The pace of technological development has increased phenomenally over the last century. In the 35 years I’ve been on the planet there have been huge changes. I recall at primary school in 1991 being excited that our class had a computer, a commodore 64. In 2018 most of us have a smart phones that have 1000 times more memory, and have functions we wouldn’t have dreamt of back in the early 1990s.
Driverless cars are the latest technological development people are excited about. Its amazing to think that we now have the ability to build cars that drive themselves. Further we are quickly moving into an era where many previous manual tasks can be automated. Everything from barista’s to factory workers are seeing machines able to do what humans can.
This is exciting, but also frankly terrifying. Not only because of all the dystopian science fiction novels where machines take over and wreck havoc. But socially, economically and in terms of human society there a whole bunch of serious considerations when we look at automation.
At the risk of being accused of being a luddite, a killjoy or even a cynic, I question the rationale of prioritising the development of automation of people’s jobs. I get that driverless cars reduces labour costs for business. But when driverless cars threaten 25,000 jobs a month in the US, what will the impact be on society. Even for businesses who make short term gains from this sort of automation, will significant increases in unemployment and corresponding drop in disposable income really benefit many firms in the medium to long term?
Further, at a time when we face a serious environmental disaster in the face of human caused climate change, why are we prioritising driverless cars over zero emission vehicles? Why are our lawmakers having to put their energy into thinking about how the economy will survive automation, when we are yet to solve the fact that our future survival as a species is under threat from carbon emissions?
The issue is two fold. One is that business, especially post 2008 financial crisis focus on making efficiencies to maintain or improve profit. Some are thinking bigger picture but many aren’t. So they invest in technology that fixes the immediate problem, rather than consider the issues down the road. Those who work in research and development are generally at the mercy of their funders. They focus on what they are paid to, regardless of the wider consequences.
The Second issue is the silo’s that exist between the innovators, business, law makers and those concerned with social issues. What should happen is an economic plan that looks at the major issues facing the economy as a whole, then funding research and development in areas that would help solve these. This happens to an extent, but more could be done to invest in things like zero emission technology. Government has a leadership role to play here. As I mentioned in my post about the Housing Crisis, politics is captured by electoral cycles. Long term strategic thinking is often not a good re-election strategy (though be nice to see it tried sometime).
To conclude, I’m not against driverless cars or other forms of automation. But we need a society where there is full employment. If we put the livelihoods of millions at risk by developing new technology without creating alternative jobs, the negatives far outweigh the positives of this development.