Futurist Kate Levchuk on work, AI, robots, colonizing Mars, and the science fiction she loves


Will there be any jobs in the future? And, will humans live on Mars in our lifetimes?

In the latest edition of future39 we’re talking about the future of work (and life in the solar system) with Kate Levchuk. Kate is an exec at Infosys. She’s a futurist, a consultant, an author, a researcher, and has masters degrees in two disciplines.

Listen to our conversation (there’s also a full transcript below):

What we talk about

  • 30 years ago, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff said that everything that can be automated, will be. Agree?
  • If we look at the scope of history and we see a time in the past where nothing was automated, and we see a future that is completely or mostly automated … where are we now?
  • What does work start to look like when most or all manufacturing is automated … what jobs remain? What does it do to our economy? What does it do to trade … does it kill regional advantages in costs due to cheap labor?
  • Two massive missions of the 21st century:
    • One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the massive global job of the next century is repairing and restoring our environment, and creating sustainable and healthy living conditions for people. What does that look like to you?
    • Another major job … mission … colonizing the solar system. If we look down the line a little farther … there are serious people with serious technology who are seriously looking at things like expanding where humans can live to the moon, to Mars, and beyond. How does that change the picture for humanity, and jobs, and your vision for the kind of future we’ll have?
  • What science fiction do you love, and what has influenced your thinking?

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Be aware, this is a very lightly-edited transcript from Descript. It will not be perfect!

John Koetsier: Will there be any jobs in the future? We keep hearing about AI, robots, automation, many of the things like that, and sometimes we wonder, will there be any jobs, especially in manufacturing in the future, and will we ever live in places other than the earth in our solar system or even beyond?

Welcome to future 39 with John Koetsier

Today, we’re talking about the future of work and life in the solar system with Kate Levchuk. So let me bring her in right now. Hello Kate.

Kate Levchuk: Hello John. Great to hear you.

John Koetsier: Excellent. Our guest today, Kate, is an exec at Infosys. She’s a futurist. She’s a consultant. She’s an author, a researcher, and has a Master’s degree in two disciplines.

Kate, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

Kate Levchuk: Thank you very much for having me.

John Koetsier: Wonderful. So let’s start here. 30 years ago, Harvard business school prof Shoshana Zuboff said that everything that can be automated will be automated. Do you agree with that?

Kate Levchuk: That’s a very strong statement. And at the same time, I think it’s a very pragmatic one.

So, obviously we need to look at the cost benefit factor here and if the jobs will be cheaper off being automated, especially in the shorter run, because, many executives and politicians everyone tends to look at things short term, so if ROI is good in up to five years, I think those jobs will be automated for sure.

However, it’s interesting. We would expect to have so much automation already now in fields like driving or even manufacturing, you were mentioning like Amazon, but I think it’s only about 15 to 20% of this packaging things that are automated in Amazon. So it really shows us how much cheaper the people’s labor is still.

So, it’s, I think definitely in a very short time machines, you know, Moore’s law, we’ll get to the situation when, machines will be really cheap. And then, especially in developed countries, it will make so much more sense than having people do the work.

John Koetsier: Let’s talk about that timeline a little bit.

So if we look at the scope of history, we see a time in the past, the Iron Age, Bronze Age, even before Stone Age, nothing was automated, right? Everything that you wanted to do a human had to actually physically do, and the only machines that they may have had was something like a bow and arrow or a spear, or maybe a lever, you know, which can only be labeled a machine with a very liberal definition there. But if we look into the far future as well, we see a future that’s completely or mostly automated, and we have manufacturing processes with robotics and automation. Where would you place us right now on that kind of scale?

Kate Levchuk: Yeah I’m already picturing some timeline and I don’t really see us coming to the end of the automation timeline. I think we are now probably, like in all the history you mentioned, we’re very close to the end, but in terms of our lifetime, we’re still pretty far. So, I think the full automation, which means like probably 70, 80% of jobs of current roles that exist in the market. I think they will be automated in developed countries in the next 15, 20 years, taken the advances in technology and especially robotics. However, I do expect that because of that, not despite, there will be so many more roles being created.

