcity combined with basic income of some sort, but it’s not socialist/communist, as there is a sense of property/ownership, the resources aren’t communally managed, and there is no labor involved.”

Now the Jetsons have an interesting take on this and I’ve always pointed to the Jetsons whenever we talk about, like, post-scarcity economies because we all want to live in the Jetsons world, but nobody wants to make the changes that would be necessary to live in that world.

Also quick aside, the Jetsons came out in 1962 – literally just a few weeks after Kennedy announced the goal of landing on the moon. Isn’t that crazy?

The Jetsons were basically a future version of the Flintstones and it only ran for one season if you can believe that, 1962-1963. With a brief revival in the 80s.
That old nostalgia circuit.

Also, I am blown away that of all the live-action remakes of animated movies and shows I can’t believe they’ve never done the Jetsons. Seriously, how cool would that be?
ANYWAY, the Jetsons features a family consisting of George Jetson, Jane, his wife, daughter Judy, and his boy Elroy. And their dog, Astro. It’s basically just designed to pipe a bunch of bad space puns into our heads.

Being that this was conceived in the early 60s, the social dynamics are pretty outdated, with George flying in to his job at Spacely Sprockets every day while his wife tends to the home and spends all his money.

Although she doesn’t have a lot to do tending her home because they have a robot housekeeper named Rosie that does most of the housework.

So yeah, George still commutes to work every day and struggles to find parking even though his car folds up into a briefcase. They couldn’t conceive of remote work back then. Although they do have a video phone.
So in this world people still have to work but George only has to work a few hours a day. Which sounds nice but again, a trope of the time was the hard-assed boss always on his case and threatening to fire him.

Robots do most of the heavy lifting and human work basically involves pressing buttons. But it still upholds the standard of the 60s with the nuclear family and the father being the lone breadwinner.

And even though he only works a few hours a day, he’s able to support a whole family and live a middle-class existence.

So while it’s never really explained in detail because they were too busy coming up with space puns, one can assume that in this scenario, George gets some percentage of the robot’s productivity shared with him.

This imagines a world where the company uses robots to do all the labor and then the spoils of that labor are shared with the employees.

And I may be talking out of my butt here but I feel like this points to the ethos of the post-war era, where people were expected to get a job and stay there for all of their working years, building a pension that they can later retire off of. I feel like there was more of a sense of shared responsibility between the employer and employee back then.

But I wasn’t around back then so again, I may be pulling an Ace Ventura here.

But when I say that this is the future that everybody wants, but nobody wants to make happen, what I mean is, people have been saying for decades that automation is a good thing because it makes each person far more productive, but that’s only a good thing when that person gets a share of the profits from that productivity. Otherwise it’s just a cost-saving measure from the company and people lose their jobs. Which is pretty much what actually happens in reality.

Because ultimately companies are more beholden to their shareholders than their employees. In our world.
Exactly how they make it work in the fictional cartoon world of the Jetsons, I’m not sure, but we’ve only got 38 years to figure this out because The Jetsons takes place in the year 2062.

But maybe the most obvious depiction of a post-scarcity society in science fiction is, of course, Star Trek
There is an entire book on this called Trekonomics, which I have not read, but I encourage you to check it out if you’re into this whole thing.

But in Star Trek the whole “system of labor to produce things that people can buy” is totally out the window because they have the replicator.

If you happen to have been living under a rock and don’t know what the replicator is, it’s kind-of like a molecular 3D printer that can basically just make whatever you want.
In the governing body of Star Trek, the United Federation of Planets, currency has basically been done away with. People don’t work in order to make money to keep a roof over their heads, but they do work.

Yeah, for a civilization that has no money, people sure seem really busy.

But according to Star Trek lore, people don’t work for money or to acquire wealth, they work to feel a sense of purpose. As Picard explains in Star Trek First Contact:

This sounds great. Also… Naive?

In the other examples I just listed, the focus is more on the system in place that accommodates for full automation but in Star Trek, it seems to require a much deeper transformation, effectively turning off everyone’s natural instinct to consume and hoarde.

That drive, that ambition that has led humans to… well basically wreck the planet, has been turned away from material possessions and wealth and toward personal fulfillment.

Value is placed in meaning and purpose instead of external things.

Which again, that sounds wonderful, and maybe in a system where literally anything you could possibly want could be created with the push of a button, maybe the whole concept of wealth falls apart and that natural drive for purpose pushes people inward. Maybe it is a natural consequence of that.

But there’s also something kinda yikesy about a society where everyone’s natural impulses have been rewired or redirected in the way the state deems appropriate.

In fact, the Borg kinda represent the dark side of that same post-scarcity coin if you will. When that kind of collective thought is taken to the extreme.

