Artificial Intelligence - Just Because We Can, Should We?

As a technologist, Artificial Intelligence fascinates me. It always has, since the beginning of my forays into Computer Science. I did two startups in the nineties, at the heart of which were AI-driven innovations.

The world's recent embrace of AI, thus, also fascinates me.

Driverless cars are all the rage these days. Uber is chomping at the bit to replace the headache of having to pay anything at all to their drivers, having driven the labor cost down already to the minimum. Drivers still cost them 75% of the fare.

Yes. An entire profession of drivers of trucks, taxis, buses and such are about to get wiped out.

Zack Canter has written a thoughtful piece on his blog titled How Uber's Autonomous Cars Will Destroy 10 Million Jobs and Reshape the Economy by 2025:

A Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City - passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. Such convenience and low cost will make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis - the 'transportation cloud' - will quickly become dominant form of transportation - displacing far more than just car ownership, it will take the majority of users away from public transportation as well. With their $41 billion valuation, replacing all 171,000 taxis in the United States is well within the realm of feasibility - at a cost of $25,000 per car, the rollout would cost a mere $4.3 billion.

The effects of the autonomous car movement will be staggering. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the number of vehicles on the road will be reduced by 99%, estimating that the fleet will fall from 245 million to just 2.4 million vehicles.

Ancillary industries such as the $198 billion automobile insurance market, $98 billion automotive finance market, $100 billion parking industry, and the $300 billion automotive aftermarket will collapse as demand for their services evaporates.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists that 884,000 people are employed in motor vehicles and parts manufacturing, and an additional 3.02 million in the dealer and maintenance network. Truck, bus, delivery, and taxi drivers account for nearly 6 million professional driving jobs. Virtually all of these 10 million jobs will be eliminated within 10-15 years, and this list is by no means exhaustive.

Sobering thoughts, even if it happens not by 2025 but by 2050.

There is no doubt that Uber would want self-driving cars to become legal as soon as it is technologically viable and safe. That eventuality is not that far off in the future.

There is, however, another obstacle on that path of self-driving cars: regulation.

Governments will have to legalize this innovation before this transformation can begin.

Uber and others who stand to gain from this movement will present the following case, also, succinctly articulated by Zack:

Morgan Stanley estimates that a 90% reduction in crashes would save nearly 30,000 lives and prevent 2.12 million injuries annually. Driverless cars do not need to park - vehicles cruising the street looking for parking spots account for an astounding 30% of city traffic, not to mention that eliminating curbside parking adds two extra lanes of capacity to many city streets. Traffic will become nonexistent, saving each US commuter 38 hours every year - nearly a full workweek. As parking lots and garages, car dealerships, and bus stations become obsolete, tens of millions of square feet of available prime real estate will spur explosive metropolitan development.

The environmental impact of autonomous cars has the potential to reverse the trend of global warming and drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Passenger cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans account for 17.6% of greenhouse gas emissions - a 90% reduction of vehicles in operation would reduce our overall emissions by 15.9%. As most autonomous cars are likely to be electric, we would virtually eliminate the 134 billion of gasoline used each year in the US alone. And while recycling 242 million vehicles will certainly require substantial resources, the surplus of raw materials will decrease the need for mining.

Compelling case. Do you buy it?

Unlike the case with certain AI-driven areas like factory automation that lead to elimination of manufacturing jobs, the self-driven car phenomenon actually has a regulatory hurdle. While the government cannot dictate the level of automation at a factory, it can decide not to make self-driving cars legal.

So, if you were the Government, what would you do?

Note: There are other areas where the Government has power to legalize or not AI-driven automation, one of them being robotic surgery. This post aims to stir thought on policy that will shape society of our future.

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr.com.