Running the sessions

A while ago I was given an exciting opportunity to redesign Just Eat’s consumer-facing app with the initial goal to present a vision piece to senior executives. The vision was set to be a bolder and…


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Luddites will not Rebel Against Robots

Who would rebel against the golden age?

As autonomous cars and manufacturing robots crest the horizon, there is much talk about job loss (5 million taxi and truck drivers, and 10% of all other jobs, which is the manufacturing total) and this often brings up a discussion of the nineteenth century craftsmen who smashed power looms and weaving machines to avoid the dingy, dusty, and dark confines of manufacturing plants. Who could blame them? They had been free to work at home or in small sunlit studios, be creative, chat with their friends and families; and industrialization destroyed their liberty. Robots are about to free them again.

Industrial jobs have been praised by many in the post WWII era as giving rise to the American middle class. Few of those who praise this menial repetitive work have actually performed it, or have risen to positions of management and power above their worker bees, where they gladly suppress their memories of their daily grind. But while they worked in the dull, monotonous, repetitive tedium of their manufacturing slog, they couldn’t wait to get home and away from it. Privately they worried how long they could last doing this. The pay was too good to leave; too many people depended on them; they were afraid to lose their prime status of employee and become the lowest of the low: the unemployed; but the work was dreadful, and they knew it.

Most of the time, they could not even change positions in the assembly line; but had to continue until the line shut down or they were very lucky to get a promotion; but those positions often went to the politically or personally connected; not on the basis of their own merit. Often, they worked alone, when the companion positions went unfilled for weeks and months at a time, so that there was no one even to share glances or a nod and raised eyebrows. Absences and sick leave were frequent. As well paid as they were, many of the lowest positions went unfilled, even by immigrants or downtrodden ethnic groups, until a robot came along to do them. The noise and dust were stifling.

Robots brought along so many benefits. Often the robots did the hardest and most dangerous manual jobs, so back aches and arthritis were relieved. They did it quietly and with a kind of synchrony and rhythm that was almost musical. They opened up new management and engineering jobs even for those who had no advanced degrees. With the reduced number of employees, each worker had a chance to rotate frequently between new positions, since controlling a robot or making sure the components it needed were just in time was not nearly as taxing as making sure the right screw went in the right hole at the right torque. Life was much more interesting. You could work at a job like this forever.

Of course, you couldn’t talk to a robot and share what your kids and family were doing; but on the other hand the robot didn’t complain about the short stick life had given it. You didn’t need to listen sympathetically to all the diseases that were rampant; or the shortsighted decisions someone else’s children were making with their lives. Sometimes you could even daydream.

Of course, you didn’t want to dream too far beyond the present to what kinds of jobs your kids would be able to get, when robots replaced everyone except a few engineers in the factory. But technology had always created more jobs than it destroyed. There would always be work, and your kids would be fine, won’t they?

But their children probably will never learn to drive a car.

Most current drivers say that they will never buy an autonomous car. They have been indoctrinated into the myth of the freedom of the open road. They love the power the car gives them. Even mobility services that were cheap and ready in a few minutes don’t appeal to them. But they are the fossils and don’t know it yet.

No one will really fight the coming of self driving robocars.

Millennials are already avoiding car ownership and the status of a driving license their parents so eagerly pressed for at 16. What a change. Car manufacturers are not even that interested in selling them autonomous autos: they think of themselves as becoming mobility companies. Advanced driving aid systems, and cooperation with ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, are just stepping stones for manufacturers to become gigantic mobility companies themselves. They could double or triple their cash flow and profits as owners of taxis, people movers, and trucks that all needed no drivers, and they themselves controlled. Hapless human drivers in the flow of automated autos whizzing past them, merging and cutting them off with great speed and coordination, would soon find driving less than pleasurable. The mobility services will be faster, safer, and much more pleasant, with onboard entertainment and the freedom to get as drunk as you want. Who would want to rebel against this golden age?

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