Some Thoughts on Automation and the Future of Labour

In my last post, I alluded to some problematic implications that Amazon PrimeAir might have for workers and the economy. I didn’t have time to give the matter full consideration then, but I think these issues are going to become extremely important in the coming decades, so they deserve a post of their own. My thesis is that while PrimeAir and other automation schemes might appear threatening, they can actually be highly beneficial if we are willing to make dramatic changes in our economic values.

These experiments with driverless trucks could herald big changes to how our economy works.

To illustrate this, I’m going to consider the case self-driving cars, which have a much better shot at widespread commercialization than drone delivery. Google’s self-driving car has an impressive record, and Volvo has just released a huge test fleet of the vehicles onto the roads of Sweden. More and more governmental bodies are legalizing the testing of autonomous vehicles, and a recent study predicts that self-driving cars will overtake manually driven cars by 2050.

This is all a little bit exciting. Self-driving cars are, after all, something that we have been promised in science fiction for decades. But one thing that I don’t think is being adequately considered is the fact that if you can have a self-driving car, then you can have a self-driving truck. The aforementioned study predicts that a self-driving car will cost as little as $3000 more than its manually-driven counterpart by the time such cars become commonplace-a cost that pales in comparison with paying a driver. Self-driving trucks will also be able to make faster deliveries and reduce costs by driving without rest, and may well save trucking firms on insurance payments. Some of the first motor vehicles on the roads were commercial vehicles, and we could see a similar pattern with self-driving vehicles.

You can probably see the problem here. Truckers make up a pretty big chunk of the blue-collar workforce. There are 3.5 million of them in the United States alone. Self-driving vehicle technology, when combined with other forms of automated logistics, will put many of these people out of work. While some vehicles and some roads will probably continue to need human drivers into the foreseeable future, it seems likely that there are going to be a lot fewer jobs available for professional drivers in the second half of the twenty-first century.

This seems pretty scary on first glance, but I think there might be some reason for optimism. The fear of losing jobs is based on an economic ideology originating in the industrial revolution that made jobs essential for well-being. For the last few centuries we have needed people to work to produce essential services, and so we created an economy and a set of economic values that required people to contribute materially to society in order to have access to its material products of that society. The thing is that this set of values becomes completely obsolete in a society where we can rely on robots to provide most of our basic goods and services. In such a society, we will no longer need to make paid labour a prerequisite for material comfort.

Of course, transitioning to such a society will be easier said than done. Labour unions will probably fight to block automation, while those who own the robots will likely fight to keep any of their profits from going to support the workers they have replaced. It’s difficult to predict how these battles will go, but I I don’t think either one of these groups is likely to completely achieve their goals. Labour unions fighting against automation might win a few victories, but automation only has to win out in one area or sector to provide a niche from which it will expand. Displaced workers, meanwhile, will be both numerous and (justifably) angry, and will have to be placated somehow.

One possible outcome would be the imposition of a guaranteed minimum income. This would in effect alter the economic social contract from “You must contribute your labour to the society that helps you survive”, to “You have an absolute right to a share of the products of society”. There would still be jobs, as not every task can be automated and some people would (fortunately) prefer to work, but such people would have to be very well-paid in order to persuade them to give up eight hours of every day. Meanwhile, people without jobs would be free to pursue political action, volunteerism, parenting, or art without worrying about finding a way to monetize these activities. It could also be good for business and innovation, by making it far less personally risk for inventors and entrepreneurs to start companies.

If this sounds utopian, it’s because we don’t yet know what kinds of problems will arise in a society with a guaranteed income. And, of course, my speculation above could be totally wrong and automation could facilitate a whole different set of social changes. The outcome I described above is only one of a number of possibilities. But even if the struggle over automation turns out differently than I have predicted, I think that there’s a wider point to be made here about the relationship between technology, ideology, and culture. Our ideologies and our technological systems are interdependent. Our current set of economic values focus on the moral and economic value of hard work. But such values were crafted at a time when hard work was absolutely necessary. Different systems generate different values. Greek philosophers, for example (who generally had slaves), disparaged any manual work. If we recognize that such values are not absolute, then we can start to seriously consider what it might mean if new technology has made them obsolete..


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