GENEVA — Robots can already build walls and cars, but soon they will also drive our trucks and perform our bookkeeping and legal affairs. Some will even be journalists.
This may sound like science fiction, but it is very real, and it begs a fundamental question: What will become of people? Will they have new jobs, or be allowed to enjoy a permanent vacation, or face a new scary form of insecurity?
Technological progress shook the economy during the industrial revolution and the advent of the assembly line. But back then, economists remained confident that after a difficult period of adaptation, global wellbeing would grow. And it did.
Thanks to greater productivity, wages soared, which led to increasing demand for new consumption goods, in turn creating more jobs. John Maynard Keynes’ vision, which held that everybody would be richer in 2030 than in 1930, has largely come true.
Today, however, many economists look suspiciously at the increasing speed of technological progress and the parallel stagnation of living standards.
Ever since a computer first defeated a grand master at chess, we’ve grown suspicious of the capabilities that their intelligence would bring. Not only is their software more complex and more powerful, but they have access to a staggering amount of data, which enables them to compete with people in a growing number of areas.
Take, for example, general knowledge, illustrated in the still very popular American television game show Jeopardy. In early 2011, a machine built by IBM defeated the reigning champion of the quiz game. “Watson” listened to the questions, looked for the answers, pressed the buzzer and talked thanks to speech synthesis software — all without human help. It then chose the theme and the amount to wager for the upcoming question, just like real contestants must do.
Sectors at risk
One can only imagine how much more “Watson’s” grandchildren will be able achieve — and the jobs they may perform better than us. Not only those of the working class, who have already been replaced by robots on construction sites and assembly lines, but also in the services sector, which now represents two-thirds of the jobs in industrialized countries.
According to a study published in 2013 by two researchers from Oxford University, 47% of all U.S. jobs are “potentially automatable over some unspeciï¬ed number of years, perhaps a decade or two.”
Those most at risk in the services sector are telemarketers, accountants, legal experts and journalists. Some software can already write decent articles working from a company’s financial figures or from the statistics of a sporting event. As for truck and taxi drivers, how will they be able to compete with the Google Car, the first prototypes of which are already driving down California roads?
Photo: Saad Faruque
Fabio Gramazio, an architect and professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, co-created the first robotics laboratory applied to architecture. It uses relatively basic industrial robots to manufacture unique pieces and assemble different elements.
“It’s important to explore the complementarity between man and machine,” he said during the recent Lift conference in Geneva. “Humans dictate the rules, but robots can do things that humans can’t, like piling up elements with extreme precision.”
A freelance future
Gramazio believes that the technological revolution will create a difficult transition, but that new opportunities will eventually emerge. “I don’t see how a computer could cope with the complexity of a construction site,” he says. “Machines won’t replace humans, but will help them, and they will find new ways to work together.”
José Achache, director of AP-Swiss, a space applications and services company, describes how new technology can replace fundamental aspects of a farmer’s work. “With satellites and drones, you can observe the fields, determine with precision which parts need more water, fertilizer or pesticide,” he explains. “The images are sent to analytical apps that deliver it to the farmers. Since all tractors are now equipped with a GPS, the machine can very well be sent alone in the fields to do their work.”
Achache notes that a farmer “can already manage his harvest from his desk,” but the future may bring even more fundamental substitution technologies.
It will be necessary for humans to develop new skills, complementary to the machines’ work. But we will also need to adapt to an even more flexible and unstable job market. “Already, most people don’t keep their job at the same company all their lives,” explains Narkis Alon, a young Israeli who specializes in start-up management. “And this trend toward an ever more flexible job market will continue.”
Freelance jobs and work-on-demand will grow, as will so-called micro-enterprises with fewer than 10 employees.
This evolution implies that workers will have to learn how to sell themselves by advertising their skills and developing an image online for themselves. “We also need an ecosystem that’s favorable to the creation of start-ups,” Alon continues. “People need to be trained to develop their own ideas and be put in touch with investors.”
A radical solution
But what if a growing proportion of workers don’t find their place in this new economy? Sure, we will certainly need dentists, physiotherapists or child care workers for a long time still, but between the competition with computers and with developing countries — which will continue to provide a cheap workforce — more and more people are likely to find themselves with nothing to do.
This is Andrew McAfee’s theory. The principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, he believes robots will hijack many of our jobs and leave social upheaval in their wake. Unemployment as we know it today creates a whole range of problems, both personal and social. The Harvard teacher, who can scarcely be compared to a hippie or a communist, thinks the solution is to adopt a universal revenue.
This is the concept Che Wagner came to present at the Lift conference in Geneva. This young academic and militant is trying to convince Switzerland to adopt the principle of a universal revenue. According to him, work productivity today already makes it possible. This is how it would work: Each citizen would get a monthly wage with no strings attached. It wouldn’t be too high, but it would be sufficient to live decently. In Switzerland, for instance, it would be somewhere around 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,800).
“If people no longer need to earn a living, they’ll be able to turn to the projects that matter to them,” he says. “They will have time to think about what they can give to society that corresponds to their abilities. They would therefore be more productive and more creative.”
It certainly would not be a problem if some people decided not to work anymore. In fact, there wouldn’t be enough for everyone to do. But what if nobody wants to do anything?
“A lot of people will want to work, because they’re interested and because they will want to increase their earnings,” Wagner replies. “When we collected signatures for our initiative, we conducted a little survey. When asked if they would wish to keep on working, 80% of the people said yes. But when we asked them if they thought other people would keep on working, 80% said no. The issue with our society is not one of having a work force. It’s about confidence.”
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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