by Wade Maki
History is often divided into ages based upon a particular trend. The age of reason, age of invention, enlightenment, information and industrialization are but a few examples. Some ages are known for conflicts, others for prosperity. As we are 12 years into the 21st century, I’m noticing a trend that may make this the century we delete the human factor from decisions.
This summer my department was moved into new offices. Of course they are not new so much as new to us with some recent updates and fresh paint. One of the first things we noticed was how the traditional light switches were replaced with motion light sensors to automatically turn the lights on when we enter and off when we are not around. One might be tempted to see this as motivated by convenience, but one would be wrong. The idea here is to save energy (ergo money) by removing the human factor from the equation. Humans tend to leave lights on and so the automatic sensor is there to handle things without having to rely on flawed human judgment. Even though the motion sensor must use some additional power, it has been determined that the sensor will be more efficient than people. As with anything new the bugs haven’t been worked out such as the daily tendency for the sensor to turn off my light when I read, work on my computer, or just sit mostly still for awhile. Thus, I must pause in the dark and wave my arms in the air to get the sensor to turn my light back on. True to the trend of deleting the human factor there is no way for me to override the sensor.
This summer I made several airline flights to conferences and events. At every airport where I used the restroom I found a similar trend of removing the human factor from the equation. Want soap? Put your hand here and the sensor will decide how much to give you. Want water? Hold your hands here and a pre-determined amount of water will flow. Want a paper towel? Wave your hands and a predetermined (always too small amount) of paper will be dispensed. The goal, as with my light sensor, is to remove my decision from the equation in the name of efficient use of energy, water, paper and soap. Why this became of interest was that in one of the airports most of the sensors had apparently stopped working leaving only a couple of sinks operational. If you’ve ever seen a busy airport restroom this was quite a sight to watch as dozens of people were dumbfounded (they waved their hands in vain but no soap or water came). You see, as with my light switch, the ability for an actual human being to turn on the water or pump the soap had been removed rendering the sinks non-functional.
The trend then is for small groups of humans (committees I’m guessing) to decide that in the name of efficiency, safety, or some other good purpose, systems should be designed to remove human decision-making entirely. Lest you think that it stops at switches and faucets please know that Google is close to perfecting the self-driving car. As anyone who drives around others knows, the machines can’t possibly do it worse… can they? I suspect this is only the beginning of a century long trend of deleting the human factor.
If this trend continues what will life in 2099 look like? My life will be managed by devices that wake me up, remind me where to go and what to do, perhaps even when to shower (and for how long). My car will drive me where I need to go. Manual driving will be too risky to allow, but drinking and riding while on your phone is perfectly okay. My refrigerator will know what’s inside and order anything I need from the store, which may deliver it (or have my car add a grocery stop to my commute). In addition to managing my life, my devices will track and report my activities to ensure public safety (this is already occurring and will continue to expand). I could go on, but it is enough to note how some of these things we can see coming by 2099 and others are almost here already.
Of this trend most will ask the wrong questions. Most will ask “how does this make life more efficient and convenient?” Some will ask “what are the costs to us by this loss of control?” In both cases there will be important points on each side to be weighed. However, perhaps the most important question we should ask is “how does removing humans from decisions change us?” Who will we become when we make fewer decisions and cede more control to machines (and to those who program them)? By comparison we know how using cell phones has resulted in a generation that no longer remembers numbers and has forgotten many social amenities. What will life be like 2099? I can give you a rough sketch of this future. Who will people be in 2099? That, may be a much more disconcerting question.