Wednesday 21 February 2018

New world order: 'software will eat the world'

The self-driving car makes Sarah Carey nostalgic for a vanishing era, and fearful about a future without privacy

Sarah Carey
Sarah Carey

A few weeks ago, my father was at an agricultural show which featured a threshing mill. It's an old farm machine that separates the sheaves of wheat into straw, grain and chaff. Threshing was one of the highlights of the farm year, and for old men and women, its rhythmic sound still provides a thrill.

Fortunately, the belt came off the mill half way through the display. Yes, fortunately, because there's no fun in threshing unless something breaks. I stood with the old men observing the proceedings, listening as they confidently diagnosed the problem in low mutterings. ("They hadn't the tractor lined up right." "Aye.")

After consultations and manoeuvering, the tractor was coaxed back into line. As the machine roared into action, to the immense satisfaction of the aged assembly, I had a twinge of regret. "They're all going to die. And will there be anyone left who can fix a machine?"

One day, on the M7, my highly capable brother discovered that he couldn't change a tyre, because the wheel nuts had been tightened with an air gun. He had to get the AA to perform the task - one which, a decade ago, represented the pinnacle of female empowerment. The woman who could change a tyre was truly emancipated. Now, even a man can't manage it.

It gets worse. We face the inevitable rise of the self-driving car. Within a generation, not only will no one know how to fix a car; they won't be able to drive one, either.

Perhaps because I grew up in the country, where sustainability was an imperative, not a slogan, this development afflicts me with the anxiety that humanity is becoming de-skilled to potentially dangerous proportions.

A friend assured me that self-driving cars are the equivalent to curing a major disease. Road deaths and injuries are overwhelmingly caused by driver error, so tens of thousands of lives each year will be saved, and multiples of that number spared life-altering injuries. When I expressed my fears that we're losing more and more autonomy to machines when we have absolutely no understanding of how they work, he reminded me that I don't know how a plane works, but millions of people use them daily. And trains. And buses. I don't even know how the microwave works, but it's an integral part of our lives.

But the Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen has quipped that "software will eat the world". He's talking about the Internet Of Things, or IoT. It means that all our appliances and machines will be connected to each other and to the internet.

Once upon a time, you washed your own dishes. Then you got a dishwasher, but a man had to come and fix it. In the next generation of appliances, Siemens will know when the dishwasher is broken and how often you wash your dishes.

Lots of people might even like that, or at least become accustomed to externalising basic information. And so, the Big Brother world of constant surveillance comes not through oppression, but this willing exchange of privacy for convenience.

Perhaps people will be safer when a computer is driving that car, but Google will know where you went yesterday, and predict where you want to go today, and tomorrow. If you veer off course, or just change your mind, the car will want to know why. It will log your journeys, and where will that information end up? With employers? Government departments? The police?

Perhaps I have the mind of a sinner, but I don't like this world in which too many people will know too many things about my domestic habits and once-private mistakes.

The regular car once seemed magical, just as a self-driving car does now, and no doubt we'll adjust. But everything comes at a cost, and I imagine that my generation will be the last that watched old men fix old machines, and felt engines and hearts burst into a life long gone.

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