The AI Revolution is going to start taking jobs faster than you think.
Silicon Valley has one industry in particular in its sights.
Artificial intelligence algorithms have started finding their ways into our lives over the past decade. Most of these developments have been hardly noticeable. Instagram serves up ads related to things you’ve looked at recently; Amazon suggests products based on previous purchases; YouTube keeps serving up videos you’re interested in. It’s also delivered some minor conveniences like the ability of Siri and Alexa to follow simple voice commands. Behind the scenes, artificial intelligence has allowed companies like Uber and Lyft to efficiently and effectively deploy new services.
Notwithstanding the claims that AI is going to take all our jobs, none of these changes have been particularly disruptive. But all of that is about to change. The pace of development of artificial technology is dramatically accelerating and the horizon of what’s possible is expanding every three months.
The future is going to happen a lot faster than the past did.
Moore’s law just took steroids.
As a result, we’re not that far away from AI developments that are going to be incredibly disruptive. It is conceivable that hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people in one industry alone will lose their jobs to AI in the next few years. That one development alone would obviously have significant impacts for those who lose their jobs, but the ramifications would also reverberate throughout society in the United States and the rest of the world.
Trucking is a massive industry in the United States. It is the most common form of employment in 29 states. By some measures, it is the largest in form of employment in the country, employing over 3.5 million Americans — nearly 6% of the workforce. It pays above the average salary for blue collar work and employs more people who lack education beyond a college degree than any other job.
There is a significant likelihood that you don’t know a single truck driver if you’re reading this. So you may be skeptical of the fact that more Americans are employed as truck drivers than any other job. But think about every single physical item that you own or around you right now. Virtually all of those items were transported on a truck— probably more than one truck. And the raw materials that went into manufacturing that item were also transported on trucks.
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It’s totally conceivable that huge numbers of those jobs will be gone in the next few years. It’s virtually guaranteed that they’ll nearly all be gone in the next decade.
Because the trucking industry has roughly $800 billion in annual revenue, Silicon Valley has been working towards disrupting those 3.5 million jobs for a while. Automated trucks can drive further, longer, and cheaper, so there are profits to be made.
By comparison, Apple’s global annual revenue is roughly one third of that.
And they’ve been making progress for a while. In 2016 Uber and Anheuser-Busch made headlines for making the first driverless truck delivery: beer transported 120 miles across Colorado. In 2019, a startup delivered butter all the way across the country.
And this year there has been a flurry of activity. Google’s Waymo got into the game. A host of lesser known startups have gotten into the space and one is already setting up an entire autonomous freight network. They plan to have actual trucks moving freight around without drivers in 2021. They plan to be operating in every state in the contiguous United States by 2023.
Even if these disruptions don’t come next year or occur slowly over time, they will come. The results will be a slight decrease in the prices of almost everything we buy since shipping costs will drop. Our roadways will likely be safer. Hopefully these changes will result in a shipping industry better for the environment. New business opportunities will arise and productivity will grow. Those fortunate enough to be invested in the stock market will likely reap handsome profits.
But the 3.5 million truckers in America will lose their jobs. The typical economic response to this is that there’s nothing to fret because technological innovation always creates more jobs than it destroys. Even assuming this is true (and there are significant reasons to doubt its validity in the age of AI), there are still profound issues. The typical truck driver in America is unlikely to be in a position geographically or educationally to take advantage of the new jobs that automated trucking may create. In addition, truckers skew older in the population, further decreasing the likelihood that they will be able to take advantage of new jobs that future technology enables.
In all likelihood, the vast majority of these Americans will lose their jobs in the next decade and suddenly experience a material worsening of their economic outlook. These changes will reverberate through their families and communities. Some towns with large numbers of truck drivers will likely experience economic contraction as the jobs dry up and no new opportunities arise. In addition to the truckers, the businesses that they used to patronize will feel the pain.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley will mint a new class of millionaires. Wall Street will collect its IPO fees. Walmart and Amazon will squeeze even more profit out of lower shipping costs. This will all, of course, exacerbate income and wealth inequality and undermine the equality of economic opportunity in our society.
It does not take a particularly keen observer of politics to see the potential for significant negative political ramifications here. And this is only one industry amongst many ripe for significant disruption by AI. We need to get serious about considering and testing policies minimize some of the downsides of AI innovation and work to spread economic opportunity and wealth more evenly. Prohibiting the innovation isn’t a viable policy alternative, so we’re going to have to get more creative than that.