An open letter to a taxi driver

A researcher lays out the options for workers that technology is making obsolete

Dear taxi driver,

My friend, I can see your angst and dismay. We live in times of great changes - and not just for you. New technologies are changing the way we work, shaking the foundation we have built for our society over the past 150 years.

According to research carried out at the University of Oxford, among others, up to half of today's professions might disappear over the next two decades as a consequence of advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.

One of the industries most affected by such transformation is, indeed, yours: mobility. Developments of recent years - alternatives to traditional taxis, including Uber, Lyft and Juno, as well as car-sharing services such as Zipcar and car2go, and even smart bikes, just like the Copenhagen Wheel developed by a company I am adviser to, Superpedestrian - are only the beginning.

Let's face it: Self-driving cars (and trucks) are already being tested internationally, from the United States to Singapore, and will soon hit the road.

A Barcelona cabby taking part in a go-slow action to protest against supposedly unfair competition from unlicensed taxi drivers. Workers in many industries face the prospect of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence, the writer says – but they must not impede the inevitable. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

At that point, many professions will become obsolete - including yours, and those of the millions of drivers who are behind the wheel right now, all around the world.

Such enormous and epochal changes, however, have occurred in the past. History shows us many examples of conflict between old technologies and the new, more efficient ones.

In 18th-century London, for instance, watermen on the river Thames fought against their brand-new competitors on the mainland - the first horse-drawn carriages.

A few centuries later, those very carriages were swept away by the arrival of cars - as we are reminded in Speedy, a 1928 movie dedicated to the melancholic adventures of New York's last coachman.

Let me be frank now: I am afraid that, tomorrow, you yourself might end up in a similar situation.

What can we do to avoid that? Today, as ever, we all have two choices.

If we decide to stand up for the horse-drawn carriages, we will certainly be defeated. But if we embrace new technologies, we can survive and, we hope, even thrive - managing change, rather than being crushed by it.

Ultimately, it's all about the transition to a new world. I am here to propose a deal to you.

All of us - society as a whole - must make sure that you will not be left by the wayside of this difficult road, along with so many others who will lose their jobs in the upcoming years.

These include professional drivers, but also, those who will be left at home, replaced by robots and artificial intelligence, in fields such as radiology, finance and even, as in my case, design.

On your side, you will promise not to impede an inevitable transformation, and, instead, try actively to participate in it - or even to lead it.

There are two key words we should talk about: transition and redistribution.

Transition: We have to learn how to manage today's technological upheavals without being overwhelmed by them. This implies two things: helping those who will lose their jobs, so that they can soon find another one; and educating new generations to be ready for the professions of tomorrow.

Redistribution: It is imperative to agree on who will benefit from the new order. Will it be investors? Or those who have been chucked out of the job market?

One possible solution would be to have robots pay taxes. This is not a joke: It simply means levying a tax on technological capital and transferring income to those who have lost their jobs. The European Parliament rejected a proposal very much like this on Feb 16 - although, a few days later, Mr Bill Gates appeared as an influential and unexpected backer.

If we are able to handle the issues of transition and redistribution, the future will be brimming with opportunities.

As the great American historian Lewis Mumford wrote in the 1930s: "The chief benefit the rational use of the machine promises is certainly not the elimination of work." Instead, it is the substitution of tedious jobs with more creative ones, with higher added value.

Finally, times of technological transformations have always offered great opportunities. At the beginning of the 20th century, the push for motorisation gave a boost to many corporations - from Ford to Fiat, from Toyota to General Motors - that are still pillars of Western economies.

Similarly, if we are able to ensure that the benefits of the new era of robotics and artificial intelligence will extend to all social strata, we can shape a new and perhaps better society. But in order to achieve this goal, dear friend, we need you, too, along for the ride.

• The writer is a professor of the practice of urban technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a principal investigator at Smart (Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology) in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'An open letter to a taxi driver'. Subscribe