Like for example, those that will have to actually program all the robotics and the ones that would have to deal with people, the huge numbers of people who find themselves outside of job market. So something like mood programmers, psychologist, who will be creators, you know, this VR games creators. So all the fun, creative professions that we’ll have to deal with those people will also be newly created.

And, yeah, I think that we are coming to a very interesting point in history where we will see jobs that we talk about only in sci-fi novels today.

John Koetsier: Can you give some examples of those?

Kate Levchuk: Well, first of all, I think there will be a huge need for various kinds of engineering jobs, like especially civil engineering.

So some people that would be creating dams that we’d be creating the floating constructions because of the climate change and the rise in sea waters. So that would be a whole new industry. I envision, some manufacturing jobs being created in air purification sector for example, there can be even the huge walls around specific place.

Like let’s say whoever has a lot of money, let’s say Apple City. And they have, true, so they might as well create air purification walls around the city, and there will be definitely a company that will be creating these walls because they already have the expertise in, let’s say air purification, AC and discovering new materials.

I think the whole new industry will be coming from finding out new materials on the earth, as well as bringing new ones from space. So let’s say mining meteors and this kind of things, we’ll need to create new habitats because the population will be changing drastically. There will be way more poor people.

So we’ll need to create some sustainable and possible living environments for them. Like moving away from areas for example. People would also want to leave in some healthy, clear and clean area. So we would be seeing other creation of something more like Elysiums, maybe in space or some places on earth.

So New Zealand is a very popular, natural Elysium area. And yeah, I would say ton of these similar jobs, like 3D printing, creating these floating structures on water, maybe from trash because we have tons of that.

John Koetsier: Trash is the new resource.

Kate Levchuk: Trash, yeah, I think trash could be used quite wisely. If there is a good segregation of possibility as well as maybe possibly 3D printing will become so cheap to actually create something from all this plastic that we have on earth anyways.

John Koetsier: That’s interesting actually, let’s talk about that. Let’s say that we have a future where manufacturing is mostly or completely automated, 3D printing is widespread and inexpensive for multiple forms of materials, not just plastics, but also metals. We see that right now, SpaceX 3D prints rocket nozzles for instance, right?

You can’t get a part that needs more, strength and tensile durability and all those other things than rocket nozzles. Well, we get to a future where that is cheap and readily available. What’s that do to economies? What’s that do to international trade?

Kate Levchuk: Oh that’s a good question.

I think that, so again, let’s go back to short term versus longterm thinking, and I think countries and leaders that really have the longterm thinking for this or other reason, and then can see into the future in 20 or 30 years. And that’s why some companies or leaders are actually spending tons of money for futuristic consultancy.

Having the focus groups and understanding what would be the needs taking various different factors in 20-30 years, those countries will come up with the solutions and start preparing for them right now, when most of us are talking about the new apps on the iPhone, they will take the leadership. So of course I can really see China as one of the contenders for the leadership in manufacturing, not only because they have so many resources, but also they have good experience doing that. And I think they have the largest gold reserves. They don’t rely on anyone else to do this type of trial and fail. And I’m pretty sure that there all so many initiatives that we don’t even know are happening.

Like, even few years ago, there was a discussion that they’re building huge cities somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And why are they building that? No one knows they’re still empty. So lots of things are happening there and they have huge capabilities for that, so hopefully we’ll not be too far away.

John Koetsier: China’s also on the forefront of investing in robotics as well. And having factories that are heavily roboticized. We see some other economies like that. Germany has a high percentage of robots per thousand workers, that sort of thing. Few other economies like that as well.

I imagine that as we see economies having a higher and higher percentage of robots to workers. We’re going to need to see some changes in how we tax labor perhaps. Bill Gates has talked about taxing robots for work that they do. You talked about people in the future as… perhaps there are fewer jobs, at least in manufacturing and new, different types of jobs that come out.

And you talked about a future there are more poor people. That’s obviously not the Star Trek future that we’ve kinda been hoping for, looking for, this future where more people are happy. We don’t really work for a salary, there’s sort of a credit system, but we kind of graduate and find the niche that fits what we do and we really, really enjoy it.

I mean, I still hope, obviously that’s perhaps utopian, I still hope that in a future where most manufacturing jobs … at least the physical manufacturing is automated, there’s still an opportunity for people to have creative jobs. There’s still an opportunity for people to have service jobs.

