How long will it take before computer consciousness arises and begins the process of making human beings completely irrelevant? We don't know. It will likely take a couple of decades, for example a 2040 timeframe. But 30 to 40 years is likely the maximum length of time, for reasons we explored in the Chapters 2 and 3. Computational power is advancing so rapidly that the rise of the second intelligent species is inevitable.
At the point where computer consciousness appears, human beings will become meaningless.
Humans are likely to be much better off once the second intelligent species arrives. As discussed in Chapter 9, it is likely that the second intelligent species will quickly take over planet earth, end the appalling behavior that governs humans today (see Chapter 1), and begin repairing the planet.
But think about the period of time between now and the arrival of the second intelligent species - a period of several decades. We have the potential to witness a truly painful, embarrassing and unneeded period of human history as wealth concentrates at a shocking pace and billions of poor and middle class people around the world lose their jobs to advancing automation.
To get an idea of how this will unfold, let's focus on one specific group of people who will be affected early and completely by the process of automation: truck drivers.
As mentioned in Chapter 2, self-driving cars have existed firmly in the public consciousness since 2012. In August, 2012, Google announced that it had developed self-driving car technology that had logged over 300,000 miles on public roadways, co-mingling with normal and oblivious human traffic. Since then, many more self-driving cars have entered the space.
The sensor technology and computer technology that makes self-driving cars possible is impressive, but nothing exotic. A LIDAR unit sends out infrared laser pulses all around the vehicle to form a 360 degree 3D image of everything around the car. The range is about 300 feet (100 meters) and lets the system detect other cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, poles, cones, barriers, fallen trees, parked vehicles, etc. A complete scan is done several times a second, so the system can detect things in motion along with their direction of travel. A pedestrian walking toward a crosswalk is treated differently than a pedestrian walking away from a crosswalk.
The system also includes front- and rear-facing radar with a longer range, as well as an optical camera that is helpful in determining, among other things, whether a traffic light is red or green.
In addition, self-driving cars drive on roads that have been pre-scanned. How can a self-driving car tell where the lanes are if it is night time, raining and the lane marking lines have faded? The car knows where the lanes are because of this pre-scanning.
By putting all of this together, a self-driving car can do a great job on public roads. In fact, self-driving cars are far better at driving than human beings are. Self-driving cars never get distracted, never blink, never doze off, never talk on cell phones, never get drunk, etc. In addition, the self-driving car has a 360-degree view and multiple sensors that humans will never have.
The only problem at this moment (2015) is that all of the equipment for a self-driving car is fairly expensive. As in, more expensive than the car itself. But as with all technology, it will get simpler and cheaper soon enough.
Now take it one step further, and imagine what happens when engineers apply these self-driving systems to trucks – to the 18-wheelers we see on the Interstate highways all day long. There are millions of these trucks. Millions of professional truck drivers drive them.
Looking at it objectively and dispassionately, the automation of trucks and the elimination of professional truck drivers will mark a great day in human history. The trucks will become far safer for everyone. They will be able to run 24x7, which will reduce shipping times. Or alternatively they will run preferentially at night when roads have much less traffic, saving fuel and reducing congestion. Trucks will be able to run with very close spacings to draft off one another and save more fuel. And so on – there are many advantages to self-driving trucks.
But the most important benefit society will gain from the transition to self driving trucks is that we will eliminate the cost of human truck drivers from shipping rates. When you look at truck drivers, human beings turn out to be incredibly expensive for what you get. Take a corporate truck driver: These truck drivers are fairly well paid, they need health insurance and other benefits, they want vacation time, they get sick, and they create liability. If a truck driver happens to drink a couple of beers before a shift or miss a good night's sleep, the accident potential goes way up.
For all of these reasons, the instant that there are self-driving trucks available, they will be adopted very quickly. There will be a small trickle of unemployed truck drivers at the start, then a river of them as the trend picks up steam, and soon a torrent as millions of truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc. are eliminated by self-driving technology.
Truck drivers come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments. But as a general rule, when we hear the word “teamsters”, we tend not to think of meek, mild, shrinking violets. Once the inevitable and widespread elimination and unemployment of teamsters takes hold, it is easy to predict a reaction. In fact, riots seem likely. But chances are will see nothing of the sort.
Why is that? Why won't we see millions of unemployed truck drivers rioting in the streets? Sure, it might happen, and it definitely would have happened in the past, but it is unlikely today. Why?
