You order a coffee from this thing with wheels and a touchscreen, and it comes back a few seconds later with your order. When you’ve finished, it wheels back with the bill, wipes the table and clears your dishes. You leave the café and hop in your self-driving taxi, which you ordered on your phone while you were drinking your coffee.
On your way home, you pass by parks full of idle men and women. Some of them are holding signs; others are sitting on benches, lying down. They’re all out of work. They used to wait tables and drive cabs. Now, they do nothing.
Uber rolled out its first fleet of autonomous taxis in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. In August, it purchased a company called Otto that has been developing a prototype for a self-driving truck. Uber’s pitch is that self-driven vehicles are safer than human-driven ones. They’ll cost less in the long run. And they’ll free up the time we spend driving for other uses.
Over the last decade, automation has made steady inroads into manufacturing. But the service sector has, for the most part, remained untouched — until very recently. Robots lack the human touch that makes eating at a restaurant enjoyable. People don’t — or at least didn’t — want their cars to drive themselves because they didn’t want to put their lives in the hands of robots. But this is changing.
Japan has entirely automated fast food restaurants — restaurants that are, essentially, gigantic vending machines. Self-checkout lanes are standard at most supermarkets. Tesla has been making autonomous cars, and now, Uber’s offering autonomous taxis.
We’re going to have to make some very difficult decisions very soon about what kind of a future we want. Automation and robots offer efficiency, safety, and cleanliness. But what about all the jobs they’ll displace? What about the truckers, the fry cooks and the supermarket cashiers?
The Los Angeles Times ran a story on the fate of truckers if Otto were to roll out self-driving trucks on a large scale. Trucking is one of the last middle-class jobs available to people without a college degree, the Times wrote. About 1.7 million Americans drive trucks for a living, and the average trucker’s annual salary runs at $42,500 a year. Considering the good pay most truckers take home, it’s no wonder trucking companies are scrambling to develop autonomous trucks.
A common argument among Silicon Valley technophiles is that innovation always creates more jobs than it destroys. This might be true — there will be a need for more robot-programmers and robot-repairers. But this kind of innovation will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It will create more jobs for people with college degrees — people with the knowledge and the credentials to build, program and maintain these complex machines.
But the people without college degrees will be hosed. They’ll have no way to earn the money to get a college degree and find work because the jobs within their existing skill-set will be done by robots.
Maybe, in the event of this automation revolution, we should consider paying people a base living wage. Sweden’s been considering it. Think about the possibilities for automation — nearly every service industry job done by a human could be done by a robot. Waiters and waitresses, cooks, maids, secretaries, receptionists — if we came up with a robot that can drive a taxi, you can bet we’ll come up with one that can clean, cook and answer the phone.
There will still be jobs that only humans can do, jobs that require creative and innovative thinking, but those jobs will be off-limits to those without a degree — in plainer terms, those without the money for a degree. It’s that way already.
You can still earn a good living if you don’t have a college degree, but the jobs that involve creative thinking are reserved for people who went to college. It’s harsh, and it’s classist, but it’s true. If you went to college, you’re usually lucky enough to have a job that takes advantage of what makes us human, a job that requires you to innovate and think critically and make your own decisions.
Automation will widen that existing gap between college grads and noncollege grads. It’ll bring convenience and comfort to those with jobs a robot can’t do. It’ll bring unemployment and personal crisis to those who don’t.
What happens to a person when they’re not only out of work but also out of a marketable skill? We’ve seen unemployment before, but people have always had assets desirable to employers — hands to bag groceries, eyes to watch the warehouse. But with robots, those assets cease to be worth anything. Our bodies will cease to be employable in themselves; we’ll have to go to school first, we’ll have to become(ITAL) employable.
So, much of our identity comes from our line of work. When we ask someone, “What do you do?” it doesn’t mean, “What do you do in your free time?” Our work is who we are.
If you asked an adult to describe him or herself, the first thing most people would say is their job. What happens to a person when they’re asked that, and they have no answer, and they have no answer in the foreseeable future?
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.