With another year come and gone, things aren't looking any better for the U.S. Postal Service. The beloved bearer of pre-approved credit cards and last minute birthday gifts purchased on the Internet is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. There are various factors contributing to this centuries-old institution's decline, but the portliest albatross around the agency's neck is the precipitous decline in demand for first-class postage due to the faster and cheaper nature of electronic communication.
This damning technology-fueled obsolescence only promises to accelerate. Engineers and basement tinkerers are tirelessly exploring the wild nerdish frontiers of 3D printing, and should we ever perfect a true Star Trek-esque transporter (which is not a completely nutso concept BTW), there will be zero need for any form of parcel service, public or private.
But the lowly post office isn't the only government function on the verge of a tech-laden death knell. This century may render a number of traditional governmental roles wholly obsolete. Some of these moribund functions are obvious, while some may seem surprising. But they are coming. Here's a short list of public institutions that will be completely outmoded by the time today's preschoolers hit retirement — if not much sooner.
(Note: we're looking at this trend in the scope of the U.S. system, but international readers will find parallels — this is a global thang).
1. No More Sexy Librarians
As our species' collected knowledge becomes cloud-based, the need for the humble brick-and-mortar library becomes less relevant. Local public libraries have made sincere strides to varying degrees of success.
In keeping with the institution's mission to make information available to all, the public library may find a role helping the poor bridge the "app gap." And this will be a valuable function — for a while. But keep this in mind: technology becomes more affordable and accessible with time. For example, as of 2009 the majority of households that the Census Bureau designated as "poor" owned more than one television, a cellular phone, and cable/satellite TV service. It is likely that within this decade, Internet-enabled devices will become as ubiquitous and accessible as owning a television. When that happens, there simply will be no reason to maintain libraries — as physical entities.
Countdown To Extinction: As digital media pay walls take form, local communities may find it in their interest to subsidize access to information, but even that will be not necessitate a physical library. The age of public buildings whose sole purpose is a quiet depository of gently used books will not see the end of the decade.
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2. The DMV DOA
Another victim of technology will be the much-loved Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). For that, you can thank Google. One of the search giant's oft-noted side projects is the self-driving car (though they're certainly not the only ones working on driverless rides).
Once this technology is perfected, road travel will be easier, greener and safer. And to this end, society will no longer need to test your ability to parallel park. Regardless of age, ability or even state of inebriation, you would simply need to type (or probably speak) "drive me to the movie theater downtown, Mr. Car," and it will just happen.
Countdown To Extinction: Self-driving cars are already zooming around in beta test runs. But it won't be long until they are commercially available in some form. And we could see the end of "hands at 10 and two" and the DMV by the 2030s.
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3. School's Out Forever
Today, thanks to technology, no question need go unanswered for long — be they imperative or ridiculous. Information abounds! Some have argued that this social Internet age has even made us inherently smarter as a species. Still, this historically unprecedented access to information is no replacement for formal education. For now.
Children still require a trusted shepherd to guide them through the wilds of idea-land, however the information age allows a pursuant individual of any age to gain knowledge and skills on their own. Already we can see aspects of formal information transfer (aka education) becoming less necessary. Most of us have learned a skill online — whether it's playing an instrument, learning to code in HTML, or fix a blocked sink. Quality information is readily available — all you need is access to the Internet and some time.
While technology can facilitate learning specific skills, or be used as a classroom aide, the basic strategy of formal childhood education has remained largely unchanged over the past 60 years. But what would happen if technology allowed us to completely remove the barrier between our brains and the infinite bubbling vats of electronically-stored information? This isn't outside the realm of possibility. Scientists are making big ol' strides in bridging the "meatware" divide. Most of these advancements have facilitated "downloading" information from brain to computer, but there have been examples of "uploading" as well. Should the day come when information can simply be emailed right into the brain, the need for the physical schoolhouse will come to an end.
