Monday, June 19, 2017

A strange discussion: Part one

Introduction

My grandfather used to say that he lived through the greatest technological changes in human history. He had a point. As a child he observed coal delivery by horse and wagon to each home. By the time he was an older man the atom had been split with horrifying results, man had walked on the moon, and personal computers were infiltrating homes.

Technological changes have been two-headed. One can almost see the race between communication and transportation during my grandfather's life: trains versus telephones, automobile versus radio, aircraft versus television, rockets versus computers. Each technology changed the world. One by physically moving us faster and allowing us to be there more quickly, the other by allowing us to talk and see each other instantaneously. Walking versus talking.

The Internet. Smartphones. These latest technologies are communications-based. What is the corresponding transportation technology? Assuming that teleportation is a ways off yet, the next step is obvious, the merging of communication and transportation technologies. Machines that walk and talk. Self-driving cars and robots that replace our jobs are just the start of a technological change that will fundamentally change how we view ourselves--as individuals and as a culture. Cultural changes have always been more difficult for society than technological changes.

A strange discussion

A couple of weeks ago Marlene and I had a 20-minute discussion on societal impacts of emerging technology. That discussion led to this two-part post. The fact we had such an engaging discussion on this topic is noteworthy in itself. Now I'd discuss this topic for hours on end had I an associate interested in such (which partially explains why I don't get invited to parties much), but it isn't a topic that Marlene would normally choose. That we were discussing technology change as a family says something about the interesting times in which we live. In a way, it reminded me of discussions I remember as a child, when my parents would get together with aunts and uncles and the discussion would naturally turn to the impending moon landings. What would they find? What does it mean?

In fact, Marlene and I discussed only one question: "If cars become mostly self-driving, how does that affect society?"

Our discussion was by no means thorough, but we hit on many concerns and possible outcomes popular in the media. These included vehicle sharing rather than ownership, fewer parking lots, homes without garages or driveways, fewer automobile accident deaths (1 million deaths per year worldwide now, 50% involving alcohol, according to some factoid I acquired without remembering the attribution), insurance rates skyrocketing for those sticking with human-driven vehicles, perhaps renting a human-driven car for vacation wilderness destinations ("dirt road travel"). Finally the discussion turned to loss of jobs in the transportation industry, first long haul truckers and taxi drivers.

A continuation

Our conversation on this topic soon ended. But that didn't mean my brain wasn't still occupied with it. It had turned to job loss by automation. In fact, I see automation easily taking over cashiers and even fast-food establishments. Can you imagine? What would it be like to enter such an establishment without the undertone of hostility created by hormonal youths trying to function in their first job, all under the direction of a harried assistant manager trying to upsell to everyone. You want fries with that? (Sorry, cultural reference from 1992 that no one but me remembers.)

I was thinking that automation would slowly take over jobs, one after another--perhaps entry level first. But then an article appeared that made it seem possible that there was a tipping point, much earlier than I imagined, when work as we know it might change.

My grandfather may indeed have lived through an unprecedented series of technological changes. But there may be something on the horizon that will more profoundly impact society.

Continue to Part Two...