Just this week I had a delegation of German entrepreneurs visiting Silicon Valley, with whom I toured innovative local companies, met interesting people, but also took them to places where we encountered new technologies. So we drove to areas where a number of companies are testing self-propelled cars. We saw the Waymos, Nuros, Kodiaks, Zoox and GM Cruise up close and with fascination.
At the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, the excited CEOs and company owners then sat in one of the self-driving cars formerly used by Google, which was internally called “Firefly” by Google, but we were also known as Google Koala (because of the appearance of the front). The photos they had taken of themselves were immediately posted on all social channels.
Why are so many companies making efforts to develop autonomous vehicles? Because cars driven by people cause harm to a lot of people. In the U.S. more than 30,000 people die and one million are injured in road traffic every year.
One tour participant showed me then the comment of a Facebook friend about the photo with him in this Google Koala car. Under the photo it said “That takes out all the fun of driving a car.” The entrepreneur was uncomfortably moved by this comment. In the past few days he had met inspiring people and future-oriented technologies and had himself, if not already been open-minded about them before, then at the latest by me and the whole delegation, been put in the mood to first evaluate them from the perspective of chances and possibilities. And then one comment is enough to show that this approach is not self-evident.
How We View New Technologies
New technologies are often met with skepticism. Many have been afraid of the steam locomotive, this hissing and snorting monster. With radio and television, many predicted that people would become hysterical and lose their ability read. And now, of course, it is robots and self-driving cars that not only have accidents and could kill people, but also take jobs away.
The truth is more complicated. Technical failures and therefore accidents can never be ruled out one hundred percent. And professions will always be lost. Though, for some jobs you are not sad that they are gone. Who remembers the telephone switchboard operators, or the elevator operators, also known as “lift boys”? Even though every technology has destroyed jobs – or more correctly, professions – completely new and better professions have emerged, which also created more jobs than before.
Miners, for instance, were engaged in a dangerous, unhealthy and dirty profession that produced a product that was very poor from an environmental point of view: coal. The many new jobs that have been created for the production and installation of photovoltaic systems and wind turbines are not only less dangerous, they are also more environmentally friendly.
Coronavirus: A Natural Thing
A global crisis, such as the one we are currently experiencing with the corona virus, shows that the danger is often not so much the technology created by us, but something quite natural. A virus. Technology may have helped it to spread more quickly because we humans can travel more easily, but at the same time technology helps to control and contain this danger. Medical technology and drugs help to cure infected people. Soap and sterile products – both man-made technologies – help fight the virus and its spread. And mathematics and statistics help us better understand how viruses spread and what measures we can take to stop it.
Technology also helps us to make “social distancing” easier, i.e. the need to keep our distance from other people in such a crisis in order not to spread the virus further. Thanks to teleconferencing tools or cloud solutions, we can continue to work together. We can stay in touch and get information through the internet. We can have goods delivered to us by delivery robots without interpersonal contact, and thus without risk of transmission. And not only in public places. Especially in hospitals or old people’s homes, where people are quarantined and particularly endangered, delivery robots can drastically reduce the risk of infection.
Another surprising side effect caused by the coronavirus crisis is environmental pollution. or at least a reduction of it. Because many people now have to work from home, and it turns out that this not only works well, but can perhaps even lead to greater productivity and job satisfaction, fewer people drive around in cars and less exhaust fumes are emitted. Air quality in many urban areas has improved considerably. Who would have thought that the coronavirus crisis, thanks to new technologies and the inventiveness of humans, could have such unexpected effects?
Technology Makes Us Human
So we see that something we have created artificially – starting with the clothes we have on our body, the glasses we wear, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, every medicine we take, every vegetable, fruit, grain, meat and every product we have cultivated and frown for thousands of years, every product we consume – has made us more human. What we have created artificially allows us to spend less time on tasks that are essential for survival, but instead on those that make us human in the first place. To spend time with friends and family, to be creative, to live longer and healthier lives without worrying about physical dangers. The real danger lies in the “natural”, as we are once again shown with the coronavirus. But the cooperation between humans and technology makes us stronger.
The Limits Of Technology
But every technology has its limits. Not so much from a technological point of view, but how people use them. While countries imposed curfews in the coronavirus outbreak, some people feel patronized, do not understand or do not want to understand how the threat to certain vulnerable population groups in times of a pandemic works, and defiantly visit crowded bars and hold parties. And some do not want to be banned from driving by autonomous cars, even if they endanger others.
Against this natural stupidity there will probably never be an artificial technology.