Three Stories for the Future of Food

A large future-oriented organization has recently asked me to write three stories about the future of food in 2050. The organization’s researchers came up with three scenarios for the future of food – a dystopian one, a positive one, and a neutral one (“Business As Usual”) – and I was recruited to write a story about each scenario.

The organization in question gave me permission to share the early drafts of these stories here, so – here they are, and I hope you enjoy them. Comments are always welcome.

 

The Son, the Father, and the H. Cockroach – a story for the dystopian future

“Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”       – Genesis 9:3

 

If there’s one thing I hate worse than cannibals, it’s interrogating them.

“Tell me what you did,” I steadied my face and let no feeling show. “We already found your son’s corpse, half-eaten. We know you were there. Let’s get this over with.”

The suspect, shackled securely to the interrogation chair, just stared at me with no expression. I banged my fist on the table.

“Tell me! You weren’t starving like everyone. I saw your house, your lab. You’ve got some money on you. You have food. So why did you do it?!”

Instead of answering, he asked me a question of his own. His voice was thick, hoarse.

“Do you remember the day the ocean rose up and swallowed New York City? That same year, in 2035, Mumbai and Osaka were also gone. Nothing remained the same after that. That was the year my son was born.”

I grated my teeth. I could never make up my mind which of the cannibals were worse: the total whackos, or the cold-hearted ones. This guy looked like a prime material for the first category. But I let him go on. He was probably digging his own grave here.

“Tammer was beautiful.” The man said slowly, almost to himself. He wasn’t even looking at me. “When the world starting going mad, he kept me sane – I had to look after him, after his mother died in the first food riots. Even when the hurricanes came and destroyed all the crops, I made sure he still had something to eat. I paid for milk, for food, and when I had to, I stole it. All for him. And after a few years like that, of travelling from one ruined city to another, I finally settled down with the H-cockroaches.”

I felt my upper lip curling, but didn’t say anything. The son’s body was discovered in the farm.

“It’s a small farm.” He said, still staring into the air. “When Tammer was just ten years old, he got excited about the H-cockroaches. Thought they could be used to feed everyone. I told him nobody likes to eat cockroaches, but he was right. What else can you grow when the weather is so volatile that no field remains safe for long? When even the most fertile soil is parched into sand, and no water is available? I started farming H-cockroaches, yeah. Nobody liked it – some people got sick to their stomachs when they saw the farm from the inside. But they all bought the meat flour anyway. They wanted to survive. For me it was a way to earn money, but for Tammer… He actually felt like he was saving the world.”

The man drew a shaky breath.

“Right up to the point when they ate him.”

people-1550501.jpg

Dystopian story – Second Part

“The H-cockroaches ate your son?” I struggled with the concept. “Seriously? That’s your defense?”

The suspect looked resigned.

“I know it sounds crazy – ” He started. I didn’t let him finish.

“Not crazy. Just a damn poor excuse! Admit you’re a cannibal, and let’s get it over with. You were just hungry, right? We found your son’s skeleton with no flesh left on it. I understand. Everybody is hungry today. Nobody has enough to eat. Just say the words, and we’ll stop all this beating around the bush and send you to – “

“He wanted to help everyone.” The man interjected. “He knew how bad things were around the world. He always said that the H-cockroaches were a good start if we wanted to bring food to everybody’s table. Those genetic engineers who created them really knew what they were doing, before everything went to hell. That’s why they nicknamed them holy cockroaches. They’re full of fats, proteins, sugars, can live in dense environments and eat pretty much anything. They’re much better than any other insect anyone ever tried to grow for food, but they’re just not good enough. They lay too little eggs.”

“I don’t care about the H-cockro – “

“You should care!” He slammed his shackled fists on the chair’s armrests. Then he lowered his eyes, and repeated in a whisper. “You should care, because my son did what nobody else could: he found a way to influence them. Where all the experts had failed, he actually made a breakthrough. He found out that they like meat.”

I snickered. “Everybody knows H-cockroaches like to eat meat. Too bad there are almost no cows left. And yeah, they’ll eat human corpses too. So what?”

“Not corpses.” He said. “And not animals. The one thing that really makes them go nuts is human meat. And not dead, either.” He paused to take a shuddering breath. “I don’t know why that is. Why do lobsters taste horrible if you kill them before you cook them? Probably some chemical we release at the moment of death, or – or something. But Tammer found out that if he… if he let them bite him… nibble on his skin… they would lay more eggs…”

I felt the bile rising in my throat, and had to swallow several times.