First, police forces, especially in urban areas, have become much more militarized, with military equipment and military tactics. In the Occupy movements in 2011, there were many examples of a particular tactic: when people started to organize or march in a concerted way, they were repelled with startling amounts of force. A group of people would assemble, and a platoon of police officers twice as large, wearing riot gear and carrying a variety of weapons, would appear and control them. See videos like this one as an example.
In addition, the mainstream media outlets will not cover the protests of truckers, or the force used against them, to any great extent. To the general, TV-watching public, any attempt at a trucker riot will be largely invisible, or will be marginalized as a nuisance. And any truck drivers who do appear in the media will tend to be selected to be the loudest, most extreme people possible. Therefore, when the general public looks at these extremists, teamsters will appear to be crazy. All truck drivers will be stereotyped with this “crazy” label, and the truckers will lose public support.
Simply look back at what happened during the Occupy protests. This paragraph from Wikipedia is telling:
On October 5, 2011, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listening audience: "When I was 10 years old I was more self-sufficient than this parade of human debris calling itself Occupy Wall Street." Glenn Beck said on his internet television network GBTV, "Capitalists, if you think that you can play footsies with these people, you are wrong. They will come for you and drag you into the streets and kill you. They will do it. They’re not messing around." Newt Gingrich said, "All the Occupy movements starts with the premise that we all owe them everything. Now, that is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them, go get a job right after you take a bath." Rick Santorum also told the protesters to get jobs. [ref]
“Human debris”? “Drag you into the streets and kill you”? “go get a job right after you take a bath”? These are the same kinds of words we will hear about truck drivers too. In the current climate, the truckers will not be portrayed as rational, middle class citizens who are having their jobs taken away. Instead they will be portrayed as crazy Luddites fighting progress and trying to keep prices high.
Also think about the apparatus the NSA has installed to listen in on phone calls, email exchanges, etc. It becomes very easy to find and target organizers. They can be jailed, paid off, “accidentally” killed, etc. Done carefully, there will be very few people to lead or organize a protest.
Or let's imagine that none of this comes to pass as I am predicting. Millions of truck drivers actually are able to organize and march on Washington for two weeks and shut down the Nation's capital. Then what? Eventually the truck drivers will get tired, the general public will become annoyed by the disruption, etc., and the protestors will disperse. And the truck drivers will lose their jobs. It is absolutely inevitable because the self-driving technology is so much better, and so much less expensive, than human drivers.
So millions of truck, taxi and delivery drivers will lose their jobs. Another part of the middle class will no longer have jobs, or any job prospects. Millions of unemployed trucker drivers will enter a job market that already has millions of unemployed workers.
This latter problem is the significant one for American society. How is America (and other modern economies) going to deal with millions of unemployed trucker drivers? The current answer to this question is decidedly depressing: The truck drivers are going to enter the ranks of the long-term unemployed and stop participating in the labor force. The economy simply is not in a place where it will create millions of new jobs to absorb the millions of newly unemployed truckers.
In this context, think about the job market that millions of unemployed truck drivers are going to face:
Are they going to work in factories? No. Those factories that remain in America – the ones that did not get shipped to China, Mexico and Bangladesh – are automating rapidly, and the existing jobs are disappearing as people are replaced with factory robots.
Are truckers going to repair the automated machines in those automated factories? No – there are plenty of people trained for those jobs, and therefore the pay is low and few openings are available.
Are truckers going to work in retail, at places like Wal-Mart and Target? No – there are more than enough people to fill all of those jobs and the pay/benefits are terrible because of the over-supply of workers. In addition, as we will see in the next chapter, retail establishments are about to go through a huge automation process themselves. Many of the jobs in places like Wal-mart and Target are about to be replaced by robots
Will truckers work in fast food? Ditto.
In construction? There are millions of unemployed construction workers already, and automation is about to start devouring jobs in the construction sector.
Will truckers become Realtors or teachers or nurses? There are plenty of Realtors, teachers and nurses already and their way of life is under pressure from automation and the Internet as well.
The economy, by and large, is not going to be creating new jobs. And the second intelligent species is going to be taking more and more of the jobs that currently exist. The truckers who become unemployed will really have nowhere in the modern economy to go for new jobs. It is going to be a horrible situation for them.
But truckers are just the tip of the iceberg. Many, many other people will become unemployed by the second intelligent species in the near future...