When Uber Cars Become Driverless: “They Won’t Need No Driver”

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Magazine Articles, Robotics, Societal Impact

I have long pondered the issue of dehumanization through automation. I think the old adage: “no one is irreplaceable” now comes with an added twist. Don Proudfoot, my former director at Nortel Networks, used to remind me that even scarce human resources could be “replaced” by other talent. But what of the prospect of highly skilled human resources being replaced by a machine (1)? My mother has often described the challenge of sowing seeds with a hand-held plow on almost rock-hard soil. She remembers a time when all the digging and toiling to turn over the soil and cut furrows in preparation for the planting of seeds was done entirely by hand (i.e., with makeshift tools resembling picks and hoes). Mum is always in wonderment to see how far farming has come today, especially when she watches scenes of huge engine-powered plows motoring through large parcels of arable land. She marvels at the innovations that have taken place, and we concur on the mass benefits of these technological advancements.

Still, mother has continued to convey “wisdoms” from her first-hand experience of plowing the fields in her remote village in Greece when she was a child. In truth, I don’t exactly know what it is like to have to plow by hand for 6 hours straight, day after day. Many of us do not even know what it is like to grow and eat our own fruit and vegetables. Something is definitely lost in the transmission of the story given the way that agricultural practices have changed. I think it is empathy. We can imagine what it is to plow, but only if we’ve had to perform the same act would we actually comprehend the meaning of “plowing” in the traditional sense.

My earliest memory of “automation” was seeing the factory floor of the ACI (formerly Australian Glass Manufacturers) in Waterloo, NSW. It looked as if it was straight out of a Roald Dahl “Willy Wonka” scene! My father was a leading hand at ACI. Like most other migrants of the 1960s, he did not speak a word of English. Although a self-taught craftsman, his main task for over 25 years of his life was to look for pieces of broken glass, ill-formed bottles of various types (Coke, nail polish, medical), and troubleshoot issues in processing and quality control as they arose. Daily, he would intently look at thousands of bottles as they came down the conveyor belt, ready to be packed onto huge pallets, and packaged for distribution.

My recollections are of a ginormous winding snake-like conveyor belt that almost touched the very highest of ceilings, the deafening sound of bottles hitting up against each other as they made their way down the “slippery dip” in rows of eight, and that the whole place was well lit up at all hours of the day and night.

My recollections are of a ginormous winding snake-like conveyor belt that almost touched the very highest of ceilings, the deafening sound of bottles hitting up against each other as they made their way down the “slippery dip” in rows of eight, and that the whole place was well lit up at all hours of the day and night. In 1991, dad was made redundant, when the factory moved out of inner Sydney, and my father’s job was taken over by industrial machines. At the same time I was learning to write in LOGO [2] and watch a Turtle on my screen go “turnLeft(90)” and “forward(length),” all the while making lucid connections about how this would change the face of manufacturing. I imagined that the Turtle was real, and instead of just drawing shapes on a screen based on my commands, I would be able to control a life-size robotic turtle to move things in the physical world.

My father worked hard at the factory to give me and my siblings a good education – an education that would one day put people like him out of work.

Looking back, my father had worked hard at the factory (he would do overtime every occasion it was offered), to give me and my siblings a good education – an education that would one day put people like him out of work. Paradoxical. But what else is life, if not about the essence of change. Keats put this so well in his odes, but especially in Ode on a Grecian Urn. The reader is confronted by a series of “oppo-sites” and a struggle between the human and changeable versus the immortal and permanent [3]. Dad would often say, “I am working hard with my body, so you don’t have to labor physically, and have a choice about your career, without the need to work in a factory.”

My family was not unhappy when my father was made redundant. He got a nice bonus for being so loyal for so many years. He stopped having migraines. And I was glad that he would not come home with pieces of glass in his tough hands. That was, until working at his next workplace, one of Australia’s largest food-maker groups, meant that he was mixing additives daily to create MSG, chicken booster, pepper steak, and the like. At 55 years of age, limited English, no qualifications, four kids to feed, and a home loan hanging over your head, you take what work you can get.

If ever there was a need for mechatronics, it was in that “spices” company. The red hot capsicum powder would take days to scrub off my father’s forearms and hands, and he often described an ongoing burning sensation on his body. It took him about four years to develop a respiratory issue, which I still believe was as a result of mixing 200-kg drums with “dust.” as dad so-named it. The worst part was raising backbreaking amounts off a forklift and pouring the contents down the shaft by hand. A flimsy paper mask was supplied to “protect” him from the puff of cloud that would rise to fog up his glasses… he would say to me: “it feels just like acid.”

