American Consequences - June 2019


– but then, it never occurred to the Luddites that there would ever be a job for someone calling himself a “life coach.” AI will FAIL CATASTROPHICALLY. Recently, when the Ethiopian and Indonesian Boeing 737 MAX airliners crashed within five months of each other, the plane’s automated anti-stall system became the poster villain for AI. But one reason the accidents attracted so much attention is that flying has become so safe. Airliner crashes used to be in the news routinely, but the annual number of fatal accidents has plummeted in recent decades. More people than ever are flying, and there hasn’t been a fatal crash by a U.S. airline since 2009. Why are there fewer crashes? In no small part, it’s because they’re on autopilot so much more of the time. Even when you take the recent Boeing crashes into account, the cockpit computers have a far better safety record than human pilots do. (And the recent crashes may be due less to bad software than to human failures, like skimping on the amount of training that pilots received on the new system.) There’s no reason to expect the cockpit computers will stop improving, because aviation engineers will learn and adapt from these mistakes. That’s how technology advances. When Detroit produced deathtraps like the Chevrolet Corvair and the Ford Pinto, they weren’t harbingers of doom on the highway. They were lessons that led to much safer cars.

It’s true that robots are replacing workers in factories and other industries. A $100,000 machine named Flippy went to work grilling burgers at a fast-food chain in California last year. Robots are roaming the aisles of Walmart tracking what’s on the shelves, and may soon replace delivery drivers. New technology has been displacing workers for centuries, and yet we somehow keep finding new work to do. Nearly everyone used to be a farmer, and now nearly everyone has a different job. As machines relieve us of drudgery and satisfy our basic needs, we constantly discover new needs that machines can’t meet. We don’t have to grow our own food anymore, so we pay people to import it from around the world and cook it for us. And no matter how adept Flippy becomes, we’ll always appreciate a chef who can add a personal touch to the meal. Machines can supply us with all kinds of cheap clothes, just as the Luddites feared when they smashed textile machinery in the 18th century, but people are still willing to machines, the more we value things that are made by hand. The more that machines do for us, the more time and money we devote to the services they don’t: therapists, artists, yoga instructors, tour guides, auto detailers, lawyers, concierges, baristas, publicists, and consultants of every stripe. We don’t know today what new jobs will exist in the future pay high prices for designer labels. The more products that are made by


June 2019

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