Will Robots Rule? Peter Weddle Talks Circa 2118
On this NEXXT exclusive podcast, the boys interview industry icon Peter Weddle about his latest book, Circa 2118. It’s a must-read for anyone in the recruiting industry, where robotics, automation and AI are set to change things dramatically over the next 100 years. The good, the bad and the ugly are all here in this riveting interview.
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Chad: It's a Nexxt exclusive.
Joel: Dude, I can't believe it took us this long to get Peter Weddle on the show. What were we thinking?
Chad: I have no clue, dude. He's so busy. He's writing books. He has these awesome freaking conferences and stuff. Here as of late, they're even more awesome that what they used to be.
Joel: Yeah. I can't imagine why you say that. Death match.
Chad: Death match. Dude, on today's episode, we're talking technology, robots, takeover, and the light at the end of the dystopian tunnel. The guy responsible for all this, obviously, is Peter Weddle, author of Circa 2118. How the hell are you doing, Peter?
Peter: I'm doing great, guys.
Joel: Welcome to the show.
Chad: Excellent, man. Excellent.
Peter: Nice to be here. I was wondering when you guys were going to get around to inviting me.
Joel: Little warning if you have razor blades and nooses the home, you might want to put them away as we talk about this cheery book today.
Chad: You're like Joel. You need an invitation for anything to happen. It's like, you didn't invite me. Oh, shut up.
Joel: Love me, notice me.
Chad: Look at me over here, diva. For everybody out there, Peter's currently CEO of TAtech, graduate of West Point. Go Army. And also did some time at Harvard, little school, unknown school. But most notably, Peter is friend of The Chad and Cheese Show.
Chad: Provided insights to the recruiting industry for decades. Peter, the big question is: How the hell did you end up in the HR and recruiting industry?
Peter: Well, way back in the 1990s, I was a partner in the Hay Group. And if you will recall, in the early '90s, it was a very entrepreneurial period, lots of new companies being started. Everybody wanted to create a unicorn. So I bought a company called Job Bank USA, which was pre web, but arguably one of the first companies to use computers to match people and jobs. And the rest is history.
Chad: There you go. Wow. Today, there's an obvious feeling that we as human beings, unlike 1990, are moving toward dystopia, which is definitely clouding the future of the US when we talk about automation. I mean, it's everywhere. We just even posted a podcast today that was all about chat bots, the entire thing, 30 minutes, nothing but chat bots. But we see research specifically in this case from Forrester, which predicts that in the next three years, 900,000 current human jobs will be taken by machines. Boston Consulting predicts 23% of industrial jobs are going to be taken in less than two years. I mean, Peter, this is an ominous takeover that's being predicted. And your book, Circa 2118, tells that story. But I feel it also tells the tale of moving through dystopia to utopia. Can you give us kind of an overview before we start to get really deep into Circa 2118?
Peter: Well, as you've pointed out, there is a lot going on in what I would describe as the age of automation. But it's a little bit like a riptide. It's below the surface. I think a lot of people have this inherent view that this stuff is going to happen so far in the future it won't affect them. Or it's going to happen to somebody else. It's going to be all production workers and not knowledge workers, for example. And given some of the statistics you just cited, the reality is that smart machines, super empathetic, super intelligent, super strong machines are already here. And they're increasingly taking on jobs that we humans now do. And it's going to be a challenge. The opening premise of my book is the first thing we have to do is develop situational awareness. We have to understand what the hell is happening to us so that we can figure out how to get to Circa 2118 100 years down the road.
Joel: Right. Right. Peter, I'm going to get to VR headsets at some point in this interview. But before I get to that, I couldn't help in browsing the book, thinking about humans hate change, particularly change that eliminates them from the equation. And I have to think that the powers of government and/or the powers of war are going to impact the future that you've sort of laid out in your book. Give me your take on a government's role and maybe their ability to fight over resources and whatnot will impact how automation takes over in the future.
Peter: Well, I think today's governments are wholly unprepared for what's about to happen. We just went through midterm elections, and to my knowledge, not a single politician on either side of the aisle talked about what's going on in the workplace right in front of them. They have constituents who are losing jobs today to smart machines, and that's only going to accelerate. When people tell me, "Well, it'll get to the point where the government will take care of it," yeah. Well, take a look at what happened in Silicon Valley. We introduced a technology called social media. And we trusted to industry to take care of its unintended consequences. And how well did that turn out?