“When they became more ferocious, he wanted to stop,” he whispered. “But I told him to go on. We needed the money. We had more H-cockroaches than ever. I was going to rent another farm, but then, today some of the seals broke loose when he entered the farm. The H-cockroaches, they knew him by then. They… they knew his smell, his taste. They…”

He could not go on. Neither could I. I stood up shakily and went to the interrogation room’s door.

That was when the Monsantec executive came into the room.

“Sergeant.” He said briskly. “Please leave the room. This man is ours now.”

giant-hissing-cockroach-77069.jpg

Dystopian Story – Third Part

I stated at the Monsantech man. The fact he was even here, in the innermost sanctum of the police station, showed just how much power large firms held over the authorities today. Or maybe just how easy it was to bribe officers today. Both, really. But I wasn’t letting my prisoner go that easily. I looked the man in the suit square in the face.

“This man is a criminal – “ I began, before he cut me off.

“I listened to the conversation from outside the door.” He said briskly. “And sergeant, I don’t care what you think he is. He’s ours now, and you’d best forget all that you heard here. Forget this ever happened.”

“Why?” I demanded. “What do you want with him?”

“That’s none of your business, sergeant.” He replied easily. “Now, do I have to… call the police?”

I tensed. He must’ve had connections in high places, and money to spend on creating connections in lower ones. Still, I refused to give up any ground.

“You want his technology.” I guessed. “You want him to teach you to grow better H-cockroaches.”

I watched his face carefully. It didn’t budge.

“But… you don’t really need him.” I went on, fumbling through the conundrum. “You already heard the secret from him. The H-cockroaches need to eat human beings while… while they’re still alive.”

The man looked at me strangely. It took me a moment to understand that he actually looked sorrowful.

“We checked the farm in question.” He said. “The H-cockroaches are proliferating wildly, laying thousands – millions – of eggs. More than Monsantech has ever managed to make them with any… conventional… means.”

“So you’re going to feed your H-cockroaches with living bodies?” I demanded. “The police may have something to say about that.”

“It’s not going to be like that.” The Monsantech man said, almost gently. “Now that we know the direction we need to take in our research, we’ll find a way to replicate the effect that live human flesh has on the H-cockroaches. Maybe it’s some human pheromone we haven’t discovered yet, or some other chemical. Give us a couple of years, and Monsantech will have the best H-cockroaches in the world – enough to feed everyone.”

His gaze shifted to the prisoner, who wasn’t paying any attention to the conversation, trapped in his own world of misery. “But until we get to that point, sir, I’m afraid your son’s sacrifice will have to remain out of the public eye. We can’t let our competitors gain that knowledge. That won’t do at all.”

He sent one last somber look my way, shook his head in resignation, and left the room while I was still gawking, dumbfounded. The door clang shut behind him. I heard the key turning and turned desperately to the exit. The hatch opened from the outside, and the executive’s voice spoke once more.

“You have my apologies, sergeant. Monsantech can’t afford having that secret out in the world yet.”

He paused, then added – “I’ll send a team to collect you soon, and bring you to our research facility. Your bodies will help us test this new approach. Your wife and kids will be taken care of, financially. We’ll tell them there was a cockroach accident. Eventually, because of your sacrifice, the world will become better place.”

 


 

A PrePac Story – A Story for the Business As Usual Scenario

“If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land;”      – Isaiah 1:19

 

“I need you to talk with Tammer.” My visitor said. “To make him cut out his nonsense.”

“Your son, right?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him?”

He rolled his eyes. “Isn’t it your job to find out? You’re the shrink here. Just talk with him. He’ll probably spill everything. He doesn’t do that with me any longer.”

I crossed my legs on the therapist chair and scrutinized the father before giving an answer. His clothes indicated his wealth, as did his manners. I certainly didn’t want to lose him as a client. Still, some things needed to be said out loud.

“I’m a psychoanalyst.” I agreed. “And I can certainly meet with your son. But the more information you can give me about his issues, the better – and more quickly – I can help him deal with them.”

The man gave an impatient sigh, then stood up and started pacing around the room.

“You know about PrePacs, right?” His tone indicated that a negative answer would not be well accepted.

“Yes, of course.” I told him. Everybody knew about PrePacs. “What about them?”

“I invented them.” He said curtly. “Years ago.”

I nodded. That would explain his wealth.

