There was news yesterday that the UK is one step closer to allowing driverless cars, or self-drive pods, to be tested on public roads. There will be inevitable fears and hand-wringing, people will imagine the worst, worried that technology and computers can never be as good and as intuitive as humans, that they will go wrong and that this is another erosion of our personal freedoms. Not, I hope, the freedoms to drive too fast, drive dangerously, and to read/drink/text while in charge of a vehicle? There’s an odd paradox here, imperfect humans conceive, design and build the technology, but we expect it to always work, in all planned and unexpected circumstances, even when misused. So are the machines really in charge? (Alan Turing and his test for thinking machines is a topic for another time.)
Change is inevitable (and mostly a good thing)
But, there’s something else behind the headlines, a natural reaction to new technology that we – the layman – may not understand, and may free threatened by. It goes back a long way, to the Luddites and machine breakers fighting the introduction of power looms in C19th England, and I guess every new tool or technology since humans first picked up a rock or a stick. In more recent history the bogeyman is often the computer and the robot, remember War of the Worlds, and that famous Orson Welles radio broadcast, ‘…for it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way’.
Other baddies in popular TV and film include the Cyborgs, Cylons and Cybermen. Have you noticed that the prefix ‘cyber-’ is almost always associated with bad things, like cybercrime, cyberwar and cybersquatting. Somewhere along the way the word ‘cybernetic’ has lost its general meaning, related to computers and the internet. The etymology from Greek ‘guiding, steering, acting as a pilot’ is even more innocuous and positive.
Resistance is futile
I come across this natural human resistance to change in almost all companies and IT projects that I work on, and its part of my role as a Business Analyst and occasionally a ‘change agent’ to understand, empathise, and if necessary help to encourage collaboration and compromise. Here are two examples of cutting-edge technology from both ends of my career (so far!)
In the early 1980’s I was working on the massively complex computer control systems for a new fighter aircraft (admittedly completely out of my depth), which like a bumble bee was inherently unstable, according to Wikipedia, ‘…manual operation alone could not compensate for the inherent instability. The fly-by-wire system is described as “carefree”, and prevents the pilot from exceeding the permitted manoeuvre envelope’.
Oops, that‘s an unfortunate phrase, but maybe future ‘drive-by-wire’ drivers/passengers(?) will feel equally carefree?!
More recently I was working with some very clever developers and academics (psychometricians no less!) who had developed a way to automatically assess a candidate’s English language writing, reading, speaking and listening skills, in near real-time. No paper, no markers, no waiting weeks for the results.
The future is bright
The phrase ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ (GIGO) is often used as a trite excuse for problems with computers and software, but I prefer a different equation:
Intelligence + creativity + teamwork in = slightly flawed magic out
I will leave the last word to writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke, who proposed 3 laws of prediction, the most often quoted is:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Magic is good, so I’m happy that scientific advances, technology, and human endeavours might give us the ‘magic’ of driverless cars in the future.
Do you agree? Thank you for your comments.
(c) 2015 Antony Lawrence CBA Ltd.