There’s still an opportunity for people to do something and contribute something, whether that’s artistically or otherwise, right? And have a society set up in such a way that, you know what, you don’t have to work those 40 hours a week. You don’t have to work those 50 hours a week.

Maybe you don’t even have to work those 20 hours a week. Maybe 10 hours a week is enough. And you’ve actually then generated some revenue and are able to sustain yourself and your family. But that the cost of living goes down. We looked at that for so many generations, right?

I mean people used to work from the moment the sun arose to when the sun set, right. The 18th century automation and factories in the UK. And I’m hoping that we get to a point where our labor matters and our labor isn’t just what we can do with our hands, but it’s what we can do with our minds and our emotions.

Kate Levchuk: Yeah, that’s very true John. And actually, talking about what you mentioned as people used to work so much more and now it’s actually better. I do agree that it’s better in terms of workers unions that were created, the elimination of child labor and all the slavery, but actually we look very much back in history.

We can notice that during hunter-gatherer period, people worked much less and it just a little depends on the quality and level of life you want. So a reason why I’m saying there can be more poor people as well as more rich people as we see inequality charts increasing now. It’s simply because if we continue with business as usual, there will be much more people on the planet and it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will have more resources. So obviously we will have, we will need to provide for people who lost their jobs to manufacturing and robotics. So that will I think, some kind of social welfare system like UBI will be easily, we’ll be able to do. But I envision tons of new possibilities for people who will be actually, who will fall into this UBI category, to start to doing their own new thing.

Like for example, I could become a full time sci-fi writer if I didn’t have a full time job. So it very much how you prioritize your time and what else you can do with this if you are given an opportunity.

John Koetsier: That makes a ton of sense. Let’s talk about what I’ve put here as a two massive missions of the 21st century, right?

We have this reclamation project, which is our planet, and we have this opportunity that Elon Musk and some others are pointing towards of visiting and maybe even establishing a colony on another planet. Let’s talk about the first one first, and that’s reclaiming our planet, cleaning the ocean, finding ways to create enough food for enough people without stripping the ocean bare of all the fish that are in it. Cleaning our air. You talked about air and you talked about companies and maybe cities having air cleansing walls of some sort, stations of some sort. That’s something they could really use in India.

I have a number of friends in India, in Delhi, for instance. Over the past months, they’ve had horrific air conditions, just horrible. Do not get outside, and even inside you are at risk of early death with just a little bit of exposure here. We, we saw that in Sydney as well, right? With the wildfires that they had in Australia where their air quality was just horrific.

Absolutely horrific. let’s talk about some of the jobs that you see coming out and the tasks that you see coming out for engineers to create, for people to implement, other things like that in restoring our environment.

Kate Levchuk: Yeah thanks John for mentioning this question. I think it’s a truly very important mission because apart from some obvious examples like Beijing and New Delhi that you mentioned, we can really see the impact of fires, natural or artificial, like whole Singapore is suffocating because of fires in Philippines, in Indonesia, where where they put the tropical forest on fire to get more space for, well, what is this…

John Koetsier: Farming?

Kate Levchuk: No, no, no, the trees they put in… Nutella this thing…

John Koetsier: Oh, chocolate? Or chocolate trees or perhaps even rubber.

Kate Levchuk: Oh yeah, rubber could be, but yeah, there is some special oil as well, which is the worst type. Then the same, of course, in California. Sometimes it’s even in Europe. We definitely talk very little about Europe, but I used to live in Krakow in Poland. It’s a beautiful and old city, very popular among tourists, but not everyone knows that it’s one of the most heavily polluted cities in Europe and actually in the world.

So I was checking sometimes the level of pollution when I was living there. Sometimes it was coming very close to Beijing and sometimes it was higher.  Our awareness of what is happening in our own backyard is unfortunately very low, and I think as it becomes higher with the increase in the different groups like extension or valley here in UK, of course, Greta Thurnberg really contributed to this crucial, tendency.

We will see more and more people actually understanding the importance of preserving this very planet, and this is also what I’m advocating with transhumanism and improvement of humans species. Because in all fairness, there is absolutely no point living longer, or even forever if you’re going to spend this life in a trash bin. This is exactly what we are doing out of earth today.

