Wednesday, 9 March 2016


Image from

Driverless cars symbolise our trajectory with technology - there can be no better symbol of transition from the 20th century industrial age to the 21st century information age. As the automobile increasingly embodies digital technology and replaces the human driver with IT and AI it becomes the embodiment of the coming robot-AI revolution - the automobile truly becomes the auto-mobile - built by robots and now driven by robots. In the same way that automobiles embodied and symbolised the challenges and opportunities of the 20th century industrial revolution the auto-mobile will embody and symbolise the challenges and opportunities of 21st century information revolution.

Throughout history transportation has expressed our relationship with technology: from the wheel to horses, trains, boats and planes - transportation technology has had a deep and wide transformative effect on society, culture and individual lives. The auto-mobile will have and will represent yet another historic transformative affect of technology on society, culture and our individual lives. While we still haven't got our flying cars the self driving auto-mobile really is like science fiction but we will no doubt take it in our stride and adapt as we live through it just as people adapted to the horse-less carriage .... the early days of the auto-mobile might see the equivalent of people walking in front with a red flag but eventually the technology will develop and mature and find its place in the technium.

The general current state of technology is represented by assistance - devices and systems that help us in our everyday lives at work, rest and play - from the blender in the kitchen to Internet search engines and the cars, trains and buses that move us around to the satnav and digital maps we use to find our way around. We are immersed in a world of assistance technology and as this technology becomes increasingly digital it will evolve faster - becoming ever more capable and intelligent.

I remember being impressed by the route planning systems in the 1990's - how amazing it seemed that software could work a route through the network of possibilities from the start, finish and travel options I entered. It was usually possible to beat route planning systems with local and personal knowledge and experience but they were very useful for longer journeys and in unfamiliar places. I was impressed by SatNav but also remember the early stories of people ending up in the wrong places or taken through very inappropriate routes. Today, SatNav is reliable ,convenient and in most cases better than us at navigating ... to such an extent that it is about to go from assisting us in driving the car to driving the car for us.

The evolution of driving assistance can be found in the stories of most digital technology - while some technologies fade away out of context in an evolutionary dead end those that find a context and ecosystem develop exponentially - changing from large, expensive and rare to become small, cheap and pervasive. Driverless cars are on an exponential curve.  For example, Lidar (Light Detection And Ranging) sensor systems used to provide the auto-mobile with information about its environment used to cost as much as $75,000 but are due to become available for less than $500, Quanergy Says Its Solid-State Lidar For Driverless Cars Will Cost $250 Or Less in 2016 and that we can see this technology to reduce to $100 or less by 2020. The US Government Plans To Invest $4B In Autonomous Driving Research Over The Next 10 Years and private Big bucks and partnerships are inventing heavily in self driving technology. Many predict  that assisted driving technology will be commonly installed in new cars by 2020 and that we will take for granted digital assistance and control from the Now style of Google Map's predictive driving mode through delegated driving actions like highway cruising and parking to the full autonomous driving auto-mobile by the mid 2020's.

I have no doubt that an auto-mobile will park better than I can and eventually drive better too - this is convenient but the problem comes when delegation turns to abdication. Through creeping conveniences we are choosing to take ourselves out of the loop and with eyes wide shut letting machines do more of our thinking - driving us from routine technological dependency to a matrix of cognitive technological dependency. We are not lemmings, there are choices - for example, Hawk-Eye is more accurate at line judgements in tennis than humans but the game chooses to use human line judges and a system of appeals to the machine rather than have only the machine - keeping humans in the loop adds interest to the game. I'm sure we will see decisions like this in the future - while some companies may chose to go fully automated for economics and control others will chose to distinguish themselves with their use of people.

Our future relationship with technology becomes a whole lot more "interesting" as on the net it will be increasingly difficult to detect if you are interacting with a robot. Machines will interact and collaborate not only with us but among themselves - in the future we will come across autonomous machines - they will not only be able to drive themselves but will work for themselves and for other machines.

Driving has been used as a metaphor of management machismo for decades - "driving change", "driving profits", driving this and driving that.  Driving technology is set to flip this metaphor - already managers are more than proud to call themselves "data driven" .... but this style of management is amenable to replacement by machines while at the same time workers seem to prefer working for robots.

The exponential trajectory of driverless technology can be seen in many emerging technologies of our time such as AI, Robotics, 3D printing, AR, VR, 360 and 3D imagery. While we overestimate the impacts of change in the short term, we underestimate the impacts of change in the longer term. While these technologies will become very interesting in five years time, in ten years time they look set to tip us into an emergent combinatorial, immersive and pervasive technology environment  - a singularity in terms of rapid change and complexity that while the horizon moves towards our feet we cannot see over it to predict even that far ahead.

New relationships with technology together with the scope, scale, speed and complexity of changes due to come at us from an increasingly connected digital world will present significant challenges to society. Developing our education systems to prepare future generations will be crucial in accommodating impending future shock. The world economic forum recognises the problems we face - in their recent report The Future of Jobs they warn that

“During previous industrial revolutions, it often took decades to build the training systems and labour market institutions needed to develop major new skill sets on a large scale. Given the upcoming pace and scale of disruption brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, this is simply not be an option. Without targeted action today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with futureproof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality, and businesses with a shrinking consumer base"

The World Economic Forum recommends rethinking education systems and incentivizing lifelong learning - saying that

"Most existing education systems at all levels provide highly siloed training and continue a number of 20th century practices that are hindering progress" and that "Businesses should work closely with governments, education providers and others to imagine what a true 21st century curriculum might look like."

Our education systems are stuck teaching our future generations the very skills that are threatened by driverless technologies - memory based and logical rational analytical reductionist "left brain" style skills that are easy to test and measure but also easy to replace with machines.

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass also highlights the problem 

"Factories now are almost all completely automated.... We’re not going to create those kinds of jobs. The question is, Can we create other and even better jobs?  We need to reform the American education system.  We’re educating people in some ways for a future that doesn’t exist anymore, and I think that’s a real crime that we’re perpetrating on our children. The future is going to be in taking their knowledge and creativity and passion and turning it into interesting things"

Our education systems are teaching future generations to be drivers in a driverless future. Our education systems must shift from teaching people how to navigate to teaching people how to explore. Machines excel at navigation - our education systems must rebalance and shift from teaching people those things which machines can do better than us to teaching things that people still do better than machines - imagination, creativity, holistic and synthetic thinking and most of all the ability to learn rather than just remember because the future is unknown.

The World Economic Forum warns:

"It is our actions today that will determine whether we head towards massive displacement of workers or the emergence of new opportunities."

No comments:

Post a Comment