8 things humans will still be paid for when robots make everything free

It’s 2025 and Artificial Intelligence, 3D Printers, Drones, Robots, Autonomous cars and the Internet have made it possible to copy, distribute and access everything almost for free.

You wake up at 7am, stretch yourself and ask your Artificial Intelligence app to give you the morning news. Taxi and Uber Drivers alike are organizing a demonstration to protest about being replaced by autonomous cars who don’t pay taxes. Musicians, Writers and Journalists are ranting about being replaced by Artificial Intelligence and Internet piracy. Constructions workers are ranting about being replaced by 3D printers. Grocery employees are ranting about being replaced by drones…

The future looks pretty bleak for humans, doesn’t it?

We’ve hit a point of no return where technology efficiency keeps improving faster than we can.

Will we humans still be able to add value when the technologies we develop can do everything better than us? Will the owners of the technology become the new masters of the world, leaving all the rest as a sub-cast dispossessed of everything?

I must admit that when I think of this, I get a little distressed. I see everybody lying as couch potatoes with no mission on this planet other than consuming what our technology serves us for free.

But I recently came across the book “The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future”. In it, Kevin Kelly makes predictions about what will remain impossible to copy and will be valuable enough for us to keep paying for. Even when everything can be accessed for free.

The following ideas will remain impossible to copy, store or clone, whatever our technology allows us to do now and fifty years from now. These 8 ideas are better than free. They will still give value to our human work, and can be an inspiring path towards profitability to every Open Source project out there. Let’s dive in.

#1 Immediacy: Getting something right at the moment it’s been produced

Photo by Gemma Evans, Unsplash

Photo by Gemma Evans, Unsplash

At some point it will be extremely easy to get a copy of anything for free thanks to the Internet. But getting it the moment it’s released or produced by its creators will still be extremely valuable.

Today, even if people can wait a little for anything to be available for free on torrent or very cheap on Netflix, some are ready to pay a considerable price for going to the cinema when a movie is released.

As Kevin Kelly says, we are not paying for the movie, since it’s available for free anyway, we are paying for the immediacy.

The same goes for other releases like:

  • Development kits: When a new development platform like Oculus Rift is out, developers are ready to pay access to the first development kits because it will open new opportunities for them. That will be true even in the future when you can 3D print your development kits

  • Access to beta versions or apps: even if a beta version is often incomplete it is valuable in itself by the fact that it also opens access to new possibilities and opportunities

  • Anything made available on a crowdfunding platform for pre-sale

Immediacy might go from minutes to months, but it is valuable nonetheless, and is available in every product and service.

Who can take advantage of Immediacy:

  • Any development platform or App store, any on-demand service
  • Any crowdfunding platform and projects published on them
  • Any live event
  • Any physical product manufacturer or service provider  

#2 Personalization: Turning a generic version into something personalized

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc, Unsplash

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc, Unsplash

Every open source or free offering will be by default generic. But getting a version tailored to your personal needs will always be in demand.

Some future examples cited by Kevin Kelly could be:

  • A generic version of a concert recording tweaked to sound acoustically perfect in your living room—as if it were being performed in your room— for which you may be willing to pay a lot
  • A movie you accessed for free, could be bought to be cut and made apt for kid viewing (no violence, no sex…)
  • You can get generic business tips and templates you can get on the internet, but you’ll pay to get them tailored to your own business
  • A generic drug might be freely accessible for 3D printing on the Internet, but you’ll probably find it more valuable and will be ready to pay if you get it tailored to your DNA

You might get access to anything for free, but if you want to get it personalized you’ll pay.

This is already true for Open Source software. Software developers earn a lot of money because they have an enormous amounts of freely available libraries and they know how tweak and personalize these libraries for their clients.

Gradually more and more things will become accessible for free (or almost), like housing, food or transportation. But instead of getting cookie cutter solutions for everyone, there will be more and more demand for personalized solutions.

Who will take advantage of Personalization:

Freelancers and Companies dedicated to personalization, like architects, audio engineers, photographers, software developers, pharmacologists, craftsmen, coaches…

#3 Interpretation: Get the software for free, pay for the user manual

Photo by Heidi Sandstrom, Unsplash

Some open source companies like Red Hat and Apache are already making a healthy profit by sharing their code for free, and charging for the instructions and support of free software.

But this doesn’t only apply to software. More and more open source hardware and “process” companies charge for building custom projects for their clients:

  • Afforest has created an open source method to regrow a forest ten times faster, and it charges its clients to put it in place for them
  • Open Source Ecology already charges to run workshops with those who want to learn their methodology
  • Wikihouse architects and designers can already charge to customize any house module to the topography of the land it will be built on
  • Gazelles’ business tools are available in Open Source, but the coaching and consulting is what they charge for
  • Soon, you’ll be able to get a copy of your DNA sequencing almost for free. At this point interpreting what it means, what you can do with it, will become a very valuable service.

