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Losing connection: Is autonomous technology driving us apart?

Social interaction could undergo profound change in the face of new technology. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

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Gareth Watson
Gareth Watson
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Autonomous driving is one of a myriad of emerging technologies that is starting to reshape our lives. But more interaction with technology could mean less interaction with humans. Are we in danger of losing the human touch?

“The fourth industrial revolution”, “the robotic revolution” – whatever it’s called, it’s happening. And there’s no escape. A wave of new technologies is washing over our lives, blurring the line between the real and the digital world. Ushered in by the unprecedented progress of artificial intelligence (AI), this revolution is characterized by the move from automated to autonomous – with the aim of freeing humans of any mundane, process-oriented tasks completely.

Intelligent robots, the internet of things, and of course, automated driving (to name but a few) are already beginning to fundamentally change the way we live and work. More often than not, these technologies are powerful agents for good: when compared to human drivers, automated driving offers massive benefits in terms of comfort, safety and emissions. But there are some concerns that edging technology in, means edging humans out.

Could it be that as we interact more with technology, we interact less with each other? And if so, what could this mean? World-renowned economist, Founder of the World Economic Forum and author of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” Klaus Schwab writes “I am a great enthusiast and early adopter of technology, but sometimes I wonder whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation.” And he’s not the only one.

Even back in 2013, a study commissioned by Intel Corporation found that even 61% of millennials thought that technology was making people less human. What exactly that means is unclear – but it seems to capture a similar uneasiness about where we are headed with all of this.

A day in a lonely life…

Picture the scene. You wake up and the first “person” you talk to is Alexa. You are given the weather report; your favorite playlist is selected and you go about your morning routine. It’s time to leave for work. You summon your autonomous car rather than take public transport. You ride alone, catch up on emails and arrive at the office. Human interaction so far: zero.

Now you’re at work. Your virtual assistant gives you the rundown and organizes your day (there goes another face-to-face interaction). It might involve a walk on the factory floor. Maybe it resembles Musk’s vision for Tesla – where only a few human experts run the entire operation. You’re also down a few water-cooler moments as human colleagues from HR, Admin etc. have been displaced by intelligent machines.

After a long day, you’re on your way home. But you stop by a convenience store to pick up some essentials. The AI cashier saves you the small talk at the point of sale. You get home and wait for your grocery delivery by way of self-driving pod – no doorstep dialogue there.

There will be fewer smiles and greetings if autonomous delivery pods arrive at your door. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Of course, this is an extreme case and not necessarily the kindest interpretation. For example, if the shared autonomous mobility model plays out, we might not be commuting alone at all. Interestingly enough, we featured a blog article in 2016 about how people would spend their time in a self-driving car. “Talking to other passengers” or anything similar never came up and according to figures two years on, nothing seems to have changed. Granted, the question implies a solo-commuting scenario, but even if every autonomous cab was full to capacity, would people take the opportunity to have a good old natter? Looking around in buses and trains today, the art of conversation isn’t exactly flourishing, and we have the smart-phone revolution to blame for that.

Still, the scenario described drives home the point. Such technology is quietly reducing the instances of opportunistic social interaction in our lives. Of that there is no doubt.

A feature or a bug?

Eliminating human contact surely isn’t the overarching agenda of the latest consumer technology. Or is it? In an op-ed piece for MIT Technology Review, Talking Heads front man, artist and author David Byrne argues for the motion: “The consumer technology I am talking about doesn’t claim or acknowledge that eliminating the need to deal with humans directly is its primary goal, but it is the outcome in a surprising number of cases,” he writes, adding “I’m sort of thinking maybe it is the primary goal, even if it was not aimed at consciously. Judging by the evidence, that conclusion seems inescapable.”

It’s difficult however to make that charge stick when it comes to automated driving. The primary goals of AD are clear and are always geared toward improving human life: giving us back time to do what we want, reducing avoidable stress and reducing avoidable death. Foregoing the occasional awkward conversation with a cab driver or delivery driver is, one could argue, a small price to pay for such tangible benefits.

But eliminating these micro-social-interactions with cashiers, delivery drivers, fellow commuters, colleagues or whomever it may be, could potentially leave a space for loneliness, detachment or isolation to fill – and that could have far graver consequences.

We are by nature social creatures

“Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills.” Now there’s a statement that gets straight to the point. It’s a key finding of the Harvard Study of Adult Development – one of the world’s longest studies of adult life that has been going for 80 years.

Loneliness kills: do we take the daily interactions we have with strangers for granted? (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The words were uttered by the study’s director, Robert Waldinger, during his Ted Talk “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” (viewed nearly 10 million times). Over the years, researchers have gathered an abundance of data that essentially points to the power of relationships and embracing community in helping us live longer and happier lives. Yet a study from 2011 found that elderly people were already being isolated by technological advances leaving them with fewer opportunities to meet people (and think how far we’ve come in 7 years).

In the spirit of the elderly, let’s talk about the “good old days”. The fact is, we’re still in them. Nothing is stopping us initiating social interactions today. The technologies mentioned are not yet widely enough deployed to use as an excuse for the potential demise of our social skills. If we value human interaction so much then maybe it’s time to look up from our smartphones more often and interact with the human that is still in the driver’s seat of the cab or delivering to your door. After all, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. 

That being said, the goal of 2025AD remains to encourage as much human interaction (albeit online) as possible, so please share your comments and views about what these kinds of technologies mean for our future.

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Gareth Watson
Gareth Watson
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