About twenty five years ago I had an engineer friend called Robert The Cow who was really quite brilliant and expert at designing milking machines and ancillary equipment for the dairy industry. Robert came up with all sorts of very useful devices for popping tassels on udders but one day, for no particular reason, he decided that what the world really needed was a brick laying machine. He spent a good many years and more than all of his money working on it, building prototype after prototype until he had a machine the size and complexity of a combine harvester that could lay bricks with intermittent precision, reasonable dexterity and with the aid of just three operators and two lorries. The only problem was there was already a machine that did the job much better, was much quicker, more adaptable, only required one operator and cleaned its own trowel. It was called a bricklayer. Robert’s venture was a glorious failure because he refused to accept that sometimes the best person for the job was a person. It is a stance that is becoming all too common.
There is now almost ceaseless chatter about self driving cars, about how autonomous vehicles will be safer, better, how they will save you from the tedium of driving. How you will be able to travel to work in the back seat doing even more work on your laptop, how your car will charge itself, take itself to the Car Wash and on the weekends go out and earn itself some pocket money working for Uber, or if it wants to avoid exploitative working practises, Lyft. The big car companies can’t contain their excitement, all falling over each other to tell us how wonderful autonomy will be and backing up their claims by trying to come up with the world’s most futuristic looking self-driving concept. I can’t help thinking that the resulting car won’t be very happy about it though.’The good news is you’re an Audi, the bad news is you have a face like a cubist baboon’s arse.’
Even Google have their own autonomous car division clearly at a loss as to what to spend their tax free billions on. Perhaps a little of it should have been spent on the name. Waymo? So called because they are pioneering ‘a new way forward in mobility’ but also because Fucknuts was taken. Waymo is following a different path with most of their vehicles based around recognisable domestic minivans, albeit ones with a bad case of mumps. They like to show them doing their self driving thing with a couple of slightly alarmed passengers in the back and an emergency person behind the wheel like the inflatable autopilot in Airplane! Mind you he/she is more likely to be watching Queer Eye on their phone than the road. All of this seems a little strange to me because as far as I am aware people enjoy driving, I certainly do, being a man I am brilliant at it. Besides I’m way ahead of Google, my old Volvo already has an excellent autonomous function and is perfectly capable of picking me up from the pub whenever necessary. It’s called the wife.
Ever since I saw an article a few weeks ago that listed all of the jobs that would be lost to thinking machines (and was thankful to discover that my occupation didn’t actually exist) I have been wondering where the benefit lies in this brave new world. Clearly not with the workers. It certainly makes being a careers adviser fraught and if yours suggests a glittering career answering the phone you might want to give him/her short shrift, and don’t let them fob you off with accountancy or paralegal either, or careers adviser, in fact any job that involves sitting down. Replacing white collar jobs with software will be comparatively easy but as Robert The Cow learnt replacing multi faceted manual labour is much harder. It will happen though, nothing can stop it, autonomous cars are just another example of how human beings are destined to become the unexpected item in the bagging area.
I don’t know a single person who would want a fully autonomous car (by that I mean one without a steering wheel) and yet motor companies are not stupid, big data is not stupid, they don’t do anything unless there’s a quid in it. This isn’t about spending billions of pounds and countless man hours (oh the irony) to develop safer vehicles for domestic drivers, this is primarily about developing cheaper replacements for professional ones. The vehicle manufactures and information giants know that the demand for self driving trucks, buses, vans, taxis, ambulances etc will be huge and will continue their development to implementation all the while promoting autonomy as a way of protecting the general public despite occasionally running over them.
At the moment it all looks a bit fanciful and that is the intention, disruptive technologies need to seem overly ambitious right up until the moment they lay waste to Hiroshima. In a few years it will seem normal to carry your own parcel out to the driver-less Amazon courier or to have a drunken conversation about the state of the nation with a Waymo Johnny cab or to live next door to a rich Tesla with a human chauffeur. The future is coming, again, but this time it is being fashioned by companies with enough money and resources to make brick laying machines that can actually lay bricks.