Tuesday, March 03, 2015

[Cars, Rant] Driverless Cars and The World of Tomorrow

The march to driverless cars is inexorable. Like it or not, they are coming. Now, it's slowly starting to dawn on everyone what an enormous societal upheaval this is going to be. To get an idea, check out this map of the most common jobs in every state. In 2014 commercial driver was the most common in about 29 states. Driverless vehicles will do away with every one of those jobs. Up until recently the notion of losing your job to automation has been a niche thing. A few factory workers here and there, often unionized workers who had at least some sort of cushion. In fact, a lot of displacement via technology has happened in more low-end white collar jobs as when the internet did away with discount stock brokers and bookstores/video rental. Driverless cars will be the first wholesale obsolescence of unskilled labor. I expect:
  • Unending breathless news reports about how horrible it is.
  • Protests, possibly riots. (We have spent far too many decades equating victimhood with righteousness for this not to turn ugly.)
  • Potential power grabs by organizations associated with class conflict and working class populism: Unions, Occupiers, etc. (These will likely fail because they invariably end up collapsing under the weight of internal contradictions. When the anti-elite win, they become what they opposed.)
  • Mad confusion as everyone twists the crisis to support their own causes: higher taxes, lower taxes, less immigrants, more immigrants, etc.
  • The well-intentioned upper middles who still have jobs will call for all sorts of assistance to the displaced, while their robot cars take the kids to soccer practice.
  • In the short run (perhaps not only in the short run), it's entirely possible that some of the displaced workers will be allowed to ride along with the robots as emergency backups, essentially being paid for nothing in the interest of social harmony.
In the long run, the problem remains. The further into the future we go, the less the value of people on the left hand side of the bell curve -- that's harshly put, but accurate. And as flip as I may sound, it is a real problem. It's hard for someone on the right hand side of the curve not to address this without sounding condescending, but I'm sincere. A world where huge swaths of the population are useless and purposeless is a monstrous dystopia, yet it seems to be almost inevitable.

My characterization of it as a bell curve issue implies a relationship to IQ and to some extent it is. High IQ people will adapt better in a world where more and more jobs require abstract thinking and information jockeying. The ultimate key however is a question of skilled versus unskilled. The abstract thinking required of a plumber is not great, but you can't be an idiot and be a successful plumber because the skill level is high, and that's a clue. Skilled blue collar jobs will probably be alright. I can easily envision a robot truck driver; not so much a robot plumber or electrician. Along the same lines, a low-skill white collar jobs is as likely to crash as a low-skill blue collar job -- entry-level jobs in retail sales, for instance, are at risk, as are something like actuaries and claims adjusters, or any information job that mostly involves following fairly well-defined rules and protocols. This is not to say skilled jobs won't disappear eventually, it just seems an order of magnitude further away.

That said, even though it looks bad I don't anticipate the apocalypse; just a painful period of adjustment. I suspect it will all settle in some new, unspoken social compact wherein there is more wealth transfer from the skilled to the unskilled. It won't be in the form of direct welfare since that angers both the givers and receivers. It will be in the form of payments for what is ultimately unnecessary work, or work made inefficient through regulations, or status premiums to hand-made goods, so as to keep people employed and make them feel of value and allow everyone, payers and payees, to maintain a plausible image of reason. Fringe elements will decry this as societal delusion and hypocrisy, but the mainstream will rationalize it because it keeps the peace and keeps civilization going. That is, after all, a hallmark of civilization: rationalizing hypocrisy for the greater good.

I'm getting into futurism now, which is not really my forte. Much of this will occur long after I'm gone. There is always a temptation to see the bad in change and weep for the settled world of the past, but the past was not so glorious, nor is the present. Neither will be the future. It will just be different.

Of course, in the very long run, all jobs will be gone and we'll all be dead brains in jars.

Related: Google's been in the game for a while, now comes Apple.