Peter: I think the same thing, unless we do something differently, the same thing is likely to happen with robots and intelligent machines. Right now, there's an arms race going on in this technology, and nobody's controlling it.
Chad: Peter, this is a quote from the book I thought was incredibly interesting, and I think speaks exactly to Joel's question. "The wheels of capitalism will spin even faster as we remove human friction." That's the point. There are companies that are going to make dollars much faster, margins rise, and they can report back to their boards that they're going to be making more money. And that is going to be ... And as much as the dollars that are actually greasing the wheels of politics today, can you speak to that a little bit?
Peter: Well, the way that economists deal with this challenge is they say, "Well, don't worry about it. The magic of creative destruction is going to create new jobs." Look what happened with electricity. Yes, it put candle makers out of business, but we have all these new jobs. But if you look at what has happened already with this technology, just the only data we really have is on the manufacturing line where one robot put six people out of job. Every new robot introduced puts six people out of jobs. And you have a Forrester report that says, "Hey, the good news is that this technology is going to create 15 million new jobs within the next 10 years by introducing robots and smart technology."
Peter: That's great, except it also says that at the very same time, it's going to eliminate 25 million jobs. And it doesn't take a super computer to figure out who came out on the best end of that deal. I call it creative displacement. Every time this technology is introduced, it will displace more people than it creates new jobs. And the number of new jobs will keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller, as you just described, as companies find new ways to automate what we humans will be able to do. And eventually, we're going to come to a zero sum game. There just won't be any jobs left for humans to do.
Joel: Peter, this is one of the things I struggle with in your thesis as well, is that you need people to buy stuff. Right? Henry Ford paid his workers a living wage so they could buy his cars, or buy the cars that they were making. In this future where no one has a job, nothing gets bought or sold, what's the point? Right? I mean, what exactly is the end game if commerce can't happen because no one's making any money because there aren't any jobs?
Peter: Well, I can tell that y'all didn't read past chapter four.
Chad: He didn't read any of it.
Peter: Look, it's not an idea original to me. You've got Bill Gates. You've got Elon Musk. You've got a whole bunch of people saying that these trends are already so ingrained that the country is going to have to think about doing something historic on the order of The Great Depression on steroids. It's going to have to think about installing a universal basic income in order to sustain, as you were saying, Joel, this consumer economy that we have. Short of that, the economy will come to a grinding halt. We'll have the greatest efficiency in capitalism ever achieved. And it won't be able to produce anything because there'll be nobody to buy anything unless we produce this universal basic income. I believe that ultimately companies are going to see the value of that.
Peter: I mean, even if they're taxed, which is what I'm proposing, a human replacement tax, even if they're taxed, that tax will be less than the cost of what it takes them right now to hire workers, recruit new workers when they leave, pay all those benefits. All that stuff is incredibly expensive. The tax would be less than that, but still sustain a universal basic income. And that will enable the consumer driven economy to continue on. The other half of Joel's question though is equally as important.
Peter: There will still be jobs, they will just be done by machines. And as I describe in the book, there will still be work. But for the first time in human history, you'll be able to decide what kind of work you want to do because it's work that engages you, it challenges you. You don't have to go out and do something to earn a daily living. You can go out and find work that really fulfills you. And that's one half of the premise of the new era I believe this is all going to create. It's not a dystopian future at all. I describe it as the Neonaissance, the birth of self ennoblement.
Chad: Okay. Kind of gone through the whole dystopia piece. And how in the hell did we get there? That's the part that I want to go through because that's at the end of the book. There's talk about the ennoblement and what not. Let's talk about how we get there. And talk about today, because we're seeing this, the cued assistants, the Alexas, the Google Homes, the chat bots, and how that's starting to really root itself into our daily lives, and how that will turn into the prospect of enterprise automation kits.
Peter: Well, I think that as you pointed out earlier, the economic impulse is to create generation after generation of ever more capable technology to do ever more of the work that we do each day, both at home and in the workplace, so that's going to go on. I think that the larger issue is: What are the cultural, societal, educational, governmental implications of all of that? And in the book, I describe the next 100 years as a really tough period. In fact, I call it the second middle ages. And I think that it's going to be tough for us to adjust because our institutions can't keep up. And there will be a lag time. And in that lag time, people are going to get hurt. People are going to unfortunately have their lives and their careers disrupted.
Chad: Well, what were there, three middle ages, periods?
Peter: The first middle ages had three segments. And I've tried to organize the second middle ages the same way, with three segments. Yeah.
