July 17, 2017

Automation – a curse or blessing?

Lessons from the industrial revolution

Any change that looms over us is faced with harsh opposition, and our inability to project its influence on our future well-being puts us and the latest disruption on a path to collision. It is a similar story with the disruption potential of automation; CEOs and analysts the world over predict slumping employment rates and massive gaps in living standards – a result of the ensuing unemployment rates.

The foreboding threat brought about by artificial intelligence is not the first of its kind targeting our jobs. The industrial revolution of the 18th century brought with it new trends in the job sector, which did away with the agrarian, rural nature of society and introduced mechanized ways to accomplish the same job much more faster and without too much human toiling and suffering.

“Luddite” is the term used to describe such folks with extreme revulsion towards change brought about by technology – referring to a group of English mobsters of the 19th century who used violent means to curb the growth of factories and machinery by attacking and destroying them. They were led by a mysterious person who called himself Ned Ludd. Their descendants aren’t complaining about the relative luxury that machinery brought.

Prior to the industrial revolution, much of the manufacturing was done by the hand. Many of the things that we take for granted today which range from our shoes, clothes all the way to our food crops were created in-house. For instance, imagine sewing a large portion of your own clothes … and then for your spouse, and then your child, and then your ailing parent – all of this too was once done by hand.

And if you want a self-sustaining cloth manufacturing business based on your handicraft, you probably won’t sell it for a couple of dollars to your customer. The price that you will charge is probably going to be 10 times that amount – a figure few can afford. The efficiency of machinery shaves that down to a fraction of what your labor costs. Handicraft is a domain of artists and designers.

The wake of the industrial revolution brought much suffering and toiling, leaving the world with alarming levels of carbon dioxide in the air which contributed significantly to global warming. But after this period of human suffering came extreme prosperity and better living standards for countries that experienced it first, giving them a head start in technological innovations.

What kind of jobs are automable?
Those jobs that are repetitive in nature and are easy to predict under well known settings are the most prone to change. These include, well – flipping burgers in a fast food joint or extracting milk from a cow. Anything that doesn’t require the creative potential stored locked up inside the recesses of our minds will get swept up by the fast paced automation industry.

These jobs result in a lot of human toiling and it is better to do without them. Before the advent of computers, banks had rooms brimming with accountants who manually sifted through large spreadsheets. It was a task that was prone to error and much slower than the quick speed afforded by computers.

As banks incorporated computers into their offices, a steady stream of accountants were laid off, but those amongst them who learnt to adapt were quick to find alternative jobs in the same field. All that was required was a little bit of ingenuity, something that computers could not do very well.

The reality however, as witnessed by the annals of history, is that automation has always resulted in the creation of more jobs, rather than the other way round. When menial jobs disappear, new ones promptly take their place.

The current trends in vehicle automation:
We see an aggressive, almost relentless trend towards the automation of vehicles, led by an arms race by the likes of Ford, Uber, Tesla and Waymo. Self driving vehicles and trucks are poised to take jobs away from tired truckers that are locked away in their isolated berths. Transporting goods over long distances while barely keeping their eyelids open certainly doesn’t improve road safety does it?

Vehicle manufacturers argue that self driving vehicles will make roads and travelling a lot safer by eliminating human error, they’re not affected by boredom, tiredness and sleep—features characteristic of our human biology. This will reduce traffic accidents and road congestion. Tesla, one of the first manufacturers to aggressively pursue automation has already reported a 40% drop in accidents on the road after they deployed their self-driving tech on the roads.

For a car to be truly autonomous, there are still a few challenges to be met. The chief program engineer of the Autonomous Vehicle Development, Chris Brewer of Ford Motor Company, says, “virtual driver system is the brains of the car and the autonomous vehicle platform acts as the body”. In order for the car to properly function, both will have to work in perfect harmony with the ever dynamic environment of the roads. Coping with congested traffic, identifying on-coming vehicles, obeying traffic laws and recognizing a human on the road will take powerful software to power everything.

It is said that software is much more important than the underlying hardware and infrastructure. Elon Musk says that the road to fully autonomous vehicles will require precise maps, artificial intelligence to process all that information and a computer powerful enough to accommodate all that computation while still fitting in a tiny portion of the car.

Is there much to complain though?

It is estimated that self autonomous vehicles will endanger 1.7 million jobs in the US related to driving trailers and heavy rigs. Indeed President Obama highlighted in his farewell speech that the next wave of job dislocations won’t come from globalization, where an illegal immigrant takes up the jobs of native folks, but rather it will be the relentless pace of automation which will overtake middle class jobs.


by Bobby J Davidson

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