The Metro Is A Sign Of Things To Come

Human Error And The Rise of Robots


Words || Edward Dyer

Let’s talk for a moment about the irrelevance of the human in the modern world. 

The Metro is a remarkable system that travels up to 100 kilometres an hour both above our heads and under our feet, between Tallawong in the far north-west, and Chatswood. The stations are clean, with cool grey tiles, and amber wooden embellishments to warm the environment. The Opal gates are unlike the gates in Paris, where there are huge bars that are supposed to make it difficult to get through without a ticket, and which cause huge foot-traffic jams at peak hours. Instead, they’re wide, welcoming, and with no barriers to the other side. After the long journey up or down to the platforms, you’re kept off the track with a clean, seamless glass door.  You’re told when the next train is coming with big screens, and lights in the floor, and when the train arrives, the doors almost always line up well with the doors in the glass screen. You wander aboard, and are greeted with a well-lit environment with seats lining the corridor, and plenty of hand-holds. You have an uninterrupted view from one end of the train to the other, even in peak hours when you’re crammed in like tinned sardines, the air conditioning keeps the train at a mostly comfortable temperature. It gets you to your destination quickly, and there are plenty of representatives aboard the train who give some form of humanity to the whole cold, heartless, humanity-devoid affair.

As has been noted plenty of times before, the train has no driver.

This, whilst being quite a new phenomenon to the Australian market, is not new for the rest of the world.  The International Association of Public Transport — yes, this is a real thing — lists this type of full automation as Grade of Automation 4 (GoA4), where there is no driver or attendant necessary for the operation of the train; doors, driving, even reactions to emergency systems are all handled by the computer.  The Sydney Metro is one of the latest GoA4 systems in the world, but some of the first go back to the 1970s, with the Seattle-Tacoma airport shuttle trains completed in 1973, and the train system of Morgantown, West Virginia completed in 1975. For reference, this is the same year that Jaws topped the box office in the US.

Further, this is not an isolated case of automation in transport systems. All over the world, there are automated metro systems being planned and constructed to remove the need for drivers. Notably, the International Association of Public Transport lists Busan and Seoul in South Korea, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as cities that are in the process of implementing train systems with a GoA4.

Why is this?  Why are people being phased out of the train systems around the world?

Because people are terrible workers.  In January last year, 6100 Sydney Rail staff went on strike. Whilst the more extreme actions were shot down by the Fair Work Commission, I’m sure there are plenty who remember the resulting chaos from the limited actions that were taken. Moreover, even before the intentional actions of the Rail, Tram, and Bus Union, there was chaos after the Christmas and New Year period. Absences were blamed on “acts of God” and “too many people took sick days.”  

What? That’s pathetic! But that’s humanity. We are imperfect workers. We get tired and sick, we make mistakes, we kill people. The perfect example of this is on the roads. As of August this year, there have been 250 deaths on New South Wales roads. How many more people have to die before we ban people from driving on public roads?

At the end of the day, that is the crux of the technological revolution that the human race is now facing.

We are running out of jobs.

Transport will be first. Bus drivers, taxi drivers, and train drivers, will all be replaced. Robots and AI can do an infinitely better job at driving than humans can, and they will be faster on rail and road than humans can be.  This is already the case with the Metro, which has a maximum operational speed of 115 kilometers per hour around blind corners, dark tunnels, with digital eyes over every inch of the track, letting the trains see through walls. On the road, the capabilities will be the same, as every self-driving car will talk to another self-driving car, letting them see kilometres ahead of where the car will be. Imagine how many deaths we will prevent with this technology!

Then will come warehousing. Already in the United States, a significant proportion of warehouses are automated or mostly automated. It’s only a matter of time before that technology, which is cheaper and quicker than any worker could be, is adopted in Australia.

Customer service is already significantly dominated by robots.  Where once there were 10 registers with 10 people working behind them, now there’s one person watching over 10 self-serve registers.  Even things like banking and insurance are now managed by computers at the front end; companies like PD are now entirely online.

Finally, will come jobs that require computers, degrees, and professionals. Humans make mistakes all the time, but robots can easily assess the multiple effects of drugs, multiple symptoms, multiple scenarios to determine the best possible outcome. Robots are even conducting surgery, admittedly with human oversight, but how long until the human will not be necessary?

This is all immensely scary. Not because our lives will get worse; on the contrary. Robots are designed, predominantly, to save money, and us saving money will improve our quality of life.  However, where will we be employed?

There are, of course, jobs that will always require humans. Representation in government, elements of the judiciary, and very high-level corporate roles are areas that I don’t believe anyone would suggest would be done better by a robot than a human. However, at all other levels, humanity has become a burden when compared to the efficiency and skill of robots.

So what are you and I going to do?

Firstly, we need to predict that this revolution will happen. Unions seem to be oblivious to the shift happening under their feet. They constantly work to improve the working conditions of their workers, unaware that these workers are soon to be obsolete. The government doesn’t seem to be much better, with recent attempts to shut down elements of welfare that will soon become vital to everyone’s lives.

Which is a nice segue that leads me on to what we must do. In Finland from 2017-2018, the government ran a two year trial whereby a sample size of 2000 unemployed people were given a universal basic income (UBI). A UBI essentially provides enough money to live on, this trial did not, and as it was given to a restricted group it is not technically classified as a UBI though it does employ a similar concept. Participants would receive the same amount of money regardless of whether they chose to work during this period or to remain unemployed.

Upon conclusion they found that the employed people in the trial were more productive, and more involved in the economy as a whole, and that the unemployed people were more likely to find themselves jobs, and were increasingly more content than before the trial, living in more comfortable conditions with a greater amount of luxuries.

This is what we need to do all around the world.

Certainly, this is not the solution for now, however, in the next 30, 40, or 50 years, humans will be completely obsolete in the workplace. We must consider what we have to do to continue to live in modest living conditions when employment is no longer an option.

I have not written this article to scare you. God knows, there’s enough to be scared about; governments are run by corporations, most of the planet goes to bed hungry every night, and the world is literally burning. Instead, consider this a warning of the dire circumstances in which we will soon find ourselves, and a provocation to think about the robotic revolution.

For now, just enjoy the slick Metro, and the other luxuries robots will bring us. And remember the many people that lost their jobs, or were never given the opportunity to work, for these luxuries.