Friday, March 22, 2013

The Rise of the Robots - Golden Gate Bridge Edition

To recap, American labor force participation rates are in free-fall.  A lot of this was sort of obscured by the recession, but now, with unemployment stubbornly holding at very high levels and the ranks of the long-term unemployed and unemployable growing every quarter, it is becoming painfully clear that this is not a trend that will be reversed, even if we can somehow sustain a robust recovery in the face of Republican austerity.  It is still being debated, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that a lot of this decline in working humans can be attributed to skyrocketing numbers of jobs being taken by intelligent machines.  As computers become more powerful and much cheaper, sensors become far more capable than human eyes and ears and hands and software becomes more complex and intelligent, there are more and more jobs that can be done better, faster and cheaper by robots, machines and computers.

But in some cases, the rush to replace costly, fragile humans with machines can overlook some challenges.  The old adage that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it seems worth deep consideration.  The fact is, the robots can do a better job from the standpoint of the business unit, but may have inherent limitations when that job faces the public.

Which brings us to the Golden Gate Bridge.  No, not to jump.  March 26th, next week, will be the last day that there will be human toll-takers on the the famous red suspension bridge.  Now, in one sense, the job of toll-taker is an ideal one for machines to take.  Tedious and repetitive, the entire job consists of moving currency back and forth between a driver and a drawer.  And the FasTrak automated toll payment system, utilizing RFID transponders and a camera-based enforcement mechanism works very well indeed.  Despite the fact that I cross the bay area bridges only rarely, I have been a FasTrak user for years, and find it to be a much better system than one could have hoped.

But here's the thing - for those times when the customer chose, there was always the alternative option of stopping and paying the toll with cash.  As of Wednesday, that option will no longer exist.  Everyone will pay using FasTrak, a credit card deduction system or will receive a bill in the mail.  No accommodation for kids, tourists, rental cars or borrowed cars will exist.  And, of course, if you have a new car that still has the paper license plates on it, crossing the bridge is effectively free.

This is going to be a huge problem for a few weeks or months.  But it's going to be an ongoing problem for much longer than that.  I'm certainly no Luddite  and I don't think we should preserve jobs just because the incumbent job-holder is a human - although we are, at some point, going to have to figure out how to take care of millions of people who will never hold gainful employment again - but the withdrawal of ALL the human-toll takers and the removal of any non-automated payment solution seems premature at best.  Just as companies have in some cases decided the cost and inefficiency of human receptionists far outweighs the cost in goodwill engendered by an automated phone system, it seems likely that we have not truly seen the last human toll-taker on Bay Area bridges.


  1. Having a life sustaining job is going to be the preserve of an elite few. Most people are going to be doing low wage drudge work that allows them to starve quietly and in a long term manner.
    There will be management types because...they're superior and they will have the literal power of life or slow death.
    Mind you, when one gets one's job one is worked into a fine paste and one loses whatever humanity one may have had. This will not be a lot since winning the job fight only happens to the most uncaring.
    We will all keep voting for this shit, every time we turn on the TV because we know that if we get lucky and cunning enough we could get the next job.

  2. Stopping (or merely slowing) traffic to collect money is an environmental (and safety) hazard.

    I'm agin' it.

  3. If they can't throw frisbees, I am not impressed with these so-called 'robots'.

    Slowing traffic is, in general, actually a very good idea. Fewer deaths, actually less environmental pollution, and traffic becomes more manageable. Plus, pedestrians and bicycles become viable.

    The Traffic-engineer-driven desire to move metal faster is how we end up with ever-more-distant suburbs (which ironically then exacerbate the exact problem the engineers think they are solving). Talk about environmental hazards.

    It's called Traffic Calming. It's a good idea and makes cities more liveable. I'd guess no one will be surprised that I disagree with ^ that guy on yet another thing. Designing for maximum traffic throughput with no regard for other pedestrian or design considerations is how cities like Chicago or St. Louis managed to cut themselves off from lovely waterfronts with Automotive DMZs.

    I would, however, entertain the argument that Lombard Street is taking the concept too far.

  4. Well, like any good argument, you can take it too far. The GG Bridge was built in the early '30s. No one had any conception of the amount of traffic it was going to be carrying nearly a hundred years later. Sure, creative engineers have developed a bizarre but surprisingly effective method of varying the number of inbound and outbound lanes in real time, but it's still a horrific bottleneck. The speed limit on the bridge is 45mph, and strongly enforced. There is no need to make people slow or stop at one end except to enable a financial transaction. So the automated toll system is ideal in this regard. But utterly eliminating the availability of an ad hoc cash transaction is going to significantly inconvenience far too many people for the benefits it provides in efficiency...

    1. Good points all.

      Illinois' toll highway system balances the EZ Pay vs. cash lanes, and as people adopt the ease of wireless transactions, the cash lanes are declining.

      Wisconsin, on the other hand, has long gone socialist: taxes paid for an exemplary transportation system.

      Of course, Tommy Thompson and Turdwaffle have plundered that pot of money to enrich their construction industry funders, so the roads are going to shit.

      I am sure it is the Democrats fault somehow though.

      PS. It has been suggested that we establish tolls at the border of Wisconsin for non-natives: 5 dollars to get in. 10 dollars to get out.

  5. Sure, creative engineers have developed a bizarre but surprisingly effective method of varying the number of inbound and outbound lanes in real time, but it's still a horrific bottleneck

    Why don't you bozos try not living on a stick of ground with restricted access points? Or quit yer whining.

  6. Because living on the bay just SMELLS so goddam good...

  7. A good reason to stay on top of your personal hygiene.

  8. I would, however, entertain the argument that Lombard Street is taking the concept too far.
    Lombard St. would be just fine if the damn tourists weren't clogging it up by testing their driving "skills."

  9. How early is too early to start drinking?

    1. I'm gonna go with before you wake up...