The robots take the subways


Credit: Hugo Cheung
Kelton Holsen

The city of Glasgow recently announced that they are launching a new subway initiative that will introduce driverless trains that, according to the BBC, will “offer quieter and smoother journeys and have dedicated facilities for wheelchair users for the first time.” The trains will run with almost no staff, apart from on the busiest trains and in the case of emergencies. This will likely lead to a more efficient subway system without the problem of human error. But doubts remain: Unite, Glasgow’s union representing subway staff, has raised both concerns of safety with regards to the trains and concerns that the automation of subways could lead to the automation of more of Glasgow’s transit system and thus put drivers across the city out of work, according to a report by Engadget.

On the point of safety, the fears of Unite are likely not particularly well-founded. Consider the driverless car, a new invention that has been tested in the streets of California. These vehicles have been shown to have significantly lower accident rates than cars driven by humans–thus far, there has only been one accident in which a driverless car was at fault. Driverless cars, however, have to deal with traffic laws, sensing pedestrians, going the right speeds, manoeuvring and making turns and so on. The Glasgow subway, by comparison, goes in a circle. All the automated subway would need to do is ensure that stops and starts were made at the right speeds and that the path in front of the train is clear–something easily accomplished with sensors and good calculations of speed. Slowing down at a station is just a matter of math, which computers are famously good at, so safety is unlikely to become an issue. In terms of passenger-related issues, there will still be staff during the busiest hours, and CCTV will ensure that nobody gets too out of line.

The concern of Unite’s that is better-founded, however, is that of automation putting drivers out of work. This is something that is occurring in almost every industry. Grocery tills are replaced with self-checkouts, fast food restaurants use computer screens for ordering, and call centre reps are replaced with robotic voices that instruct you to press buttons. With the rise of technology, this is inevitable–there are many tasks at which a computer is simply more efficient than a human, and the number of tasks for which this is the case will likely grow in the coming years. Furthermore, there are many jobs that we only have humans do because someone needs to do them–most people’s career goals aren’t to become a waiter or a retail clerk, but it’s something they do to make ends meet.

Under a capitalist system, this becomes a problem: if people aren’t working because their jobs are taken by a machine, they are not getting paid, and therefore not able to sustain themselves. While the obvious answer to increasing automation seems to me to be “phase out capitalism”, that’s not likely going to happen with the current power structure, and that would be an entirely different opinion piece. However, rather than try to fight the inevitable, a practical solution is to rework the way our labour system is set up in order to get as many people in the jobs that need people to do them as possible. The classical example of this is the factory worker who is replaced by a robot, but then is trained as a mechanic to fix the robot: as automation increases, more workers in computer science, engineering, and physics will be needed to ensure that it runs smoothly.

Another solution to the “problem” of automation is to increase the social safety net. With the rise of automation, a sort of universal basic income will likely be needed to ensure that those who previously were working jobs that are now held by robots can survive. Access to education and broader funding for the arts, sciences, and humanities will allow a new path for those who previously were relegated to work the jobs held by robots, one in which everyone is afforded the opportunity to find their passion and thrive–or at the very least, we don’t punish the working class for the demands of capitalism.

Obviously, these are very big issues, and very big solutions: the Glasgow subway is but a microcosm of a larger shift in the way labour, capital, and production work. Rather than try to slow the progress of this transition, we should look for ways forward in policy and practice that will ensure that nobody is lost along the way to a brighter future.