The tip of the iceberg

Driverless cars may be the first among enormous changes technology brings

May 5, 2017
by Michael Hlinka

From the April 2017 print edition

I don’t know if you know who Sam Harris is, but if you don’t and I can

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.

introduce you to this American thinker, then this column may have already accomplished something important. His own website touts him as a best-selling author (which is true) but that alone doesn’t do the range of his intelligence justice. His writing and podcasts cover a wide variety of topics, anything and everything from religion to violence to neuroscience. But it was an aside he made—tangential to the larger point that was being discussed—that flat-out blew my mind.

The conversation was about driverless automobiles. The consensus is that sooner or later the technology will exist and use of these vehicles will be widespread. When I heard about them the first time, I imagined the suburban white-collar worker who instead of wasting 90 frustrating minutes in traffic could now use that time productively in a rolling office. It seemed to me a great alternative for so many different people. When my father was in his eighties, he felt that driving exposed too many innocent people to too much risk, so he voluntarily gave up the freedom associated with individual car travel.

Back to Sam Harris. He argues that it is an almost inevitable certainty that sometime in the future it will be illegal for humans to get behind the wheel and drive any car themselves. At first, this sounds borderline delusional, but think about it for a moment and it makes sense. In fact, there is a reasonable analogy between humans driving when the driverless technology exists and the current public policy of driving under the influence, which virtually everyone agrees should be illegal.

But why do we come together on drunk driving? Because in the majority of cases, people who are legally impaired and then get behind the wheel, do not get into accidents, let alone ones where anyone is seriously hurt. Yet because the probability of something bad happening increases so much, we make the rational collective decision to make impaired driving illegal, independent of possible consequences. By way of analogy, if the technology of driverless cars is perfected and accidents then become as rare as solar eclipses, it would be reasonable—just as we prevent intoxicated people from driving—to prevent anyone who is after all both human and imperfect from getting behind the wheel.

This means that if you drive a truck for a living, your services are no longer required. This would affect approximately 250,000 Canadians who make, on average, about $50,000 annually if they drive locally or something closer to $75,000 a year if they are long-haul drivers. This is a middle-class to upper middle-class wage. And a valid question arises: What will these people do to pay the bills? This becomes particularly troubling when one realizes that this is truly only the tip of the iceberg. At some point, robots rather than humans will dominate assembly lines. How many manufacturing workers would be displaced?

But this Brave New World will not only impact what we understand as working-class, blue-collar occupations. I have heard the theory that it will be possible to program robots to perform complex medical surgeries. No robot will ever have a shaky hand; therefore for similar reasons and logic why driverless cars will supplant the human behind the wheel, so too will the robot replace the human surgeon. Then what will be left for humans to do? And what are the public policy impacts?
There have been increased calls for a minimum guaranteed income.

Right now, the model—even in Canada which has a robust welfare state—is that there is the expectation that each of us should be responsible for taking care of himself or herself, with the promise that the state will be there to take care of you if you are either unable to work or choose not to. But public policy attempts to ensure that you’d be better off working rather than relying on the state’s largesse. But with a minimum guaranteed income, this more or less goes out the window.

And once the minimum guaranteed income were enshrined as public policy, there would be an even bigger incentive for people from the developing world to find their way to the developed world. There are already huge tensions in Europe with the recent wave of refugees. Imagine how much more powerful that economy would be.

Perhaps in the grand sweep of human history, these are relatively small and manageable problems. Perhaps. But I’ve been thinking increasingly about where phenomenon like robotics, artificial intelligence, and technology in general could have a profound impact—and sooner than we might think—on the way we work and live.