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Milken Conference: Will exotic technologies like the hyperloop kill our jobs?

Hyperloop
The Hyperloop proposed by billionaire Elon Musk would work somewhat like a pneumatic delivery system, shooting passengers in capsules through a tube.
(AP)

A hyperloop, the super-fast transit system dreamed up by Elon Musk, was envisioned as a way to get passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in minutes instead of hours. 

But it could also transport tens of thousands of cargo containers from L.A.’s ports to inland distribution centers and rail yards. That would dramatically cut the number of trucks on Southern California’s freeways and potentially slash pollution. 

“You can make [a port] a lot easier on the local community,” said Brogan BamBrogan, a co-founder of Hyperloop Technologies, one of two local companies working to realize – and commercialize – Musk’s concept.

BamBrogan was among the speakers Tuesday on a panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference exploring how new technologies could reshape Los Angeles and other cities. 

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L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti speculated that the advent of self-driving cars could cut down on the amount of space needed for roads and parking lots, freeing up more land for development – and possible cutting down on the cost of housing.

What the panel didn’t touch on is what those changes might mean for the workers who will inhabit these cities of the future.

That’s been a focus of other panels at the Beverly Hills conference, where technologists, hedge fund managers and other experts have talked at length about the potential perils of a world where technology continues to make human workers obsolete.

Though self-driving cars and ports that need fewer trucks have benefits, they also represent huge numbers of job losses.

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Technological innovation has always changed the labor market, but usually in ways that create more jobs than are destroyed. Some still think the same will ultimately be true this time around.

“Is this any different than the same shifts we saw during the Industrial Revolution?” asked Shivon Zilis, a partner at Bloomberg-backed venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta, speaking at a Monday panel about the promise and potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence.

But others worry the current wave of tech-driven automation is different, destroying jobs without creating more.

“I need to hope we’ll come up with high-value things [for people] to do. But I don’t think we can assume it’ll happen,” said David Siegel, co-chairman of hedge fund Two Sigma Investments, who was among the artificial intelligence experts. “Before the internal-combustion engine, horses were needed by the workforce. No one ever came up with anything more economical for horses to do.”

After Tuesday’s panel, Garcetti said the question of how technology is changing employment keeps him up at night. Many workers, he said, will help build new rail lines, Hyperloops and other infrastructure, but it’s less clear what will happen to others.

“There’s no question automation displaces some workers,” he said.

But he added that whatever changes are coming, it’s the job of a city or any government to adapt to them.

“The question isn’t change or not,” he said. “The question is how you manage it.”

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Twitter: @jrkoren


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