The Rise of the Machines


Yesterday I stopped in at the Jeep dealership to look at the new Cherokee.  The attractive young sales person told me that this car can, park itself (!), the cruise control will automatically slow to match the speed of the car ahead should it be going slower than what the cruise control was set for (!!) and that it would automatically steer its way back to the lane it was traveling in should an inattentive driver allow the car to wander out of it (!!!).
This is all very cool, and this technology will almost certainly become standard equipment in all cars, along with already standard ABS, mostly standard traction control, and 'fly by wire' indirect control of engine speed, and all the other digital stuff that is taking over all of our mechanical servants.
I don't consider myself a luddite, but every time new tech comes along that takes away something I used to be able to control myself and puts it into the hands of a mysterious black box I wonder about where we are going with this stuff.
Sensors in cars that keep the car from running into things or between the white lines have great potential to protect from accidents caused by inattentive driving, but does so by facilitating it.  Why shouldn't you text while driving if auto co pilot is looking after things? The magic Jeep will keep you in your lane, do stop and go, all while you text your bffs, update your facebook status, shave, put on make up...   Remember that urban legend about the motor home driver who engaged his cruise control and went back to the galley fix himself some coffee?  Look forward to watching this myth confirmed on U tube, soon.
Here's something even scarier.  Self driving is pretty old hat for the air line industry, airplanes have been flying and landing themselves long before cruise control became mainstream 40 years ago.  Of course, as the linked article points out, no passenger would knowingly fly with with just a robo pilot on board.  An experienced pilot says no way, never gonna happen, but human resource decisions are not made by pilots.  The bottom line will decide, as airline management continues to drive costs down by cutting employee wages and increasing their hours, a trend that is already driving smart, talented people to choose anything but airline careers, perhaps leaving us with not so smart, but looks distinguished in a uniform, ex Walmart greeter pilots.  No problems catching some z's or spending a little quality time with the air hostesses, no worries about overflying the airport, because Captain Silicon-Chips is actually in charge of the aircraft.  Nothing can possibly go wrong.
Like it or not we being dragged into a brave new world managed by mechanical nannies.  Should the magic Jeep fail to keep us out of trouble, front, back and side airbags  deploy to keep passengers from getting scrambled like Humpty Dumpty.  The failed pilot or autopilot, in the Boeing 777 that crashed in San Francisco last summer ended with most of the over 300 passengers surviving, something that would not have happened a decade or so ago. 
What worries me is that behind every digital robo tech miracle are carbon based programmers, the same species responsible for those weekly Windows updates (why couldn't they get it right the first time?) and the other digital stuff that brightens our daily lives, like those oven controls that went from one knob you turned right or left to the printed right on it temperature setting, to half a dozen buttons, 200 page instruction manual in six languages and pre-teen gamer assistant before you can bake a muffin.  But that is another rant for another day.

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