This is a seminal year, meaning nothing will be the same again.
This is the year when two monumentally new forces began to shape how we live, where we reside and the work we do. Think of the invention of the printing press around 1440 and the perfection of the steam engine in about 1776.
These forces have been coming for a while; they haven’t evolved in secret. But this was the year they burst into our consciousness and began affecting our lives.
The twin agents of transformation are climate change and artificial intelligence. They can’t be denied. They will be felt, and they will bring about transformative change.
Climate change was felt this year. In Texas and across the Southwest, temperatures of well over 100 degrees persisted for more than three months. Phoenix had temperatures of 110 degrees or above for 31 days.
On a recent visit to Austin, an exhausted Uber driver told me the heat had upended her life; it made entering her car and keeping it cool challenging. Her car’s air conditioner was taxed with more heat than it could handle. Her family had to stay indoors, and their electric bill surged.
The electric utilities came through heroically without significant blackouts, but it was a close thing.
David Naylor, president of Rayburn Electric, a cooperative association providing power to four distribution companies bordering Dallas, told me, “Summer 2023 presented a few unique challenges with so many days about 105 degrees. While Texas is accustomed to hot summers, there is an impactful difference between 100 degrees and 105.”
Rayburn ran flat out, including its recently purchased gas-fired station. It issued a “hands-off” order that, Naylor said, meant “facilities were left essentially alone unless absolutely necessary.”
It was the same for electric utilities nationwide. Every plant that could be pressed into service was and was left to run without normal maintenance, which would involve taking it offline.
Water is a parallel problem to heat.
We have overused groundwater and depleted aquifers. Saltwater is seeping into the soil in some regions, rendering agriculture impossible.
That is occurring in Florida and Louisiana. Some of the saltwater intrusion results from higher sea levels, and some of it is the voracious way aquifers have been pumped out during long periods of heat and low rainfall.
Most of the West and Florida face the aquifer problem, but in coastal communities, it can be a crisis — irreversible damage to the land.
Heat and drought will cause many to leave their homes, especially in Africa, but also in South and Central America, adding to the millions of migrants on the move around the world.
AI is one of history’s two-edged swords. On the positive side, it is a gift to research, especially in life sciences, which could deliver a life expectancy north of 120 years.
But AI will be a powerful disruptor elsewhere, from national defense to intellectual property and, of course, to employment. Large numbers of jobs, for example, in call centers, at fast-food restaurant counters, and at check-in desks in hotels and airports, will be taken over by AI.
Think about this: You go to the airport and talk to a receptor (likely to be a simple microphone-type of gadget on the already ubiquitous kiosks) while staring at a display screen, giving you details of your seat, your flight — and its expected delays.
Out of sight in the control tower, although it might not be a tower, AI moves airplanes along the ground and clears them to take off and land — eventually, it will fly the plane if the public accepts that.
No check-in crew, no air traffic controllers and, most likely, the baggage will be handled by AI-controlled robots.
Aviation is much closer to AI automation than people realize. But that isn’t all. You may get to the airport in a driverless Lyft or Uber car, and the only human beings you will see are your fellow passengers.
All that adds up to the disappearance of a huge number of jobs, estimated by Goldman Sachs to be as many as 300 million full-time jobs worldwide. Eventually, in a re-ordered economy, new jobs will appear and the crisis will pass.
The most secure employment might be for artisans. People who fix things — people like plumbers, mechanics and electricians. And, oh yes, those who fix and install computers. They might well emerge as a new aristocracy.