Yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced that the cab company is aiming to replace its drivers with robots. "The reason Uber could be expensive is because you're not just paying for the car, you're paying for the other dude in the car," Kalanick said. His announcement comes in the same week Google unveiled the first driverless car, which boasts no steering wheels or pedals – just buttons.
London black cabbies are already planning a mass protest next month against Uber, which they claim has already severely damaged their business. But a couple of years down the line, will Uber drivers be holding protests of their own, demanding to know why driverless cars have put them out of a job?
It's a recurring theme in 21st century industry. As advances in technology become more exciting, the need for human beings lessens. Incredible as the thought of 3D printing absolutely everything is, will it eventually eradicate all need for manual labour?
Science writer DJ Souza thinks so: "We are a society with an astoundingly weak ability to define and maintain boundaries, especially when it comes to quality of life," he writes. "3D printing may have the ability at increasing quality of life for many, many people through ease of access and low cost, but what of men and women that earn through manual labour? When do we stop progress from becoming too overbearing?"
A month ago, a Chinese construction team managed to 3D print ten small houses in a day, each one made at under a cost of $5,000. By the end of this decade, it's possible that we may have no need for people who devoted years to apprenticeships and training in order to build a house a 3D printer can knock out in a day. So what happens to them?
The most recent tube strikes were caused by advancing technology, too: Transport for London wanted to shut down manned ticket offices in favour of leaving the stations unattended, confident that the machines in place are perfectly capable. Up to 900 jobs will be cut if the plans go ahead. According to an RMT poll, two-thirds of passengers oppose the closures, with over half saying that they've had to consult human beings at the ticket office when their machine counterparts were broken.
Meanwhile, Amazon revealed last week that it intends to increase its robot workforce to 10,000 by the end of year, which the company claims will "not change the human involvement at the company." Let's face it: the very fact a press statement has to include this information demonstrates some kind of growing concern in our collective consciousness. Are we being phased out in favour of machines?
Slowly but surely, we're moving towards a world that increasingly marginalises human involvement and it opens a wider philosophical question – if a machine can perform equally as well as a human being at a lower cost, then should it get the job? In March, a robot wrote a breaking news story about a Californian earthquake. While the algorithm generated a fairly clunky article, it's still an insight into how technological unemployment threatens us all. Kevin Kelly of Wired believes that we have to let robots take our jobs, and then find new uses for human beings. There's sense in that, but what if change happens too fast? Technology won't stop advancing just because there's a family of builders fighting for survival.
When Uber's CEO was pressed for a response as to what will happen to their drivers he replied: "Look, this is the way of the world, and the world isn't always great. We all have to find ways to change with the world." In other words, science fiction is becoming reality.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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