The cusp of something special

From the December 2024 print edition

I was talking with several friends who are very knowledgeable about all things political and economic.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka is a tenured professor at George Brown College. He hosts a weekly podcast about wagering on professional football. His website is www.michaelhlinka.com.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka is a tenured professor at George Brown College. He hosts a weekly podcast about wagering on professional football. His website is www.michaelhlinka.com.

I was struck by their pessimism on both fronts. Politically, they are concerned that the upcoming US election will pit Joe Biden against Donald Trump, and their reading is that this will be a case of, heads we lose, tails we don’t win. Or vice-versa. They point to the strife in Gaza and Ukraine, and the fear that China may be tempted to make an aggressive move on Taiwan.

Economically, they worry about the size of the US debt. It exceeds $23 trillion right now and will balloon to a projected $36 trillion by 2031. It brings back echoes of the protest song, Eve of Destruction, and its classic lyrics: “But you tell me / Over and over and over again, my friend / How you don’t believe / We’re on the eve of destruction.”
You know what? I don’t think that we’re on the eve of destruction. Rather, I honestly believe that we are on the cusp of the greatest productivity boom that mankind has ever experienced, and I’ve got two distinct reasons for this optimism: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Let me start with AI. As you are reading this, driverless cars are commonplace in California cities like San Francisco. A friend told me about visiting that city this past summer. He said that you see them all the time. He got into an Uber that was piloted by an energetic, but somewhat crazy young lady. She asked him if he wanted to see something funny. He replied, ‘why not?’ She started cutting in front of driverless cars and then slamming on her brakes.

Not a single collision. The AI program reacted so quickly, faster than any human could. The implications are that soon it will never be safer to drive, resulting in fewer traffic fatalities. These vehicles will be programmed to minimize energy consumption, whether that be gasoline or electricity. Moreover, literally millions of hours of labour will be freed to put to use in other ways.

The rise of onshoring
Then there’s robotics. This will lead to an onshoring of manufacturing all over the world. This will allow North America to produce what it needs. In a short time, we will never again have to be concerned with supply chains or other related issues we suffered through during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is not to say that there will not be challenges. There are currently approximately 325,000 men and women employed as truck drivers in Canada.

This could very easily decline to zero within a generation. I would not be surprised in the future if it will be illegal for a human to operate a vehicle on public streets. Just as we don’t allow individuals to drive impaired (because of heightened risk), it’s conceivable that when driverless vehicles are perfected, the right to manually operate a motor vehicle will be taken away from citizens. Lots of good will come of this new technology, but what are those people going to do to earn a living?

The loss of driving jobs will almost literally be the iceberg’s tip compared to 1.75 million manufacturing jobs that will disappear over time. It seems that these losses would be more gradual, continuing a secular trend we’ve seen over the past 45 years. But this doesn’t mean the losses will be painful and permanent.

I’ve been focusing so far on blue-collar jobs, but with the perfection of AI there will be a plethora of white-collar/professional occupations that would be eliminated. What we will see is the counter-intuitive combination of exploding wealth at the same time that unemployment is soaring.

Income for all
This will require public policy adjustments. I have written about universal basic income (UBI) here before, and I can’t think of a better reaction to what will be the new employment reality. I suspect this will eventually evolve into something that seems very much like China’s social credit policy. There will be different tiers of UBI, depending on certain behaviours. If you keep your nose clean and are not involved in the criminal justice system, you will receive more money than the career criminal. If you get vaccinated as per public health guidelines, you will benefit with a higher monthly payment. This might sound a little bit like a cross between Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, and I won’t argue that point. But balanced against it will be the individual freedom and ability to self-actualize that’s unprecedented in human history.

It won’t be a road without bumps, but we’re on the eve of, I’m not exactly sure what, but my gut tells me it will be something truly special.