Then, I waited.

He didn’t take well to the silence. Rich men never do.

“Everybody told me it would be a mistake.” He growled. “The dietitians said the PrePacs had too much sugar in them, too much fat. But I knew that was what people really wanted. And look where we are today: almost everyone has at least one PrePac a day. We have PrePacs for carnivores, for vegetarians, for vegans, you name it. Hell, we even have PrePacs for babies.”

“Some…” I cleared my throat and smoothed my dress. “Some say they’re practically addictive, with all that sugar. And certainly unhealthy.”

“Bah,” he waved the comment away. “Of course my competitors would say that. But because of PrePacs, even the poorest beggar on the street can still feed himself. Nobody goes hungry anymore.”

“And… Your son? Tammer?” I reminded him gently.

“Tammer.” His face contorted, and the mask of self confidence slipped away. His eyes were anguished. “Nobody goes hungry, except for Tammer.”

 

Business As Usual Story – Second Part

For a boy whose father invented the PrePacs, Tammer was awfully skinny. He looked like a good kid. Big brown eyes, earnest expression, determination shining through. He didn’t waste time after coming into my office.

“I know why my father sent me to see you.” He said without preamble. “I’m not going to do it.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Do what?”

“Stop my hunger strike.” He said. “I’m not eating anything solid, until he gets rid of the PrePacs. Takes them off the shelves. Denounces them publicly.”

I held my tongue again. Like father, like son. He couldn’t deal with the silence either.

“Those things are an abomination.” He said heatedly. “Have you seen the statistics about obesity? The year is 2050 and we only now beat world hunger, yay for us. But 75 percent of all people are obese. Of those, nearly half are morbidly obese – so they suffer from a higher frequency of heart diseases, diabetes, asthma, even cancer! And you know what’s more?”

I kept quiet. He leaned forward with a feverish look in his eyes.

“You know who’s obese? The bottom 80 percentile of society. Not people like you or me or my father. The rest of humanity. The ones who can’t afford fresh food, or don’t have time to cook a healthy meal for themselves because they have to take on two or three jobs just to support their families. They’re the ones who buy the PrePacs. It’s poison for them and for their kids – but they keep eating it.”

“And you’re not willing to be part of it.” I reasoned. “So you’re starving yourself, to make your father see sense.”

He sat back in his chair, suddenly tired. I could see his cheekbones, sharp and distinct under his thin skin. How long has he not eaten any solids? His body was obviously wasting away.

“Tell me something,” I said, “have you considered that maybe, just maybe, your father doesn’t realize the effect PrePacs have on people, because they don’t impact the people he really cares about…?”

apple-196935.jpg

Business As Usual Story – Third Part

“You’re a genius, doc!” The father stormed into my office. “I don’t know how you did it, but he’s filling up again!”

I raised my eyes from my notebook. It’s been an entire month since I last saw Tammer, and I figured his father had simply given up on my services.

“Welcome back.” I said. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“It only took a day after you had your little pep-talk with him.” He announced. “And then he started eating again. And not just any kind of food, but my own brand! He’s consuming PrePacs like there’s no tomorrow – five of them every day! That’s the best outcome I could look for!”

I looked at the picture he put on my table. Tammer was not nearly as gaunt as before. His cheeks seemed to be bulging, a somewhat yellowish expression to his face. He was in the middle of shoving an entire PrePac into his mouth.

Alarm bells began clanging softly in my mind.

“I strongly advise you to talk with him.” I said. “Tammer is using the PrePac diet to get you to understand his concerns. He wants you to become more emotionally connected to his struggle against obesity. If you don’t pay heed, you may find that his overeating may be just as harmful to his health as his hunger strike.”

“Nonsense.” He dismissed my words. “The PrePacs are totally healthy. They feed the world. Everyone loves them.”

“Nonetheless,” I said, “I know it’s none of my concern, but maybe it’s time to cut down on some of those sugars and fats in the PrePacs? Maybe talk it over with Tammer and reach some kind of an agreement? You know, whatever’s in those PrePacs is going to affect him directly now.”

“I’ll think about it.” He promised. Then thought some more. “We made the world a better place already, and we can make it even better, like you say. Maybe the PrePacs can be healthier. But not right now. Once we control the market and I can be sure our competitors can’t outflank us somehow, we’ll change some components of the PrePac. It’ll happen eventually.”

