My last blog post focused on Amazon’s, now confirmed, entry into the Australian market and the potential impact that such a move might have on domestic consumers, retailers and workers. Many of the sources I came across while digging deeper concerned Amazon’s increasing use of automated systems. As such, I’ve decided to shift the focus of my project towards the broader implications of automation on the global workforce. This change means I don’t have to limit myself topically to either Amazon or, necessarily, Australia.
As early as 1967, figures like Marshall McLuhan were criticized (p.237) for believing that ‘total automation is upon us’. So to did William Gibson poignantly state time and again, that ‘the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed’. So to that end, let us assess the current status of automation: What systems have been made obsolete by automation? What specific technologies are emerging today, and who is it displacing? Finally; what is on the horizon, and what professions, if any, will be safe from the process of automation creep? These will be the questions that my research report will engage with, and what I’ll be touching briefly upon in this post.
To talk about automation is to talk about what John Maynard Keynes coined (p.3) in 1930 as ‘technological unemployment’. He described this emerging phenomenon as the unfortunate ‘[availability] of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’. Keynes added that this is only ‘temporary’, and standards of living will be multitudes better in one hundred years when there’s little work for anyone to do. But it was Keynes belief that ‘everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented’ (p.6) as work provides meaning to one’s life, a topic for another time.
Since the process of industrial mechanisation saw a decline in production-line jobs that manufacturing industries provided, we haven’t yet seen any mass unemployment from the introduction of new technologies. Aside from the advent of electronic computing decreasing the need for human computers, and automatic exchanges largely making switchboard operators redundant, the workforce has survived. We’re only now seeing the beginnings of the technological unemployment Keynes imagined.
With the introduction of technologies such as the self-checkout machines at supermarkets, many commentators including Barack Obama himself, see automation as ‘relentless’ and ‘killing traditional retail’ jobs. With robots capable of sorting more than 200,000 packages a day in warehouses, and capable of working on cents worth of electricity instead of minimum wage, it’s hard not to be concerned. But importantly, it’s not just blue-collar industry workers who are at threat. White-collar professions relying on skills like decision making, paperwork, and writing are newly susceptible to automation via learning AI.
Platforms like Quill from Narrative Science can analyse large amounts of data and identify meaningful trends, then output a report reflecting these findings in ‘everyday language’, be it finance or sports results. While it’s been criticized for an inability to ‘discern the relative newsworthiness’ of stories, the unmatched speed and lack of bias that an AI system writes with is undeniable.
In addition to AI software, ‘general purpose’ robots are being developed with an ability to ‘learn’ new tasks. ‘Baxter’, from Rethink Robotics and Roomba creator Rodney Brooks, is being developed to fulfill ‘quality assurance or small assembly’ in factories, but still requires a human to initially ‘teach’ it these functions. This universal robot represents a leap in usefulness comparable to the first personal computers. Baxter is capable of fulfilling whatever task is ‘within his reach‘, but perhaps this is an agreeable compromise; there will still be work available for workers on an assembly line, but it will be less laborious and more about oversight and refinement of process.
Other systems are being designed to take over more skilled professions. IBM’s ‘Watson‘ for example is being touted as an AI doctor, networked to be constantly up to date with the newest research and possessing the ability to instantly access and share your medical records as required. Similarly, Enlitic has a program which can analyse medical imaging results and boasts a ‘false-negative rate of zero’.
The impact that automation makes on employment isn’t always clear until years later, however. The Economist reminds that although automated teller machines briefly reduced the number of human tellers in 1988, bank branches became cheaper to operate and so they grew by ‘43% over the same period’. So, will a technology like self-driving cars destroy the transport and hauling industry, or will new, unprecedented roles appear for the millions employed in those sectors?
While time will tell, I’ve plenty of sources to investigate for my final report in the meantime.
In first approaching my research towards the topic of autonomous cars I began looking at the various perspectives centred on the technology. In the wake of modern developments such as Tesla’s self-proclaimed “auto-pilot” function, there was no denying that the technology was here/fast approaching. As such, I decided as opposed to researching the potential future developments of autonomous cars, I would provide an in-depth analysis of the dominant perspectives and apply this to a large gap in the research. This gap came in the form of the ‘enthusiast perspective’ as through the course of my research I found very little information on the treatment of self-driving cars by automotive enthusiasts. Thus, my goal for this project was established in determining what this enthusiast perspective was after firmly establishing the current dominating perspectives, this being that of early adopters, and the concerned public. My two blog posts and final podcast have…
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In my previous post, I had provided a brief introduction to the concept of autonomous cars and the physical and fictional realities in which they exist. Within this, I covered a short history on the development of technologies stemming from Davinci’s Self-Driving Cart, towards modern autonomous vehicles such as Teslas. The existence of autonomous cars within science fiction was also discussed through texts such as iRobot, Knight Rider, and Transformers. After this contextual information was provided, I then proceeded to introduce the dominating theme of my digital artefact; three dominating perspectives toward the technology including that of early adopters, the concerned public, and the enthusiast perspective.
