Driverless vehicles may make millions of jobs obsolete in future
BY AP Wire Service
Sunday, January 27, 2013
1/27/13 at 7:03 AM
WASHINGTON (AP) - They seem right out of a Hollywood fantasy, and they are: Cars that drive themselves have appeared in movies like "I, Robot" and the television show "Knight Rider."
Now three years after Google invented one, automated cars could be on their way to a freeway near you. In the U.S., California and other states are rewriting the rules of the road to make way for driverless cars. There's just one problem.
What happens to the millions of people who make a living driving cars and trucks - jobs that always have seemed sheltered from the onslaught of technology?
"All those jobs are going to disappear in the next 25 years," predicts Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston. "Driving by people will look quaint; it will look like a horse and buggy."
If automation can unseat bus drivers, urban deliverymen, long-haul truckers, even cabbies, is any job safe?
Vardi poses an equally scary question: "Are we prepared for an economy in which 50 percent of people aren't working?"
An Associated Press analysis of employment data from 20 countries found that millions of midskill, midpay jobs already have disappeared over the past five years, and they are the jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries.
That experience has left a growing number of technologists and economists wondering what lies ahead. Will middle-class jobs return when the global economy recovers, or are they lost forever because of the advance of technology? The answer may not be known for years, perhaps decades. Experts argue among themselves whether the job market will recover, muddle along or get much worse.
To understand their arguments, it helps to understand the past.
Every time a transformative invention took hold over the past two centuries - whether the steamboat in the 1820s or the locomotive in the 1850s or the telegraph or the telephone - businesses would disappear and workers would lose jobs. But new businesses would emerge that employed even more.
The combustion engine decimated makers of horse-drawn carriages, saddles, buggy whips and other occupations that depended on the horse trade. But it also resulted in huge auto plants that employed hundreds of thousands of workers, who were paid enough to help create a prosperous middle class.
"What has always been true is that technology has destroyed jobs but also always created jobs," says Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University.
The astounding capabilities of computer technology are forcing some mainstream economists to rethink the conventional wisdom about the economic benefits of technology, however. For the first time, we are seeing machines that can think - or something close to it.
In the early 1980s, at the beginning of the personal computer age, economists thought computers would do what machines had done for two centuries - eliminate jobs that required brawn, not brains.
Low-level workers would be forced to seek training to qualify for jobs that required more skills. They'd become more productive and earn more money. The process would be the same as when mechanization replaced manual labor on the farm a century ago; workers moved to the city and got factory jobs that required higher skills but paid more.
But it hasn't quite worked out that way. It turns out that computers most easily target jobs that involve routines, whatever skill level they require. And the most vulnerable of these jobs, economists have found, tend to employ midskill workers, even those held by people with college degrees - the very jobs that support a middle-class, consumer economy.
Here are the three scenarios that economists and technologists offer about jobs in the future:
The economy returns to health after a wrenching transition: It has always happened before. Europe and the United States endured repeated economic and social upheaval during the 19th and early 20th centuries as their agricultural economies transformed into industrial ones. Columbia's Stiglitz argues that such pressures led to the collapse of the world economy in 1929 - the cataclysm we call the Great Depression.
"Economies don't make these transitions well," Stiglitz says. People in the dying parts of the economy can't afford to invest in the education or retraining they need to find different work. "So you get workers trapped in the wrong sectors or unemployed," he says.
Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California-Davis, says computers are more disruptive than earlier innovations because they are "general-purpose technologies" used by all kinds of companies. They upend many industries instead of just a few.
The changes are coming much faster this time, too. Lindert says that's showing up in the steep drop in prices for some products this time.
The economy continues to produce jobs, just not enough good ones: Some economists worry that the sluggish, lopsided labor market of the past five years is what we'll be stuck with in the future.
Smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits.
The most highly skilled workers - those who can use machines to be more productive but can't be replaced by them - will continue to prosper. Many low-pay jobs are likely to remain sheltered from the technological offensive: Robots are too clumsy to tidy up hotel rooms or clear dirty dishes at busy restaurants.
Under this scenario, technology could continue to push economic growth - but only a few would enjoy the benefits. More people would be competing for midpay jobs, so pay would shrivel. Many midskill workers would be left unemployed or shunted into low-skill, low-pay jobs. The income gap between the rich and ordinary citizens, already at record levels in many developed countries, would continue to widen.
Technology leads to mass unemployment: In a speech last year, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers declared that the biggest economic issue of the future would not be the federal debt or competition from China but "the dramatic transformations that technology is bringing about."
"Twice a week, a truck comes near my house, and two guys get out and pick up the garbage," says Vardi, the Rice computer scientist. "This will disappear. There will still be a truck coming, but it will be driven autonomously, and the garbage will be picked up autonomously, and those jobs will be gone."
Original Print Headline: Will smart machines create a world without work?
This image shows an illustration of all-around collision warning in a driverless vehicle. Two years after Google invented one, U.S. states are rewriting the rules of the road to make way for driverless cars, leaving the question of what happens to those who make a living driving cars and trucks. GENERAL MOTORS / Associated Press