Will Hoverbikes Be More Important Than Tacocopters? – Forbes

Will Hoverbikes Be More Important Than Tacocopters? – Forbes

I have outstanding $100 bets with two bloggers, Tim Lee and Eli Dourado, that by December 31, 2020 I will own a hoverbike. I’m not an engineer, but I made this bet because 1) several technologies are accelerating in ways that continue to defy our expectations, and 2) one of those technologies is quadrotors.

These are the four-propellor flying machines that utilize statistical learning techniques and artificial intelligence to fly autonomously. Right now they can move stuff around. For instance in a headline grabbing hoax, one company claimed they were going to deliver tacos using a tacocopter. As you can see from this video of quadrotors lifting stuff, it’s hoax that could be reality.

But 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. If you struggle to imagine why these will be important think of hoverbikes, and hovercars even more importantly, as the natural extension of driverless cars. Autonomousness aside, why is this better than helicopters or traditional “flying cars”, which are really just small planes? The difference is that those technologies require massive amounts of kinetic energy, whereas a quadrotor’s small blades mean they can operate in tight spaces and are much safer to everything around them.

The question then is: what impact of quadrotors will be more significant: hoverbikes or tacocopters? Moving stuff or moving people?

Over at his blog, Eli makes the case of the importance of tacocopters, which I’ll use as short-hand for quadrotors that move stuff, and I think he is correct they will be very important. The most important direct effect of tacocopters will be to reduce transportation costs. Imagine, for instance, Amazon using autonomous drones for package delivery. The important indirect effects in the developed world (see Eli for thoughts on the developing world) will be to reduce congestion, to and reduce the median marginal product of workers currently employed in the transportation industry. The latter phenomenon is an example of what increasingly not jokingly be called “robots taking our jobs”. There’s evidence some of this is happening now, and I think tacocopters will potentially exacerbate this. Yes, this will also lead to decline in the real cost of consumption as it becomes cheaper to deliver stuff to us, and so people’s lower wages go farther. But because we live in a era where inequality and zero marginal product workers are problematic, we aren’t as indifferent to a change that increases real wages overall but decreases many nominal wages at the bottom.

Let me put it this way. While ZMP workers may or may not currently be a big problem, it seems quite possible that it could be in the future. Say tacocopters triple what you can buy with a dollar, but cut the marginal product of a large portion of the population in half. Now those who have their wages halved but their buying power trebled are still better off, but it’s quite possible their wages might have fallen below their reservation wage, and they’d rather live off their spouses, parents, kids, or the government. While these individuals may still be better off directly, I think there are reasons to worry about this. If a large enough percent of the population becoming ZMP, it creates a large constituency for a basic income payment. Maybe huge swaths of the country not working would be fine. But I tend to have a little conservative in me where I think there is a chance this has big negative cultural and political impacts. This is the threat of tacocopters.

Now hoverbikes, in contrast strike me as more likely to increase worker marginal productivity all the way down the income ladder. Regardless of what Tom Friedman said, the world is not flat, and location still matters. Agglomeration economies are real, so there could be big gains from technologies that help people transport themselves more quickly and cheaply to areas and with populations where their productivity is higher.

I am open to the possibility* that robots will take a lot of our jobs, but also to the possibility that robots will serve to augment labor more than it competes with it. While a future where robots have taken a lot of our jobs and we live off the dole might still be a really awesome future, I think one where robots vastly increase productivity and wages without causing huge numbers of ZMP workers is likely to be better. For this reason, I think it is possible that hoverbikes will be more important than tacocopters.

*I know I’ve used the words “possibility”, “probability”, and “a chance” a lot in this post, but you’d be a fool not to think of future outcomes probabilistically. This isn’t me trying to avoid making firm predictions using weasel words, but trying to convey my actual expectations.