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.

Chad: Excellent.

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.

Peter: Absolutely.

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?

Joel: Right.

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.