Chad: Okay. And we're in the first right now. I mean, it's already kicked off. And we're already seeing some of the things that you're talking about in the book. We're already seeing automation taking jobs. We're already seeing, we actually talked about this on last week's podcast, where an algorithm is actually taking a board seat at an organization. You see. So these are small things that are happening that will turn much quicker as we see the outcomes provide again, it's back to capitalism. If you can widen that margin, then you can make more money, then you can report back. And obviously, you see profits. That dystopia, what does that first kind of middle ages look like? Because that to me is more of a dystopian view, but it's part of the journey that we have to go through to be able to get to that end point.
Peter: Well, I think that if you look at your newsfeed today, you'll see that there are instances where people find themselves out of work because they have been replaced by machines. There are many examples in the book. One, for example, was the US Open this year, where the highlights for the tennis tournament, the journalism that was produced, was produced by IBM Watson, was produced by a machine, not by a journalist. All of that will sort of be interesting. It won't really touch a lot of people's lives, but they'll be aware of it.
Peter: In the second phase of the middle ages, that's going to dramatically increase for a single reason. And that is because we will have reached the singularity. And the singularity is that point in time where machines finally and forever become more intelligent than humans. And peer research got together some of the leading futurists and academicians and research scientists in the country, and asked them to predict when that would happen. And the median estimate was 2040. So within two decades, we're going to remove the human friction of human intelligence, human limitations, and machines will start creating machines on their own. And that will dramatically accelerate this movement of technology into our lives.
Peter: And then as I've said earlier, we're going to be stuck with institutions, both governmental, academic, and societal, which are going to be wholly unprepared to support people in the face of all these changes. And the rest of the hundred years is going to be a struggle to get those institutions to catch up. And I spend a whole chapter at the end of the book talking about what we as individuals can do to make sure that we individually and our institutions are as prepared as possible to help us get through the next 100 years and get to this better place that I describe at the end of that book.
Joel: Billions of people on this planet live on $2 a day. And you talk about the struggles that the first world is going to have with unemployment and displacement. Talk about what the third world is going to go through in all these changes in the new reality.
Peter: I'm going to do something that a politician would never do, and say, I don't know. I don't know the answer to that question. My book was focused on what I think will happen in this country, what I think will happen after it happens here, because we are the leading and most developed economy on the planet, what will then happen in Europe, another developed economy. The third world, I think it's going to be even more horrendous. But the short answer is, I honestly don't know.
Chad: Tell us about byte-collared workers. You come up with this really ... Instead of white collar, blue collar, it's a byte-collar worker. What is a byte-collar worker? And what does that actually mean to our workforce?
Peter: Well, a byte-collar worker can be as rudimentary, if you will, in the greater scheme of the development of this technology as a chat bot. It is somebody who does some of the work of a job in the workplace. It could be the technology in a driverless car. But eventually, it will be humanoids. It will be lookalike machines. Hollywood has created this fantasy about all of these machines being harmful to humans. I think there's an equal probability that they can be helpful to people.
Peter: You've got for example, even in today's paper, a report of a company in France, a company that cares for the elderly, using a robot to help care for elderly people in places where there just aren't enough humans to go around. And people are actually becoming attached to this machine in a way that demonstrates that these machines can be empathetic. They can have the kinds of emotional ties that we think are unique to humans.
Joel: I'm curious about two institutions here in this country and around the world that obviously are important. And curious how you think automation will impact them. First off, the defense infrastructure and maybe the business of warfare. What does that look like? And also, what does education look like? Is it progressively taken over by corporations? Talk about those two items.
Peter: I think one of the biggest issue that we will face, equal to the challenge that we face with the change in climate, is controlling this technology in national defense and military affairs. I worry that this technology will be used in weapons in a way where we lose control just as we have with nuclear technology and at Three Mile Island, we've lost control, or Fukushima. These are imperfect fail safe systems. And the damage is bad enough with nuclear energy. Think about how bad it could be if we let this automated and intelligent machinery get out of control. I think that we are going to have to, within our own country, and then globally, have to develop systems, standards, safeguards, protocols, treaties, call them what you will, that will ensure that this stuff doesn't get out of control, and in an optimum sense, doesn't get into weaponry at all.
Joel: And education?
Peter: Education, I have a whole section in the book because education has been the central driver for much of what this society looks like today. And I believe that ultimately, education, like every other profession, is going to be automated. But the substance of that education is going to be dramatically different. There will be an entirely new set of degrees. There will be an entirely new set of majors. And it will all be around teaching people how to interact with, how to control, how to work with this technology in the course of their lives.
