Imagine one day you’re poking along down the highway, a gargantuan vehicle behind you honks, galumphs past you in another lane and unsettles you by its size and proximity to the point of road rage – except for one thing.
When you glance to your side with a fist about to wave in the air, there is no one at the wheel. It is a driverless truck.
They’re very likely coming, you know. Experiments with driverless cars are well underway, almost surely will lead to truck experiments, too, and fit in snugly with a high-tech age awash with smartphones, the Internet, wristwatch computers and much, much more arriving every day. We’re getting verification of the old-saw observation that new inventions geometrically facilitate and prompt still more new inventions to the point of eventually getting gazillions vastly increasing wealth and making life easier in every way imaginable.
You might therefore think it is glory, glory hallelujah time, but there’s a worry accompanying these computerized, robotic marvels that often happen to be super-capable, highly cooperative, uncomplaining, always punctual and ready to beat you on an IQ test any day of the week. They just may take your job.
Truck drivers of the human variety could be out on the street instead of cruising down the road, and listen, cooks, you need to worry, too. A recent news article tells of a restaurant that recently opened in China with a kitchen bereft of your ilk. The cooking is done by dexterously competent, recipe-soaked robotic devices that can turn out all kinds of tasty dishes. Peking duck, anyone?
It hardly ends there, because software innovations that have already put some people out of work are rising in their digital aptitudes. In the old days, technology displaced laborers engaged in certain relatively simple agricultural and manufacturing tasks. Today the computerized threat is also aimed at complicated, sometimes intellectually challenging tasks in the service sector, and the middle class is said to be at major risk.
The cost, says a group of Oxford scholars, could be a loss of 45 percent of all American jobs within two decades, and the answer, say other academics, is big government getting bigger and ever more active in supplying solutions
Let’s visit contrary possibilities, observing, for instance, how technologically induced wealth and higher living standards actually can foster a vast array of new occupational adventures taking the place of the old ones. That has happened repeatedly in the past even as political leaders and others have mistakenly wrung their hands about a society they were sure would be left in job-shorn disarray.
Yes, there are issues government needs to attend to, such as helping to find ways for a skills-deficient workforce to get more training and ridding the country of thousands of pages of state and federal regulatory restrictions that more than anything deny opportunity. But please, please, let’s don’t trust those ideologically ill-advised economists wanting to make our markets still less free so their own self-supposed competence can come to the rescue.
Their idea is that small groups of academic elites can not only outthink the nation’s consumers about their needs, but also outthink our entrepreneurs about their specialized undertakings. Sadly, we know where such thinking leads, especially when the academics are joined by equally arrogant politicians. They lead to disaster.
Just as it has done before, the market will almost surely produce decent jobs to replace those lost to technology, even though there may be hurtful disruptions in the process. The best answer is the energy, ingenuity and liberty of the citizenry. And listen, I don’t really think driverless trucks will be a nuisance if they eventuate, though I do think I'll be nervous if I ever see one.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.