He left shortly after that, and I was left with my thoughts. I took another look at Tammer’s picture, in which obesity started settling in, and wondered who will give up on the PrePacs first – the son, the father, or the world.

chocolate-2202123.jpg

 

 


 

Together – A Story for the Optimistic Scenario

“Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.”      – Proverbs 15:17

 

I opened my eyes groggily, and remembered what day it was, and what had to happen today. My son Tammer was still working in the U-farm, so I had some time for myself. I brushed my teeth slowly, then moved on to the kitchen for my daily breakfast. The super-oven recommended an omelette with beans and spinach, for my heart. I accepted, and watched dully as the robotic hands worked deftly with the kitchen tools, complemented by nozzles that could spray dough, egg whites, molten cheese or even meat, to create an infinite variety of delicious dishes. It only took a minute before the smell of sizzling scrambled egg filled the kitchen.

I ate without much joy. I didn’t want to go on with the day. We could become rich today, but at what price?

The omelette was soon gone from the plate – even as morose as I felt, I couldn’t help but enjoy the taste, which was suited specifically for my taste buds. I rose up from the chair, and opened the door into the U-farm, where Tammer was already tinkering with the robots.

I paused for a moment to look at him. Really look. He was about to turn 16 soon, as was pretty clear from his body. He was tall and gangly, his unkempt hair falling in tangles around his face, and he kept blowing it up from his eyes while he worked on his drone. He raised his eyes to me as I entered the room, and smiled.

“You’re gonna love this one, Dad.” He said excitedly, and hoisted up the drone. “I just finished working on it. It’s the upgraded version of the robot I showed you last week, and it’s going to – “

“To change the world.” I completed his sentence with him. He laughed in agreement, and released the drone into the air. It immediately flew out of the open window.

I raised my eyebrow at Tammer.

“Just wait.” He promised. “Poachy will be back soon.”

“Poachy?” I asked.

“Its name!” He said exasperatedly. “Watch!”

It only took a minute before Poachy came back, buzzing quietly into the room. It carried a basket, and from what I could see, it was full of apples. Tammer waved at the robot, and it turned towards him. One mechanized claw reached into the basket, picked an apple, and threw it unerringly at Tammer’s head.

My son expected that. Hell, I was sure he programmed the robot that way, just for the show. He snatched the apple right from the air, and grinned at me. Poachy did a little dance in the air to indicate its appreciation, then landed on the floor and went silent.

“Take a bite, Dad.” Tammer offered me the apple.

I bit into it. Fresh, crisp, sweet and sour at the same time. Better than any apple I’ve ever had before.

“Good, right?” Tammer smiled at me. “It was plucked from the apple tree that grows on the roof next to us, on the top of the neighboring skyscraper.”

“Stolen, you mean.” Said a stranger’s voice, and we both turned around in surprise. My heart sank in my chest.

It was time for Tammer to meet his new employers.

dji-4208863_1920.jpg

Story for Optimistic Scenario – Second Part

I went to the visitor and shook his hand. He was meticulously well-groomed, and fashionably attired in a three part business suit. I could feel Tammer’s eyes on the back of my head.

“Welcome to our U-farm.” I said, fumbling with the words. “Sir.”

The man nodded at me, then glanced at Poachy.

“Let’s see if I understand it correctly.” He said. “You programmed this robot – all on your own and with no assistance – to autonomous fly to a neighboring U-farm, pick up a fruit, and bring it over to you. Is that right?”

Tammer didn’t hesitate. He was proud of his creation.

“Yes sir.” He said excitedly. “But – but it didn’t steal the fruit. I asked the U-farm owner for permission, and he agreed to it.”

“I see.” Said the visitor. “But the robot could, hypothetically, reach into any U-farm, right?”

Tammer bobbed his head. “Yeah, that’s the idea. The city is packed full of U-farms – urban farms. Every skyscraper holds dozens of them, with open windows to let the air in. Every rooftop provides food today. But it takes a lot of time to get the food off from the rooftops, process and redistribute it via the commercial retailers – the supermarkets and the grocery stores. Poachy could change all that. It could pluck fruit straight from tree branches, or even use its hands to pull carrots and other vegetables out of the soil.”

“Stealing.” The man stated. “Stealing from hard-working farmers.”