So it looks like capitalism as it is now, this with the short term gains is really is outliving itself. And we need to see this search of professions that will take care of the earth to restore itself for new generations for, I think I still define more or less as a millennial, but I’m like, my children and my grandchildren will be absolutely screwed if we don’t do something in the next 5. 10 years to create a new ecosystem. So you were mentioned ocean cleaning. This is crucial. Any type of engineer and construction that will be efficient in that is very important. Even species preservation. We’re talking about our health, the pollution and stuff like this, but we forget about six mass extinction of spacious and critical loss of biodiversity with about thousand species going extinct in a week.

So, so far we are not noticing it too much, but maybe in 10 years when we are left only with domestic chickens, we’ll start wondering. So it’s very good to have people who are gathering genetic samples and or recreating the suspicious in, in labs or artificial environments. And this will be huge, huge new professional in the future, biologist, marine biologists, recreations of corals.

So, so much creativity can be reestablished here. Like actually just recently I read about some new technique of the sound that they’re putting next to a bleached coral reefs. I dunno, like a special, tone that can lure fish back and start the coal ecosystem growing from the start.

So people just understood that corals are dying. Even Great Barrier reef is almost gone. And, I think people are not, you know, do I think we actually have something good in us? The population of rhinos and blue whales is coming back to norm just because their worst specific, restrictions in fish, in poaching.

And the only thing we have to do is increasing awareness. And, telling people that it’s important because I don’t think that, naturally we are bad. We just like to close eyes to anything. And if we’re not given this chance, we can really help the planet.

John Koetsier: I think that, we do need to open people’s eyes to it, but I do think that many people’s eyes are open to it.

I think that what’s missing is an economic imperative. We do have a capitalist system in most of the planet, even parts that aren’t, nominally capitalist and, and, and the challenge with that and in a consumer society is that it is hard to assign value, where there is no economic, current value.

Like what is the Great Barrier reef reef worth? Obviously, from any, rational perspective, it’s incalculable. You can’t calculate the worth, right? It’s precious beyond imagining. But when we fail to actually assign value to these things, then it’s hard for us to assign new jobs of creating, preserving, biodiversity, other things like that and assign social value to that, that it comes with economic value as well.

So we can actually create economic incentives for companies, for individuals, for people to work at the things that we need to work at to restore this planet to what it can be. I think that that’s something that  people have tried to do with carbon credits perhaps.

And I think that we need to extend that concept, even farther so that we see value in a startup that’s trying to reduce the great garbage patch of the Pacific, and we assign a value to that. And then we also properly cost out … If you’re a Coca Cola and you’re the largest plastic polluter on the planet from, from what we’ve heard recently, we are not appropriately charging what it actually costs to produce and complete the life cycle of a plastic bottle.

What did you get 10 cents back when you return it, for, for a deposit or something like that? Well, should it be a dollar? Should it be $2? What is the actual cost to not just produce, but also to the environment, of production and of recycling or other things?

Kate Levchuk: Oh, disposing those, those things, those products and recycling.

Yeah, that’s true. So I think part of how we can, solve this issue is this societal pressure. And currently already, people are very open to using environmentally friendly solution, services and products. So the problem with that is very often they’re still more expensive than, than cheap ones like Coca Cola.

So probably you would still go with cheap option.

John Koetsier: Yeah. And you think that’s the problem, right? Is that we can go with the cheap option because we don’t appropriately cost out with something actually costs us environmentally through its entire life cycle.

Kate Levchuk: However, it looks like there are some companies like, Elon Musk is great in the rooftops that the solar rooftops that actually cost pretty much the same.

And if we think about this, solar power is, so cheap if we understand how to properly, get the right percentage of solar energy because the song in one hour gives more energy than we consume in a year. So why are we not using solar panels on every house? It’s so much cheaper. Even an economic issue.

John Koetsier: Exactly. Let’s turn our attention then to the second, major job, that  could create a lot of opportunity for jobs and for, exploration. which is this colonizing the solar system. If we look down the line a little farther, obviously this is not today, but there are serious people with very serious technology who are very seriously looking at things like expanding where we can live, to the moon, to Mars, beyond.

How does that change a picture for humanity and jobs and in your vision of, of the kind of future that we’ll have.

Kate Levchuk: Yeah, that’s definitely a very futuristic question and a very exciting one.

