Joe Bennett: We like to think we don't like work but we are lost without it.
OPINION: On May 7 this year Joshua Brown died while watching a Harry Potter movie.
He was 40 years old and at the time of his death he was the sole occupant of a car.
That car was a Tesla, an electric vehicle of which Brown was proud. It was fitted with an autopilot system which he'd activated before settling down to his movie.
But a truck turned across the Tesla's path and the autopilot failed to spot it because the truck was white and the sky behind it bright. The car passed under the truck, losing some of its roof in the process, kept going, veered off the road, smashed through two fences and stopped only when it hit a power pole. Harry Potter was apparently still playing. Brown was dead.
Tesla has been eager to point out that the autopilot system is a prototype. It requires drivers still to keep a hand on the wheel and an eye on the road.
Brown did not and is therefore responsible for his own death. And we who consider digital technology to be sinister magic and about as deserving of trust as Winston Peters, would agree that he was asking for it.
But we'd be wrong. Brown may have had dubious cinematographic taste, but he was justified in his faith in autopilot. Before he had the bad luck to become their first victim, driverless cars had notched up 130 million miles. That makes them more than twice as safe as human drivers round the world who die or kill on average every 60 million miles.
Mechanical failure and acts of God cause less than 5 per cent of fatal accidents. The rest are caused by drivers making mistakes. Robot drivers make fewer mistakes already and as the technology improves they will tend towards making none.
They are the way ahead. Ten years from now the driverless car will be a common sight. And 20 years from now a person at the wheel will be a rare one. One's first thought is woo hoo.
A hundred thousand lives a year will be saved around the globe. Every car will comes with its own chauffeur. An hour's driving will be like an hour at home.
Traffic cops will be freed to hunt burglars, the breathalyser will become a museum curiosity, the country pub will rise from the dead, society will rediscover being social and all manner of things shall be well. Unless, that is, you drive for a living. For that living will be gone. Truck drivers, cab drivers, delivery drivers, bus drivers, even Uber drivers who think they're at the tip of modernity's arrowhead, will be as out of work and as quaintly archaic as lamp lighters, rat catchers and rag and bone men.
In their place, robots.
The word robot was coined by a Czech playwright in the 1920s. It derives from the Slavic word for work. Robots exist only to work, all day, all night, for
nothing. And now it seems they're heading our way in force to free the likes of you and me from work. But for what?
We like to think we don't like work but we are lost without it. It gives us something to do. It grants an illusion of purpose. It staves off the truth of futility. And it gives us a sense of identity. "What do you do?"; we ask.
"I'm a bus-driver," we say, "or a builder, a teacher, a catcher of rats. That's what I do. That's who I am."
Robots have already taken millions of factory jobs. They are set to take millions more in all sorts of fields. I am told they will even take some jobs from lawyers, so it's not all bad. But it is mainly bad.
The people displaced by robots, the cooks and machinists, the waiters and welders, the builders and drivers and embittered lawyers, will languish without purpose. They will become poor and angry and desperate and they will surely rise against the global force of robots and their owners, as the Luddites did in the nineteenth century against the machines that took their jobs.
How will the poor and desperate fare? Well, the Luddites lost. And there may have been a clue to the future in Dallas last week. The cops had cornered a madman who'd killed five of their own. They wanted him alive, but he would not surrender, and he was armed and dangerous. So what did they do? They sent in a robot carrying a bomb. It blew the madman up.
- The Dominion Post