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Paul Mason: The battle over Uber and driverless cars is really a debate about the future of humanity

Look past the maximalist headline, and Mason's making some of the most rational points about automation in the private transportation sector I've seen made so far, and about automation/algorithms in general:

... we should begin by recognising that, as machines plus artificial intelligence begin to replace human beings, the entire social, political and moral dilemma for humanity becomes a question of systems.

Driverless cars need a city-wide public transport system to work properly. The OECD has estimated that, when combined with an efficient, automated transport system, driverless cars could reduce the number of vehicles needed in a city by 90%. Conversely, when modelled as only taxis plus private vehicles, the advent of driverless cars produces an unmanageable overload of journeys.

To take full advantage of the space freed up needs active management, says the OECD. But we have no intellectual models for “active management” of automobile travel, which – since its inception – has been associated with personal freedom.

A sensible debate would address two big issues: how we prepare, plan and regulate for the eradication of most driving work; and what an integrated smart transport network should look like in version 1.0. Beyond that it is difficult to plan, because how society reacts to the sudden orderliness, cheapness and swiftness of commuter journeys has to be balanced against the fact that few people will have the kind of jobs they have now.

If we start from what the smart transport network should look like, we have basic technical models now. The main technical dilemma will be: how much small vehicle travel is optimal, compared with the massive investment in underground rail, bus and tram capacity. One would expect the right wing of society to favour as much shared and autonomous car travel as possible to the extent of eradicating mass transport; and the left vice-versa.

But it can’t just be an issue of technical systems design. For example, one of the advantages of Uber is that all drivers can be traced and identified. In a smart transport system, all journeys can be traced and identified. You might want such data to be viewable, say, by police investigating murder – but would you want them to be viewable by HMRC, or your boss?

As Ella Saitta puts it, systems literacy is the educational crisis of the 21st Century.