Those who will be able to make sense and leverage all the information created by the crowd and by our new technologies will find it easy to charge for their services.

Who can take advantage of Interpretation:

Any Open Source business and any other complex service that requires interpretation, i.e. Red Hat, Apache, Afforest, DNA sequencing experts, marketing or any other complex service

#4 Authenticity: Make sure what you get is what you want to get

Photo via VisualHunt

Photo via VisualHunt

Even if you can get any popular song, book or software application for free on a torrent downloader, and even if you don’t get the manual to make it work, you will want to make sure it’s free of bugs, malware and spam.

And you’ll be ready to pay for an authentic copy. This way, you’ll be getting a “free” software (as in freedom) and the relief that comes with anything that’s guaranteed to work.

Don’t believe me? You don’t think you’ll be paying for something that is authentic?

Let me give you a few examples then:

  • Remember that Netflix subscription that you or your neighbour paid for? You can be 100% sure you are not getting malware each time you download something from a torrent, and you get the added value of immediacy.

  • You might know Sugru, a rubber paste to fix almost anything. Well, you can access inexpensive recipes to make your own sugru at home. But most of us still buy it from Sugru because we are guaranteed their product will fix our stuff without having to get the kitchen all dirty and spend the time learning how to make it and making it.

  • There is a huge demand for Arduino microcontroller boards because of their quality and service. People know there are cheaper alternatives if they go buy chinese copies. But when they buy it directly from Arduino, they know they’ll be getting a reliable product without worrying if it will crash down in a few month.

  • If you want to buy anything from an artist, buying an authentic version from the artist herself will ensure you get the one you wanted. That’s true of anything, from a music composition, a signed photograph, litograph, books and so on…
    In fact, whenever artists launch a Kickstarter campaign, their authentic copies are the most expensive tiers, like Mystery Science Theater 3000, which sold some of their inventions with their certificate of authenticity.

Who can take advantage of Authenticity:

Any artistic project or high quality product manufacturer

#5 Accessibility: Access over Ownership

Photo by Marcin Wichary, Flickr

Photo by Marcin Wichary, Flickr

In the collaborative economy circles it’s been discussed for a while: We don’t want to own things, we want access to the benefits of things.

The on-demand economy’s appeal lies in not having to store or manage your possessions. You wanted to go from point A to point B? You probably prefer to do it in someone else’s car for a fraction of the price than having to buy a car, maintain it, and use the garage space to store it.

If you are like most people, you will also prefer to go to Deezer, Spotify, Netflix or Amazon and pay a mensual subscription rather than search, download and backup your book, music or film copies from the Internet.

With mobiles and soon AI it will become easier and easier to turn any service or product into an on-demand service. The more on-demand services that will be around, the more others will take care of our “possessions” in the cloud. All of this in exchange of our subscription to their services.

Even if most things will be available for free elsewhere, the power of on-demand will always remain its convenience. Anything you’ll be subscribed to will be synced into all your devices.

The same is true for Open Source products. Developers are subscribing to Github because it gives them a convenient place to store their code. Developers also pay Docker for giving them a safe environment for building, shipping and running their apps.

So we’ll not be paying for the material, since it will be free, but for the convenience of accessing something easily and for having others maintain the service.

Who can take advantage of Accessibility:

  • Anyone who makes it convenient to access something you could get for free somewhere else
  • On-demand services like iTunes, Spotify, Uber, Netflix, Amazon, Github, The Noun Project or Tesla’s software updates
  • Sharing Economy companies like Airbnb or Blablacar
  • Open Source Saas companies like Docker or Github

#6 Embodiment: Getting the real version of your digital goods

Photo by Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

Photo by Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

Most things that were traditionally delivered physically, such as art, literature, music, or education.., have become almost free thanks to the Internet. But even if we can get it for free, getting the physical experience will remain something we are ready to pay for. As Kevin Kelly says, “In this accounting, the music is free, the bodily performance expensive.”

Even if people can see an entire Ted conference streamed on the internet, there will be people still interested in paying thousands of dollars to attend the event and physically connect with the speakers and the other participants.

Even if we have access to a library of music we won’t have time to listen in our lifetime, we’ll still pay to gather with other people passionate about music and to experience the vibrations of the music in our body.

Even if we can practice our favorite sport on our own and learn new drills on Youtube, we’ll still be ready to pay to gather with other peers at a sporting event, share our experiences and practice together.

Regarding open source hardware, anyone with the capacity to embody locally a digital copy, like an OpenDesk, will have a business. If I don’t have the capacity to access a CNC machine to build my table, I’d rather pay a freelancer at a fablab to do it for me.

Right now we keep going to the cinema because we don’t have huge screens in our house. When new display technology gets out, we’ll be ready to go to Virtual Reality or holographic theaters to experience what this new technology is like.

