JB Hunt to Hire 500 Robot Drivers by 2014

Okay, so the title is not true, but JB Hunt or any other large trucking company could make such an announcement in the not too distant future, just like Terry Gou, the CEO of Foxconn recently made. According to a Xinhua News Agency article, Gou said that “Foxconn will replace some of its workers with 1 million robots in three years to cut rising labor expenses and improve efficiency.”

Or as The Economist put it, “Robots don’t complain, or demand higher wages, or kill themselves”— the latter in reference to the more than a dozen Foxconn employees who have committed suicide over the past year.

Here is what the CEO of JB Hunt would say in my imaginary press release:

“The decision to deploy robot drivers was driven primarily by the severe driver shortage our industry faces, a problem that has only worsened since the new Hours of Service (HOS) and Comprehensive Safety Analysis (CSA) regulations took effect. Robots don’t need to rest, they don’t have families to get back to, they don’t quit to take better-paying jobs, and with today’s sophisticated software, we can program them with advanced safety skills that outperform even our best human drivers.”

That doesn’t sound too far-fetched, does it?

Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and general partner of the venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, published a very interesting and thought-provoking essay in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday titled “Why Software is Eating the World.” I recommend that you read the essay to fully understand Andreessen’s viewpoint, but this excerpt from the essay underscores his main point:

More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.

Andreessen goes on to highlight how software has already disrupted or transformed various industries, including media, entertainment, telecommunications, financial, automotive, oil and gas, and others. He highlights FedEx, “which is best thought of as a software network that happens to have trucks, planes and distribution hubs attached.” And he sees education and health care as the next frontiers for “fundamental software-based transformation.”

If software (or, in a broader context, technology) is truly eating the world, are we humans making ourselves irrelevant?

Technology has already displaced many jobs at the bottom of the work pyramid. Think bank tellers, toll collectors, grocery cashiers, travel agents, video store clerks (to name just a few). While some displaced workers can move up the work pyramid into more “value-added” positions, which are relatively few in number, many more will have to find something else to do. But what?

Sure, technology creates new industries and jobs too. But what happens when the number of jobs displaced by technology outpaces the number of jobs created by it? Will we ever get to that point? Are we there yet?

If software is truly eating the world (and jobs), what knowledge and skills should students acquire to make a decent living in the future? Can our education system adapt fast enough to this change?

And why stop at factory workers and truck drivers? Will the day come when robots and computers, thanks to advancements in software, hardware, artificial intelligence, and bioengineering will replace teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers—even CEOs!—at the top of the work pyramid?

What will be left for us humans to do?

(I’m guessing robots will be smart enough to stay out of politics, so humans will continue to dominate that field).

Okay, maybe this all sounds like the beginning of a bad science fiction novel, maybe I’m taking things to the extreme, maybe it won’t be robots that will upend the transportation industry but something way cooler like teleportation.

But here’s my point: Don’t just blindly love technology, be afraid of it too, at least enough to draw a line in the sand, a boundary that it shouldn’t cross no matter how tempting. Just because you can simplify and automate a process with technology, doesn’t mean you always should. Faster and simpler isn’t always better, and “better” is relative and subjective.

Last week while on vacation, I noticed a family eating out at a restaurant. Two toddlers sat silently with large headphones on their tiny heads, each watching a video on their own portable DVD player. Their parents sat silently too, heads down and typing on their phones. The restaurant could have been burning down and they wouldn’t have noticed.

You see, robots don’t whine or throw a tantrum at a restaurant, they don’t need to take a break from work and go on vacation…