Tammer’s eyes narrowed. “Most U-farms today are owned by Monsantech anyway, and only robots work in them.” He said with restraint. “It costs too much for ordinary people – like my dad and me – to keep a U-farm, because it’s so damn expensive to deliver the yields down the building, and the retailers pay us pennies anyway. Poachy could change that. If every family has a robot like Poachy, they could reach agreements with U-farms smallholders all around the city, so that they’ll get the best and most fresh products every day, every hour, for a fee. It would – “

He stopped and glanced at me. I kept silent. He lowered his head and muttered, “It would change the world.”

“No,” said the man. “It won’t. Because as of right now, it is no longer yours. Kindly hand it over, and make your way to the exit. This U-farm and all the robots in it are now Monsantech’s legal property. Congratulations, by the way – you are now millionaires. You can thank you father for that.”

I hanged my head low. For a millionaire, I wasn’t feeling all that swell with myself.money-2724241.jpg

 

Story for the Optimistic Scenario – Third Part

“Dad?” Tammer turned to me. “What is he talking about?”

I mumbled something. I wasn’t sure myself what it was.

“Dad!” Tammer’s voice was louder, more frantic. “What did you do?!”

“He sold us your inventions.” The Monsantech executive told him calmly. “Plus this wreck of a U-farm.”

“You can’t take them away!” Cried Tammer. “And it won’t do you any good. I issued a patent on them to protect them from vultures like you!”

“We know.” Said the man, nonplussed. “Your father was kind enough to include the patents in the deal as well.”

He crouched next to the boy, his face and tone surprisingly gentle.

“He arranged for a better future for you, boy. That’s what fathers do. And he also profited off your invention. You’ll find out that that’s what people do, too, and it’s a lesson best learned early.”

Tammer looked at me again, and the hurt expression on his face gave me some strength to resist. I glowered at the executive sullenly. “The deal is not signed yet.” I said.

He rose up to his feet again and laughed at me, the gentleness all gone. “Look around you,” he said scornfully. “Your U-farm is failing, miserably. When’s the last time you could pay for a full day of electrical power to activate the robots? There’s a reason you called us and told us about your son’s inventions. You need the money. Think about all the things you could use it for. You could quit working for the rest of your days. You could even send this fine young man to get some proper education in the best universities. The deal is practically sealed – we just need your signature on it.”

I hesitated, then turned away from him to look into Tammer’s eyes.

“We need the money, Son.” I told him. “You don’t get it, but – “

He cut me short.

“I get it, Dad. I really do. But you can’t make a better future by sacrificing what we have right here, right now! Please, dad, just trust me. I know I can make the system work better. It’s going to – “ He hesitated. “It’s going to make things better for everyone, to help so many people!”

His hand touched mine, beseeching. I could feel its heat, full of warmth and life. Full of potential for a better future. Full of an optimism which I no longer possessed. But maybe I could borrow some of it.

I closed my hand around his.

The executive clicked his pen and stepped forward expectantly. I turned to him.

“Get out.” I said curtly. I didn’t give him time to talk back at me. Tammer’s hand pulsed in mine. “Get off my property. It’s still mine, and no deal is being signed today.”

I took a shuddering breath, and went on. “I know I’ve made some pretty bad decisions in my life before, but it ends here.” I was babbling by now, tears in my eyes. “You’re not taking away my son’s future with some promises for eventual big win. Nothing’s going to get better eventually. Right here, right now – “

Tammer squeezed my hand. Neither one of us let go.

“We’re going to change the world.”

father-2770301_1920.jpg

Advertisements

Can Bots Replace Human Teachers?

“You want to order another pizza?” I suggested.

Eric just shook his head. Something was obviously bothering him, and not even Flatbread Company’s pizza (quite possibly the best pizza in the known universe, or in Rhose Island) could provide him with some peace of mind.

“It’s the bot.” He finally erupted at me. “That damned bot. It’s going to take over my job.”

“You’re a teaching assistant.” I reminded him. “It’s not a real job. You barely have enough money to eat.”

“Well, it’s some kind of a job, at least.” He said bitterly. “And soon it’ll be gone too. I just heard that in Georgia’s Technological Institute they actually managed to have a bot – an artificial intelligence – perform as a teaching assistant, and no one noticed anything strange!”

“Yeah, I remember.” I remembered. “It happened in the last semester. What was the bot’s name again?”

“It’s Jill.” He said. “Jill Watson. It’s based on the same Watson AI engine that IBM developed a few years ago. That Watson can already have debates about current issues, conduct scientific literature reviews, and even provide legal consultation. And now it can even assist students just like a human teaching assistant, and they don’t even note the difference!”

“How can that be?” I tried to understand.

