Modern humans are familiar with the hardware/software dichotomy. The computer itself – the chips and circuit boards and power supply – is the hardware. And then the hardware can run a variety of software that lets the hardware accomplish many different tasks.
Traditionally humans have controlled the software. When human beings want to figure something out, they can type things into spreadsheet software and get answers. When human beings want to visit a web site, they type a URL into browser software. The human beings are in control.
What we are seeing more frequently now is a different dynamic that has three parts: Hardware, software and wetware. Human beings are the wetware, and the key thing to recognize is that humans are losing control.
Computers controlling humans
In an increasing number of cases, computers control humans as wetware rather than humans controlling the computers. Humans exist inside of systems simply to act as sensors or manipulators or operators in service to an algorithm that is in control of things.
Uber as an example
The best example that we see in our world today is Uber and other gig jobs like it. At its core, Uber is an algorithm that tells human workers what to do. The algorithm commands a human: “Pick up this person here and drop them off there, and please don’t molest or annoy them in transit.”
At this moment Uber needs the wetware – the human drivers – for one reason and one reason only: Industry has not quite delivered fully autonomous cars just yet. The instant that Uber can buy fully automated cars, it will eliminate nearly all of its wetware.
The wetware that remains might be there to help handicapped people safely load and unload from a vehicle. And that wetware will only remain until there is an automated vehicle that can do it better.
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Truck drivers could be discarded in waves
Wetware is often eliminated in stages. Right now, there are about two million big rig truck drivers in the United States. Quite a few of them are wetware, with algorithms telling them what to do. However, we stand on the brink of the automated truck revolution.
The low-hanging fruit in this revolution are the highway miles. Compared to navigating city or suburban streets, the job of controlling a truck with computer automation is highly simplified on an interstate highway.
Therefore, it is easy to imagine this scenario: a human driver in New York will pilot a truck to an on-ramp or rest stop on an interstate, and then the algorithm will tell the autonomous truck to drive to Washington DC. Once there, the truck will stop at a rest stop or off-ramp. A human driver will hop in to pilot the last few miles on surface streets.
The only fly in this ointment will be refueling, and this is a pretty easy problem to solve. Human wetware will either meet the truck with a fuel tanker at a rest stop, or truck stops with human attendants next to the highway will arise to meet the refueling needs of automated trucks.
Automating the highway portion of truck driving will eliminate the bulk of the two million wetware truck drivers, because this is where human drivers now spend a majority of their billable time.
Then a few years later the automation will be far enough along so that the remaining last-mile wetware pilots can be eliminated as well.
We don't sell driverless cars but we can get you a great deal on a quality GPS.
We have not really seen the full bloom of the wetware phenomenon yet. But parts of it are eerily close. You may have heard of systems like TaskRabbit or Mechanical Turk. Humans are pure wetware here, performing tiny tasks repeatedly for small payments.
But these people can also be housed in an API, where an algorithm can call out to a subroutine powered by a human, passing one or two inputs for the human to process and receiving back the human’s result within a few seconds. It is easy to imagine using systems like this for visual recognition tasks or language processing.
What if we apply this idea to more complex tasks? We see the seeds of it today.
For example, there are highly specialized surgeons who do just a few minutes of work on a patient. The actual surgeon quickly performs one crucial step to repair the lens of an eye or the tendon in a knee. An eye surgeon can do a dozen or more procedures in a day by swapping back and forth between multiple surgical suites.
Everything before and after the surgeon’s critical few-minute step is handled by automation, technicians, or assistants. Each person in the chain, including the surgeon, can be thought of as wetware. Automation designed to eliminate each piece of this wetware is being developed as we speak by some enterprising company.
For example, blood analysis is now fully automated to a startling degree. Surgical robots today are guided by human surgeons, but eventually they will be able to do all the work themselves, and do it better.
We don't sell robot doctors yet, but we do have lots of
The future of wetware
Is the rise of this wetware phenomenon good or bad? It could be good if society were designed with humans in mind. Imagine if all of employment consisted of wetware systems that combine together to create the societal whole. If there were certain guarantees, this could be great.
For example, if every adult in the society who needs an income/job to live their life were guaranteed a wetware slot, that would be helpful. If every wetware slot guaranteed at least a minimum pay level so that everyone in society had a financial floor which no worker fell below, that would be great too.
And if the floor was high enough so that every adult could live a decent life at a decent standard of living, that would be ideal.
Unfortunately, this is not how our society works today. When a million wetware truck drivers become unemployed because of the first wave of tuck automation, there are not going to be a million new jobs that pop up immediately to absorb them.
Chances are these discarded truck drivers will go through unemployment hell, and many of them may never find another job that comes close to what they were making as truck drivers.
In a rational society, we would recognize that millions of wetware workers will become unemployed in the coming waves of automation, and we would redesign our society and workplaces to make a decent life possible for every adult in that scenario.
Otherwise, the rising levels of inequality seen today will only increase, and the amount of suffering for newly unemployed wetware will become profound.