I glimpsed our tech future: Brace yourself

Georgia Tech, which is pretty much the hottest job magnet in metro Atlanta these days, recently held a symposium on cool ways computers will change our world even more.

I visited hoping to find out how my life — and yours — will be different in the future. The takeaway: Brace yourself.

There were plenty of gee-whiz themes, like new ways to change our physical prowess (for example, fix color blindness), convey our emotions (lighted clothing or social texts that change colors automatically to read and signal our moods) or have others predict stuff about ourselves that we wouldn’t think possible (doctors determining a pregnant woman’s risk for postpartum depression based on her social media posts).

During a break in the program, set up to mark the 25th anniversary of Tech’s College of Computing, a program manager down from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency told me he expects that in the near future we’ll engineer more microbes to build things, such as one company that already uses them to makes scents for the perfume industry.

Of course, there’s always a buzz kill lurking somewhere. Virtually every idea raised at the symposium came with cautions about messy ethical issues. (Should insurers be able to find out if your texts suggest future depression? Will only the rich get to have super powers?)

The reality is that along with being wonderful, enriching and life-saving, technological progress is risky.

There are always winners and whiners. It messes with the status quo, which isn’t always immediately good for the status quoers, which, by the way, is most of us. Some negative ripple effects we can guess at; others, no so much.

Who thought through the ramifications of putting a camera in a cell phone? Did they realize that when paired with social media it would spark such a wave of public self-obsession? Or did the designers of social texting contemplate that it would be a path to traffic deaths? I’m guessing not.

Mixed feelings

The more technology can do to help us, the more technology can be used to mess us up.

“People’s lives will be increasingly dependent on software working safely,” warned Andy Ozment, a Georgia Tech grad who now worries about bad guys as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for cyber security and communications.

Chris Klaus, a local tech investor, doesn’t seem nearly as jittery. Which is interesting, given that he made a boatload of money building and selling a company to help businesses improve cyber security.

“There are huge net positives for everybody in society,” from tech advances, Klaus told me. (His name, by the way, is on Tech’s advanced computing building where the symposium was held. So, I guess, it makes sense that he’d be pretty optimistic.)

What nagged at me, though, was what I heard from 22-year-old Emmanuel Detiege.

He’s studying for his master’s degree in human-computer interaction at Tech. That must make him a prince of our future, a rocket of financial potential, a fireball of youthful optimism. He’s probably the kind of guy all those companies salivate over when they put their new innovation centers near the Tech campus.

Detiege is confident he’s in the right field to be gainfully employed. But he worries about lots of the rest of us, including the children he hopes to have some day.

“Something I think about all the time is how automation is going to affect work,” he told me. “What kind of careers will my children pursue? What kind of careers will exist?”

Drones and robots

Lots of service jobs will move online and become automated, he’s sure. A friend is studying to be a pharmacy technician, a job Detiege fears is ripe for being taken over by a robot. Drones and autonomous vehicles are sure to replace truck drivers and humans who deliver packages.

Detiege told me he wonders who will lead the conversation about how to prepare for and manage the changes before they fully take hold.

A couple years ago two University of Oxford researchers concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being automated in the next decade or two. Among those they considered most at risk: production workers, sales and service employees, paralegals, cashiers, telemarketers and office support staff (are there many of those people even left?). They concluded safer jobs are chief executives, many health care positions, lawyers, engineers, scientists, actors and artists (funny, what happened to being a starving artist?) and media positions (even funnier).

Nearly a century ago, there were some who warned that technological automation would lead to vast unemployment. Some jobs have evaporated, like in much of manufacturing. But tech also has created whole new industries and careers.

What’s different is that increasingly people in virtually every industry are in a race to keep up with technology and harness it for new possibilities.

It’s also a race for American workers to come up with new skills so we aren’t left obsolete by the tech that is supposed to be helping us. It’s a sprint. And, I suspect, an ultramarathon without end.

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Matt Kempner’s email: mkempner@ajc.com Follow him on Twitter: @MattKempner and Facebook: AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner ( https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist )