The next time you're at the Renaissance Faire and you see the blacksmith and saddle maker toiling away at their quaint jobs, try to remember that once upon a time those were common, everyday careers. And then take a moment to realize that a lot of the iconic jobs that have been part of our lives since birth will, before long, go the way of the blacksmith.
We're talking about jobs like...
Say you're at a party and somebody asks you what you do for a living. There is no answer you can give that will impress people more than "jet fighter pilot." Maybe astronaut. But basically if you show up at a cocktail party full of kickboxers, CIA agents, race car drivers and Richard Braonson, and tell them you're a jet fighter pilot, you'll be the center of attention. It's been the sexiest job in the world ever since somebody figured out how to make deadly aircraft that can go a thousand miles an hour while shitting fire.
Though we can also thank Tom Cruise.
Your grandchildren, however, will look at Top Gun the way we look at movies about the Old West. Among military types there is a saying: "The last fighter pilot has already been born."
There is one huge limitation in our badass jet fighters, and that is the soft, squishy human it carries in the cockpit. Remove that weakness, and you can build a machine that can fly faster, turn harder and generally be the Terminator to current fighter jets' Edward Furlong.
We're not talking about remote control drones, either--though they're becoming more and more popular for the same reason. We're talking about robotic fighters. The Ministry of Defense in the UK recently unveiled the most advanced one of these, called a UCAV or the Uncrewed Combat Aerial Vehicle.
Right now, the plane is limited. It is able to run only missions that are preprogrammed into its system. And while it can spot targets, it can take them out only if it requests permission and permission is granted from a human (that all might sound pretty comforting if it weren't for the fact that drone aircraft can and have gone AWOL). The point is, it turns out more than five people should have gone to see the movie Stealth because it was about the inevitable future: The US Air Force put out a report last year outlining how they could replace every damned aircraft they own with flying robots in the next 40 years.
It's definitely a good idea to remove "conscience" from the mix when dealing with giant missiles.
Beyond the fact that modern militaries are less and less tolerant of losing troops because of the political backlash that comes with it, there are just physical limitations at play: A soft human body can only withstand about 5 g's (that is, five times the force of gravity) before losing consciousness. A trained pilot, with a special suit, can maybe get up to 9 or 10. Aircraft designers have to start from the premise that too many barrel rolls will leave the pilot bleeding from the eyes.
But take out that limitation and they can start drawing up a radical new plane whose performance is limited by the strength of titanium and carbon fiber, rather than the tiny blood vessels in a human brain. If nothing else it should make air shows of the future way more awesome.
For some of you, being the lifeguard at the local pool was a perfect summer job. For others--namely, those who still have Baywatch on DVD--the job appears frequently in masturbation fantasies.
"Quick, I need to resuscitate this teenage boy! With my boobs."
So, there's a reason it's encoded into our DNA that the best way to get to first base with a half naked, tanned, attractive person is to fake drowning. But it won't be true much longer.
Meet EMILY, the lifeguard of the future which despite its name is neither a girl nor half naked and attractive.
EMILY (EMergency Integrated Lifesaving lanYard) is a robotic talking buoy designed to seek out drowning victims and ferry them back to shore. It uses sonar to detect the motion typically associated with people who are potentially drowning and then zooms out after them at up to 28mph, which is way faster than the guy on the lifeguard stand.
It communicates back to a lifeguard on shore, who can speak through EMILY's radio to try to calm the person in distress. The person grabs hold and is then pulled to the comparative safety of hot sand and angry fiddler crabs.
While EMILY isn't completely automated yet, it will be patrolling the surf on its own by the end of the year. A couple of decades from now, your swimming children will be watched by a lifeguard who can see farther, swim faster and never get tired or bored or distracted. Those children won't know a "lifeguard" as anything other than a self-paddling red floating buoy, and any kid who fantasizes about that is a burgeoning serial killer.
In the future, this man will just have to make do as a creepy beach pervert.
Everyone who was ever a child wanted to be a firefighter--and that's even more true for those born in the last decade. You get to drive around a giant red truck that makes a shitload of noise and then jump out and spray a giant hose onto buildings crumbling beneath a roaring inferno. You climb up ladders and save people, and possibly chop through a door with a fucking ax.
"Sorry sir, I need to ax you something. Ahah. Laugh or I won't save your family."
It's no wonder firefighters are a sort of Norman Rockwell-esque symbol of American values who are generally admired by the entire community, unlike, say, the police (to our knowledge, there's never been a rap song called "Fuck the Fire Department"). It's a job that symbolizes selflessness, courage and badassery. America.
You need all of those qualities because the job is dangerous as hell; Dozens of firefighters die every year in the US alone. The fireman of the future--the near future--is going to be a robot for the same reason bomb squads use robots: because having a human being get anywhere near that situation is insane.
That's why the British have started developing their own crack firefighting robot team. Their team consists of an Iraqi war vet robot named Talon, a water-shooting, metal gripping robot named Bison, a firefighter-hose-firing robot named Black Max and a tank-lifting robot named Brokk. The robot team is currently used only to take out acetylene gas fires, at which it has been extraordinarily effective.
Fine, it makes sense that a machine can cut through a wall and pump in water. But what about all that heroic shit firefighters have to do? Carrying unconscious women to safety and all that?
Well, you may have heard of or seen those "caterpillar" bots that were used to clean up the wreckage and save people after 9/11. Those particular units were not very advanced, but the technology has been steadily moving forward. Recently a snakelike rescue-bot was developed in South Korea, just under an inch across and up to 26 feet long. The robot is designed to crawl through hard-to-reach spots in collapsed debris and locate injured people hidden in the rubble, sending pictures back to the rescuers outside.
Of course, at that point the actual saving of the victims still needs to be done by the human rescuers, right? Well, that or you could leave it to a robot like Robokiyu, currently used by the Tokyo fire department.
So, yeah, within a few generations we might see firefighters reduced to pencil pushers and engineers who sit back while the robots do all of the dangerous work. We'll be left with millions of children wondering why the hell anyone would've ever wanted to be a fireman when he grew up.