Sean Moncrieff: My new car is judging me and it’s only going to get worse

No one is safe from automation: not doctors, lawyers, not even newspaper columnists

A driverless Mercedes-Benz car. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

A driverless Mercedes-Benz car. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

 

I managed to get the replacement car. It’s grand. It’s blue. But as I feared, it nags incessantly. It tells me to put on my seat belt, to change gear, to turn on the lights, to turn off the lights. It argues with me over the best route to the shop or whether I really can squeeze into that parking space.

We’ve already starting to bicker, and those who know about such things tell me that this sort of judgmental technology is only going to increase. Mine is a second-hand car. Some of the brand new ones can park for you, and then presumably emit a disappointed sigh. Some time this year you’ll be able to buy (for about €75,000), the Tesla Model X, which can move out of its parking space, pull up outside your house, open its doors and give fashion advice.

Yes, I made up that last bit. It can’t do that. Yet. But the self-driving car is coming. All over the US and Europe, tests are being carried out. Google and Uber and various car manufacturers are at an advanced stage. Predictions vary, but it seems highly likely that within the next 20 years you’ll be able to get into your car, fall asleep at the wheel and get home safely.

“Disruptive technology” is the phrase for something that shakes up a particular industry. But it disrupts far more than that. It disrupts people.

When the autonomous car becomes commonplace, it is an extinction-level event for the taxi driver. Then the truck driver. Then the train driver. Eventually, perhaps even the pilot. In Europe alone, this will affect hundreds of thousands of people.

And that’s just one example. One of the major trends of globalisation has been to move low-skill jobs out of the western world and into countries where labour costs are lower. But this trend is fast being replaced by automation. Factories that had production lines once staffed by people now use robots. The robots can work 24 hours a day. They don’t need breaks or holidays. They don’t even need the lights on.

Rise of algorithms

Similarly, early versions of artificial intelligence are creeping into desk-bound work. In New York, algorithms allocate food stamps, assess teacher performance and sniff out Medicaid fraud. New York City Council is due to establish a (human) task force to oversee the automated decision systems, as it’s not entirely clear how much responsibility they have taken on. Banks and insurance companies have been using such systems for years, and over the next few decades automation and AI will play an increasingly large part in almost every industry and form of (formerly) human endeavour you can think of.

In the near future, many of us will have to figure out new ways to give meaning and purpose to our lives

There are obvious advantages to all this, but the tricky bit is what to do with the people. We are fast approaching the point, if we haven’t passed it already, where full employment is an impossibility, simply because many categories of occupation don’t exist any more or have been sharply curtailed. And we can’t all retrain as coders. According to one jolly study from the University of Oxford, 47 per cent of jobs will will be at risk in the next 25 years. And no one is safe: academics, doctors, lawyers, accountants. Even newspaper columnists.

Yet our economic model still largely derives from a 19th-century view of how the world works. There are some innovative possibilities, such as a universal basic income, but even that would be fiendishly complicated to pay for, sell politically and co-ordinate internationally.

It’s a profound problem in every sense, as it’s not just about employment or putting food on the table. In the near future, many of us will have to figure out new ways to give meaning and purpose to our lives.

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