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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Self-driving Uber truck’s trip was more than a beer run

A self-driving truck built by Uber's unit Otto

A self-driving truck built by Uber's unit Otto on the road in Colorado on Oct. 20, 2016. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Aether Films

Millions of people took a step toward unemployment last week, and there is no one to blame. Not immigrants who will work on the cheap, or companies shipping jobs overseas. It’s because of Otto, and other innovative technologies like it.

Otto is the self-driving vehicle operation owned by Uber, working to create delivery trucks that don’t need human operators. On Oct. 25, one of its trucks carried 2,000 cases of beer 120 miles — from Loveland, Colorado, to Colorado Springs —on local roads and the interstate. And it did so without needing help from the “driver” riding in the cabin.

More than 3 million people in the United States make a decent living driving trucks. With the arrival of Otto, it’s hard to believe many will still be doing so 20 years from now. Most of those 3 million jobs will be lost, as will gigs in businesses catering to truckers, in hotels and restaurants and gas stations.

And eventually, when it becomes as economically sensible for cars as it is for delivery trucks, cabbies and Uber drivers and local delivery folks and postal workers will be replaced by machines. And parents who stayed home in part to ferry kids around will be back in the labor force, displacing other workers, as Otto drives from school to soccer to violin.

The machines will do a better job. People can be distracted, emotional drivers. People get angry and drunk and bellow along to the Dexys Midnight Runners classic “Come on Eileen.” People text and apply makeup and eat and Facebook while they should be concentrating on the road. Robots won’t.

About 30,000 people die in car accidents in the United States each year, a number likely to plummet as Otto takes the wheel. So there will be safety aplenty, but perhaps not work.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders did a great job in this election creating a boogeyman to blame for the shrinking of the middle class. They lambasted trade policies that have funneled manufacturing jobs overseas. Trump, additionally, painted immigrants here illegally as responsible for sapping the nation’s available jobs.

There is a grain of truth to the idea that different people now have the jobs native-born Americans want. But there is more truth in saying those jobs are being lost to automation.

We are headed toward a future when the only real shortage might be a shortage of traditional jobs. Automation could provide plenty of food and clothing and shelter, but few paths for many folks to earn their share of it. Yet this future can still work out well if we adapt in three ways.

First, we can’t begrudge anyone what he or she needs just because there is no longer a way for everyone to have a traditional job. There’s no point to being selfish if there’s no shortage of goods or services.

Second, we have to begin defining a lot of traditionally ignored roles as important and worthy of compensation. In a world of plenty, with lots of leisure time, no senior citizen or child should ever be lonely or forgotten, unloved or untended. No park should be dirty, no wall painted inartistically, no roadside unkempt, no disabled person left without help. Most people need to be useful, and can be.

Third, we must control the growing pollution and upward population spiral of the planet. Technology could change this, but right now the biggest limit we face is finite resources.

Human history is largely the story of technology improving lives. It still can be, as long as we don’t get caught in the trap of yelling “Get a job,” when there is no real job to get, of arguing that some people have no right to the bounty created by technology because technology eradicated the job that previously gave them that right.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.