Soon, artists will not be making a living with their music or book sales. They’ll be making a living from the concerts, conferences, radio shows and other pop-up events…

Who can take advantage of Embodiment:

  • Live events: Conferences, Workshops, Theater, Live Music, Live Sport Events, Live Radio Shows, Live Video Game Meetings
  • Spaces with the latest technology (Virtual Reality or hololens cinemas…)
  • Physical manufacturers: Book publishers, Open Source Hardware companies or manufacturers

#7 Patronage: Fans supporting creators and commons they love

Photo by Eddy Klaus, Unsplash

Photo by Eddy Klaus, Unsplash

Fans and avid supporters have always been keen to pay creators, artists, musicians, authors and actors, but also common infrastructures like Wikipedia, charities or meditation retreats. We do that to show our appreciation, our gratitude and also to connect with those we admire. And this will remain true in the future, especially with the big number of patronage platforms that are starting to sprout, like Patreon, Kickstarter or PledgeMusic.

But there are some conditions that need to exist for us to do pay to support a creator or a commons.

1) It must be extremely easy;

2) The amount must be reasonable;

3) There’s Clear benefit to the artist or to the commons / open source infrastructure for paying;

4) It’s clear the money will directly benefit the creators or the commons.

Today, there are already examples of bands and artists who let their fans pay what they feel like. Some examples of this are Radiohead pay-what-you-want disc releases, or Amanda Palmer’s 8000 patrons supporting every thing she releases, even before knowing what she’ll release next.

Radiohead found out that 67% of people downloaded their disc on bittorrent, even if it was free on their website. But the other 33% paid for it, and it made them more money than any of their previous releases put together and it reinforced the sales of their physical discs.

Amanda Palmer or Crash Course have millions of people watching and listening their creations for free on Youtube, but they have created so much trust among their raving fans, that thousands of them are willing to support their creations even without knowing what they’ll release next.

During its annual funding campaign, Wikipedia is regularly able to gather in a few days the $25 million they need to maintain the platform. Wikipedia will be free regardless you support it or not thanks to this massive support.

Who can take advantage of Patronage:

#8 Discoverability: Curating what we want to know, have and access


The Internet produces day after day millions of creations available for free. So it’s increasingly difficult to find among all of this stuff what’s valuable and what’s not.

This is hard now that we have millions of apps, books, songs and films, but it will be even harder 50 years from now due to the explosion in creativity made possible by our exponential technologies.

This phenomenon makes it difficult to find what exists and if it’s right for us. So making something easy to find will become increasingly valuable.

Fans have their ways to find where are the needles they want among the haystacks. They go to critics, reviews, labels, publishers, and obviously other fans and trusted friends.

But creations will go into the billions, the trillions, and probably more in the coming years. So it will become increasingly hard to find valuable work, and we’ll become more likely to pay for guidance.

Airbnb, Netflix and Amazon’s greatest assets are the user reviews they’ve accumulated and the recommendation algorithms they have honed over the years. Without them it would be unlikely they would sell anything. But with them they can sell paid products and services, even if anyone can find the free version of their offers elsewhere on Couchsurfing or Bittorrents.

If you are into ethical and sustainable products, you know how hard it is to find stuff that checks all of the marks. If someone could curate them for you with care, you’d be hard pressed to buy from their site. This is what BuyMeOnce does.

If you have travelled to another country you have probably paid for the Lonely Planet to guide you through cities. You or your family have also probably subscribed at some point for tv guides, for film guides, for music guides and so on…

Everything will still be free to access and use, but we’ll be paying for the findability.

Who can take advantage of Discoverability:

  • Anyone with a flair for curating the best of anything (TV guide, Lonely Planet, DuckDuckGo) and can create affiliate sales systems (BuyMeOnce)
  • Anyone who can create recommendation systems with user Reviews like Blablacar, Airbnb, Amazon, FilmAffinity… or Recommendation algorithms (Netflix)

It’s just the beginning of freedom. Are we ready for it?

We come from a society that’s been obsessed to master distribution and to forbid copying. But it is impossible to sustain. The music industry thought it could protect itself from getting copied, but it’s been a useless battle. Legal threats or technical tricks are not working anymore.

Those who understand this have created services to curate, personalize or interpret what becomes freely available.

To become good at these eight qualities we’ll have to go from mastering distribution, hoarding and creating scarcity to developing nurturing qualities that are unique, remarkable and can’t be easily reproduced.

Once we do it, it will help us explore more and more what freedom means. What happens when businesses allow others to copy what they do, and how we can all still make a living from it. And even more important, it shows us a path where there is room for our creativity when robots become way more efficient than we currently are.

Even when everything you need is available freely, there will always be things better than free.

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Jaime Arredondo
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  1. Nice work on these eight. We are working on similar ideas over at http://www.postcapfuture.com. I signed up here, maybe you’d enjoy seeing what we are up to as well.

    I also think you need to add the tech–supercomputing, AI, sensor building–those are the drivers of the tech that is taking the jobs away.

    Love to hear your thoughts.

    Anthony Signorelli

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment Anthony. Will take a look at your blog 🙂

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