Bud’s Driverless Beer Run: Utopian or Dystopian Future?

business_ethics_highlights_2As Budweiser completes a 120-mile beer delivery in a driverless truck, Luddites and techno-utopians share rival visions of the future in the comments beneath the linked article. There are two enduring, competing narratives of automation: a utopian one focusing on the freeing of human beings from their former labors and a dystopian one focusing on the job and livelihood losses of those human beings whose labor is replaced in the transition. The utopian narrative focuses on the long-term social benefits of technological transformations; the dystopian narrative focuses on the near-term human costs of those same transformations. The utopian narrative usually emphasizes market responses to job displacement (i.e., new categories of human work that are created by the automation of formerly human-labor-intensive processes); the dystopian narrative emphasizes political responses to job displacement (i.e., barring some forms of technological advance or expanding social insurance programs to cushion the blow to those whose labor has been replaced).

This raises an important question for what we might call dispositional public policy: Should public policy be disposed to guard against the near-term human costs of automation—say, through a kind of job-loss-focused precautionary principle? (Eleanor Roosevelt, in a syndicated newspaper column dated September 19, 1945: “We have reached a point today where labor-saving devices are good only when they do not throw the worker out of his job.”) Should public policy instead be disposed to let the technological and labor-market transitions play out before formulating a public policy response?

It also raises a question of how we ought to regard competitive harms: We usually think that competitive harm – one firm suffering because another firm out-competes it in the marketplace – ought not to be redressed by public policy. A firm has a right to enter market competition, but it doesn’t have a right win the competition such that competing firms must be hobbled in or eliminated from the competition. (This is what is meant when it’s said that “government shouldn’t pick winners and losers.”) Another way to say this, following Joel Feinberg, is that not all harms are wrongs. Our usual principle is that competitive harms are among the harms that are not wrongs. Does the same principle apply to competitive harm among factors of production? If along some margin capital (automation technology) out-competes labor (human effort), should capital be hobbled in or eliminated from the competition?
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LINK: ‘Driverless’ beer run; Bud makes shipment with self-driving truck (by Phil LeBeau for CNBC)

As beer runs go, this one stands out.

Anheuser-Busch hauled a trailer loaded with beer 120 miles in an autonomous-drive truck, completing what’s believed to be the first commercial shipment by a self-driving vehicle.

The trip happened last week in Colorado as Anheuser-Busch, collaborated with Otto, a subsidiary of Uber that is developing self-driving truck technology. The semi drove autonomously on the highway between Fort Collins, Colorado and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

As Otto has demonstrated the capabilities of autonomous-drive trucks, companies such as Anheuser-Busch have taken notice. There are approximately 3.6 million class 8 trucks in the U.S. with professional drivers logging more than 279 billion miles in 2014 according to the American Trucking Association.

[From the comments below the article:

“Think of the millions of workers who are going to lose their jobs, livelihoods, sense of purpose, possibly homes, families and etc as despair and worthlessness set in when they find them selves replaced with a machine…guess they will just have to become one of those millions of new Obama jobs in food service where you need to work 2 jobs to make what you used to make. Oh things are just so great…”

“I’m old enough to remember when there were telephone operators and to get any money you had to physically go to a bank and interact with a teller. Should we ban ATMs and auto data switches?”]

What do you think?


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