Chad: Don't you feel like we're at a tipping point with many of these jobs? We talk about autonomous vehicles. And we can't find enough drivers to actually drive semi trucks over the road. We can't find enough individuals who want to go into the United States military, and/or they don't qualify medically to be able to go into the United States military, so our ranks are lower than what we would like them to be. These are all opportunities to be able to do exactly what you're talking about, infuse technology and automation, and actually take these jobs. Is that what you're saying? Is that really at that tipping point? Do you believe that's why it's starting to happen right now in such a robust way?
Peter: Yeah. I think the war for talent is over, and machines won. I mean, these strategies, excuse me, these shortages are propelling companies into the adoption of this technology. Part of the fictional part of the book, I talk about the 2017 tax cut and jobs act. And I believe that that tax savings that these companies were given will in very short order be turned into investments in automation because right now, there are more open jobs than there are job seekers. And that's going to get worse, not better. Why would a company spend time developing new jobs for humans when they can't find the humans to fill them? Instead, they're going to take that money and invest it in machines to fill those jobs.
Chad: Not to mention if you have the opportunity to use that money to buy back stock, not to mention also to be able to create or to be able to bridge the gap that is obviously there from a human talent standpoint. You know long-term that there is a better margin no matter what. It's just a great opportunity to do it now as it is. In the book, you predict that some will deny this is even happening whatsoever. And I see you running a parallel with kind of like the climate change deniers. Kind of like, no, it's not happening. We're creating jobs. It's all good. Everybody go back to what you were doing. Do you feel that?
Peter: Sure. And there is some justification for it because this technology has for many years been over hyped. It's been captured by huskers and hucksters and been falsely described as being a part of every product. If you go to some conferences today, walk through the exhibit hall, every single product is described as having AI machine learning in it. And in point of fact, many don't. But that doesn't change the fact that this technology is every single day growing more capable, more able to take on jobs. And I do think we've reached a tipping point where there is enough reality that people can no longer ignore it.
Joel: For those of us with small children, Peter, what sort of parenting advice would you give to make sure that kids are prepared for this future, and they're not living in the basement for the rest of their lives?
Peter: One of the things that I propose in the book as part of the change in government that we need is a truth in education act, just as we have a truth in food products, and we require food products to be labeled as to what they contain. I believe that higher education must be forced to describe what the prognosis is for all of the majors they have offered to their students, so that we don't send a bunch of kids to school for subjects that will put them in the fields that will be obsolete three years after they graduate. We have that happening right now. And I think that the educational community needs to do a much better job of being transparent about what can be utilized in the world of work and what can't.
Peter: That doesn't mean a person can't take a course if they want to. They just need to be aware of what's happening to them. And then I believe for young kids today, and even for older kids, if you're going to be able to work with machines, you have to have a grounding in STEM. And that's whether you wear a blue collar, no collar, or a white collar. You have to be conversant with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Chad: In the book, we all know the first middle ages had plagues. In the book, you talk about plagues that are actually going to be happening in our middle ages. Right? But these are plagues that are much different than what happened before in Europe. Tell us about those plagues, and tell us how you actually see some of the current events really kind of driving the whole thought process behind them.
Peter: Well, I think that as with the original black plague, there are actually three plagues that are taking place and will take place over the next 100 years. One I describe as the oligarchical plague. And this is the reality that we have a growing cabal of oligarchs in this country, people who are so wealthy and have so much money that they literally influence the course of our government, the course of our business affairs, and pervert in many cases the way businesses are run, particularly the investment cabal on Wall Street, so that's one.
Peter: The second is a betrayal plague. And this is a political governmental class that is captained by the K Street lobbyists in Washington DC. And rogue elements of our law enforcement and entertainment and government and public institutions that are abusing and debasing women or minorities and the powerless. And finally, the factional plague, which is all about the ongoing conflicts between people in religions and white supremacists and immigrants and people who are straight and people who are members of the LGBTQ community and so forth. I think there's a lot of societal rot, if you will, in the country. And we're going to have to overcome those three plagues in order to get ourselves healthy enough to solve the challenge imposed by this technology.
Joel: Do you think that in the end, this is, I hate to say communism wins, but the future you're sort of outlining, painting, sounds a lot like communism. Am I off base there? And if so, what happens to religion and nation states in the future?
