How Autonomous Vehicles will Trigger the Age of Robots

Technological Unemployment

Concerns about the looming specter of mass technological unemployment from automation are now being voiced from all quarters. It isn’t just technology innovators like Elon Musk and Bill Gates who’ve expressed concerns. It is also economists like Erik Brynjolfsson, scientists like Stephen Hawking, philosophers like Nick Bostrom, public officials like Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and investors like Warren Buffet. Some observers are optimistic, others more pessimistic, but few if any have yet to recognize the direct connection between AVs and the tidal wave of technological unemployment to which they will give rise. As a result, there is essentially zero public awareness that large-scale disruption of the global labor market by automation will be well underway within a decade.

Modeling and Navigating

To understand why AVs threaten to automate far more than just driving, we first need to appreciate that AV technology is software that performs a complex set of tasks, and that the same software can be adapted to other seemingly dissimilar sets of tasks with surprising ease.

Lessons from Machine Learning

Two recent cases offer an instructive window into the world of machine learning. The first is robots that are able to walk. Walking robots aren’t breaking news, but what is extraordinary is that they are now able to learn to walk in a natural way from scratch in a matter of hours. This feat is achieved through the techniques of reinforcement learning and imitation learning, which are specific applications of the more general deep learning process utilized by deep neural networks.

A Light Bulb Moment

If the analogy of Go and chess doesn’t resonate well enough, consider another one instead: the light bulb. It took years of research effort among competing firms before Thomas Edison’s company found a commercially viable way to produce light with electricity. The success of the light bulb then threw open the floodgates to thousands of other applications of electricity, from electric fans and refrigerators to washing machines and computers. Our world now revolves around electronics, and Edison’s firm went on to become General Electric which more than a century later remains one of the largest companies in the world — and is still a leading manufacturer of light bulbs. In the same way, AVs are the ‘killer app’ that will open the door to thousands of other applications — not of electricity, but of narrow artificial intelligence.

Winner Take All?

Competition among firms to win the AV technology arms race is fierce, as it has been with countless other technologies since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. But what very few observers realize is that the form of narrow artificial intelligence that AVs represent will be quickly generalizable to thousands of other applications beyond vehicles — in some cases, literally overnight. The nature of machine learning means that whatever company wins the AV arms race stands to capture (and undermine) a substantial portion of the world’s labor market by around 2030 — the value of which is at least $20 trillion, or around one quarter of the global economy.

Lessons from History

We can look to previous examples of software-driven disruption for insight. In the 1980s, Microsoft and Apple overtook incumbent giants like IBM and Xerox to capture the lion’s share of the operating system market for personal computers, and with it control over much of the surrounding technology ecosystem. In the 2000s, Apple and Google overtook incumbent giants like Nokia and Blackberry to capture over 90% of the operating system market for mobile phones, which they very quickly leveraged into control over most of the surrounding technology ecosystem. Today, one or two companies like Google or Tesla are similarly poised to overtake incumbent automakers like GM and Toyota to capture the operating system market for Avs. Therefore, they too may quickly come to control the majority of the surrounding technology ecosystem.

An Unprecedented Opportunity

AVs represent the cusp of an unemployment tsunami. Even if a monopoly or duopoly on AVs is prevented by regulation or market competition, the automation genie will still be out of the bottle. It took an IBM supercomputer to beat the best human chess player in 1997, but within ten years dozens of different chess programs could manage the same feat running on a home computer. Robots will still take all the same jobs, whether they are powered by the software of one, two, or a thousand different companies.

--

--

RethinkX is an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX is an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.