Is the World ready for radical changes like driverless cars and more Automation?

The question of how many jobs are going to be affected by technology and to what level, has the potential to be debated for at least another decade if not longer. One particular event brought the topic into sharp focus in past several weeks and that was UBER launching driverless cars as a part of their service in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA [1]. The natural thought that follows is the employment of drivers, and whether in the long run it would be seriously affected to the point where thousands would be rendered jobless.

The opinions are varied on the subject as would be expected. One particular tweet that evoked many responses, which ranged from sarcastic to outright scathing, came from Shoma Chaudhury, former Editor-in-Chief of Catch News. The tweet questioned the need for such technology (UBER’s driverless initiative) in a world ‘desperate for jobs’ and that tech should be useful with the hash tag #JobsForHumans [2]. The responses in essence argued that for the world to progress, embracing new technology is necessary and inevitable. And as it often happens on twitter, some of the responses received greater visibility and support by twitterati. However, differences in views on other issues aside, the writer found himself agreeing with the essence of her tweet, which boils down to the question of jobs. It is without doubt a serious issue, as a scenario which potentially endangers thousands of jobs is not a situation any society would want to deal with.  However, the motivation for the article lies, not in the potential unemployment that may be created (there is a chance that it may be temporary) but in a solution that was proposed to solve the problem.

The proposed solution to the problem was discussed in Fareed Zakaria’s show GPS that aired on 16th October 2016 on CNN[3] which the writer chanced upon. The solution was - Universal Basic Income which Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook was very enthusiastic about. And this being the first time the writer heard about a concept such as the universal basic income (UBI), the idea by itself seemed preposterous. An internet search revealed quite a bit of material written on the topic but to the uninitiated, here is the definition from Marybeth Seitz Brown’s article [4] – “A UBI is a cash grant that is distributed universally with no means test (unlike welfare programs, everyone gets it, no matter what), over the long term in a well-defined region, and provides enough money to survive on.”

The UBI as a solution to offset or substitute loss of income was alarming for a very simple reason. It seems to attack the very foundation of ‘earn your living’ and could be potentially catastrophic if implemented, at least in the writer’s mind. However, before passing judgement, there are a few arguments in its favour. The UBI in the Indian context could be seen as a redistribution of existing subsidies wrote R. Jagannathan, Editorial Director of Swarajya and such redistribution would provide 25 million households with Rs.1000/- each [5]. In the same article he argued, the UBI would empower citizens and could eliminate market distortions. The writer has some misgivings with this line of thought. First, subsidies at this point seems to be as big a political bogey as reservation is and it is unlikely any political party will want to eliminate it. Second, a policy providing direct cash would probably lead to political parties competing with each other to promising more and more to get votes i.e. 1000 may become 10000 faster than one may desire it, which would probably result in higher taxes on the middle class should it come to pass. However, the debate of the UBI needs to be left to the economists (the writer is not one) and there are a couple of articles referenced within the one discussed for those want to read more.

Getting back to technology and its effect on jobs, one parameter that seems to have been missed or less spoken about is population. For example, let us look at the scenario when automobiles arrived on the scene and eventually, replaced horse drawn carriages to become the most preferred choice of road transport across the world. In 1900, around the time automobiles with internal combustion engines appeared on the scene the population stood at 1.6 billion [6]. The three to four decades that followed would have seen a steady fall in jobs in the stables and carriage building businesses and in the writer’s mind would have given way to a generation of people skilled in automotive manufacturing instead. Similarly, carriage drivers likely started to drive cars. In this period, the world population rose to around 2-2.5 billion [6].

The important take away in the example is, a radical technological change that affected the population as a whole probably generated more jobs than the ones it took away although it shifted the kind of work people did for a living dramatically. Thus, more jobs were available to people in a world with a growing population. Another example is the change affected by the advent of computers where the users and makers of type writers had to shift to a new device with a radically different technology. The number of jobs due to computers replacing typewriters was again a net positive leading in fact to a huge boom in job creation across the world. This brings us back to the driverless technology that is front and centre of the topic at hand. The question to answer in this case would be – what do people have to learn to do due to the technological shift? The answer seems to be to learn the technology needed to build or control the driverless vehicles as there would now be a requirement for such a skill set. And that brings the population factor back into play.