“It all happened in a course about AI, that Prof. Ashok Goel gave in Georgia Tech.” He explained. “Goel realized that the teaching assistants in the course were swamped with questions from students, so he decided to train an artificial intelligence that would help the teaching assistants. The AI went over forty thousand questions, answers and comments written by students and teaching assistants in the course’s forum, and was trained to similarly answer new questions.”

“So how well did it go?” I asked.

“Wonderful. Just wonderful.” He sighed. “The AI, masquerading as Jill Watson, answered students’ questions throughout the semester, and nobody realized that there’s not a human being behind the username. Some students even wanted to nominate ‘her’ as an outstanding teaching assistant.”

“Well, where’s the harm in that?” I asked. “After all, she did lower the work volume for all the human teaching assistants, and the students obviously feel fine about that. So who cares?”

He sent a dirty look my way. “I care – the one who needs a job, even a horrible one like this, to live.” He said. “Just think about it: in a few years, when every course is managed by a bunch of AIs, there won’t be as many jobs open for human teaching assistants. Or maybe not even for teachers!”

“You need to think about this differently.” I advised him. “The positive side is that there’s still place for human teaching assistants, as long as they know how to work with the automated ones. After all, even the best AI in the world, at the moment, doesn’t know how to answer all the questions. There’s still a place for human common sense. So there’s definitely going to be a place for the human teaching assistant, but he’ll just have to be the best as what he does: he’ll need to operate several automated assistants at the same time that will handle the routine questions, and will pass to him only the most bizarre and complex questions; He’ll need to know how to work with computers and AI, but also to have good social skills to solve difficult situations for students; And he’ll need to be reliable enough to do all of the above proficiently over time. So yes, lots of people are going to compete for this one job, but I’m sure you can succeed at it!”

Eric didn’t look convinced. Quite honestly, I wasn’t either.

“Well,” I tried, “you can always switch occupations. For example, you can become a psychologist…”

“There are already companies that provide psychological services on the internet, using text messages.” He said. “Turns out it’s really going well for the patients. You want to bet bots can do this too in a few years? So get ready to wave bye-bye at many of the human psychologists out there.”

“Or maybe you could become an author and write novels…” I tried to continue.

“An AI managed to write a novel this year, and it passed the first round in a Japanese literary competition.” He stated.

“Or write political speeches…”

“Computers do that too.”

“Ok, fine!” I said. “So just sell flowers or something!”

“Facebook is now opening a new bot service, so that people can open an online conversation with them, and order food, flowers and other products.” He said with frustration. “So you see? Nothing left for humans like us.”

“Well,” I thought hard. “There must be some things left for us to do. Like, you see that girl over there at the end of the bar? Cute, isn’t she? Did you notice she was looking at your for the last hour?”

He followed my eyes. “Yes.” He said, and I could hear the gears start turning in his head.

“Think about it.” I continued. “She’s probably interested in you, but doesn’t know how to approach.”

He thought about it. “I bet she doesn’t know what to say to me.”

I nodded.

“She doesn’t know how best to attract my attention.” He went on.

“That’s right!” I said.

“She needs help!” He decided. “And I’m just the guy who can help her. Help everyone!”

He stood up resolutely and went for the exit.

“Where are you going?” I called after him. “She’s right here!”

He turned back to me, and I winced at the sight of his glowing eyes – the sure sign of an engineer at work.

“This problem can definitely be solved using a bot.” He said, and went outside. I could barely hear his muffled voice carrying on behind the door. “And I’m about to do just that!”

I went back to my seat, and raised my glass in what I hoped was a comforting salute to the girl on the other side of the bar. She may not realize it quite yet, but soon bots will be able to replace human beings in yet another role.

 

Do You Want to Keep Your Job? Then You Have to be Nice

The Uber driver was being exceptionally nice to me this morning.

“Nice to meet you, sir!” He greeted me cheerily. “I see you want to get to the university. Please, come on in! Can I offer you a bottle of mineral water? Or maybe some pretzels?”

“Thanks.” I said. I looked at the ceiling. No hidden cameras there. “You’re very nice. Very, very nice.”

“Yes, I know.” His face shone in understanding. “But it pays big time. I get good grades from the customers, so Uber’s algorithm is providing me with even more passengers all the time. It just pays to be nice.”

“Oh, so you’re just like those lawyers, physicians and accountants?”

“I don’t know.” He said. “Am I?”

