On the Inevitability of Automation

There’s a lot of discussion about whether automating people out of a job is ethical or even good for society. I’ve been called some not so nice things for suggesting that we solve the BART strike by automating it (BART trains are actually already automated).

But the point is really this: regardless of whether you believe automation is good or bad it is inevitable.

The various unions that represent BART workers may postpone that inevitability for a while (as the NY transit unions did) but eventually it will happen. Does anyone really believe that we won’t have a fully automated transit system in 10 or 20 years time?

But this is about more than a local transit issues.

The bigger point is that we’re on the cusp of an era of accelerated automation of our workforce. (see: Why Software is Eating the World by Marc Andreessen)

This automation will happen at a speed that will mean people won’t simply be able to retrain into another role as has happened in the past.

I see these soon-to-be-obsolete jobs everywhere I go: from the dealers at a casino in Reno (the poker room was already dealer-less) to anyone working a checkout counter to taxi drivers being replaced to self-driving cars.

And this automation isn’t relegated simply to “blue collar” jobs either. There’s less demand than ever for “white collar” office jobs too. Really the only class (currently) unaffected is the creative class.

But despite the media spin, this isn’t about technologists versus the working class. Avoiding automation isn’t a viable option at scale.

If we don’t automate and seek increasing efficiencies in our economy someone else will and we won’t be able to keep pace. As a society the discussion we should be having is not about whether or not to automate but what we want life to look like on the other side of that transition. The increasing frequency I see concepts like universal basic income being presented is a good start.

I don’t know what the answers are but if we play our cards right we’ll grow our creative class and enable more people to pursue their true passions over a paycheck.

If we don’t… well there are plenty of movies that paint a painful representation of what that looks like. Let’s not let that happen.


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