Do I like machines that can make these kinds of jobs obsolete? Without a doubt! I don’t mind change. I built and bet my career on it. But whereas once we were speaking of a right angle turn during the dot.com bubble, I am challenged by what to call this new phase we are in presently [4]. It sort of defies spatial connotation. Christensen’s [5] “disruptive” doesn’t cut it for me anymore, and Kurzweil’s [6] “singularity” is rather apocalyptic for my liking, although this might well be where we are being led.

Business intelligence data is now pointing to the fact that 47% of all jobs will be automated by 2034.

Business intelligence data is now pointing to the fact that 47% of all jobs will be automated by 2034 [7]. We can all see this change occurring. Banks, for instance, continue to decrease the number of physical branches, as clerks have been replaced by automatic teller machines and online self-service portals [8]. It’s happening fast, but perhaps so fast, that it’s a blind spot. I don’t doubt that a plethora of new jobs will be created as a result. Change brings on more change. And a lot of this change crept in with the rise of eBusiness around 2001. And yet, “self-service” shouldn’t be such a foreign concept to us. I still remember getting petrol poured in the car each week by an attendant at the service station in the early to mid-1980s [9]. And then there was a rapid period of change, which meant that the driver of the vehicle would need to pull up, get out of the car, pour the petrol himself/herself, and pay at the counter. (Figure 1). There were no signs saying “do it yourself,” nor were there commercials on television. We just all realized that attendants for that function had been completely displaced, and we observed the driver of the vehicle in front of us at the petrol station, and did likewise. There were no humans waiting for us at the petrol bowser (gas pump) any longer. You could wait in your car as long as you wanted, no one was going to come…

Orange self-service diesel fuel pump, Sweden.

Figure 1. A self-service pump for diesel fuel. To the right, a credit card payment terminal. At a Preem petrol station in Avesta, Dalarna, Sweden.

McDonalds has been undergoing the same kind of change over the last few years (Figure 2(a)-(c)). They’ve tried having roaming cashiers who order on PDAs so you don’t have to queue up. But the latest change that seems likely to stick is the touch-screen kiosk. When you enter a store now in Australia, rather than queuing up at the counter where you would have traditionally been greeted by people, there is usually a clerk hovering near a touch-screen kiosk luring you to place an order and automatically pay for your food [10]. The McDonald clerk stands by, in case you don’t know how to use the machine, so that the next time it gets easier, and becomes more natural. taking less time. So you have human cashiers, teaching the customer to do their job, using a machine. There is an irony in this. For the greater part, McDonalds wants us interacting less with their staff, and more with machines, so the real check out itself is eventually “unmanned,” and those cashiers who once worked at the counter are shifted to back-end operations, or made redundant altogether. I’ve tried the Kiosk several times… and each time I’ve felt like I’m jumping the queue, because I have the know-how to do so. Every single time, I’ve tried to get to the counter to order food, I’ve been asked by a clerk whether I’d like to place an order at the Kiosk instead. My response is “I like people. I’d rather order over there.” Of course they are just following instructions, and so are we. Most of us believe those instructions, and turn up to the Kiosk like a drone would. “Nod, nod. Order online at the kiosk. Yes, a happy meal. Credit card. Payment complete. Receipt. Finished.” Just like my first LOGO program.

The same happens when we walk into a supermarket. There are fewer people at the checkouts these days, if any. Have you noticed? We are being conditioned to move toward the auto checkout Kiosk due to fewer check-out staff and as a result longer queues. Another self-service counter (yet again): “A, B, C. Scan. Pay. Receipt. Done.” Whatever happened to people helping people? To face-to-face contact? What about those spontaneous conversations that happen at the checkout, connecting the local community? Where has this “serve yourself” attitude come from? And why? Who is it really helping? I don’t know about you, but I find it eerie, walking into a supermarket with all the checkout counters, and fewer and fewer people behind them. It won’t be long before there are no counters, no need to physically handle any cash, and no people out there, maybe not even shoppers [11]. We are surely undergoing a transition. The question is whether it is unlike any change we’ve ever been through before as a “society.” During the industrial revolution, new factors of production were introduced; machines that together with human operators would increase outputs. In images from that period, we see for example, how machines changed the way the textile industry worked. But there were still more human operators than machines. Today, it seems, there are considerably fewer human operators per machine. We need only consider CISCO’s sober estimate of 50 billion devices by 2020 connected to the Internet of Things [12], compared to a projected 7.75 billion people.

McDonalds ATM, Singapore.

Figure 2. (a) McDonalds ATM at Chaangi Airport, Singapore 2005.