Something that I was expecting for sure. To be fair, I think, again, it has a lot to do with economic benefit and the actual reason to go to space. So it’s interesting to see how many discoveries and how many trips to space were happening when we had, you know, some kind of, older men politics competition going on during the cold war, like a really good incentive to do stuff.

As of now, I think, we are living in a more prosperous market, relaxed climate. When you are going to do something, if it actually just makes sense. And, thankfully for the time being, earth is still kind of livable. So, I think we definitely should focus on preserving earth and only some part of investments and, some new initiatives to go to, discovering new planets.

However, that should always be our, plan B. Just again, from a pragmatic point of view, living on one planet as a species is not sustainable in case something happens the same as happened to our poor dinosaurs, distant relatives. That would be unfortunate. I mean, whatever they, they

John Koetsier: That would be fortunate! Yes, it would, destruction of the human race.

Slightly unfortunate!

Kate Levchuk: The universe will definitely go on without us. There will be new species created, there will be new stuff happening. But, as a humanist, and I do like our species quite a lot, I think we should at least try to go to Mars. I think moon is not very sustainable in terms of atmosphere creation.

So, definitely all these space barrons, that’s at the moment, our best bet, because governments tend to be a bit stingy and conservative as we see with NASA lately. so yeah, Elon, maybe China. China seems to be quite all there. so are, would a lot of hope on, enter ship and dreamers. Because in the end of the day, dreamers are the people who create the future.

John Koetsier: Very true, very true. I’m excited about a project that, is to send a micro space ship or star ship, I should say, to Alpha Centauri. it’s a, it’s a package only, you know, maybe a kilogram or something like that that they hope to accelerate via laser and send out, you know, within the next decade or so a t a fairly significant fraction of the speed of light, which means that we could, some artifact that a human being has created could be beyond our solar system. And actually in not just an interstellar space, as, as, as we have a couple of probes already doing that, but actually visiting another star system that would be incredible and amazing.

I wanted to end this session with you Kate, on some of your favorite science fiction. Every futurist that I know loves science fiction or has been deeply influenced by science fiction. I have as well. I’ve written a science fiction novel and I wanted to ask: what science fiction has has influenced you and what’s been most interesting to you.

Kate Levchuk: So I tend to use science fiction as inspiration for any thoughts to dream, to find and other meaning in life because it really expands our horizons. And I was very lucky as a child when I was 11 or 12 my parents gave me some books. So I think they were very much into Ray Bradbury. So the first books that kind of big books that I read were the compilations of essays by Ray Bradbury and of course the classics of Fahrenheit 451, and Chronicles and lots of other essays where he mainly looks at the subjects of a space conquering as well as upcoming robotization as well as lots of things around VR and talking walls.

So people like that, like Bradbury, Wells, Stevenson, there are those that pretty much predicted, the phones, all the VR ecosystems and so many things that we haven’t even created yet.

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. Who are you reading lately? So those, some of those, some of the great old masters.

Who are you reading lately?

Kate Levchuk: Oh, I’ve been pretty bad with my reading. I’m actually, I’m working on a book as well. There’s a slight off-scifi but a little bit more into philosophy of tech and society, touching on the freedom of thought.

John Koetsier: Okay.

Kate Levchuk: But I tried reading Pedersen who I had quite mixed feelings previous me because of his, the various comments towards women in the workplace.

And I myself also had various experience in the workplace as well. But I do see a lot of good stuff and good reasons for checking out alternative points of view.

John Koetsier: Excellent, excellent. Well, Bradbury’s not a bad place to start and there’s a lot to move on from there. I look forward to seeing your book and seeing what that looks like when it comes out.

And thank you so much for spending this time with us. I really appreciate it.

Kate Levchuk: Thank you very much John. And hello everyone too future39!

John Koetsier: Excellent. This will live on YouTube and it will, the podcast will go out as well, wherever podcasts go. If you are listening on the podcast, please give it a rating and a review, especially if you like it.

Anyways, this is John Koetsier for future39 thank you so much for spending some time with us. Thank you.

Kate Levchuk: It doesn’t matter which galaxy you’re in, give us a like.

John Koetsier: Wonderful. Have a great day Kate.

Kate Levchuk: Cheers. You too, bye.