Imagine a world of driverless cars and trucks. There would be millions of fewer road deaths, vast savings and cleaner, more livable cities. But there would be something else too – massive job loss.
Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are already wiping out large swaths of low skilled, mostly male-dominated jobs, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and North Carolina's Elon University. By 2025, entire professions, including truckers and taxi drivers, could vanish.
"The male economy has already taken a real hit," pointed out Aaron Smith, co-author and senior researcher with the Pew Center's Internet & American Life Project. "Driverless vehicles remove some of the last options available for that type of employment."
In a worst-case scenario, the relentless drive of automation would create a world where a small group of people are wildly successful – writing computer code and managing the machines – leaving a huge mass of others unable to compete with the robots who have taken their factory and logistics jobs, Mr. Smith lamented.
"The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labour, and where only a minority are needed to guide the bot-based economy?" argued Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at Gigaom Research in New York – one of the almost 1,900 technology experts, economists and futurists surveyed for the report.
Robots are already replacing drivers in certain mining vehicles, Mr. Boyd said, and long haul trucking could be next. He urged policy makers to start preparing for the economic and social fallout of a world where "human work" is being replaced at an unprecedented pace.
Bilal Sabra, 43, an Ottawa taxi driver, isn't nearly as pessimistic about a future with no one at the wheel. The Lebanese-born Canadian, who studied computer science in university, started driving in 1997 when he couldn't find other work to support his then-young family. Now he owns his own cab and has a second career as a video producer.
"It would be great," Mr. Sabra said as he sat in his car waiting for fares outside a downtown Ottawa hotel. "Instead of working 12-hour shifts I could sit at home or do my other job."
Mr. Sabra is typical of the taxi industry in Canada. Ninety-seven per cent of workers are male, half are immigrants and more than a third have at least some post-secondary education, according to a 2012 Citizenship and Immigration Canada study.
Google is testing a fleet of driverless cars in the United States, and last week Britain announced it will begin a trial on public roads next year. If an Ontario Ministry of Transportation proposal comes to fruition, they could soon hit Canadian roads too.
Futurists may envision 1,000-pound vehicles rumbling on Highway 401 through the heart of Toronto without drivers. But many trucking industry officials can't.
"The technology exists … but I don't see a day when the political and regulatory landscape would allow that in most settings," said Marco Beghetto, spokesman for the Canadian Trucking Alliance.
Safety and practical concerns will mean there will always be a role for truck drivers – even in 2025, he argued. "At the end of the day, somebody still has to command the load, load and unload it and monitor it."
Like the taxi industry, trucking is still a man's world, where 96.5 per cent of drivers are male, according to Statistics Canada.
Several respondents in the Pew Center/Elon University survey predicted that technological change would exacerbate income inequality, leave masses of people unemployable and stoke social unrest.
Over all, however, there was a near-even split between those who said robots and artificial intelligence would kill jobs and those who believe it will create new forms of work.
"We have the ability to decide which of these futures we inhabit," the Pew Center's Mr. Smith pointed out. Many of the worst consequences of automation can be overcome with better policies, such as living wages, an enhanced social safety net and an education system that better prepares students for the work world of the future, he said.