Peter: That's a fair question. And in fact, I address it in the book. It is not communism. The profit, motive, and the private sector remain alive and well in this new vision, this Neonaissance that I describe. What is different are the individual pathways that people have to fulfillment and to tranquility, things that they've had precious little time to work on in the past because they were committed to paid employment. The only way that they could keep food on the table and a roof over their head was to go to work for somebody else.
Peter: Well, if you believe that we will get to the point, we will get smart enough that we will recognize that a consumer economy needs people who have the money to consume, and we solve that problem, if we get to that point then we will be able to free people up. It's almost like a real emancipation in the sense that they will finally have the time. They will finally have the support. But most importantly, they will have the reason to begin to focus on these things which ennoble them. And it's that nobility, that unique aspect to access to fulfillment and to tranquility which ensure that human beings will remain a superior creation on the planet. Machines may be smarter than humans as early as 2040, but they will never be able to aspire to that nobility that human beings have access to.
Chad: As we talked about before, rich people are obviously going to start to understand that, yeah, all the margins are great. But the product and services, people need to buy it. And if we get rid of the humans, then we're not paying people. If we're not paying people, then people can't buy stuff. And then guess what, we're creating all these products and services that really go nowhere because nobody has money to buy it. So when would universal or basic income actually kick in? And what would actually push that? That would obviously be a political government necessity. But how far do we get down the rabbit hole before something like that happens?
Peter: Well, I think tragically, we will go pretty far down the rabbit hole before there will be enough incentive for the federal government and our other institutions to make the changes necessary. I hope that's not the case. But again, using newsfeed realism, extrapolating from what we already know is real into a fictional future, I think that the next 100 years looks like today's reality on steroids. So the same kind of inertia that we see in Washington DC right now will exist until we get to the point where the crisis is so great ... I mean, there are analogs here. We know historically that the situation got so bad in The Great Depression that there were literally riots in the street. People in Congress actually feared that there was going to be a revolution by people who were out of work.
Peter: Well, sadly I think the if you extrapolate from that reality in the future, we will, unless somehow we get smarter and more aware of what's about to happen, we will go through some of that pain before we will get to a resolution. This book, you described it in the beginning as dystopian. I believe it's optimistic because in the end, I believe we will turn the corner. We will find a way out of this very dark time, these middle ages, and create the kind of future that people deserve.
Chad: And I believe the book, it's really the journey to utopia. But you go through a dystopian era, pretty much, to get to utopia. That being said, let's talk about that. You talk about nobility and robots. I mean, really, in this case they become ... They're really the infrastructure which makes everything else happen while we sit back. And we get to focus on not work. The only work that we have to do is what we want to do. We have a basic income. So talk about that, and then talk about the levels of society. Obviously, you're still going to have the ultra rich. But are there several layers beyond that? How does that actually play out?
Peter: Well, thanks to the universal basic income, I believe that we will have a largely classless society. Now before people jump off buildings and scream communism or socialism, I'm not suggesting that is all. I believe that the largest class will be a middle class, but it will be so large that I believe it will be renamed the omni class. It will cover all people except the very, very rich, a .1/10th of a percent of the population. But everybody else, thanks to the universal basic income, will have a reasonably what used to be described as a middle class standard of living. The difference is that instead of working for themselves, as we describe free agents today, they will be able to work on themselves. And what that means basically is that there are two things that differentiate people, and in my view will always make them superior to machines.
Peter: And that is, A, they have a life. They can feel passion. They can be in love with a certain kind of occupation and be fulfilled by applying it in what they believe is meaningful endeavors. And secondly, they have a soul. Pugh did a research and found that over 80% of all Americans describe themselves as spiritual. Those are questions that machines will never understand, those big questions of where we come from and where we're going and how we relate to the cosmos. And answering those kinds of questions, or exploring them at least, is what provides people with tranquility. And those two outcomes, fulfillment and tranquility, I believe are what exalt the human spirit. They are what make us unique. I describe it as ennoblement. The difference being that I a democratic society, we're not going to be ennobled by somebody wearing a crown. But instead, we are going to be able to ennoble ourselves.
Joel: And let's end the interview right there, Peter. That's a great sort of encapsulation of the book. We appreciate your time. We know you're a busy guy. Look, for those listening, if they want to read the book or learn more, where should they go?
Peter: They can find it on amazon.com or the TAtech book store.
Joel: Yep. And gain, that's Circa 2118. Peter, we appreciate it, man. Hope you come back and visit us again. And if nothing else, we'll see you at the next TAtech show.
Peter: I look forward to it, guys. Thanks.
Joel: We out.
Chad: We out.
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