This is Part 2 of a series on how autonomous vehicles could affect U.S. society. Part 1, on how truck-driver jobs may be affected, is here.
Fleets of trucks currently driven by humans are likely to be among the first vehicles taken over by computers, often driving in convoys to save fuel.
The same is likely to occur simultaneously or shortly thereafter with buses and cars, with the potential to throw millions of drivers and others even loosely associated with the nation’s driving economy out of work.
Yet this is only the first wave, as burgeoning robots – augmented by advances in artificial intelligence – take over or alter more and more jobs, from accounting to newspaper reporting to teaching.
How do we make sure that our robot overlords are not actually overlords, but servants enabling a better life for all of us?
In Rise of the Robots, software developer and author Martin Ford notes, “In the world that Google envisions, robotic cars will be concentrated into fleets. Maintenance, repair, insurance, and fueling would likewise be centralized. Untold thousands of small businesses, and the jobs associated with them, would evaporate.”
Of course, truckers and other drivers would be hurt first and worst. “Taxi driving jobs would evaporate,” writes Ford. “Bus driving might be automated, or perhaps buses will simply disappear, replaced by a better and more personalized form of public transportation.”
Social disruption will likely be intense. As Ford puts it, “The first place where self-driving cars make serious inroads might be exactly the area that directly impacts the most jobs.”
Rather than rushing forward and letting the largest and most innovative (or most disruptive, however you want to look at it) companies make changes – and reap the accompanying profits – at the pace they want, it is best to think through and prepare for these changes.
The drastic solution, advocated by Ford and many other thinkers, is the guaranteed basic income (GBI). As automation and artificial intelligence take over, this would reward people simply for existing, recognizing the worth of every human life simply for being who we are.
While the appeal of GBI is obvious for the political left, the concept also has long roots among the libertarian right, as simpler, fairer, and much cheaper to administer than the existing maze of needs-based programs, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income housing. Notably, both libertarian godfather Friedrich Hayek and neoclassical guru Milton Friedman advocate GBI as a basic insurance mechanism enabling an otherwise capitalist system.
Yet, as the ultimate solution, GBI would likely be difficult to pass, certainly in the short term. It faces opponents, such as Rob Tracinski, editor of the futurist online magazine RealClearFuture, who argues that capitalism has always generated new work as old has disappeared. New products and services improve people’s lives in a multitude of ways. GBI would be “a massive disincentive for precisely that kind of adaptation” that has always happened previously, Tracinski says.
That may be a pretty strong argument; however, this time may be different than before, as technology advances faster than ever and as machines are increasingly able to learn and adapt. Nevertheless, old arguments about the self-correcting nature of capitalism are likely to prevail, at least for the time being. Furthermore, in a society that believes in the value of work, removing the need to work may cause an existential crisis. With GBI, people might not be starving in the streets, but would still suffer feelings of worthlessness and boredom.
An intermediary approach might be to shrink hours of work. Combined with retraining, as people lose jobs, this might provide employment for all – albeit less of it. After all, in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the 21st Century, we’d all be working 15 hour a week due to productivity increases. It didn’t quite work out that way, as our demand for goods and services increased incessantly, meaning that extra work was needed to keep up.
Such disruption, however, can cause human misery. To smooth out this process, no less than Bill Gates has suggested a robot tax, which would be placed upon companies adopting technology that replaces humans, and use the money for retraining and for refocusing on improved health and education.
A robot tax may work as a transition device, perhaps in coordination with shrinking working hours. If, however, as futurists predict, artificial intelligence begins to take ever-more sophisticated jobs, we will need to figure out what happens when displaced truckers lose the new jobs for which they trained so hard.
Another alternative for dealing with job displacement would be to give employees an interest in companies. As the afore-mentioned Martin Ford puts it, “In a future world where nearly all the income is captured by capital, and human labor is worth very little, why not simply make sure that everyone owns enough capital to be economically secure?”
After all, without truckers willing to put in long hours over decades, trucking companies would not have succeeded. Workers gave of themselves, it can be argued, and deserve equity in the companies they provided value to. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Darlene Damm goes so far as to argue, “If an employee holds stock in a company, and is replaced by a robot, they may actually benefit from the robot taking their job and doing it better, since their stock’s value will increase as the company becomes more successful.”
Worker ownership, even if partial, would cushion the blow of a world without work. Plus, this might be one way to avoid massive social unrest.
Damm goes on to suggest a modification of current practices, so that existing business spaces find new uses. Walmart, for instance, is already expanding services, so “Why not also offer classes in yoga, fitness, cooking, nutrition, or well-being at an affordable price? Or child care, elder care, psychological services, rehabilitation, or meeting space for community groups? This would create new sources of revenue, improve communities, and offer new jobs and skill sets to employees.”
Juliet Schor, in her 2010 book Plentitude, offers a more radical twist on this, in which small, independent entrepreneurs and community activists use new technology to provide a range of services currently allocated mostly to large corporations. This new economy would make it so that people “work and spend less, create and connect more,” on the way to an ecologically sustainable economy. For sure, creating a high-tech, sustainable future “doesn’t mean we can’t have fabulous clothes, low-impact electronic gadgetry, great local food, and a more leisurely mode of travel.”
Simplicity, advanced technology, community, and a reasonable enjoyment of material goods can all be part of a better future. Schor suggests a secular version of a kind of community religions have often envisioned.
The search for meaning and community continues. Writing in Christianity Today, Kevin Brown and Steve McMullen explain, “Where activity and productivity are emphasized at the expense of meaning, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between humans and robots.” They argue that “humans will eventually lose that game. Robots never sleep, and eventually there may not be much ‘productivity’ left for us.”
Christian faith offers at least one avenue for finding meaning in a post-work world. Of course, the majority of people on the planet are not Christian, and prevailing trends, at least in the United States, are away from organized religion. Nevertheless, religion is too often slighted in discussions of a post-work world. As jobs shrink away, it very well could provide great comfort to many and be a fount of meaning.
In the end, we want to be cautious and not rush blindly into an increasingly automated future. Truckers and Uber drivers may find themselves among the early casualties, yet all of us are at risk. We should think ahead, keeping the wider social good in mind, pondering our long-term goals, while simultaneously solving practical problems step by step.
Photo by NASA Kennedy/Flickr.