Massive Societal Disruption

The advanced world faces a disruption of such proportions that it is nothing short of a societal Krakatoa — and few people are watching. 

Recently, I spoke to a STEAM high school Science class about their need to select a college major which will permit them to repay their college loans, and I described the future they faced, a future which is not incrementally different from today in the near term, but will be drastically different in their lifetime. 

In Ancient Greece and Rome, slaves did the work and the Greeks and Romans went to the Forum to argue. (The Romans actually enslaved the Greeks.) 

That is our future, and the disruption on the way to that future will be traumatic. It has already begun — we have never had so many able-bodied people out of work. 

The disruption will continue, more rapidly than we are prepared to address. I fear that society is unprepared (my background is as a computer scientist, but my concern is societal). 

In the very short term, truck drivers will suffer drastic dislocation, as trains of autonomous trucks with minimal, and eventually no drivers, crisscross both Europe and North America. Recently, five trains of driverless trucks crossed nations of Europe to meet up in Rotterdam. 

As the switch to nuclear propulsion in submarines provided an ENORMOUS advancement in submerged distance and speed, so taking human drivers out of trucks is an ENORMOUS advancement. 

In the U.S., trucks can only travel 11 hours then the driver must rest for eight hours before resuming. Autonomous trucks keep moving almost 24 hours, and are involved in far fewer accidents! 

Millions of trucking jobs will be lost. Transporting a load from New York to L.A. currently costs more than $4,000, of which $3,000 is labor! The most bang for the buck in autonomous vehicle technology is not in selling Google cars to Uber, but in selling autonomous Volvo and Mercedes trucks to over-the-road trucking companies. 

Truckers are just the tip of the spear in the societal disruption. Target, Lowes and Best Buy are testing inventory and restocking robots. There is an Italian vending machine that makes one of three choices of pizza from scratch in three minutes, and there are hamburger machines that make 400 custom hamburgers an hour. The changes are not coming BECAUSE of a high minimum wage, although they are accelerated by a combination of higher minimum wage, benefits, vacations, Obamacare, etc. 

How does a society handle massive and growing unemployment, particularly among the physical workers? How do we handle multiple generations of minimally educated people who have no potential to ever be employed? Will the Luddites sabotage the technology to extend their employment? How will unions respond? 

The time is now to consider a “Guaranteed Basic Income.” This has been a Socialist dream for decades, and even Milton Friedman once proposed a similar idea, but it may become a reality out of necessity if not ideology. In a society where a few “work” and most have nothing but leisure, how do we incentivize work? 

I don’t know.

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