Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Future Work

I had a brief chat with Georges Corriveau this morning that got me to thinking about the future of work. Specifically, I was thinking to myself, if I were just starting out in the world, where would I focus my interests?

I think back 35 years or so when I was just getting started (has it been that long?) and my first post-secondary courses out of the gate were in computing science. It was pretty hard to see where it was all going to go back then, with card-punchers and line-printer output, but you could feel there was something interesting going on.

At best, the applications of computing technology back then were pretty limited - I eventually landed work running computers for seismic data processing, doing plots of the Beaufort Sea, Hibernia and North Sea exploration areas. But the attraction of computing wasn't in what it did in the oilfields - it's that it was a mixture of electronics and media. And this interested me very much.

We don't think much these days about where all this came from. We don't think about the investments we had to make not only in the engineers who created Northern Telecom, nor especially the investment in public money that paid Marshall McLuhan's salary.

Alec Bruce wrote this morning, " if you don’t invest in good ideas, for the sake of good ideas, you can hardly expect to benefit from the commercialization of new technologies and processes at the end of the cycle. That’s because ideas belong, first and foremost, to people.

"The fewer people exercising their intellectual chops in university research institutes, the fewer people remain to give industry what it most desperately needs: the ability to compete domestically and internationally."

He cites James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers: "Basic research really is what creates the scientific capital out of which applied research, practical things, commercial things, arise."

The same logic applies for individuals as much as it does governments and societies. If you plan your future around what makes money now, you'll always be chasing whatever it is that makes money now, always a bit behind, never able to catch up.

Industries and industrial ages span generations, not business cycles. This remains as true today as it did in the era of the railroad or the age of plastics. We feel what appears to be rapid change, but that is because we are so close to the ground. Looked at more globally, we've hardly sped up at all.

My conversation with George Corriveau revolved around farming and food production, agriculture and agribusiness. My first thought was that we would be foolish is we turned our backs on basic research in farming. Part of this is demand - there are 7 billion people that need food every day right now - and part of this is innovation.

I heard the other day  about a girl who grew algae under her bed to produce oil; her work won top prize in an international science fair. Now it's nice work, though of course the science of extracting oil from algae is well-established. Even the NRC has a fuel-from-algae program. But like the information sciences the generation before, what's interesting isn't the oil exploration, it's the basic scientific ideas underlying the technology.

That's why my first thought was to put the concepts of food production and algae together. And again, after a moment, to reflect on the basic medium of algae as a means to broader application, ranging from energy to food to plastics to whatever. Because algae are basically carbon extraction and conversion mechanisms - tiny small scale factories we are now learning to grow.

I'm currently falling behind in our online McLuhan reading group. But there's still enough McLuhan resonating in my brain right now to remind me that algae isn't a food source, nor an oil production technology, but rather, it's a medium, an information-bearing substrate, onto which we can (and will) write any of our needs and values.

Another thing I read about this week is the graphene supercapacitor. Graphene is essentially a mesh of carbon atoms - think of it as like chicken wire composed of bonded carbon atoms one atom thick. It's touted as the world's lightest material. Meanwhile, capacitors are things that store electricity. It's like a battery, except that it doesn't generate free electrons, it only stores them. Graphene capacitors have the potential to charge more quickly and store more electricity than conventional batters (good thing, too - the world supply of lithium is limited).

Well, if you can grow oil, you can grow graphene. All you need are tiny carbon extraction and manipulation factories, like selected algae strains. Or genetically enhanced algae strains. Or other forms of microbial life.

So, if I were looking at a career in 2013, thinking about what I would want to be a world-leading expert in by, say, 2050, I'd be looking at a career in carbon.
I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Benjamin: Yes, sir. Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? Benjamin: Yes, I am. Mr. McGuire: Carbon.
But what does that mean, exactly? Well, at this point in time, it means getting a basic education in organic chemistry and the life sciences. Not so much medicine, because it's so consumer-driven. But basic biology. Genetics. Microbiology. In the way I learned how to program in the 1980s, I would today be wanting to learn how to make new forms of life do things I want them to do.

Tiny life forms will be the dominant technology of the mid-21st century. We will use virii as DNA and anti-cancer delivery systems. We will microlife them instead of ink to create objects in 3D printers. It will produce our food and energy storage systems. We will learn to see ourselves not as single entities but as complex organisms composed of microlife, and learn about how to manipulate and regulate our internal microcosms.

I could go on along this vein, but you get the idea. I don't know today what the carbon culture will look like, no more than I could have predicted where the silicon culture would lead us in the 1980s. But list like I could feel a sense of something developing in electronics, I can get the idea of something developing in 21st century bionics.

And I'd be telling the youth of today (like my father told me, in an earlier generation) to become an expert in this new technology - don't worry about the job, the work, the income, worry about developing that capacity and expertise, so that you live, breathe and speak bionics - if you in the next generation can become as familiar with the carbon atom as I became with the bit, then you'll be in a good position.

That may feel like a long way from farming. But it isn't - not really. As McLuhan would observe, they're both part of the same industry.