When I envision fully self-driving vehicles taking over our roads by the mid-2020s, I don’t see that as a specific new technology revolutionizing transportation. I see a combination of technologies, one among hundreds of such combinations broadly transforming our lives.
Self-driving cars require powerful artificial intelligence, batteries, and cameras, super fast mobile communications, and lidar, a remote sensing method using laser light pulses. These technologies are all getting better and cheaper every year, as computer chips have been doing for the past fifty years. The innovations are building upon each other, thrusting us into an era of exponential technological change.
Benefits will spring from the dramatic speedup of capabilities such as self-driving cars. But avoiding the thirty thousand traffic deaths we now have in the United States each year and being able to work or rest while on the road will not come without a huge disruption for the three million Americans who earn their living driving.
Business leaders and experts who embrace the potential of revolutionary technological advances will realize great opportunities to do things that just a few years ago were science fiction. It is up to us as a society to decide how to use these advances for the good of humankind.
We’re Becoming Cyborgs
For example, we have managed to combine advances in robotics, batteries, virtual reality, and brain-machine interface to let veterans with missing limbs control and simulate feeling in prosthetic arms and legs. The next step in connecting the human mind with computers will allow a disabled military pilot to control a fighter jet using just his or her thoughts. No one argues the inherent good of using technology to improve the lives of disabled veterans, yet at the same time, we need to be aware of where the technology could lead. Those same advances might also enable new and more powerful weapons systems that could destabilize the world and start new conflicts.
New technologies are combining in myriad ways to speed up change dramatically. I already have mentioned batteries, cameras, computer chips, artificial intelligence, lidar, brain-computer interface, robotics, and virtual or artificial reality. And more enabling technologies like 3D printing, gene editing, nanotechnology, solar power, quantum computing, blockchain, 5G wireless, and voice recognition will change everything from our biology to the power grid; from medical procedures to finance.
Someday we may use many of all of these technologies to order dinner at home. We most likely won’t understand what is going on behind the scenes, however, if it helps families get convenient, nutritional meals at an affordable price, most people will think it is a good thing for society. And they would be right. But, if we don’t apply a critical eye to the downstream effects of these technologies, we won’t be prepared for where they lead us as a society and species.