Are people really ready for the future?

The Industries of the Future

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While not every sci-fi prediction about the 21st century has become a reality, we’re now tantalisingly close to technologies that were once considered farfetched. Commercialised spaceflight — à la 2001: A Space Odyssey — and Skywalker-esque cybernetic prosthetics are waiting on the horizon, while intelligent robots and autonomous cars are right on our doorstep. But as designers and engineers march humanity into the future, are people ready for the latest technological revolution?

In his new book, The Industries of the Future, Alec Ross explores how both developed and developing nations will be impacted by advances in fields including gene modification, cybercrime, AI and robotics. He identifies self-driving cars as one of the technologies on the cusp of transforming an entire industry, noting that they could negate ‘the four Ds’ responsible for most accidents — distraction, drowsiness, drunkenness, and driver error. Yet he also recognises that there are more human barriers to adoption than technological ones; after all, 50% of people wouldn’t set foot in an autonomous car.

The feasibility of the Google car depends on a range of technological, legal, safety, and commercial considerations. Will the technology work? Will it make the roads safer? Will people trust and purchase it? Will it even be legal?
These are not academic questions. While only California, Florida, and Nevada have passed laws as of 2013 permitting autonomous cars on the roads, these already represent huge driving markets. The driverless car has the potential to fundamentally disrupt the modern automotive industry and all of its various branches. As with every other development in robotics, many people will gain — some, like Google’s executives and shareholders, may gain immensely — but it’s inevitable that others will be displaced.
Technology companies have already challenged the automotive market. Uber, the mobile app that connects passengers with drivers for hire, has turned the taxi market on its ear. But what happens when that market is challenged by robots? Uber has already built a robotics research lab stuffed with scientists to “kickstart autonomous fleet development” so they can go driverless. At last count, there were 162,037 active drivers in the Uber fleet who would be kick-started into obsolescence.
In the United States and many other countries, taxi drivers are often immigrants or others hustling their way up the socioeconomic ladder. It’s also a job with tremendous amounts of human interaction. Cab drivers are a great source for every new diplomat or lazy journalist. Conversations with taxi driver can help assess the national mood, determine what the politics are, or just find out what the weather will be. I suppose a robot can tell you all this — probably with more precision. But will we lose the human touch? More to the point, even if passengers end up preferring robot drivers to humans, what happens to the human driver who loses his job because service industry jobs are at risk in the next wave of innovation as never before?

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Written by Jiten Karia, sub-editor at Canvas8

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