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What Amazon’s Drones Tell Us About Inequality, Innovation, And Robots

By Zack Beauchamp

"What Amazon’s Drones Tell Us About Inequality, Innovation, And Robots"

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CREDIT: Flickr user Joe Mud

“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted,” Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in the (unfairly) neglected film Southland Tales intones. In an era where governments kill people by remote control and glasses can show you the news while you walk if you ask them to, Gellar’s line feels particularly apt.

Add Amazon’s proposed drone delivery system to the list of tech making the future seem ever more future-y. The idea that anything from Amazon’s rather expansive inventory could be in your hands within 30 minutes of an order, courtesy of a cute little quadcopter, is breathtakingly exciting in principle. It may well be a PR stunt that’s too good to be true. But if we set aside the myriad mundanities in Amazon’s way, and think about what the technology would be like if it could be implemented, we can learn something interesting about the relationship between inequality and innovation, as well as our robot future.

Specifically, the Amazon drones force the question as to whether further robotic innovation will make everyone’s life much better — or inequality much worse.

If Amazon’s drone fleet becomes a reality, it’ll begin as a plaything for the privileged. There’s not much demographic data on Amazon Prime subscribers (the drone service is called Amazon Prime Air), but public estimates suggest there’s about 10 million of them. The idea that a population of that size — a tiny percentage of the population of the seven wealthy countries where Prime is available — paying for a premium service is largely poor or middle class strains credulity.

Moreover, developing the infrastructure to make drone delivery a reality is going to take resources. There will have to be anti-theft precautions, legally cleared airspace, and all the like. If the history of technological innovation is any precedent, then the areas that house the wealthiest and the most powerful would be the first to clear those hoops.

On the face of it, this might seem a case study in the way that technological innovation expands the rich-poor gap. The rich get privileged access to the newest stuff, expanding the gap in quality of life between the wealthiest and the poorest. It’s not just sheer wealth that expands inequalities, but also the diversity of privileges that wealth can purchase. Amazon drones are a semi-trivial example, as 30 minute delivery doesn’t exactly have the stakes of expensive new medical invention, but it illustrates the general worry about innovation and class divides fairly well.

But there’s a flip side to this story. If Amazon were able to scale delivery drones up effectively, then push-button delivery would over time become a convenience available to everyone. The gains experienced from being able to have many goods delivered quickly would be available to almost everyone a la restaurant delivery. The inequality might end up expanding quality of life for everyone over time — which is also, in cases of technological breakthroughs, the historic norm. Innovation creates inequalities, but sometimes those inequalities end up making everyone better off.

But there’s an extra twist to this familiar capitalist story in the case of Amazon drones: these drones could very well become robots, with unknown consequences for the distribution of wealth and well-being.

It’s important to understand that the distinction between drones (remotely piloted) and robots (self-piloted) is really fuzzy. Humans don’t control every aspect of a drone they’re piloting; there are robotic parts that control different aspects of the drone’s operation. Think of it like breathing.

As robotics advances, it becomes more and more feasible to give the robot parts of the drone more control over its operations. Eventually, you can imagine programming advancements, coupled with “drone lanes” in the sky, that would allow Amazon drones to become almost fully robotic. Enter your address, a machine picks up the parcel and puts your request in the robot, and then the robot, guided by GPS beacons and anti-collision sensors, brings it to your home. If you think that’s too far-fetched to be worth thinking about, think again: Amazon just added 1,382 robot “employees” to its shipping floors, so it’s not outside the realm of our capabilities.

If this system were implemented at a mass scale, think about the effect on low- and middle-wage jobs. Robots would be replacing — simultaneously — warehouse floor workers, delivery people, and the drone pilots who themselves had already replaced some delivery people. It would, in short, be taking the entire process of delivery out of human hands, eliminating human jobs in a whole sector of the economy.

Again, that’s way beyond where Amazon’s likely overblown publicity stunt would take us, even if everything Amazon said in its announcement were true. But the concern about robots eventually taking our jobs is a real one. Because artificial intelligence appears to be advancing temporarily — at first slowly, but then faster and faster as time goes on — many experts on robotics appear to believe that we’re rapidly approach a new era where robots are capable of performing an expanding number of jobs that only humans can do today.

There’s serious disagreement among economists over what this means for labor market — will robots take our jobs or will there be certain things machines just can’t do?

It’s an old question, dating in altered form back to 19th century economist David Ricardo. The alarmist you might know best is one Karl Marx, whose diagnosis of capitalism’s woes depends heavily on the displacing power of technology. Concerns about this type of inequality have “echoes of old-fashioned Marxism,” in Paul Krugman’s words, because they pit capitalists against labor. Someone has to profit from robotic labor, at least at first, and that’s likely to be the people who own the corporations they work for. The working class gets put out of a job while the CEO class profits, a classically Marxist explanation of how capitalism works.

Now, Marxist analyses have obviously been wrong up until now, but the diagnosis of robot’s influence on the economy doesn’t depend on its relation to Marx. The family resemblance to a failed political program’s ideology “shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts,” as Krugman puts it. The core question, then, isn’t whether Marx is right or wrong: it’s whether robotics are going to be ordinary technological innovation, benefiting the wealthy first but ultimately helping everyone, or something new, where technological advancement is permanently rigging the job market in favor of the capitalist class.

It’s a question we’ll have to keep asking regardless of whether Amazon’s drones ever become reality.

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