Imagine a future in which fleets of self-driving cars navigate city streets, picking up anyone who requests a ride via their smartphone or tablet. That’s exactly the future predicted by TechCrunch in a new piece of speculative fiction, set in July 2023, in which Google sells Uber 2,500 driverless vehicles for the latter’s car-hire service.
Despite the sci-fi trappings, the concept isn’t that far-fetched: Google Ventures is already a multimillion-dollar investor in Uber. “We look to Google and Google Ventures for the strategic connectivity to their product initiatives alongside the expertise that comes with evangelizing new technology with governments and regulatory bodies around the world,” read Uber’s posting on the matter. All that corporate-speak aside, it’s clear that executives at both companies are interested in exploring where their respective strategies overlap—and that raises the prospect of a future in which self-driving cars from a plethora of companies execute a variety of tasks, from taxiing people to delivering goods.
In theory, this is good for society: fleets of sensor-studded vehicles send tons of data back to Google and other technology companies, which analyze that information and use it to make the vehicles safer and more efficient—a virtuous cycle, to be sure, but one that also poses risks for a certain segment of society.
As everybody knows by now, computers married with industrial processes have yielded spectacular results for the world, at least from a cost-of-labor standpoint. A computer-guided robot can perform the same precise action over and over and over and over, contributing to the creation of perfectly formed products. Automated assembly lines churn out hundreds or even thousands of units of whatever per day, without fatigue and relatively few big errors. These manufacturing techniques were refined over the course of decades, and gradually improved with the addition of increasingly sophisticated hardware and software—another virtuous cycle.
Yet a new piece in The New York Times by David H. Autor and David Dorn, rather provocatively titled “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class,” hypothesizes that replacing human laborers with machines has proven economically devastating to a broad swath of society. “Computers excel at ‘routine’ tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes,” the article insists. “These tasks are most pervasive in middle-skill jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work and repetitive production and quality-assurance jobs.” In other words, with more computerization, there’s slackening demand for humans to perform those tasks.
Autor and Dorn exclude knowledge workers—i.e., those who deal with more abstract tasks—from this technological encroachment. They also leave out those whose daily labors are more manual in scope, but nonetheless require significant reserves of situational adaptability, training, and language recognition. “Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers,” they wrote. “These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.”
Google’s self-driving cars are an experiment in eliminating many of challenges that face the current generation of computers and robots, most notably situational adaptability and training. Pair that with the tech industry’s widespread attempts to solve the problem of language recognition—as “personified” by Siri, Google Now, and other voice-activated digital assistants in the production pipeline—and one can see the barriers to robots and computers in all sorts of industries rapidly eroding.
So a more nuanced picture of July 2023 might feature Uber buying fleets of self-driving cars from Google—but it should also include taxi and truck drivers, fearful for their jobs, doing everything in their power to prevent such deals from going through. Any industry that requires some combination of intuition and improvisation could end up affected within the next few years. It’s called the March of Progress. And for some people, that won’t prove a good thing.