Now I know many of you are Star Trek fans and there’s a LOT of lore in this universe that I’m leaving out – anything I missed or didn’t get right, go ahead and school me in the comments.

But however you slice it, the Star Trek collectivist utopia seems impossibly far away considering where we’re starting from, unless there’s a total breakdown of society and everything has to get rebuilt from scratch.

There is also a lot of technology that would need to happen for replicators to be a thing.

Right now we seem to be heading more toward the whole, “one or two corporations running everything” model.

Whether that turns out to be like Wall-E or Idiocracy remains to be seen. But we’d better start thinking about it because the shit is about to get real.

Yep, the robots are coming.

We’ve all heard about the Teslabot, we’ve seen the acrobatics of Boston Dynamic’s Atlas robot but these machines are progressing fast.

Atlas Electric

  • Original Atlas was a tech demonstrator, this is designed to be sold
  • All electric, where the original Atlas was hydraulic
  • Set to be used in a Hyundai plant
  • Just revealed, not much info right now

Sanctuary AI’s Phoenix

  • Has possibly the most dextrous hands with 20 degrees of freedom
  • Based on an AI Robotics platform called Carbon
  • Will be pilot testing with auto parts manufacturer, Magna, who is an investor

Figure AI: Figure 01

  • Based on Open AI’s GPT-4
  • In February 2024, they raised $675 million from
    investors including OpenAI, Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos
  • Will be piloted at a BMW plant
  • Make sure and play clip of it talking

1X Technologies: Eve

  • Unlike others, this one is on wheels
  • Can be controlled remotely or operate autonomously
  • Has been available for purchase since 2019 and already in use in some warehouses
  • I think it’s as low as $16,000
  • Working on a bipedal model called Neo
    Tesla’s Optimus Gen 2
  • Getting close to ready for field tests
  • Musk suggested they’d be on sale in 2025 – don’t hold your breath
  • Tesla has their own factories they can test it in

Apptronik: Apollo

  • Developed at the University of Texas
  • NASA is involved and may use it in space situations
  • Mercedes-Benz plans to put them in factories
  • “construction, oil and gas, electronics production,
    retail, home delivery, elder care, and countless more areas.”

What does this mean?

  • He famously points to the rise of automobiles between 1907 and 1922 – this time we are the horses
  • Disruptions caused by a convergence of sensors, computer hardware and software, actuators, batteries.
  • Predicts that humanoid robots will have a cost
    capability of $10/hour by 2035 and under $0.10 before 2045
  • will eventually approach zero
  • Yes, they may be clumsy, but they are quickly getting better
  • Even if they are half the speed of humans the fact that they never get tired or need breaks gives them an edge
  • On assembly-line situations, they could be plugged in so never run out of power
  • Collective learning
  • Suggests there will be an arms race amongst countries to build this robot labor force
  • He paints this mostly in glowing terms of how this disruption will cause other dirsuptions in energy, transportation and food.
  • Also with birth rates declining, robots can take over for a shrinking labor market
  • He suggests that for the next decade or two, robots will supplement humans; doing the jobs we don’t want to do, before eventually replacing us in the labor market altogether.
  • Meaning we have a couple of decades to completely rethink economics as we know it.

Universal Income vs Universal Basic Compute

  • Sam Altman

But let’s just put the existential dread behind us and say we get that sorted out, it doesn’t answer the question – why learn anything anymore?

But people will still be people.
Yes, many people will be complacent and be happy with never having to know anything. That’s always been true.
But many people are curious and hunger for knowledge, and will seek out understanding on their own, even if there is an easier way to get the information. Many people are skeptical and need to see things for themselves. This has also always been true.

So regardless of what happens to society, there will always be some who want to learn things, who experience the joy of disparate knowledge, who revel in the ephemera of it all.

Maybe talk about emergence theory – that it’s not about memorizing a bunch of stuff, it’s about making connections between those things that you’ve memorized. The human brain after all is just a collection of cells, it’s how these cells connect with each other that makes the magic happen, that’s why it’s called a connectome. An ant by itself is nothing, but millions of ants working together creates a sophisticated society and builds megastructures. And pieces of information in the brain are just that – random information – it’s only when those pieces of information connect with each other that you get ideas and inspiration.

And ideas and inspiration are exciting. They make life interesting. They give you a-ha moments that make you re-think everything you thought you knew. They can give you purpose – and that is the biggest precursor to happiness and longevity.

So maybe in the future the education system will pivot to reflect that – teaching kids how to think more than what to think, how to be critical of the information and misinformation that they receive, and encouraging nerding out on things.

It might be based more on connecting the dots and finding inspiration in things.
I think this could be summed up by a quote by E.O. Wilson that says:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

So maybe eventually education will shift to focus on that.

So why bother learning things? Because you’re planting seeds that will later sprout into passions and interests you never knew you had.

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