McDonalds ordering counter with clerk, Singapore 2005.

Figure 2(b) McDonalds clerk with PDA ordering customer food in Singapore 2005.

McDonalds self-service kiosk, NSW, Australia.

Figure 2(c) Self-service kiosk, Albion Park, NSW, Australia, 2016. Photos courtesy Katina Michael.

I would argue the changes we are undergoing now are definitely different from those of 40 years ago. In the case of the petrol bowser, it was a required piece of apparatus that had to be controlled by a human. We were simply replacing one human (the attendant), for another (the driver) to fill the car tank. In the case of McDonalds and supermarkets, we are replacing people (clerks and cashiers) with machines (kiosks and electronic payment systems). We could argue that this type of work (direct customer service) is not highly skilled, so why not replace it by a machine? The thing is that the chasm between the skilled and unskilled is growing as a result. Don’t offer the McDonald’s job to the person who can do very few other jobs, and they may well end up in the unemployment queue, or in a food-maker company mixing additives. And then there are the lesser developed nations to think about in gradations of digital divides, too detailed to go into here.

Thus, I cannot help but to feel uncomfortable about this model. I feel like we are being used like guinea pigs.1 Nothing new there. It’s definitely a fine experiment to see how well everyday consumers would do, to take on employee responsibilities in an unpaid capacity. Much like commercial crowdsourcing initiatives; it’s an open laboratory. If we “make” them do this, will they comply? [14]. If we introduce 4 different payment mechanisms, will they swipe, tap’n’go, use chip and PIN, or pay cash? Of course it is all presented in the name of convenience – that is until, comparisons are made between human clerks and machine clerks [15]. Be under no illusion, the time at the checkout is being monitored- “clocked,” just like a race. The only thing is that the human can never be as fast as the machine. People are analogue, machines are digital. But what are we racing against a stopwatch for? To get out of the store faster, so we can get back to other things, like our voice and email messages and online chat? Has it to do with efficiency and six sigma practices? Ok. I get it. But how far will we stretch this paradigm before it doesn’t make sense to have humans in any process? And what will be the consequences of doing so? As Jaques Ellul so famously stated: “Technique has taken over all of man’s activities, not just his productive activity” [16].

I want you to think about a world ruled by bots (not just some of the time, but most of the time).

I want you to think about a world ruled by bots (not just some of the time, but most of the time). Google has already announced Gmail’s Smart Reply service, a type of Al-based automatic messenger [17]. Well, it all looks really swell. In the future, I’m sure I’ll be able to get a bot to order my food at “Maccas” (McDonalds), a bot to order and deliver my shopping list to my house, a bot to reply to my emails and voicemails and make decisions for me about grades and student entry into courses, and for just about everything else in my life [18]. In fact, given the predictions, I might well just retire early, and sit by a pool sipping Margaritas and let the work take care of itself. But surely, no one would pay me for doing just that. And what are the consequences of idleness (19)? The other day, I was told by an acquaintance that even “teachers” have now become obsolete. I cringed. “Well,” I thought, “yes, ok, if you argue who needs teachers, then perhaps we can argue who needs people, they’re just problematic to process flows, right?”

I remember where I was when I first saw the “Uber” symbol on a building in downtown Canberra, ACT, Australia. MG Michael’s term uber-veillance had been out since May 2006, but it was in 2009 that MG (my husband and research collaborator) spotted an Internet-centric social media campaign announcing precariously that the “Uber App is Coming.” We discussed what it might be at the time, and found out shortly later, that it was a nontraditional taxi company set to displace the current highly regulated industry. And what happened next? Lots and lots of taxi drivers flocked to Uber and went into heavy debt buying nice cars like the Prius. The drivers didn’t need costly plates, they could work their own hours, be their own boss, and pick up who they pleased. All the cash handling was also automated so things were a lot faster and convenient. Heck, some drivers could even switch hats if they wanted to, driving for a taxi plate owner during the day, and during the night for themselves as an Uber driver. So we find that many people are now accustomed to going the Uber way, despite the “veillance.” There are big bucks to be made from knowing where people go, and their location histories. Big business is making even more money exploiting the marketing power of data, than from the taxi service itself.

Recently we learned that in the U.S.A., a system is now considered “the driver” of a self-driving car: “NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the (self-driving system), and not to any of the vehicle occupants” [20]. That too is okay, until there is a tragic accident, and then the computer system might have to be sentenced to jail (I mean the electronic scrap heap yard) [21]. But what if I was to be provocative a little more and tell you that Uber and companies like them (e.g… Dominos), won’t really need drivers at all within the next 2–5 years? What if the plan was to use the humans “to test the waters” of the taxi industry’s “licensing” stability, and that the grand plan was to finally do away with the driver altogether? This would result in 100% profit to Uber, and “suck eggs all you fools for going into debt thinking you could make a living from driving people around without any prior experience” [22]. Yes, indeed, if you don’t believe it, start reading about the investments by General Motors in Uber’s main competitor, Lyft [23]. It’s a free market isn’t it? [24].

