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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 21st year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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When we are redundant

15 March 2017

If you, like me, scoffed at the media stories which predicted robots will take a huge percentage of our jobs in just a few short decades, maybe it's time to stop and think again.

Self-driving cars are advancing in leaps and bounds -- to the point where it really does become possible to imagine a world where, in some places at least, "driverless" is the preferred and perhaps only option.

Imagine how much smoothly traffic could flow if all the vehicles were part of a mesh network that constantly adjusted speeds and following distances so as to optimise flows and minimise transit distances.

Roads that are currently choked to stagnation at peak times could provide more than enough vehicle bandwidth to provide for smooth, uninterrupted travel, even with significantly higher volumes.

Then there are the many aircraft that soar above our heads and carry us from city to city, country to country.

Already, many of today's hi-tech passenger jets are fitted with sufficient automation that the pilot's job is simply one of polishing the knobs and switches whilst giving the passengers confidence that "someone" is flying the plane.

Don't believe me?

Take a look at this video in which a a young woman with no experience of an A320 is able to land it with only some verbal cues from a pilot on the ground.

Yes Muriel, it really is that easy!

In fact there have been crashes linked to the fact that modern airline pilots flying "state of the art" aircraft don't actually do enough "flying" to remain proficient. Back in June 2013, a Boeing 777 crashed on approach to San Francisco International when part of the automated system failed (the ground-based component).

Three people died and 187 were injured when the aircraft landed short of the runway. Investigators put this down to an excessive reliance on automated systems by the pilot and lack of experience performing unassisted landings.

So, if pilots seem to be getting so little experience that they become rusty to the point of failure -- why not ditch the pilot altogether and automate the entire flight from take-off to landing? After all, a great many crashes are caused by the wetware anyway.

With this in mind, it's not hard to see that we could soon end up living in a world where (at least in some locations) transportation of all kinds is fully automated and the only persons on the vehicle are the passengers - and perhaps some stewardesses.

Now, if we can create machines that can fly us half way around the world in perfect safety, surely we can also create ones that perform the thousands of more menial tasks that provide employment for the vast majority of people on the planet.

The problem then becomes -- how do these people earn enough to stay alive?

Could the real enemy of full automation be the civil unrest that would grow from effectively creating armies of poor and unemployed?

Perhaps it's time to realise that although we're well down the path to planning the automation of the planet -- we need to provide just as much effort in defining the new social structures that this will require if rebellion and huge levels of civil unrest are not the result. Sadly, I see no such planning and fear the worst.

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