Who's Driving?

I’M CONCERNED REGARDING something in the news, and this time it’s not ISIS, the drought or income inequality. My concern is driverless cars.

Where will it all end? More than 550 years ago, the printing press was invented amid fears it would stunt the brain; people would no longer need to make up stories, they’d simply read those written by others. Jump ahead four centuries and folks in England were rioting over steam-powered weaving looms. Young Ned Ludd personally destroyed one of the new contraptions, resulting in his followers being labeled Luddites.

When I was a child, I no longer had to memorize multiplication tables — you could buy a calculator, press some buttons and there’s your answer. Do you see where I’m going with this?

In his 2015 book Rise of the Robots, Bay Area resident Martin Ford builds a strong case that current unemployment is not only caused by economic forces; it’s also a function of robotics and automation replacing human energy. “And those jobs won’t be coming back,” Ford states repeatedly. Which brings to mind conveniences now considered commonplace: ATMs, computer-answered phone calls, Internet shopping, digital cameras and Google maps. And now we’ll soon have robots building driverless cars. Which begs the questions: will our brains atrophy from disuse? And whose job is safe?

I took my concerns to Kiowa Bower, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics from Caltech and is a natural sciences professor at San Rafael’s Dominican University. “The human brain’s hard wiring has not changed much in the last 100,000 years, but the world around us is now vastly different and we can only adapt to it as best we can,” Bower assures me. “I think it is a natural aspect of the increasing levels of technology and automation that humans will lose some skills that were once an important part of our lives.”

As for technology eventually replacing human beings in performing an increasing number of tasks, Bower says, “Honestly, I don’t know if we can do anything about it.” And as for driverless cars, Bower rather embraced the concept: “Driving along while chatting with friends sounds nice,” he says, “or maybe reading a book.”

He does note that during this general surge in technological advances we are — possibly for the first time in recorded history — “seeing the present generation not doing as well economically and socially as did the previous generation.” But meanwhile, “automation tends to improve our day-to-day lives, freeing people’s brains to do more regenerating and rewarding endeavors.” Whether or not humans will take advantage of that opportunity for personal and cultural improvement is yet to be seen; so far, Bower agrees, the picture there has not been encouraging.

Regarding computers and artificial intelligence someday causing vast unemployment, Bower confirms, “Technology, primarily artificial intelligence, is taking people from the workplace and rendering them, for the most part, worthless. And that concerns me.”

Overall, what really troubles Bower (and me) is the long-range fate of humanity, an issue that even the eminent theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has raised. Few have benefited more from technology than Hawking, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease: computers write and speak for him. Yet he recently proclaimed, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

In Bower’s view, “it may not have malicious intent, but someday artificial intelligence — in the form of robots — could compete with humans for the planet’s limited resources”: water, energy, minerals, land. He has “no idea who will win that battle,” he admits.

While we may be getting freed from mundane tasks such as driving through traffic, are we taking advantage of that freedom by keeping our minds active and, in turn, bettering ourselves and our society? We all must think about that before celebrating technological advances such as driverless cars. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Marin Magazine and its staff.