Point of No Return — Automation is a good-news, bad-news deal

Date Published: 
Jan. 25, 2018

The “infinite monkey theorem” suggests that a monkey randomly striking keys on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will, at some point, produce a given text — such as the complete works of William Shakespeare or a cover-to-cover redux of “War and Peace.”

I’m familiar with this theorem, at least partially, because it keeps me aware that I can be easily replaced at any given time by a caffeine-fueled, talented monkey. Or a talent-less monkey. Or, really, a house plant.

None of us particularly like the feeling that we can be replaced, right? It’s dehumanizing to believe that we are expendable, and simply removed like an expired battery while a fresh one takes our place.

But it happens, in nearly every walk of life. Joe Montana got replaced by Steve Young with the San Francisco 49ers. Col. Henry Blake got replaced by Col. Sherman Potter in M*A*S*H, and Trapper John got replaced by B.J. Honeycutt. Oh, and Frank Burns was replaced by Charles Emerson Winchester III. You know, a lot of actors got replaced on M*A*S*H, but it just kept running and running for years...

But I digress.

I originally got caught up in this topic of replaceable humans when reporter Laura Walter was telling me about a meeting of the Delaware Advisory Council on Connected and Autonomous Vehicles last week in Dover. In a nutshell, an Uber representative was discussing how driverless vehicles will be an option for people ordering Uber’s taxi-like services on their mobile app.

This is interesting technology, to say the least. We’ve seen Google flirt with these vehicles in building their comprehensive database of roads, Amazon discuss delivery vehicles without drivers and numerous other companies dip their toes into the possibilities.

There could be wide-ranging benefits, from driverless trucks that could ping-pong cross-country and back, only stopping for fuel, to cars driving home inebriated owners to opening up more parking spaces as cars drive home between taking owners where they need to go. And, of course, it could mean the end of paying jobs for people who drive taxis or trucks.

And this is what I fear the most.

I’m a capitalist, and a small-business owner. Though this is a dramatic oversimplification, I understand that there are two fundamental driving forces in any business — money coming in, and money going out. A business always wants to increase the money coming in, and decrease or limit the amount of money going out.

For a company like Uber, fully-automated vehicles means that they can have the same or more revenue as before, but no longer have to pay drivers a percentage. That is a basic win-win for the company, right?

On the flip side, that is a loss of jobs for people. It equates to people not being able to pay their mortgages, utilize health insurance, feed their kids or funnel expendable income back into the economy through restaurants and shops. It could ultimately lead to people going to the government for assistance, which impacts government spending.

It’s a tricky situation, to be sure.

Do businesses have an obligation to hire as many people as possible, or to be as profitable as they can manage? Should private businesses be held accountable for any impact on public life if they let people go to save on expenses? Those are questions for the philosophers, I’m afraid. I’m simply here to pose them.

This is not all about Uber, or autonomous vehicles. We’ve seen factories replace workers with robotics on assembly lines, self-checkout lines and fewer baggers at grocery stores, ATMs and direct-deposit banking, and restaurants where you place your order on a screen at your table, lessening how many servers need to be on the floor at any given time.

“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses... it’s progressing,” said Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft and all-around rich dude, at an economic think tank in March 2014, as quoted by Business Insider. “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. ... Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

That was nearly four years ago, and things have only escalated. Amazon opened Amazon Go at their headquarters in Seattle recently, and the store has no checkout clerks or checkout stands. Shoppers use a smartphone app, while cameras and algorithms figure out what they’re buying and bill their Amazon account accordingly. Other businesses will be watching Amazon Go intently, deciding if it’s reasonable technology for them to chase.

A study by the research firm PwC last spring estimated that 38 percent of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation in the next 15 years, according to a story on recode.net. “The U.S. has a higher percentage of jobs under threat by automation because more workers in the U.S. are employed in positions that require routinized tasks, like filling out paperwork,” according to the article.

Going more toward automation is a responsible and wise decision by companies in terms of maximizing profits and satisfying shareholders, and it will only continue to grow with technology. But there are bound to be bumps and bruises with human employment as this advances.

Now we need people much smarter than myself to come up with a course of action for future generations of American workers, or different troubles could be in the cards.

You know, like typing monkeys. Those guys are real trouble.