Few people know tech better than Kevin Kelly. He was the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and continues to serve as its senior maverick. Kelly's groundbreaking reporting has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Economist, Time, Science, GQ and The Wall Street Journal. He also has written many best-sellers on the intersection of technology and society, including his most recent book, “The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.”
Kelly will give a keynote address at the Morningstar Investment Conference, upcoming in Chicago, June 11-13. We recently spoke with him to get the inside scoop on his address. A lightly edited transcript of the conversation follows.
ETF.com: One of the long-term technology trends you talk about in your book, “The Inevitable,” is artificial intelligence (AI). How do you think AI will be transformative?
Kelly: AI will literally affect every aspect of our lives. But mostly it will be invisible. It'll be like electricity—we see lightbulbs and stuff, but most electricity being used today is used out of our sight.
ETF.com: What about chat-bots, and the like?
Kelly: Yes, there will be some AI that interfaces with consumers, like Google's amazing phone assistant that they just previewed. But most AI will be used behind the scenes, in enterprise. It'll be in the back office, managing warehouses, logistics—all the boring big data things, done a thousand times better. The consumer side, I think, will be a distraction in many ways.
ETF.com: The financial industry is increasingly adopting AI: Asset managers are using it to improve their research and trading, banks are using it to detect fraud. There are even AI-driven investment funds. At the same time, investing historically has been a very human action, based on opinions, biases and mistakes. What does the market look like when computers make all the investment choices for us?
Kelly: There's a lot to say about that. Take robo advisors, like Wealthfront. They're doing tax harvesting and dynamic balancing, all the things that used to take a qualified human to do, and now they're doing it daily or hourly. I think there's more of that coming.
But also, I think all jobs are just bundles of different tasks. And any task that requires efficiency, or where efficiency matters most, those are tasks that go to the bots. That leaves humans the inefficient tasks, which are the things we really want to do: innovation, science, art and so on.
New technologies give us new desires we never knew we had. And in the beginning, those new desires are highly inefficient, because we don't know how to do them well yet. As we do them more and more, we realize efficiencies that we can give to the bots. That liberates us to take on a new desire, a new thing we didn't know we wanted before.
In a sense, you could say our job as humans is to invent jobs to give to the robots.
ETF.com: Those job prospects don't sound so encouraging for humans.
Kelly: But new occupations will be invented that don't exist now. And they may seem totally ridiculous. My grandfather would not believe that what I'm doing today is work. But that's what the work of the future will seem like to us.
One hundred fifty years ago, 75% of Americans lived on farms. Imagine telling them that, in three generations, nobody will be on a farm anymore; they'll all be web designers and brand consultants and yoga teachers. Every single job would sound utterly ridiculous to the farmer. So will it go with AI.