Silicon Valley should check itself before going all-in on automation

What does the future hold? Silicon Valley is banking heavily on automation, and it feels like the prospect of robots replacing human workers is closer than ever.

Perhaps, it’s the effect of Donald Trump, who won the election by promising to bring back manufacturing jobs to America. But in the past two weeks, two tech companies were in the news with the aim of significantly disturbing the American economy. The first company is a familiar face; Amazon announced “Amazon Go,” its cashier-less grocery store experiment in Seattle, where customers can pick up goods, walk out and get billed later.

The other company is Otto, a SoMa-based self-driving truck startup that was acquired in August by Uber, which itself is experimenting with self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Pa. Otto’s trucks drove themselves safely in Colorado, delivering beer 120 miles away from its starting position.

Amazon’s and Otto’s dreams directly put at risk the livelihood of truck drivers and cashiers, which amount to about 6.5 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At a time when America yearns for manufacturing jobs, can we afford to lose service and transportation jobs?

San Franciscans are a bit acquainted with automated businesses already, like the quinoa bowl-based fast food restaurant Eatsa. But is the rest of America ready for a robotic workforce? Om Malik at The New Yorker rightly predicts that if, say, the truck-driver industry is wiped out, it will decimate “ancillary services like gas stations, motels and retail outlets” in rural America straddled next to freeways. Last I checked, there isn’t a startup hailing itself as the “Uber of Motel 6s.”

It is entirely possible that the displaced workers will be trained then begin working in different, more technical sectors with better pay. That was what President Barack Obama preached in every economic speech — to many deaf ears. Millions of Americans want jobs, and preferably, they want jobs with the same stability and barrier of entry as their parents’.

When talking about automation taking human jobs, the idea of a basic income inevitably comes up as the primary solution. Basic income advocates argue that since people are not working, a larger entity — be it a government or a tech corporation — will provide people money for support to chase leisure or a personal passion. But some argue that won’t work in communities where the majority of truck drivers and cashiers live.

Photographer and reporter Chris Arnade, famous for his photo essays traveling through impoverished communities in America during the 2016 election, noted that basic income doesn’t solve the deeper, social decay that underlies poverty and its psychological effects.

“Places that I go to, minority or white, have broken social structures. Communities have been destroyed,” Arnade wrote in a tweetstorm about basic income. “Universal Basic Income does nothing to solve the issue of humiliation. In fact, for many, it will be MORE humiliating.”

At a certain point in our current trajectory, San Francisco will need to decide whether it is a city of the future and of unequal castes, much like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” or a city upheld by liberal values largely scribed in the post-New Deal-World War II-era, when socioeconomic mobility was at its most fluid.

Jobs like cashiers and truck drivers may be inefficient, but that may be the point. These jobs are keystone species in an economy where the noneducated have an immediate shot at a livelihood. And Silicon Valley needs to learn to move its global weight more gingerly against existing industries before a bigger backlash than Trump’s election happens.


I was there earlier this month at “Ghost Ship” when an inferno destroyed the warehouse and killed 36 people. Thanks to a lucky beer run to the nearby liquor store, I live and write to you this column.

I don’t use Facebook much anymore for myriad reasons — from data privacy to the basic fact that my millennial friends simply moved onto other platforms, like Snapchat — but in this worst time of my life, it has proven to be extremely resourceful.

The Facebook Safety Check for the Oakland fire allowed people to let friends and family know that they are safe. In my feed, especially considering I have many friends who knew many of the missing and dead, it was extremely valuable and emotionally assuring.

It also shared many events, fundraisers and vigils related to the fire that I might be interested in. I found a great page for survivors and those directly affected to find local therapists who will see them pro bono or at a reduced rate. Other social media platforms I use, like Twitter, Snapchat or Reddit, would not have been able to direct me to communities that fill an immediate need.

I have a lot of problems and concerns about Facebook the company, which I hope to share in upcoming columns. But Facebook can also be something wonderful. It really depends on how much effort you and your loved ones decide to put into it.

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at

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