“Absolutely.” I said. “Or rather, soon they’re going to be a lot like you: just plain nice. The thing is, the knowledge industries – and by that I mean professions which require that human beings go over data and develop insights – are undergoing automation. That means artificial intelligence is going to perform a major part of the work in those professions, and then the human workers – the successful ones, at least – will become nice and more polite to their customers.”

“Take Uber for example.” I gestured at the smartphone at the dashboard. “Taxi drivers partly deal with knowledge generation: they receive information from the passenger about the desired destination, and they have to come up with the knowledge of how to get there, based on their memory of the roads. In the past, a mere decade ago, taxi drivers needed to know the streets of the city like the back of their hand.”

“But today we have GPS.” Said my driver.

drive-863123_1280.jpg

“Exactly.” I said. “Today, modern taxi drivers rely on a virtual assistant. It’s not just a GPS that tells you where you are. More advanced apps like Waze and Google Maps also show you how best to reach your destination, with vocal instructions at each step of the way. These virtual assistants allow anyone to be a taxi driver. Even if you never drove in a certain city in the past, you can still do a satisfactory job. In effect, the AI has equalized the playing ground in the field of taxi driving, since it lowered to a minimum the needed skill level. So how can a cabby still distinguish himself and gain an advantage over other drivers?”

“He has to be nice.” Smiled the guy at the wheel. I wondered to myself if he ever stops smiling.

“That’s what we see today.” I agreed. “The passengers are rating every driver according to the experience they had in his cab, since that is the main criteria left when all the others are equal. And Uber is helping the process of selecting for niceness, since they stop working with drivers who aren’t nice enough.”

“But what does it have to do with lawyers, accountants and physicians?” Asked the driver.

“We’re beginning to see a similar process in other knowledge-based professions.” I explained. “For example, just last week a new AI engine made the news: it’s starting to work in a big law firm, as a consultant to lawyers. And no wonder: this AI can read and understand plain English. When asked legal questions, the AI conducts research by going over hundreds of thousands of legal papers and precedents in seconds, and produces a final answers report with detailed explanations about how it has reached each answer. It even learns from experience, so that the more you work with it – the better it becomes.”

“So we won’t even need lawyers in the future?” Finally, the guy’s smile became genuine.

“Well, we may reach that point in the end, but it’ll take quite some time for us to get there.” I said. “And until that time, we’ll see AI engines that will provide free legal consultation online. This kind of a free consultation will suffice for some simple cases, but in the more sophisticated cases people will still want a living lawyer in the flesh, who’ll explain to them how they should act and will represent them in court. But how will people select their lawyers out of the nearly-infinite number of law school graduates out there?”

“According to their skill level.” Suggested the driver.’

“Well, that’s the thing. Everyone’s skills will be near equal. It won’t even matter if the lawyers have a big firm behind them. The size of the firm used to matter because it meant the top lawyers could employ tens of interns to browse through precedents for them. But pretty soon, AI will be able to do that as well. So when all lawyers – or at least most – are equal in skills and performance, the most employed lawyers will be the nice ones. They will be those who treat the customer in the best way possible: they will greet their clients with a smile, offer them a cup of tea when they set for in the office, and will have great conversational skills with which to explain to the client what’s going on in court.”

“And the same will happen with accountants and physicians?” He asked.

doctor-1193318_640.jpg

“It’s happening right now.” I said. “The work of accountants is becoming easier than ever before because of automation, and so accountants must be nicer than ever before. Soon, we’ll see the same phenomenon in the medical professions as well. When AI can equalize the knowledge level of most physicians, they will be selected according to the way they treat their patients. The patients will flock to the nicer physicians. In fact, the professionals treating the patients won’t even have to have a deep understanding in the field of medicine, just as today’s cabbies don’t need to fully remember the roads in the city. Instead, the medical professionals will have to understand people. They will need to relate to their patients, to figure them out, to find out what’s really bothering them, and to consult with the AI in order to come up with the insights they need in order to solve the patients’ issues.”

“So we gotta keep the niceness on.” Summarized my driver, as he parked the car in front of the entrance to the mall. “And provide the best customer service possible.”

“That’s my best advice right now about work in the future.” I agreed. I opened the door and started getting out of the car, and then hesitated. I turned on my smartphone. “I’m giving you five stars for the ride. Can you give me five too?”

His gaze lingered on me for a long time.

“Sorry.” He finally said. “You talk too much, and really – that’s not very nice.”