Unless it is turned off, out of reach, or the battery is dead (gasp!) — ring or vibrate — I’m on it. I’m like Linus van Pelt with his blanket, everywhere I go, it goes. You can imagine how many trips I make to the dock trying to find a signal when I’m at the cottage. It’s ridiculous really, but as with any addiction, the force of my willpower comes and goes. I’m hardly alone, though. And it’s a bit frightening.
On any given day, walking in downtown Toronto is like playing a human pinball game as I sidestep the people who walk to work on autopilot while reviewing e-mails that came in overnight. Because really, they just can’t wait — unless you walk into a parking meter or get hit by a car, and end up in the ER. For those of you who drive to work, with the advent of autonomous cars, your commute might just become a ride in your mobile office as opposed to the time during your day when it is legislated that you cannot use your device. No one would in good conscience ask you to break the law or be unsafe, right??
On top of that, with Wi-Fi now being offered on flights, you can’t even escape at 39,000 feet. What has the world come to? No wonder so many people suddenly seem to have ADD or ADHD or whatever it is (“acronymitis” is also on the rise it seems — but that’s another story), take additives to wake up, stay up, relax, sleep — well, you get the picture.
As I see it, we try to medicate the symptoms of being overworked and over tired, and we develop more and more technologies: fridges that can order groceries for us; phones we can talk to that will remind us of whatever it is we will inevitably forget to do; computer programs that type for us and correct our grammar and spelling; and my latest interest — autonomous technologies. Autonomous, as opposed to automatic (like an elevator), means that these technologies are adaptive, and can learn and make decisions. There are all manner of autonomous technologies in development (and production), from bomb-defusing devices, to cars, to robots designed to care for the elderly at home. Each carries with it the burden of risk-benefit that makes for a very interesting discussion.
So let’s consider autonomous vehicles. I adore driving and I am fascinated that a car is in development that will turn drivers into passengers. Autonomous technologies raise ethical, social, and legal issues that can hardly be ignored. In fact, I wonder if someday in retrospect, we won’t be reflecting on the late 20th and early 21st centuries with wonder at how life in the developed world (at the very least) was lived as though we were standing still with the fast-forward button stuck in the “on” position, and that but for technology being able to intervene and keep us alive longer, our life expectancy would have been about 60 years at best. But I digress.
Should a person’s every move be recorded? In the case of caring for the elderly or infirm at home, in order for the technology to work, the building would need to be hardwired to become a “smart” house so the data can be transmitted to the “caregiver” in order for it to function. In the case of “smart” cars, simplistically speaking, the vehicle would need to be equipped with sensors and a black box in order to work. Automobile “black boxes” do exist already, which, if they become standard in all vehicles and record at all times and not just the data during an incident, means that “accidents” will take on an even greater significance when responsibility can be allocated with a higher degree of certainty. Assuming the driver is a person, and not the car itself.
Privacy issues are an obvious concern when one allows personal data about one’s life to be recorded, analyzed, and stored by a third party, and there has been much discussion on this subject. As well though, with autonomous technologies — what if they fail? What if the car that is driving you has insufficient data and is not equipped to maneuver in time to miss an animal that has run onto the highway and a fatal crash ensues. Who is liable? The owner of the car? The manufacturer? The “autonomous pilot”? How much will it cost to insure such a vehicle? Can you imagine the fine print when you buy such a car and when you try to get it insured?! Is it any wonder that autonomous vehicles are illegal everywhere at this point (except in the U.S. state of Nevada apparently, as of June 16, 2011).
At their best, autonomous vehicles won’t ever suffer from road rage or drunk driving, and maybe not even go above the speed limit — ever. But at their worst, they may not be equipped to deal with the unpredictability of an emergency, no matter how much data is fed into their systems until they have a chance to learn. Just like humans. So maybe these vehicles are a good thing. There are so many atrocious drivers on the road today, whether the highways are automated (yes, it is possible) or the vehicles we currently drive are, accidents are bound to decrease over time, fuel efficiency should go up, which is good for the environment and our pocketbooks, and maybe our collective blood pressure will go down if we are all going the same speed, driving in a uniform manner, and have no control at all. It all seemed to work out OK for the Jetsons.