nettime's avid reader on Fri, 24 May 2013 11:55:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Driverless cars, pilotless planes -- will there be jobs left for a human beings

Hill Hutton

Suddenly a robotised, automated economic reality is moving off the
science fiction pages and into daily life. The growing use of unmanned
battlefield drones is encouraging the growth of pilotless commercial
aircraft – the first ever flew in British airspace last month.
Google's driverless car is completing ever more trials ever more
successfully: the world's major car companies are all hot in pursuit,
working on their own prototypes of their own versions. The automated
checkouts at supermarkets are becoming as familiar as bank cash
machines. From staff-free ticket offices to students who can learn
online, it seems there is no corner of economic life in which people
are not being replaced by machines.

This is the "Great Reset" – a cull of broadly middle-class jobs with
middle-class incomes that is apparent across the west, but with little
current sign of what industries and activities will replace them.

The world has lost millions of jobs before – on the land or in the
old horse-powered economy – but they were soon replaced by jobs in
the car industry or the new service industries. What worries many
economists and computer scientists is that today's technologies are
going to remove people from economic activity completely. Some argue
that a dystopian world is emerging in which good jobs and full-time
employment will become the preserve of an educated, computer-literate
elite. For example Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google are plainly
riding the new wave, but they are not mass employers like Tesco, Ford
or General Motors.

Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University, asks if we
are ready for a world in which half the adult population does not
work. The Great Reset – the economy resetting itself, after a major
technological shock, to deliver jobs for all – may never happen.

The omens are all around. The US economy has never generated so few
jobs in an upturn since records began. In Britain, the Resolution
Foundation charts the ongoing squeeze on low and middle incomes,
and observes brutally that already Britain has the second highest
proportion of low-paid jobs in the developed world. The formal
unemployment numbers, now ominously rising five years since the crisis
began, do not capture the full extent to which the economy is not
delivering good work.

Plainly some of the explanation is that the economy is still reeling
from the effect of the financial crisis and the accompanying vast
overhang of private debt. But economies have an embedded resilience.
Output will return to the levels of 2008, probably some time next
year. There will be an economic "recovery". But this raises the
question: what happens afterwards?

Think through the implications of the driverless car. These will
be vehicles whose complex sensors allow them to communicate with
one another, so that they know one another's intended route. One of
the reasons Google is investing so much is that whoever owns the
communications system for driverless cars will own the 21st century's
equivalent of the telephone network or money clearing system: this
will be a licence to print money. The benefits are endless. Roads
will both be able to carry more traffic and be safer. Personalised
door-to-door transport will become hugely pleasurable: your car
will deliver you to your home or place of work and then park itself
without you. Road accidents will plummet. Energy efficiency will
be transformed. Insurance rates, even the need for insurance, will
plunge. Personalised transport, ordered by your mobile phone, will
gradually replace mass transport networks.

But the implications for employment are awesome. Thomas Frey,
senior futurologist at the DaVinci Institute, lists taxi-, bus- and
truck-driving as soon-to-be-extinct occupations – along with traffic
police, all forms of home delivery and waste disposal, jobs at petrol
stations, car washes and parking lots. The cars themselves will be
made by robots in automated car factories. The only new jobs will be
in the design and marketing of the cars, and in writing the computer
software that will allow them to navigate their journeys, along with
the apps for our mobile phones that will help us to use them better.

Professor Larry Summers, former US treasury secretary, thinks that
the challenge of the decades ahead is not debt or competition from
China but the dramatic transformations that technology is bringing
about. Summers believes that the transition to the automated economy
that robotisation implies has only just begun. The invention of 3D
printing, in which every home or office will be equipped with an
in-house printer that can spew out the goods we want – from shoes to
pills – anticipates a world of what Summers calls automated "doers".
They will do everything for us, eliminating the need for much work.
The only jobs will be in writing the software and building the
"doers", creating a bifurcation of the labour market that is already

At least Summers sees some underlying economic dynamism. For
techno-pessimists such as economist Professor Tyler Cowen the future
is even darker. It is not only that automation and robotisation
are coming, but that there are no new worthwhile transformational
technologies for them to automate. All the obvious human needs –
to move, to have power, to communicate – have been solved through
cars, planes, mobile phones and computers. According to Cowen, we
have come to the end of the great "general purpose technologies"
(technologies that transform an entire economy, such as the steam
engine, electricity, the car and so on) that changed the world. There
are no new transformative technologies to carry us forward, while the
old activities are being robotised and automated. This is the "Great

That is a very lopsided view of the future with little recognition
of the opportunities. The growth of transformative technologies is
not tailing off: as scientific knowledge explodes and crosses new
boundaries, they will accelerate. The 21st century will witness more
technological and scientific advance than in the last 500 years. The
pace of change is certainly accelerating – business models today
already become obsolescent in less than 20 years, and that figure is
going to fall further. But human demands are infinite. Notwithstanding
robotisation and automation, I identify four broad areas in which
there will be vast job opportunities.

The first is in micro-production. There is going to be a huge growth
in micro-brewers, micro-bakers, micro-film-makers, micro-energy
producers, micro-tailors, micro-software houses and so on who will
deploy the internet and micro-production techniques to produce goods
at prices as if they were mass-produced, but customised for individual

The second is in human wellbeing. There will be vast growth in
advising, coaching, caring, mentoring, doctoring, nursing, teaching
and generally enhancing capabilities. Medical provision will explode,
with replacement organs, skin and limbs opening up new specialisms and
industries. Taste, sight and hearing will be vastly enhanced. Ageing
will be deferred, with old-age advisers offering advice on how to live
well in one's hundreds. Geneticists will open up a live-well economy.
Instantaneous language translation will break down language barriers.

The third is in addressing the globe's "wicked issues" . There will
be new forms of nutrition and carbon-efficient energy, along with
economising with water, to meet the demands of a world population
of 9 billion in 2050. Space exploration will become crucial to find
new minerals and energy sources. New forms of mining will allow
exploration of the Earth's crust. The oceans will be farmed.

And fourthly, digital and big data management will foster whole new
industries – personalised journalism, social media, cyber-security,
information selection, software, computer science and digital clutter

Doubtless the futurologists can come up with more: the truth is,
nobody knows. What we do know is that two-thirds of what we consume
today was not invented 25 years ago. It will be the same again
in a generation's time. What is different is the pace of change,
obsolescence and renewal – and new dangers of extraordinary inequality
not just in wages, but in working possibilities. Firms and individuals
will be on their mettle to open up, innovate and constantly reinvent
themselves. If there is to be a successful Great Reset, Britain will
need the open innovation structures, financing mechanisms and social
support institutions to capitalise on the opportunities quickly,
rather than be overwhelmed by the risks.

This is what threatens our future, our living standards, and this is
what we should be arguing about – not the European Union, despite the
efforts of Ukip and the Conservative party. Those whom the gods wish
to destroy they first make mad.

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