Dave Bowman: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?

HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.

Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid | can’t do that.

Dave Bowman: What’s the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

Dave Bowman: I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.

HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

Dave Bowman: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?

HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.

Dave Bowman: Alright, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.

HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.

Dave Bowman: HAL, I won’t argue with you anymore! Open the doors!

HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

I am not saying for a moment that “new jobs” will not be created in this era of superintelligence, high performance computing (HPC), machine learning, deep learning, mechatronics, and materials engineering, but I am saying that something truly tangible is lost when the human is taken out of the process. The new jobs of course will exist for the programmers and the data scientists but who else?

I feel conflicted over my father working in factories from 30 years of age till his retirement. On the one hand he had secure and ongoing employment for 30 years of his life, which sustained my family. But I often wonder what he would have achieved if he could have at least finished primary school, and not had to waste his talents on something so repetitive and mundane as sorting broken bottles off a conveyor belt. So, I don’t mind that the machines took over dad’s job at ACI, only that he wound up worse off at his next workplace. But we are also talking of the loss of skilled positions today. Even law firms and finance firms are developing bots to do their processing work for a fraction of the cost [25]. There is something substantial lost when we opt for the non-human way. It means we are losing our capacity to learn by interacting with one another and with our world around us. And that is a big deal. Compassion, too – that is gone.

I will begin to worry, if I walk into a fully automated McDonalds store in my lifetime, one that smacks of a manufacturing plant – just to order a piece of meat on a bun – and there are no “makers” there in the background. It is bad enough that it is already so highly specialized and “fast” and almost “artificial.” Watching a worker “perform” at Maccas is sometimes as mesmerizing as watching someone do a mime they’ve practiced many a time over. But it is the same dilemma we are faced with at a “drive thru.” The whole eating experience is diminished to just filling up our gut in the car “and on the run,” if we don’t opt to take a mindful break. We lose the experience of being social with each other, taking a rest room break, freshening up, and a whole lot more. Jamie Oliver, famous chef, would even challenge the whole premise of being at McDonalds to begin with, arguing we are becoming mechanized by not choosing to buy fresh produce and make real wholesome food at home for one another [26]. That the art of cooking is even being lost among the masses, who are just “too busy” to cook for themselves anymore, so they think.

By the same token, would I, in the future, order a taxi that has no human driver? No. I don’t trust a self-driving machine, and never will. I’ve had my PC catch too many viruses to trust any computer. Already, unsuspecting Uber clients have ended up with hefty bills for their taxi fare into the hundreds, forgetting to ask their human driver about the fastest route, or even a quote at the beginning of their ride. I imagine having a conversation like that with a driverless car, and trying to argue the point at the end of a ride, when the machine is clearly wrong about the fare cost. “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that[27]. I am sure the customer would give in first, pay the hefty fare, if it meant that the doors would be unlocked. I was in Seattle last year when my U.S. attorney colleague ordered us an Uber taxi just to “feel” what the experience was like. It was a simple ride, no one spoke. “Enter. Silence. Ride. Stop. Exit.” This time, not a word, not even’just double checking I’m going to the right address using my preferred route” or “have a great day.” Just an electronic receipt showing up on the smart phone on exit. “$16 dollars sounds fair? Right, Katina?” “Umm, you’re asking an Aussie who’s never been to this city before…”

What if those driverless machines, stop being programmed by humans, and are programmed entirely by other machines based on “generic” ideals, that is, bots creating bots?

But even worse, what if those driverless machines, stop being programmed by humans, and are programmed entirely by other machines based on “generic” ideals, that is, bots creating bots? Go figure, then. Imagine a fleet of driverless cars on their own volition going for “drives,” just so they can stay in service when “business is down,” to tell their “owners” (other machines) that they are still needed in the fleet during economic downturns?

Where are we headed? What trajectory are we on? Terra incognita: “Here be dragons.”

In the final iconic scene in Planet of the Apes, we see Taylor the protagonist, fall to his knees and bury his head in his hands at being confronted with a half-sunken Statue of Liberty washed by the waves. He thinks out aloud how this might have all happened at the hands of humans, and he says, “you blew it all Up…” The “you” may well end up being the machines [28].


Katina Michael


Full article: