Look Ma…No Hands!
By Patrick F. Cannon
When they work, computers are wonderful tools. They’re a Godsend for writers. I say this as someone who started writing longhand (including, if you can believe it, college papers), then learned how to type on a manual typewriter; progressed to electric, then the miracle of the IBM Selectric; embraced word processing; and finally, several generations of desktop and laptop computers, the most recent of which is now under my fingers.
I can still manage to write in cursive, as taught by the good nuns of various schools and orders. I no longer own any kind of typewriter, although I understand that many folks collect them, including Tom Hanks. They were, after all, wonders of mechanical design. Like all mechanical contraptions, they sometimes broke down, but nothing was lost except ones temper. When a computer fails, however, disaster may well ensue.
If you work with computers extensively, more than likely you have experienced a disastrous meltdown or two. Years ago, I wrote a brochure text of at least 5,000 words, which somehow disappeared from the computer’s memory. I had to rewrite the whole damn thing again, now under deadline. And it wasn’t by any means the only time technology has and continues to betray me.
That’s why I’m more than a little skeptical about the looming arrival of the driverless vehicle. General Motors tells us that they plan to have one available by 2019; Google, Tesla, Uber and others are already testing them. And, of course, passenger cars already have some of the features – automatic braking, lane warnings, etc. – that will be required for driverless cars. Even with the small numbers now on the roads, there have been failures and accidents. Imagine, if you dare, what will happen when the majority of vehicles – including massive trucks – are careening at high speeds on the nation’s highways when there’s a massive software meltdown?
Can’t happen? Really? Ask the many airlines whose reservation systems have crashed; or the NSA or Pentagon when their sensitive files have been hacked; or the many banks and other corporations whose customer information has been stolen or held for ransom. The systems that will control our vehicles will be highly complex, and will include radar, highway sensors, in-vehicle processors and that strange unearthly phenomenon called “the cloud.” Are you willing to bet your life that all of it works all of the time?
People who read this blog regularly will know that I often heap scorn on the science deniers – those people who, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to oppose child vaccination; believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will cause us to grow two heads; or that human activity has nothing to do with climate change, or even that the earth was created in seven days. And while I applaud the safety features that can help prevent accidents – and the more efficient and cleaner power plants that will power our cars and trucks – I still want to have my hands on the wheel.
And not only for my peace of mind. There are times when driving a capable car is a pleasure. Although it frightens my wife Jeanette, I look forward to driving in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania enroute to a family reunion. Driving past the most beautiful thoroughbred horse farms in the world near Lexington, Kentucky never gets old. And I’ll always remember a trip in early spring through Austria from Vienna to Salzburg and on to Munich. The world was turning green, but there were still patches of snow in the meadows.
Now, you might say that you could enjoy the view more if you didn’t have to drive the car. But I’m afraid most people would just stare at their phones, check their e-mails, text their friends and relatives or play video games. You know, the stuff they already do while actually driving. So we want to give up yet another of our freedoms for this?
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon