Does automation liberate or enslave society?

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A few things in the news lately have got me thinking about the first books I read by Isaac Asimov - Caves of Steel, and its sequel, The Naked Sun.

In those books, there are two distinct cultures, that of Earth and that of Earth’s former colonies and superiors. The Earther culture is a low-automation, hardworking culture where technology is feared. Earthers are dirty, poor, and live in domes because they’ve become afraid of the great outdoors.

The spacer culture is one of grand wealth, and a strong embrace of the benefits of technology. The population is sparse, it’s uncommon for two people to be in the same house, nevermind touching each other. As such, even reproduction is a controlled, scientific event.

So what in the news brought this all to mind (books written in the 1950s, read in the 1970s)? There have been a few news stories recently that point towards the obsolescence of humans: McDonalds and Wendy’s are planning robotic stores; Amazon has discovered that replacing warehouse workers with robots saves time, space and money; an AI wrote a movie script; Truckers are worried what autonomous trucks will do to their livelihood, and the insurance industry can’t figure out how self-driving cars will impact your insurance premium (Who’s liable if there’s an accident, but no one is driving?)

Decades ago, I heard an old joke about how the computer industry compared itself to the car industry and GM’s rebuttal. It’s all urban myth, there never was such an exchange. But now we’re getting closer to cars made by software designers (google for one) maybe we should look at those two perspectives:

a) If Microsoft made cars, they’d get 1,000 mpg, and cost only $25.00 claims one side.
b) If Microsoft made cars, they’d crash twice a day, claims the other.

So there’s a couple of threads here, beyond the idea that computerized cars will be more self-sufficient. Apparently computerized transmissions are only now becoming as efficient as a well-trained manual transmission driver. So let’s set that aside.

So how do you insure self-driving cars? Can a passenger be liable for the car’s behaviour? Is the manufacturer liable? If the roads are safer, and accidents eliminated, how many insurance agents do we need? Or how much woud each make if they work on commission of policy sold?

Of course, Uber is one of the leading manufacturers working on self-driving cars, with its sites clearly on the taxi industry. It’s already testing cars in Pittsburgh.

Will self-driving trucks kill 3.5 milllion jobs n the US? The average truck driver makes $40,000 per annum. Retrofitting his truck to making it self-driving would take a one-off payment of $30,000. Human drivers are limited in the number of hours they can drive (the truck sits idle), so an autonomous truck could replace more than one driver and pay for itself in less than a year. According to the Guardian:

Mining giant Rio Tinto already uses 45 240-ton driverless trucks to move iron ore in two Australian mines, saying it is cheaper and safer than using human drivers.

in April, multiple convoys of trucks drove themselves from countries such as Sweden and Germany all the way to Rotterdam, Holland.

So what if each warehouse, distribution point, etc just needs to keep a few drivers around, to take over for the robots once the truck is in the yard. The modern-day ‘Harbour pilots’ would never have to go off property (and technically wouldn’t need a driver’s license, although insurance might demand that). That might spare a few thousand jobs, but not likely. Probably even that part of the trip could be automated.

Truck drivers are quickly becoming obsolete. I remember late night infomercials about how easy it was to attend Truck Driving School and get a lifelong career. Not any more.

Other workers are at risk too, McDonald’s and Wendy’s have reacted to new laws pushing the minimum wage to $15/hour by starting plans to convert restaurants to automated shops. In Wendy’s cases, it appears to only be the front-of-shop workers who are affected, not the cooks (yet). McDonald’s is going deeper into automation with the whole restaurant affected.

Amazon’s warehouses have been the subject of a number of journalists’ exposés. Well, Amazon may have the perfect answer to the problem of their warehouse jobs not being fulfilling enough, or safe, in some cases). No more humans in the warehouse. Amazon has been leading the charge for delivery by drone (there goes the UPS jobs).

Now they’re starting to automate their warehouses, to great benefit for both the company and the consumer. With robots being four to five times faster than humans in fulfilling orders. Also, robots don’t need the aisles to be as wide, allowing for more rows of shelves.

“In theory self-driving cars would not create negligence liability for the passenger/non-driver/owner of the car.” Forbes quotes Marc Mayerson, a Georgetown professor and lawyer. “One model would be to have the car manufacturer bear all the liability and impose that liability simply based on the autonomous car’s being a substantial cause of the injury,”

Where does this all lead, and why does it make me think of Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun? Those two books showed the eventual outcome of the two paths open to us. We could ban technology, preserve jobs for humans, or we could embrace technology as the great liberator.

For the first to work, we need to rethink our laws, redefine our society to protect jobs. We didn’t do it for bank employees when ATMs came along. We didn’t do it for the autoworkers when robotic assembly lines came along. So we probably won’t do it now for the other working classes.

For the second to work, everyone needs to be able to live, even as jobs disappear, and economies re-align. This could mean a guaranteed minimum income - something that has been trialled in under-developed countries and is now being experimented with in Canada.

The problem with this is it only works if it isn’t sabotaged. A guaranteed income can’t mean a rise in basic food necessities, or rent. It can’t mean that corporations (who already don’t pay their share of taxes) can push pricing higher because they seen wealth to collect. It means that people who have had easy lives - middle class and up — may have to face some self-less decisions or face the consequences of armed, angry, unemployed masses.