Silicon Valley Dreams: What if it all comes true?

Silicon Valley needs to ask itself some tough questions about our role in the future of human purpose.

Silicon Valley prides itself on thinking not just big, but beyond. Everyone’s a futurist with an opinion about what the world ought to look like 100 years from now. In my view, 2016 has marked an inflection point where several of the Valley’s ambitious, Jetsons-esque ideas — autonomous transportation, advanced robotics, virtual reality, longevity medicine, drone delivery, space travel — suddenly appear imminently viable.

In the last 12 months, a convoy of trucks drove themselves across Europe and Uber began picking up customers with self-driving vans in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. This seems like an encouraging development: a key part of lessening transportation’s impact on the environment is finding efficiencies through technologies like autonomy and self-routing. But what about the 3.75M+ trucking and livery jobs in the U.S.?

Several big projects in longevity medicine got a lot of attention this year with talk of extending life expectancy by decades. Google’s Calico is putting $1.5B against discovering the basic science behind aging; the Jeff Bezos-backed Unity Biotechnology is investigating drugs to rejuvenate aged tissues; and we at General Catalyst invested in Elysium Health, a company with a stable of expert aging- and bio-scientists focused on boosting cellular NAD+, a critical coenzyme that begins to decline in our 20s.

If we stick the landing on both autonomy and longevity, then what happens? Will we be asking formerly gainfully-employed drivers to while away decade after newly-found decade with no potential for work? My friends Sam Altman and Chris Hughes have kicked off two separate universal basic income (UBI) projects that explore replacing employment-derived income with unconditional stipends. Both are valiant efforts to get ahead of impacts the highly-automated, post-work world that we’re headed towards. But while UBI replaces monetary loss, it does not address something just as fundamental: purpose.

Exciting as it is to be turning science fiction into reality, once most of the labor market is automated, as humans we will need to find a fulfilling way to spend our 120-year lifespan. If VR becomes as good as it promises to, will we end up just jacking into whatever reality we’d like for days on end? Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I’m not all that excited about a Matrix-like future where reality has been fully supplanted by a virtual world. Or, one where humans have become completely helpless as in the futuristic world of Pixar’s Wall-E.

As technologists we’re saddled with the responsibility of having an unprecedented and outsized influence on the way the future world is going to work. It’s imperative that we develop a moral framework that will guide the decisions we make about the technologies we create and the products we build. Right now, we have the opportunity to create a future where tech augments and supports all that we do. Without a framework that includes humans, however, there’s a very real risk that we’ll miss the mark and end up in a place where human contribution is marginalized.

There are ample examples of us putting the cart before the horse in Silicon Valley. Most recently, algorithms have infiltrated every corner of the web and apps with the promise that they’ll deliver a compelling, hyper personalized experience. Instead, we’re grappling with fake news boxing out real journalism in our Facebook feeds and a fundamental loss of truth and trust in the media. With no concrete ideas on how to address the problem, we now face a scary reality that the gaming of handful of websites could sway elections around the world. This might have been avoided if, when algorithms were being developed, we’d held frank conversations about algorithmic accountability and transparency.

With the next wave of innovation in automation, autonomy, longevity medicine and other areas, we must do better. This is by no means an argument for constraints on innovation; progress will always find its way forward. I am making the case here for developing a strong framework to guide the work we do and for me personally, the companies I fund. I want my children and grandchildren to live in a world where people can contribute to our society, and not spend their ever-lengthening lives just killing time.

We should think about evolving these technologies through the lens of unleashing human potential rather than replacing it, and how they might guarantee long term stability of our planet. And while the current conversations around basic income are a good start in addressing robotics’ impact on employment and livelihood, we need to seriously start exploring what fulfillment and happiness looks like in a post-work world.