Currently, as the automation drive kicks in, the world population stands over 7 billion people [7]. However, at this point, it must be said that world population is not the strongest of metrics for studying jobs especially ones relating to technology. Instead, it may be useful to look at the number of children in the world which may be a better metric to judge the future. Interestingly, over the last 50 years the percentage of children (aged 0-14) has decreased steadily and currently hovers around 26% [7]. This may be good news for those rooting for technology that stresses on automation.

Percentage of Children in World Population over the years (Source: data.worldbank.org)

However, with the world population doubling in the same period, the absolute numbers of children have increased and if estimates are anything to go by, the trend is unlikely to change in the coming decades. As the writer sees things, it is improbable that the new type of jobs would hire the number of people employed as drivers today, let alone increasing the number of available jobs. In fact in all likelihood, automation could well reduce the number of people employed in the information technology sector today, which would mean less people employed in the sector that is central to automation.

World Population over the years (Source: data.worldbank.org)

Additionally, at the expense of using the driverless technology example again, let us look at the scenario in India. Assuming the technology will be extended to buses and good vehicles for example, the currently available data shows the number of buses and goods vehicles combined stood at 10,491,000 in 2013 [8]. This number will likely increase with time, and the sector could well result in employing even double the 2013 number before computers take over the driving leading to a head count reduction. If train driving and related operations (signal control etc.) are also taken into account, the number of people who could lose jobs to technology will swell enormously.

So, it is reasonable to conclude there is every chance that automation could affect the current job profiles of several million people in India alone. Are there different kinds of job waiting for these people? There doesn’t appear to be based on the information available so far. In fact, if the universal basic income argument gains momentum, it may end up being the solution to the problem! And the math is scary. Moreover, people who do not have to work for a living do not necessarily spend their free time constructively making a positive change to the world. The ‘idealists’, however, would probably sell exactly that picture to push for a thing such as universal basic income. In the writers mind, a scenario where millions are jobless and get the benefit of a basic income is a recipe for anarchy. And will assured income encourage people to have more children, and thereby reversing the trend seen for the last 50 years? There may be other questions to answer the writer hasn’t thought of as well.

Finally, a word about technology and the need to improve them. To the brightest minds, the concept of automation would be exciting and naturally so. There are so many industries that could benefit from it, tasks which cannot be performed by most individuals. There are also sectors which are perpetually under staffed where automation could effect a real positive change. So, the need for improvement cannot be contested. However, in the writer’s line of thought, the world needs its ‘nuts and bolts’ jobs which employ hundreds of thousands to stay in human control. If they do not, new kinds of viable jobs that would need to employ hundreds of thousands need to be discovered or invented. As it stands though, it appears the world has leapt off the proverbial cliff without so much as a second thought to the long term effects of automation. The writer only hopes that it remembered a parachute large enough to slow it down to get a soft landing. Time however is running out.

 

REFERENCES

Uber launches groundbreaking driverless car service https://www.yahoo.com/news/uber-launches-groundbreaking-driverless-car-101803072.html , Paul Handley, 14 September 2016, AFP, yahoo.com

Shoma Chaudhury’s tweet on Ubers launch of driverless cars https://twitter.com/ShomaChaudhury/status/776251134432321536, 14 September 2016, Last Accessed 11 November 2016, twitter.com

Fareed Zakaria’s tweet on airing debate on universal basic income https://twitter.com/FareedZakaria/status/787512750457102336 , 15 October 2016, Last Accessed 11 November 2016, twitter.com

Introducing the Universal Income Project http://rooseveltforward.org/introducing-universal-income-project/, Marybeth Seitz Brown, 12 October 2016, Roosevelt Forward

Universal Basic Income Will End Market Distortions, Convert Citizens from Beggars to Empowered Customers http://swarajyamag.com/economy/universal-basic-income-will-end-market-distortions-convert-citizens-from-beggars-to-empowered-customers , R Jagannathan, 26 September 2016, Swarajya Magazine

Current World Population and World Population Growth Since the Year One http://geography.about.com/od/obtainpopulationdata/a/worldpopulation.htm , Matt Rosenberg, Accessed 28 October 2016, About.com

Population, total http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?end=2015&name_desc=false&start=1960&view=chart, and Population ages 0-14 (% of total) http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.0014.TO.ZS?end=2015&name_desc=false&start=1960&view=chart , World Bank Staff, Accessed 28 October 2016, The World Bank Group

Total Number of Registered Motor Vehicles in India https://data.gov.in/catalog/total-number-registered-motor-vehicles-india , Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 18 May 2016, Government of India

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Image Credits: By Elekes Andor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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