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Luddites v Self-Driving Cars and Homelessness

My car was rear-ended a few months ago, as I was stopped at a stop sign–clearly, the other driver’s fault. He was apologetic and offered to have my car fixed by a friend of his. I politely, though suspiciously, declined the offer, and when I asked him for his car registration with a proof of insurance, he explained that he had left it at home… I was in a busy intersection, dodging frustrated passing drivers, so I couldn’t reasonably get the police involved before he left the scene. I immediately contacted my insurance company, and gave them a photo that I took of his driver’s license, along with his phone number. They got no response from him, so I had to pay a $200 deductible. I wasn’t angry with him, as he seemed like a nice guy who regretted his mistake and was doubtless juggling expenses on low income.

What if the car had been a self-driving car that rear-ended me? Perhaps the sunshine could have played tricks on the self-driving car’s computer system, as it did when the widely publicized self-driving Tesla driver was killed when he collided with a turning truck that reflected light, blinding or confusing his computer system. If I had been hit by an automated car, there would probably be a nice sticker on the car that directed me to call the company’s helpline; likely putting me on hold by an automated, circular recording. Would this send me—or anybody else—into a hostile road rage against the automated car? What damage would I imagine myself doing to the car, if I had a small sledge hammer handy?

I have a healthy respect for machines. However, I have been known to rage at computers, when they inexplicably malfunction, which is a rather regular and unpredictable phenomenon. I have not attacked my computer, because I will only be punishing my bank account. However, I have often sworn at automatic-call-routing-computers that put me into an endless loop of bad music and annoyingly complex prompts—all the while eating up the time I had planned to spend more productively.

So I would almost certainly swear at my hypothetical rear-ending driverless car—or possibly do worse if it injured my wife or grandchildren.

Reflecting on the futility of my rage-induced destructive fantasies, I recall the original Luddite, Ned Ludd, an English working class youth, who in 1779, reportedly smashed two stocking frames. These actions inspired a revolt three decades later against new technologies that undermined the employment of skilled workers.

Today, one feature of homelessness is the continuation of this trend amongst corporations seeking to maximize profits by minimizing wages, through various kinds of automation. There are so many homeless in my hometown, that on Sundays, when the shops are closed, the entire downtown is populated by crowds of street people, who are victims, at least in part, of this endlessly automating economy. The numbers of these people are not recorded in the traditional unemployment statistics, as they have often given up hope of finding work, regressed into the criminal economy, and disappeared into homeless camps.

I suggest that one way to partially counter this tendency toward de-skilling our workforce is to strive for a balance of decent-paying skilled jobs with efficient automation. The government should incentivize, subsidize, and regulate industry to create family-wage jobs by doing what was common not that long ago: create job training programs that fit the changing economy, as well as protecting existing skilled jobs by refusing to computerize every imaginable aspect of work. Candidates for office who seem more driven by this sort of enlightened common security than by corporate-profit-at-all-cost will appeal to me, certainly.

I love to see a human driver at the wheel of a truck or car, busy providing a useful service—it means that there is a person present that I can reason with, if needed. And I love to hear an articulate human being answer my phone call, so I can easily communicate my business needs. I want my world to retain the feel of a human world, not an impersonal machine world. I prefer the experience of human intelligence; artificial intelligence, as useful as it can be, has the taste of saccharine.