The Robots are Coming, for Your Job. Part 3 (Cabbies and Truckers beware!)

This is the third installment in what I plan on making an occasional feature on this blog. The effect of automation for both good and bad in our society. As I’ve mentioned in the first two installments I am not anti-automation, far from it. However, I am greatly concerned about the lack of preparation on the part of our government and other civic leaders, indeed on a lack of understanding of the enormous changes to society that are now just beginning.

In this post I’m going to concentrate on how the introduction of the driverless car is going to effect all of our lives. First a little history.

In 2004 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hosted the first ever challenge for autonomous vehicles, driverless cars. Fifteen teams competed in a race across 210 kilometers of desert in Nevada. Less than half the vehicles made it further than a kilometer or so and the “winner’, developed by a team from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, only succeeded in going 12 kilometers before failing. Based on these results many people thought driverless cars were decades away!

Only a year later, at the second DARPA challenge a vehicle designed and developed at Stanford University became the first robot to drive more than 100 kilometers as it completed the 210 kilometer course in under 7 hours without any human guidance! Four other robots also completed the course, although not as quickly. Two of the vehicles were from Carnegie Mellon, one a close second to Stanford. The driverless car was now a reality. The picture below shows the winning robot.

Winner of DARPA Challenge from Stanford University (Credit: Stanford University)

Now there was still a lot of work to be accomplished. The course set by DARPA had obstacles and difficult driving but there were no pedestrians or bicyclists, no traffic lights or stop signs. However in the past ten years those technical problems have been largely overcome and the remaining challenges are primarily legal ones.

Several states or countries have now begun to allow driverless cars on their roads. In 2011 Nevada passed legislation allowing testing to take place as did the United Kingdom in 2013. At this time the autonomous vehicle must still have a human being in the driver seat ready to take control if there’s a problem but as driverless cars continue to show themselves to be safer due to the elimination of human error and distraction this restriction will soon be lifted.

The advantages of driverless cars are many, and not just a reduction in sometimes deadly, human related collisions. Because driverless cars can communicate continuously with each other the gap between cars can be greatly reduced even while increasing speed. The ability of local authorities to manage traffic flow would also increase dramatically. Researchers at Columbia University have estimated that these improvements  would increase the number of cars our present road system could handle by 275%, virtually eliminating traffic jams. These improvements on our nation’s highways will also help to reduce the costs of road construction and repair, of auto repair and insurance, think about that! The picture below shows Google’s driverless car which is already on the streets of many American cities.

Google’ Self Driving car (Credit: Google)

Of course there are disadvantages as well and one of the biggest is going to the loss of jobs for people make their living driving, the cabbies, bus and truck drivers. I think the long haul truckers will be first to feel the impact but it won’t belong before the entire transportation industry is changed beyond all recognition. Within 30 years it is very likely that there will be no such things as cab, bus or truck drivers.

Of course this is an old story. Advances in industrialization, mechanization and now automation have made the lives of human beings enormously richer, healthier and even longer but it has also destroyed the lives of those who could not adapt quickly enough to the change. Our government officials need to become aware of this looming problem, not just here in the US but throughout the developed world.


The Robots are Coming, for Your Job. Pt2

Back on 2Sept16, when I was just starting this blog one of my first posts concerned the growing issue of automation eliminating many of the jobs that people depend on for their livelihood. Over the past two weeks I have come across several articles that I believe amplify the issue so this post will be part two of what may well become an occasional series.

The first story comes from the technical magazine IEEE Spectrum. For those who aren’t familiar with the Institute for Electricians and Electrical Engineers the IEEE is the world’s largest technical organization with over a hundred sub societies (I belong to two) and thousands of chapters around the world. The magazine Spectrum is the spokesman for the entire IEEE and as such covers a wide variety of topics related to technology.

The article that caught my attention dealt with the coming development of “Sailorless Ships”, just like driverless cars only much bigger! The same technology will be applied in a whole new way. The author of the article, Oskar Levander, is an engineer with Rolls Royce corp. who is working on the development of these vessels. Again one of the main advantages of the sailorless ship will be cost reduction gained by the elimination of human beings, the jobs of merchant seamen! Mr. Levander believes that in five years time the first such vessels will take to sea and the biggest problem he sees at present is simply the new laws and insurance regulations required to permit these vessels on the ocean.

If this sounds a lot like the current situation in driverless car technology you are absolutely right. At the recent Philadelphia Car Show an industry spokesmen, sorry I didn’t catch the name, stated his opinion that within five years the first commercially available driverless cars will become available for purchase. As with ships,the real problems now are legal and insurance. If you’d like to read the IEEE article on sailorless ships click on the link below.

The second story that caught my attention comes from the exhibit at the London Science Museum, 500 Years of Robots. BBC news covered the opening of the exhibit and included an interview with Michael Osborne a Professor at Oxford University. During the interview Professor Osborne stated that in his opinion 35% of the jobs in the UK would be taken over by robots and automation by 2030, that’s just 13 years from now!

The jobs that will be eliminated not only include taxi drivers and truck drivers but process handlers, ticket takers and order takers, a wide variety of jobs. And remember, these jobs are not going to Mexico or China they will simply disappear. At the present time McDonald’s has 500 restaurants where the customer orders their meal via a touchscreen without having to even talk to a person. If you’d like to read about the Robot exhibit at the London Science Museum click on the link below.

One more little example. On the recent PBS series ‘City in the Sky’ the baggage handling system in Dubai was described as the world’s largest and fully automated. The system consists of 48 miles of conveyor belts transferring up to 20,000 pieces of luggage at a time. Each piece of luggage is kept track of by a computerized RFID system with not a single human being in sight as luggage travels from check-in to the correct plane. There is a control room with about a dozen technicians monitoring the performance of the system but no such thing as a baggage handler.

Now I don’t want anybody to think I’m anti-technology, far from it. I’m well aware of how technology creates more jobs than it eliminates but the problem is that the people who get the new jobs are rarely the same people who lost the old ones! Just as at Dubai airport the low skilled jobs are being replaced by high skilled jobs without any thought of what happens to the low skilled worker.

This is a social problem rather than a technical one and the scary part is that right now our government is in the grip of people who are bound and determined not to solve any social problems. The best example I can give of the attitude growing in Washington is to quote the current nominee for Secretary of the Department of Labor. Speaking about the benefits of automated systems replacing human employees Andy Puzder (The CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees Fast food chains) has stated. “They’re always polite. They never upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late. There’s never a slip and fall, sex or age discrimination case.” Our future Secretary of Labor obviously isn’t going to be overly concerned with the people who lose their jobs due to automation.

So, what happens to the 45-50 year old truck driver whose 18 wheel big rig is soon going to be operated by a couple thousand dollars worth of transistors. Well of course, he goes back to school to train for a new job in computer maintenance. Yea, right.

I know, I’ve drifted off into politics here and I apologize but this is the real problem facing not only this country but every country in the developed world. Not terrorism or illegal immigration or international trade agreements. And our elected officials along with the news media are simply ignoring it. During the last election Bernie Sanders was the only candidate who talked about it much but hardly anyone was listening. He did manage to force Hillary Clinton to address the issue a few times but again, no one paid any attention. And as far as the eventual winner is concerned, since you can’t bully, insult or cajole a microprocessor Donald won’t understand what’s happening even when it hits him right in the face.

Again, I’d rather be blogging about much more interesting topics but I see us driving straight into a brick wall and I feel I have to at least yell!