Driverless taxis are here. I asked my 12th grade economics class yesterday what they would do when they couldn't grow up to be taxi drivers. They pretty much all laughed. That’s to be expected in a school where most students are children of very wealthy professionals. None of them imagine a future for themselves where driving a taxi is a legitimate choice.
I then asked them what they would do for work when they grew up and couldn't work as accountants because programs like TurboTax begin to outperform all accountants except the best in the world, thereby replacing 99% of all future accountants. That got fewer laughs.
Then I asked them what they'd do when IBM's supercomputer Watson, which famously beat all human competition at Jeopardy, was successfully reprogrammed to become the world's best doctor (something currently underway). They pretty much all stopped laughing at this point.
One student, after about 10 seconds of reflection, answered very simply, "Give everyone an allowance." Bingo!
If the industrial revolution replaced muscle power with machine power and the current computing power is replacing brain power and making most service-based knowledge work redundant, the only reasonable answer to come up with is a creation of a universal income. Several nations are already talking and beginning to experiment with that idea. I imagine it will take awhile for America to take it seriously though.
Don't you think there will be new "occupations" created that we cannot comprehend today?
Humans have muscle and brain power to work with. If you strip them of the ability to employ either of those, there are few occupations imaginable. One area, of course, would be in socio-emotional services - something computers are bad at - that don't necessarily require massive levels of muscle or brain power (of the logico-mathematical variety anyway). This would essentially mean teaching people to simply be kind and compassionate towards one another, but it’s hard to see it as an avenue for massive employment. This is essentially the realm that feminism has being attempting to legitimize for the past century, but without any luck in applying it toward paid services.
Innovation is slowing down more generally and it takes more and more expertise, training, and schooling to reach the edge or frontier of complex fields like computer science where most technological breakthroughs happen. This greatly limits the number of people capable of contributing economically in terms of productivity through innovation. This isn't because of inequality either. Even if education were completely free at all levels, there simply aren't that many people capable of having insights at the level needed to create progress in the fields that generate prosperity, such as the STEM subjects.
This is exaggerated by the "winner take all" system that has developed due to mass communication and transportation. The best in the world at accounting can now have a computer programmer create systems like TurboTax and then sell that product to everyone without being limited by geography.
You already see this in fields like music and acting, where celebrity was once confined by geography to the number of people you could perform live in front of. Now, the best musicians and actors in the world can sell their products on iTunes and Amazon to the entire world. The same will be true of just about all service-based knowledge industries given enough time.
Of course, something dramatic could happen that totally upends what we know of history and economics. Right now, we categorize economic output in only four major sectors: agricultural, industrial, service, and creation. Technology is eliminating the first three as secure employment sectors and that leaves us with only the fourth sector centered on creativity, which as pointed out above is essentially unreachable by most people even if they are endowed with unlimited financial backing and equal opportunity. New ideas are just really, really hard to generate.
This is why socio-emotional education based on caring and compassion become even more important. We will almost certainly need "an allowance", what economists call a universal or basic income, as my student put it above for most people. This requires that the majority of the voting public agree to endorse policies that have social welfare and the great mass of people in mind.
Our world is getting richer. Wealth is not the issue here. Technology allows us to produce more goods and services for a greater number of people, giving us more options, prosperity, and a higher quality of life overall. However, we currently believe that the inventors and innovators deserve to capture all of the rewards for themselves. This is just one viewpoint, not the only one.
Another viewpoint is that we can choose to live in a society where we educate all, with the expectation and knowledge that only a small percentage will continue to create wealth through innovation, while at the same time requiring them to share that wealth once it is created. It only requires that we care enough to do it and stop believing that individuals deserve to keep whatever they create all for themselves. After all, they are able to create their innovations only because of the entire system that is in place: state infrastructure, state education, state laws, and state citizenship that leads to state protection.
Instead of seeing people as rightful owners of wealth, we need to view them as stewards of wealth. If they are not stewarding wealth appropriately, meaning using it to make everyone better off, they are not entitled to it. This follows the same vein of thinking as the original idea of a social contract between the populace and government, only now it is extended to a social contract between the populace, the government, and the wealthy.
We can make these changes civilly through education, legislation, and democratic consensus, or we can wait until movements like Occupy Wall Street go from non-violent demonstrations and protests to violent revolutions. The choice is ours.