Business Report

On the Edge of Automation

Five hundred years from now, says venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, less than 10 percent of people on the planet will be doing paid work. And next year?

As a founding partner at the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and a board member at SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Steve Jurvetson spends a lot of time thinking about the future, often the distant future. One of Elon Musk’s biggest backers—Jurvetson boasts that he owns the first Tesla production Model S—he was also a founding investor in Hotmail and sits on the board of Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, the constructor of the first synthetic cell.

Production at Ford Motor Company’s new engine plant in Elabuga, Russia, will be 95 percent automated.

His firm claims to have funded companies that have created more than 20,000 jobs in the past five years, and to have brought nearly two dozen companies to $1 billion in value before exiting. Jurvetson spoke to Business Reports senior editor Nanette Byrnes about why he thinks 90 percent of people will be unemployed in 500 years and how we might transition to that sharply different future.

Are today’s new digital technologies destroying or creating jobs?

I absolutely believe in the near to medium term there is going to be net job creation, as there always has been. Think of all the Uber jobs. The opportunity is not yet fully tapped to, in a sense, distribute [over the Internet] the service economy. The service economy is bigger than the goods economy, so the online equivalent should be even bigger and more powerful than the online marketplace for physical goods.

Many of these new jobs, including those at Uber, are taking shape on what you call the “edge of automation.” Do you fear that these jobs might quickly disappear as technology keeps evolving?

Steve Jurvetson

Everything about Uber has been automated except for the driver. The billing, the fetching—every part of it is a modern, information-centric company. Interestingly, what that means is as soon as automated vehicles arrive, that driver is easily removed. You don’t have to restructure any part of that business.

What you’re farming out to humans today are those things that computers just barely can’t do. We know from Moore’s Law and improvements in computing that in two or three years [much of this] work will be automated.

If a startup or new business venture has created a job that involves human labor, it probably has done so in a way that is pretty marginal. Whether you’re a technology enthusiast or a detractor, the rate at which this will shift is probably going to be unprecedented. There will be massive dislocation.

Which jobs will survive?

In the long run, 500 years from now, everyone is going to be involved in some kind of information or entertainment. Nobody on the planet in 500 years will do a physically repetitive thing for a living. There will be no farmers, there will be no people working in manufacturing. To me it is an impossibility that people would do that. People might do it for fun. You might have an organic garden in your backyard because you love it. Five hundred years from now I don’t know if even 10 percent of people on the planet have a job in the sense of being paid to do something.

It’s hard to imagine what that life would be like.

It pretty much will be what life was like for most of human history—just without the gruesome servitude. The concept of a “job” is pretty recent. If you go back a few hundred years, everyone was either a slave or a serf, or living off slave or serf labor to pursue science or philosophy or art. We’ll live off the production of robots, free to be the next Aristotle or Plato or Newton. Unless we’re miserable without doing busy work.

Is there some way, some government policies or strategies, to minimize the pain of such a dramatic shift?

I don’t think that anyone in Washington is going to get their head around this and make meaningful change. No politician has a 50-year horizon. I see zero chance that long-term thinking will govern policy.

The knock on Silicon Valley today is that it’s not taking on big problems either.

I do lament how many investors focus on all the short-term sugar buzz of some marginal improvement in something—nothing history books are ever going to be written about. In many cases these are quick and easy ways to make money. I do think there are more and more entrepreneurs all the time that think big. Those are the people we should be finding and funding. Most of them will fail, but the ones who succeed will change the world, and that is progress.

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Next in this Business Report

The Future of Work: 2015

Technology is changing the nature of the work we do. This report highlights the jobs that will benefit from this shift, and examines the bigger challenges it brings.

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