Over the last year or so we’ve watched the Trump campaign troll the oceans of our zeitgeist, bringing in enormous catches of Islamophobia and xenophobia. But there is one phobia that appears to be missing: robophobia.
This month Uber will start beta testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Yes, Uber—the company that promised to turn any Joe or Jane with a car and a smartphone into a cabbie for hire—is considering how to replace its human drivers with a bunch of KITTS. Or at least that’s the plan. During the beta testing phase, the self-driving cars will come equipped with a human driver as a safety precaution, not unlike the driver’s ed instructor who read the newspaper while a 16 year-old you anxiously twitched around on the highway.
To be clear, Uber isn’t doing this out of spite for the human race. They simply recognize that other companies like Google are looking into automated ridesharing. And as Uber admits, if a competitor enters this space before them, there will be no more Uber down the road. It’s not just a cost-saving measure; it’s Uber’s own existential crisis.
Suddenly this self-driving car thing looks more imminent. Sure, Google has been developing self-driving cars for almost a decade, but they are the same computer nerds who thought Google Glass was actually cool. But if Uber, a company whose entire existence depends on driving, is getting involved with self-driving cars, you know things are getting serious.
The jobs forecast for people who drive other people around for money looks pretty gloomy. If you are a truckdriver, well, your future job prospects are bordering on an eternity of torrential rain. Maybe the only people in the transportation sector whose jobs aren’t at immediate risk are airline pilots, and that’s only because people like me, who are already a little nervous about flying under normal circumstances, would freak the hell out if American Airlines suddenly announced that all their cockpits were empty.
Look, there can no longer be any doubt: the robots are coming for our jobs. They will work faster, cheaper and yes, even harder, while requiring a fraction of the labor costs that we demand. Their legion is growing too. Soon there will be more of them than us. Way more. Maybe there already are.
Once Microsoft and company are able to keep their AI chatbots from lapsing into anti-semitic rants, you think people working at call centers in Opelika, Alabama or even their much cheaper counterparts in Mumbai will have any semblance of job security?
Also, if you play Chess, Checkers, Go, or Jeopardy! professionally, just stop now. Are you a professional stock trader? Sorry, that’s not a thing anymore. Machines do that now.
Of course many are skeptical. This fear of “machines taking our jobs” goes all the way back to the 1800s, when the Luddites lost their jobs to the new “power looms.” But this development did not end labor as we know it, nor did the invention of the ATM put bank tellers out of work. And so on.
Back then your job was at risk only if your job involved sitting in front of a loom all day, repetitively weaving textiles out of yarn. With all due respect to the critics, though, we aren’t dealing with a bunch of dumb weaving machines this time around.
We are fast approaching a time when your job will be at risk if it meets the following criteria:
I’m not saying everyone will be out of a job. If CEOs can convince their shareholders that it makes perfect economic sense to pay them $70 million a year, we may begin to see a new class of CHCRCEOs (Chief Human Counsel to the Robotic Chief Executive Officers) or whatever. But the rest of us?
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. If you didn’t realize it when 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released, or later when the original Terminator premiered, you couldn’t have missed the writing on the WALL-E: We are screwed. At least as a society that gets much of our self-worth from our careers.
What is surprising, however, is the lack of discussion about this topic in society at large. Why isn’t Trump out there hate mongering against chatbots and self-driving cars? Why doesn’t the populist left, as exemplified in Bernie Sanders’s campaign, seem to have much to say about robots as compared to NAFTA, the TPP, or other abhorrent economic strategies (from their view) that weaken the middle class labor force.
Why don’t our elected officials seem to be worried about this impending problem? Where are the Occupy Silicon Valley protests? Why aren’t we all walking around muttering robophobic slurs under our breath?
On both sides this campaign season there has been a great deal of talk about bringing jobs back home. Make America Work Again on the right, and some kind of New Deal 2.0 on the left. For what, though? Tell me, what wall can we build, what trade deal can we block, that will keep our jobs safe from the army of Johnny Five’s that are currently
marching scooting upon us?