Automation is an awesome process. If you’ve ever taken a tour of a car factory, you know what I’m talking about. It’s totally cool that we can build things that do our work for us. but if we keep this up, the entire economy will need to change. Those supercool robots you saw at the car assembly line? Each one replaced a person and destroyed a job. The self-checkout systems creeping into grocery stores are doing a similar thing by taking away jobs from checkout clerks. Now imagine someone makes an RFID-like checkout system that actually works (i.e. it doesn’t have huge gaping security holes in it), and allows stores to replace all checkout people entirely. A similar system is already in place at my local library (complete with RFID security problems, but who’s going to steal books that are loaned out for free anyway?), and as a result there are about half as many librarians who work there as there were 5 years ago.
Suppose self-driving cars improve and become commonplace: there goes the job of every trucker, taxi driver, and garbageman. Taking that closer to the present, there already exist autonomous aircraft that can take off, fly, and land on their own with no human intervention. If that wasn’t tied up in patent nightmares, I wonder if pilots would still have jobs. I’m surprised that trains/subways are still operated by people at all; I would have expected them to be completely automated years ago. and looking to the more distant future (though still probably within my lifetime), suppose a human-level AI is created. There go the jobs of everyone who thinks for their living (software engineers, accountants, actuaries, etc). and if we ever put such an AI in a mobile body, there goes everyone’s jobs.
Even without a human-level AI, things will change in major ways. Once automation starts being applied in all the places it can be, the world’s job market will change drastically. Lots of occupations will no longer exist because they can be done more efficiently by machines than by people. and if nothing else changes before that happens, a lot of people will be out of jobs and in financial trouble. I hope we can find some way to head this crisis off before it happens, and either find new jobs for people or restructure the economy in such a way that all the out-of-work people aren’t destitute. I’ve been kicking around some ideas on these topics, but I haven’t come up with anything realistic yet. In particular, when a human-level AI is created, all of us will be out of work and all jobs will cease to exist. At that point, we really need to do something about the economy.