Pew Research asks: will autonomy kill off driver jobs?

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One of the biggest innovations of the next few decades, is going to be a real surge in the use of robotics and artificial intelligences to manufacture products, perform basic services and ultimately, to drive our cars and trucks for us. But while a human might be needed behind the wheel of a personal car if you want to go offroading, or happen to enjoy driving, one area where automation could hit very hard, is professional driving. That’s the truckers of the world, the taxi drivers, the takeaway deliverers. What will happen to these jobs when we have cars that can drive themselves?

“The male economy has already taken a real hit,” pointed out Aaron Smith, co-author and senior researcher with the Pew Center’s Internet & American Life Project (via GlobeandMail). “Driverless vehicles remove some of the last options available for that type of employment.”

Of course, chances are for a while at least, drivers will still be mandatory in vehicles, even if that means putting them there only to put the blame on if something goes wrong, or as a regulatory hurdler. It may placate the most wary of lawmakers to know that there is at least one human being behind the wheel of these giant trucks. Presumably though,at some point we’re going to see masses of vehicles on the road without a biological driver. What then?

The employment killer?

The employment killer?

Some have suggested that as with many technological industries of the past, as they replace old businesses, new ones are created. If there’s suddenly thousands or millions or robotic vehicles, those vehicles will need servicing, they’ll need maintenance and it will take a whole new set of skills to do so, which opens up masses of employment opportunities. On top of that, the development sector will get a massive boost, as providing the next greatest computer driver for your fleet of vehicles could save you a lot of money – and make it, if you sell that AI package to another firm.

However, many researchers, Pew included, worry that while some will be able to take advantage of these new skilled positions, many people won’t be able to. There’s a real worry that a new underclass of un-employable, underskilled individuals who would have found manual labour positions in the past, simply won’t be able to find employment in a world where robotics do all the jobs that unskilled workers handle now.

In order to prevent that from happening, Pew thinks we need to look at making real changes to the working and educational landscape today:

“We have the ability to decide which of these futures we inhabit,” the Pew Center’s Mr. Smith pointed out. Many of the worst consequences of automation can be overcome with better policies, such as living wages, an enhanced social safety net and an education system that better prepares students for the work world of the future,” he said.

As it stands, Pew thinks our educational system is more akin to preparing children for coal mining or simple task jobs in factories, with an authoritarian, assembly line feel to it. Instead, it wants to promote creativity and ingenuity, something that it seems unlikely a robotic AI will ever be able to do as well as a human.

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.