Robot car technology is yet another case of geeks bearing gifts — gifts which are bound to disemploy millions.
Robot-car tech has been discussed and developed for years, but now with Google’s help it seems to be quite advanced. Isn’t it interesting, though, that that the journalist (John Markoff) who broke (or was handed) this story had not a word to say about the negative social disruption of this technology? He seemed interested only in the upside, and to the extent that he expressed any skepticism, it was about the technological hurdles that lie in the way of carbots’ full development.
Autonomous cars are years from mass production, but technologists who have long dreamed of them believe that they can transform society as profoundly as the Internet has.
Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption. But of course, to be truly safer, the cars must be far more reliable than, say, today’s personal computers, which crash on occasion and are frequently infected.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, one of the big disruptions likely to occur as a result of car-bot tech is the final destruction of most brick-and-mortar retail businesses, perhaps even grocery stores — because car-bots will be able to deliver stuff from Amazon-type e-tailers within hours, not just in a day or two. So it won’t be just car, truck and bus drivers who lose their jobs as a result of this innovation; most retail jobs will probably disappear too.
One of the related, broader themes I’ve been harping on here is that of the ouroboros economy, in which innovation in many fields becomes so advanced that it starts to destroy, even in the medium and long term, more human jobs than it creates, thus consuming its own consumers. Car-bot tech seems a classic example of an innovation that does this. And of course our persistent high unemployment, despite economic growth and solid corporate profits, suggests that this tipping point is being neared or has already been reached in some areas. The current competition among developed countries to devalue their currencies to boost exports also could be seen as a deliberate adjustment to this new reality in which economies rely less upon domestic consumption.
At some point, people are going to realize that these gee-whiz ideas for improving the lot of humanity often do no such thing, especially if measured in terms of the near-term misery caused. In other words, the idea that innovation = progress = good is probably a fallacy. What seems more likely is that innovation in the long run represents progress for that leviathan entity, technological culture (I think Kevin Kelly calls it the Technium), whose direction is not necessarily even humane.