Monday, November 5, 2007

Robot Drivers, the US Army and . . . You?

In most ways, Forbes is a horrible magazine, who's sole purpose is to make rich people feel good about being rich. It's pretty sad, really. But this story about the DARPA robotic vehicle contest I found interesting in a couple of ways.

First, it said that the US DOD wants 1/3rd of it's fleet of vehicles automated by 2015. That's eight years away, folks. I don't know if they'll get a full third of them automated, but I'm sure that the technology for automated vehicles will be pretty robust by then. Indeed, I suspect robot drivers by then will be better than human drivers.

I went and looked at a number of other articles about the subject. Most of them, like the Forbes article, are of the "ooooh, robots are cool" school of journalism. And, well, yeah, robots are cool. Not a single article mentioned any possibility of, say, social consequence because of this. Such as, in industrialized countries, in the next ten years or so the entire industry of long distance driver might be completely wiped out. Once it is demonstrated that these vehicles are safer than human drivers . . . well, I'm pretty sure that it's already the case that it'd be cost effective to replace human drivers with machines. They're just not good enough yet, but they will be in the next several years.

There are around 1.3 million long haul truckers in America. In twenty years, I'd be surprised if any of them have jobs. Robots will just do what they do better and cheaper than they could ever do it. Many short haul jobs will also be totally automated, too.

Sometimes I feel like I'm talking science-fiction when I say, "The biggest labor problem that industrialized countries are facing is that in the near future there will simply be no jobs." Already, three in four of American jobs are service jobs, most of them low end, near minimum wage jobs. I mean, screw artificial intelligence as the technological singularity. I mean, maybe at some point AI will also make intellectual human labor wholly obsolete,but the day is nigh when most people will simply . . . not be needed for labor purposes. Just not needed. Most low end service industry jobs will just be done by machines. (Even for many interaction jobs, you won't need real artificial intelligence to do them - just enough verbal skills to negotiate specific problems. Like tech support. When you're calling up to troubleshoot your TV, the robot doesn't need to be able to talk about the weather, just identify what the problem is and clearly tell the person how to fix it. The automated menu systems that some tech support places have is a crude form of this, of course. So even jobs where direct communication is important can be automated without invoking some possibly mystic goal of artificial intelligence.)

Is there anyone beyond a couple of sci-fi writers and futurists who are even talking about this? Seriously. I want to know. Because this is not some hypothetic possible future problem, but something that's very much right around the corner - the US military wants 1 in 3 of it's drivers automated away in eight years. But I can't think of a single politician who is even tangentially addressing what is likely to be the biggest labor problem of the 21st century. That most of us won't be needed.


Anonymous said...

You are seeing in the UK that increasingly, large super markets are beginning to replace check out staff with scan yourself/self service machine. Static robots in fact. Sooner rather than later a great swathe of those jobs will disappear as well.

Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, we have those in the US, too, more and more. Like I said, these jobs are going away and no one seems to care what those people will be doing in a year or ten.

Infidel753 said...

In the long run this is a good thing, not a bad thing. In a few decades almost all production will be done by machines, not people, and much more cheaply than now. When human activity is no longer necessary to create wealth, concepts such as a "job" or "the economy" will be obsolete. It's managing the transition from an economic to a post-economic society that will be the hard part.

Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, it's the transition that worries me. I agree that once we get it all settled out we're in for a golden age unlike any we have experienced.

Aristotle said that there would be slavery until the looms worked themselves. We're *almost there*. :)