Perhaps [Blade Runner] expresses a nostalgia for a dystopian vision of the future that has become outdated. This vision offered some consolation, because it was at least sublime. Now the future looks brighter, hotter and blander. Buffalo will become Miami, and Los Angeles will become Death Valley at least until the rising ocean tides wipe it away. Computers will get faster, and we will get slower. There will be plenty of progress, but few of us will be any better off or happier for it. Robots won’t be sexy or dangerous, they’ll be dull and efficient and they’ll take our jobs.
— Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself
The T-1000 liquid-metal terminator traveling through time to save a troubled youth, or the blonde bombshell in a red dress in Battlestar Galactica who wants to nuke us all might actually be a more comforting thought than the reality that is unfolding before us. The reality is, massive change aside, a mish-mash of metalic and plastic parts held together with 1s and 0s are on the ready to replace our jobs.
If you’re like me you may love automation. Automation makes my job easier and likely yours too, but automation will eventually be the end of the U.S. and world economy as we know it, for better or worse. Lets start with one segment of the economy in which automation has been highly popularized lately, the automotive industry.
It’s no secret that Google has been working on a fully automated car for some time, they’re even working with NASCAR on an automated race car. The future sounds great, right. Well, maybe not so much if you’re an auto manufacturer, taxi cab driver, trucker, distribution center, truck stop owner, etc… Automated cars aren’t going to create any jobs, in fact job loss due to automated cars will undoubtedly be staggering.
I live in Denver, the city the streets are lined with parked cars that see use from perhaps 8am to 8:15am then again from 5pm to 5:15pm daily. Some vehicles sit parked and only move once or twice a week. All told, the average U.S. household owns 2.28 cars. Retail stores have massive blacktop parking lots, often many times the size of the actual retail space. Traffic jams clog up roadways and fill the air with smog. Car accidents claim lives and do countless dollars worth of damage every day.
Now, imagine a driverless world.
Trucking companies own a third of the trucks they do now because their automated fleet can operate 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Truck stops are now nothing more than an automated filling station. No more food service, no more selling cigarettes, no more lot lizards, no more quarter porn machines in the bathrooms.
You take a walk down the street and notice that there are no cars parked on the street, no meters, no no-parking signs, no meter maids, no police speed trap at the corner. Just an automated car or two buzzing down the street. You need to get across town to see a friend so you whip out your iPhone 10 and pull up your Hertz app. When choosing an auto plan from Hertz you chose the $75 a month plan that offers 100 minutes of driving time a month at a discounted rate for accepting car pooling. In the app you put in the location you want to go to and their algorithm matches you too a vehicle currently carrying a passenger from near your location to the same side of town you’re going. In five minutes a car picks you up and you’re on your way.
Automated cars function near perfectly you have entered a vehicle with error free transportation. There is no longer a need for car insurance or body shops. You need not even wear a seat belt. Speed limits are a thing of the past, vehicles zip up and down the road at speeds hardly conceivable to a human driver. The ride is smooth, comfortable and not the least bit jarring. Vehicles use less gas because the cars are programmed to drive in ways that use less, they choose the route that uses the least and because most passengers have chosen to take advantage of carpool discounts.
Gas stations disappear, the rental companies buy gas in bulk and fill the cars themselves. The price of gas plummets with decreased demand, the transport costs for fuel likewise fall, and the world richest industry collapses in a matter of years.
Hertz buys massive shipments worth of automated vehicles but the total number of cars being manufactured is maybe 10% or less of what it is today. Dealerships are completely gone, with perhaps a few very high end groups still on the market selling personal automated vehicles to the rich and famous. General Motors and Ford lay off nearly 100% of their workforce due to two sided automation making jobs obsolete. Robots build the cars — already a reality, robots maintain them and the cars drive themselves so orders drop by 90%.
You no longer go to the grocery store, instead your fridge automatically stocks items of your choosing and you can order specialty items as you wish. Once or twice a week your groceries are delivered by automated truck and dropped off at your house.
Now, for the most part up to this point I’ve focused on only one area of automation, cars, which is a bit disingenuous. Automation is everywhere.
A single corporate farm is now run by a single man with a fleet of automated machines that he rents as needed. He easily manages 10,000 acres of land and only works a few hours each day. Via his iPad he calls in a plant command and a rented tractor shows up, with seed and plants his field. He is charged for the time used and the tractor takes off for its next job. When it comes time to harvest he does the same thing. Fruit is picked, transported, cleaned, cut and placed in a party tray and delivered to your home without ever being touched by human hands.
Even health care is hit hard by automation. You visit the doctor and find out you have a tumor. The doctor schedules radiation to shrink the tumor which occurs at an automated facility where zero mistakes occur. After radiation treatment the doctor schedules surgery to remove the remaining mass. Surgeons in some specialties have already replaced surgical tools with manually controlled robotic surgical instruments and in some time surgeons themselves will be replaced completely. A nurse preps you and is there mostly for human comfort as the robotic anesthesia machine puts you under and the robotic surgeon goes to work. The robotic surgeon works through a hole 5% the size of the opening traditional surgery would have used and works with perfect precision resulting in no excess bleeding or risk of instruments being left inside.
The examples go on and on. No industry is untouched. The conventional economy as we know it is gone.
It isn’t clear what happens next. Perhaps new industries will emerge that need skilled and unskilled workers alike and wages and incentives and laws will find everyone optimal work, but I highly doubt it. We have all this automation and all these people without jobs, but we also have plenty of food, shelter, technology, even luxuries for everyone. Therein lies the issue.
Think about a simple economics example. You have a factory with 20 workers, 2 managers and 1 owner. Those workers make $20 million in product each year with $3 million in gross profit to the company. Today you might see the 20 workers making something like $10 an hour, the managers $25 and the owner taking the rest or reinvesting into the company. That works out to a payroll of $500,000 and a gross profit to the owner of $2.5 million. Now replace those workers with machines. The owner now runs his factory 24 hours a day 7 days a week and for the sake of this example we’ll say he now produces three times the goods and sells all of it. The factory now makes a $9 million dollar profit and the owner paid zero wages so it’s all his.
Now is when you say, wait it wouldn’t work like that. And you are very right. It wouldn’t work like that. The U.S. economy is not a single factory it’s hundreds and thousands of factories, farms, grocery stores, doctors offices, pharmacies, big box stores, car maintenance shops, etc… If these places all automate their workforce, fire their employees and keep pumping out goods there won’t be a damn person able to buy them. This is where one uncomfortable, as it goes against all of human nature, but logical conclusion smacks you in the face. The answer is Socialism, a dirty word, I know. Let the hate mail flood my inbox, the Oberma took ‘er jobs style chants ring aloud, but it’s the reality. At some point when you have more than enough for everyone but no conceivable way to earn it you have to think of a new way.
This is probably where the question of motivation comes in. Without huge paychecks for those that make it big where is the incentive to invent something new? To this I would point to the open-source communities that dominate a lot of modern inovation.
It’s an exciting future, but the growing pains to get there are undoubtedly going to hit hard. Who wouldn’t embrace a world in which each of us might work a few hours a week to do our part in a world that feeds, shelters and fully provides for all.