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Early computer illustration of interior of Quikbyke's solar Qiosk with crew member providing the personal touch.
Early computer illustration of interior of Quikbyke's solar Qiosk with crew member providing the personal touch.

A.I. vs Jobs: India & Quikbyke Face Similar Conundrums

Elon Musk is worried, Nitin Gadkari has put his foot down. As the pace of artificial intelligence development seemingly accelerates, there is growing concern that all that 'silicon-based smarts' - in various forms including self-driving cars - will only exacerbate the global jobs problem. How do you gainfully employ people in the coming age of A.I. and still be competitive?

With a population nearly equal to China at 1.3 billion souls, India faces a dilemma: how to keep all the employable adults employed. Over the next decade, the nation will add 110 million new workers and in 40 years, there will be an estimated 424 million working-age adults 15-64, more than double that of the USA in 2017.

This, in part, is why Nitin Gadkari, India's minister for roads and transportation recently went on record as being opposed to the introduction of autonomous, self-driving vehicles, stating, "We won’t allow driverless cars in India. I am very clear on this. We won’t allow any technology that takes away jobs."

India needs to provide a lot of jobs for a lot of people over the next several decades. The advent of autonomous vehicle A.I.would eliminate the need for lots of drivers; effectively killing those jobs just surely as Henry Ford's you-drive-it Model T killed streetcar conductor jobs a century ago.
However, it may turn out that the tide of technology and the internal quest for profit could sweep away Mr. Gadkari's opposition. Eliminating the driver from the business cost sheet would, it can be argued, make transport services more competitive.

Our little startup, Quikbyke, faces a similar dilemma. Our solar-powered electric bicycle rental "shop-in-a-box" was designed to be manned by least one attendant on duty during business hours, and preferably two. They rent the bikes, maintain them, lead tours, and sell the occasional hat or tee shirt, as the early conceptual drawing above illustrates.

They also add to the cost of the operation, just as a vehicle driver does in India. So, as the interim CEO, I am under some pressure to automate the system: basically eliminate the attendant(s). I have argued that in our current configuration where we're focused on serving cruise ship passengers at Caribbean ports-of-call, it makes sense to have a knowledgeable "crew member" on hand to explain how to ride and where to ride our sun-charged eBikes. And like India, jobs are needed on many of these islands. A local expert on the Caribbean even advised me to be sure to hire young mothers: they will be more dependable.

We currently have a single prototype solar-powered Qiosk awaiting deployment in Florida. It's based on a repurposed 20 ft shipping container that we can ship by surface or sea anywhere in the world. While it's intended to sit on a cruise ship dock, we also recognize a need for an automated system that can service hotels and resorts. Guests would use their hotel room keys to access Quikbyke electric-assist bicycles, including three-wheelers, all of them solar-charged. This system would be unattended other than perhaps occasional coaching by the doorman or concierge staff.

Looking forward, Quikbyke and India have to find a balance between serving people and catering to technology. I learned from manning our prototype Qiosk last summer that sitting even four hours can be the longest day of your life. That's why we plan to split shifts with each attendant working four hours and guiding 3-hour bike tours. It will make the day much more productive and, we believe, profitable for everyone. India may discover that some people like the company of a knowledgeable driver and others just as soon be left alone with the computer driving them to their destination. But I don't think India will be wise to cut off the introduction of self-driving technology, just as I don't think Quikbyke should eliminate the opportunity for the human touch.

Posted By: Bill Moore [01-Aug-2017]