In Forbes, the excellent Adam Ozimek agrees with me that TacoCopters—commercial drones that deliver goods—will be an important economic advance. However, he thinks that they will also cause some economic drawbacks, and that on balance, hoverbikes—like this one designed by Aerofex, but also other flying human transporters more generally—will be more important.
I’m not convinced. Here are a few reasons.
1. Most humans have legs
Adam leads off with an interesting point: “humans are just a kind of stuff, and there is no reason to think that quadrotors won’t move us around in the future too.” But there is an important difference between humans and stuff. Most humans have the ability and will to navigate the last few steps after you drop them off. This means that the margin of error for navigation (though not the margin of error for safety) is higher for human transport, whereas non-human cargo must be delivered literally to the doorstep.
A big part of the problem that TacoCopters are __solving is this “last few steps” problem. There’s not an equivalence between solving it for stuff and for humans, because most humans don’t have a pressing need for it to be solved. I will concede that for disabled people for whom the last few steps is a challenge, wheelchaircopters would represent an important advance.
2. The marginal benefit of flying cars over regular autonomous cars is not that high
Let’s say you already have an autonomous car and you use it to commute to work. On your commute, you spend your time reading, catching up on Twitter, applying makeup, etc.—not driving. An autonomous flying car might save you a few minutes on your commute. But it won’t save you any time on net, because you will still need or want to read, catch up on Twitter, or apply makeup before or after you get to work. Because you were not wasting your time driving in the first place, a faster commute saves you almost no time.
Furthermore, even if we assume that the use of your commute time was suboptimal, regular autonomous cars will get us places faster than human-driven cars today. That is because they will be able to use vehicle-to-vehicle communication to drive together more closely, to coordinate intersections automatically, and to notify each other of any remaining traffic incidents. Flying—and especially hovering—simply won’t create that much of a gain for getting about town.
I think we are much more likely to use human-transporting drones in long-distance travel than in daily driving. There are a lot of moderately wealthy people who could afford a small private jet, but could not also afford to also employ a pilot full time. Drone technology will bring private jets into the realm of possibility for a higher percentage of the population. They will also be used in commercial air travel, but there, pilot salaries are not an enormous fraction of the cost.
3. TacoCopters will create way more employment opportunities than they destroy
Adam and I are both interested in the ZMP hypothesis—that a non-trivial fraction of unemployment is caused by the fact that some of the unemployed literally cannot be profitably hired, that they have zero marginal product. And we agree that it is likely to be an even more important hypothesis in the future; robots really might steal our jobs!
Although TacoCopters could put a few hundred thousand delivery men out of work, think of all the new business opportunities that they will generate. As Adam says, the world is not flat. But with TacoCopters, cities, at a minimum, would become flat. New enterprises would be able to open up in low-rent districts and, at very low cost, deliver goods to the entire metropolitan area. Even if it’s not literally the unemployed deliverymen who are starting these businesses, they could be hired in non-delivery roles by the new entrepreneurs.
Adam worries about the cultural effects of robots stealing jobs, and this concerns me too. But TacoCopters will lead to an entrepreneurial boom! And I think we can all agree that the cultural effects of an entrepreneurial boom are good, at least on net.
4. We may be screwed on the ZMP front anyway
If I am wrong about all of the new entrepreneurial opportunities that TacoCopters will create, it’s still not clear how big of a marginal contribution TacoCopters will make to our problems. If TacoCopters create a lot of ZMP workers, they will probably not be alone; other artificial intelligence technologies will create millions more. These millions of ZMP workers and others who sympathize with them will almost certainly vote them a basic income.
Now, it’s possible that ZMPers who formerly worked in the delivery sector could be the straw that broke the camel’s back. If, collectively, they were the deciding vote on a basic income, that could be a bad outcome. But the current delivery sector is not so large as to make this likely. I think that a likely outcome might be that the acceleration in ZMP unemployment caused by TacoCopters could enable a basic income to pass a year earlier than it might otherwise. While this is a negative outcome in Adam’s view (and mine), it is not that significant culturally for the negative shock to happen just a little bit sooner.
5. Hoverbikes face higher regulatory barriers—and consequently may never make it to market
In my last post, I expressed concern that regulation would unnecessarily delay the introduction of TacoCopters. Whatever the other merits of hoverbikes, they are likely to face even higher regulatory hurdles than TacoCopters. It’s only fair to discount the benefits of an innovation by the likelihood that they won’t materialize. And if consumer safety or other regulations are too onerous, hoverbikes might not just get delayed—they might get outlawed.
@elidourado I'm putting into my calender "ride speeder to Eli's to pick up $100".— Adam Ozimek (@ModeledBehavior) August 21, 2012
As Adam notes, I have bet him $100 that he won’t own a Star Wars-style speeder by the end of 2020. This is a bet that I think I will win, but that I hope to lose. I think in general we are approaching a really exciting time in the high tech sector. We’ve had a lot of advances in computer engineering, both in hardware and in software, and we’re getting to the stage where a lot of those advances are yielding applications in new physical possibilities, not just new computer applications. While some of these new possibilities have downside risks, I think it’s important that we as a society continue to experiment rapidly. Legalize innovation.