On the early adopter perspective, I was able to find several arguments for the use of autonomous vehicles. One specific document sourced from global architecture, and engineering firm, IBI Group, discussed the potential urban effects of autonomous vehicles in cities. Through…
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As someone who is undeniably immersed in both physical and online car communities (and having blogged about both on several occasions) I have had extensive experience with both past and modern technologies. My first car was from 1962, it had no airbags, no power steering, now power breaks, a cable based clutch, manual transmission, and carbureted fuel supply as opposed to modern electronic fuel injection. Despite the almost primate nature of this car, the experience of driving it was best described as raw with the driver in complete control. Alternatively, I recently had experienced my most modern car to date with a 2013 Abarth 500. This car had ABS, an automatic transmission, reverse parking sensors, disk brakes, Bluetooth, airbags, power steering, and most importantly an ECU, which amongst other things, would prevent the driver from shifting gears at a time it did not deem safe and would not let the…
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Technology is constantly evolving with an emphasis on making life more convenient and helping certain chores become less time-consuming. Self-driving cars are one of these technologies and it’s easy to see the ways in which you could benefit from them. You could be dropped off at work and the car could park itself, you would no longer need a designated driver on those late-night celebrations, there would be no need to get angry at someone who didn’t indicate and you could spend your time productively as you were chauffeured to your destination. Such simple changes that provide a whole new way of living, and yet there are still a few hurdles to cross before its initiation – on top of the fact that the technology has not been perfected.
With both self-driving cars and humans on the roads, the legal issue of who is responsible for a crash comes into question – should the passenger or the software be blamed and who pays for the damages? Just recently, Google’s self-driving car was the cause of an accident for the first time – all previous incidents occurred when a driver took over its automated system (Kantrowitz, 2016). According to a report by Google, the car “believed the bus would stop or slow down” but the driver did neither of these actions (which is perfectly acceptable) and therefore it made contact with the vehicle. In the future, new laws will have to be implemented to ensure the safety of both drivers and passengers as well as eliminating any grey areas; a similar thing is occurring now with drones due to its increased use and popularity. To bring this back to my project, I’ll take a look into the legislation that is currently in place and what other laws they may have to take into account when autonomous cars are more wide-spread.
Another aspect of self-driving cars that needs to be addressed is the potential for cyber-terrorism. Anyone who has seen I, Robot may have a well-founded reason to be afraid of autonomous technology, but what happens when an autonomous vehicle is hacked not by an artificial intelligence, but by a terrorist? Cars could be be forced off the road, driven into crowds of people or made to crash into a building. Hackers have a knack for adapting to new technologies and those developing these vehicles must be aware of these possibilities while they design their cars.
Google has used a series of car models for its road-testing including the Toyota Prius and Audi TT, but now their fleet mainly consists of prototypes and modified Lexus SUVs. However, Google is not the only company looking into the self-driving market; Volvo has planned to release 100 autonomous cars by 2017 that will be used by actual customers in Sweden (ONE News, 2016). As part of my research on self-driving cars, I will look at our car culture and compare it to how it may look in the future. If no one is driving the car, high-powered engines become unnecessary for the everyday trip and driving itself becomes a hobby rather than an expectation. So then will certain brands still grant passengers a level of status? Will a drivers licence no longer be a rite of passage? Will there be groups opposed to this autonomous driving? It will be interesting to see how our culture changes through time towards this technology and whether it is possible that one day driving will be limited to sports racing.
– Kantrowitz, A. (2016), Watch This Sad Bus Driver Get Hit By A Driverless Car and Realize He Can Only Blame Technology, Buzzfeed. Accessed at: http://www.buzzfeed.com/alexkantrowitz/watch-googles-self-driving-car-hit-a-bus#.hfGOxpQK3q
– ONE News (2016), ‘Eyes OFF the road’: Driverless car experiment to send a whole new message, TVNZ. Accessed at: https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/world/eyes-off-road-driverless-car-experiment-send-whole-new-message