By coincidence I’ve had two conversations recently about robots and transport. The first, with my friend Nick Givens was about automated air taxis. Apparently, the company Ehang is already operating electric autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) aircraft in China on about 100 routes under a special permit. And Wisk, a joint venture of Kitty Hawk and Boeing have signed a memorandum of understanding with the New Zealand government to begin passenger transport trials using its autonomous ‘Cora’ once it is certified.
Nick’s view is that whilst there may not be a human pilot on the plane somewhere in the background there will be humans in a traffic control centre with an overview of proceedings and the option of intervention. More about this at the aviation today website
It’s not just air vehicles that are becoming autonomous. As Nick told me, something similar applies to automated trains. At the moment there needs to be a central control monitored, if not operated, by humans. RioTinto Zinc in Australia claims to be running iron ore trains on an 800km round trip which includes a number of road level crossings, and it seems certain that there will be a human operated central control somewhere. Nick wasn’t sure what difference that would make- if someone runs across in front of several-thousand ton train no brakes are going to stop it in time.
And that particular line did – and maybe still does – hold the record for the worlds heaviest train: over 99,732 tons. We wondered why they didn’t squeeze in another 270 tons to reach the hundred thousand.
On the same day I had a conversation with my friend John Spencer who lives in Milton Keynes and he told me that he gets his groceries delivered by a robot. The company involved is called Starship Technologies. It was Launched in 2014 by Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, and today operates in several cities across the world completing tens of thousands of autonomous deliveries every day. Starship’s robots move at pedestrian speed and weigh no more than 100 pounds.
According to the company they’re inherently safe and can navigate around objects and people.
For security, the cargo bay is mechanically locked throughout the journey and can be opened only by the recipient with their smartphone app. The location of the robots is tracked, so the customer knows exactly the location of their order and receive a notification at the time of arrival.
We must ask what is happening to those who used to fly the air taxis, drive the trains, and make the deliveries. In the short term an answer is that these developments are at the cutting edge and will only be operating in a few locations so their immediate impact on employment will be minimal. But this is short-sighted. Kevin Kelly, in his provocative book, What technology wants, argues that one of successful technologies features is that they become ubiquitous. And a question we should always ask about a new and emerging technology is, “What will be the consequences of this technology becoming ubiquitous?” This moves me to wonder whether this is the underlying issue in the current rail strike. The companies running the rail networks are under pressure to achieve ever more financially efficient operations and one way to accomplish this is to lower costs by reducing the workforce and rely instead on automation. The RMT union are resisting this by arguing for better pay and guarantees of future employment. If one holds Kelly’s view that technology is to a large extent autonomous and will, through its intrinsic nature, move towards greater efficiency, then the RMT’s efforts can be seen as a futile resistance. But their resistance should, perhaps, be put into the context of the bigger picture of considering the impact of automation, through robotics and AI, on employment prospects generally. Perhaps steps should be taken to ensure that companies who introduce automation in order to become more financially efficient are under some obligation to guarantee that those who become unemployed through this introduction of automation should be offered compensation and training for work in other fields.
As always comments welcome.