Our computers, ourselves

by Rob Tiller

More proof that computers and humans are becoming one:  a  NY Times yesterday on the dozens of computers embedded in each of our automobiles.  http://tiny.cc/mwFgt Millions of lines of code accompany us on each on of our daily drives.  In many ways, this is a good thing.  Microprocessors assist with all basic functions of a higher-end car, including unlocking it, accelerating, steering, traction control, and braking, not to mention air bags, climate control, and entertainment.  They improve engine efficiency, warn when tire pressure is low, correct certain driving errors, and generally make sure things are OK.  We hardly notice them, but they’re always there, taking care of us.

The trajectory of this technology seems clear:  the driverless vehicle.  How long until we have them?  We already do.  Last year, in the most recent DARMA competition, cars navigated through an urban environment without realtime human intervention.  http://tiny.cc/O2tdy High end consumer cars now can park themselves.  Indeed, computers already do most of the work flying planes, piloting ships, and directing missiles.  So, how long until we’re required to give up driving our cars and let the much-more-safe-and-reliable computers take over?

This is a somewhat painful question for me, as a person who loves cars, and technology, and also has a soft spot for humans.   I’ll resist giving up (the last part of the) control of my beautiful BMW.  And I have some worries about becoming like the bloated and clumsy humans in Wall-e who had no function other than leisure.  There may be a middle way, though, between a human dominated world and a computer dominated world.

Just now, it feels like we’re an an awkward intermediate stage of evolution in relation to our computers.  A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran a piece noting that email and the internet had become a necessary part of a middle class vacation.  http://tiny.cc/CQqj0 I can confirm, as it noted, that in the last five years, checking email and the internet during vacations and weekends has gone from a novelty to a necessity.

When Blackberries first came on the scene a few years back, I initially thought the increasing frequency of people checking their email — whether in exotic locals, local restaurants, elevators, or bathrooms — was mainly a new type of status display.  It seemed to say:   I have new technology and I’m so important many people must get their orders from me, and I cannot pause to pay attention to anyone else or my surroundings.

Old fashioned ego is surely part of it, but I no longer think it’s the largest part.  The technology requires that we work harder.  It has made it possible for more people to contact more people (not to mention that more bots contact more people), creating an escalating flood of information.  This has an overwhelming effect on those who rely for their livelihood on being a bit smarter than others, whether they sell products, provide advice, manage projects, or offer services.  For those people, information is necessary for survival.  The flood of data in their in box may  include something important.  Success depends on knowing more than the competition, and survival depends on not falling behind.  There is no rational choice other than to try to keep up.

So how can we keep from being devoured by our technology?  That is the question.  Yoga?