Countdown To Extinction: Perhaps the future's prepubescent PhDs will still need to develop emotional maturity to go along with their Matrix-style approach to education, but this will be one element of the fundamental rethinking of how humans spend their sudden newfound abundance of free time. Once information can be uploaded along with the wisdom to apply it (this is admittedly a very huge assumption), then schools will be placed on permanent vacation. There are a lot of variables here, so we'll guess 2070 — a good proportion of us will be dead by then. So, if we're wrong, we owe you a Coke — assuming Coke still exists.
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4. Gears of War
The U.S. military's focus on automation and remote fighting is — as are most things — best summed-up with a Simpsons quote. Address the troops, generic cartoon army guy voiced by Willem Dafoe:
"The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots."
While the above quote was a humorous spin on the absurdities of modern combat training, there's quite a bit of truth behind it. The U.S. military has invested much time and money into the development of real deal battle bots. The fruits of this research can already be found in the fighting force's growing reliance on drone military strikes. And as today's military forces increasingly depend on reconnaissance information to guide surgical strike objectives, robotic spies will get more time on the frontline.
Robots will be the preferred soldiers of the future. They're expendable, and over time will only become cheaper to manufacture. But their role may go beyond acting as soulless cannon fodder — as the robotic mind becomes more skilled at making decisions based on real world events, and robots learn to build themselves, human involvement in national defense will be a fraction of today's force, if not removed altogether.
Countdown To Extinction: According to James Cameron, Skynet was supposed to take over in 1997. But luckily that was averted by Sarah Connor (well, until Terminator 3, but we'll forget about that one). Still, we may see the end of frontline soldiers by 2030. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that machines will be smarter than humans shortly thereafter (they're already winning at Jeopardy!), so the decisions of world order may be taken over by machines as well.
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5. Robocops and A Peaceful Populace
As our soldiers are taken out of the line of fire, the same will be true for domestic police forces. Local departments don't have the resources of the U.S. military, so it will be a slower transition for Robocops and the like to be introduced to our city streets. But the time will come.
Interesting techno side note: it could be argued that the very process of technological development diminishes the need to forcibly enforce society's rules. Sound weird? Stay with us. U.S. cities have seen the crime of auto theft drop dramatically — they've been cut in half between 1991 and 2008.
Many experts believe that the biggest contributor to this drop has been the development of car alarms and GPS-enabled tracking devices. Beyond this specific example of technology-aided deterrent, crime has plummeted — in nearly all its forms — since the early 1990s. There is no consensus as to why this has occurred, however there are many theories that directly attribute the technological bloom of the past two decades.
One explanation has been attributed to the saturation of cellphones — since police are only a phone call away at any moment, there is less ability to commit misdeeds in public spaces.
Another interesting (but far from verified) theory on evaporating crime has been the rise in popularity of home video game consoles. This technology is largely consumed by young men and teenage boys — the members of society most likely to commit violent crimes. It may be that since this very specific demo is so busy sowing virtual chaos that they just don't have time for havoc in the actual world.
Countdown To Extinction: Harvard Professor Steven Pinker argues in his latest book that we are living in the least violent time in the history of history. While crime has continued to drop, we've seen no major popular push to draw down the police force. It should be restated that there is no consensus on the cause for the decline in crime over the past two decades, so there's no reason it isn't reversible.
We also have no reason to believe that it will turn back. As our cities and towns come under greater surveillance including facial recognition technology, we will likely continue to see the crime rate fall — there will be no place for criminals to hide. Future generations will surely continue our debates about where we stand on the spectrum of privacy versus security. But just maybe — as the bad old days of street warfare fade into the generational past — we may also begin to debate the need for the large entrenched police force our cities know today.
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These are only a few of the ways that technology will replace traditional roles (there are many other out-there theories in this realm). In a strange paradox, technology makes each individual both more powerful and more obsolete.
This paradox won't just impact the public sector; it will touch all segments of society. In this not-so-distant future, a "job" will transform into a quaint grandpa word from the pre-Information Age (even we humble tech bloggers will not be immune). This isn't necessarily a dire future, but it is one which will require a radical reimagining of what it means to be human in the modern age.