Fly on the Wall—Wired to the IT’s

Technology, that manna from nerd heaven that turns slinky skateboarders into sedentary specimens and geeky weirdos into well-heeled billionaires, in our times has assumed the mantle of a Good Thing.  When deployed properly, the wisdom goes, there’s a general consensus that technology can wend us out of many a challenge.  This parallels the delicious synchronicity whereby ideas and methods of a given academic discipline become part and parcel of our adult life.

Ominously, our certainty in a method or process can blind us to mounting evidence of the idiocy of our ways.  A personal example is where, in the Blackberry epoch, I attempted to conduct my life’s outdoor note-taking on a screen despite the reality of the sun’s glare.  Only when I concluded that no tech could improve on my low-tech pen and notepad was a eureka moment encountered.  Sometimes the best of us are ensnared by the very processes of reasoning that our cherished academic discipline, or cultural milieu, elevate to the level of cosmic certainty.

Instances abound where silos of meaning reduce cognitive visibility and critical thinking.  While we freely admit that not all prevailing wisdoms are without their blind spots, the more prevalent a reality appears the less we are likely to question the status quo.  Put simply, dominant beliefs can overwhelm common sense.  Take EV’s if you please.  The electrified Tesla car brand has, despite much fanfare, lurked as a bottom feeder on the JP Power and Associates new car safety index—not least of which for the Tesla’s propensity to on occasion go off on a motoring tangent of its own doing—seemingly without the willing participation of its driver.

Being hijacked by a freeway exit ramp amidst the turgid tumult of lugubrious Edmonton traffic is one thing, but having one’s ride literally wheel us down a side street in the wrong direction is normally a circumstance reserved for sophomoric comedy movies and mental health institution horror films (such as Leonardo DiCaprio strapped to a gurney in Shutter Island).  However, if you believe the press releases, the prevailing problem with Tesla is merely that the driver took the concept of autonomous navigation all-too seriously.  As it happens, self-driving cars no more drive themselves than academic essays magically write themselves.

So, after thousands of crashes from China to California, Tesla laid off every last member of its brake engineering team.  “As we continue to optimize Tesla’s engineering force for the future, we’ve made the difficult decision to streamline certain areas.  Braking technology, while undeniably crucial in traditional automotive design, is being re-evaluated in the context of Tesla’s industry-leading autonomous driving systems.” Maybe the brakes were faultier than we were led to believe? In any case, there’s a case to be made that the more technology applied to a car the less safe we might be justified in feeling.  The reason Tesla gives is that cars of the future won’t even have brakes!

Apparently, for the cars to come the concept of a brake will become as obsolete as the namesake of the original automobile: the horseless carriage.  During the roll-out of the first cars a little over one hundred years ago drivers found that they now couldn’t be so convivial with their lady friend while their noble steed did the lion’s share of the steering and guiding, naturally avoiding walls, trees and people.  After all, a living, breathing, being (horse or human) naturally avoids bonking its snout into oncoming traffic.  Blinders, the most primitive of be-here-now visual technology keep horses whinnying on the mental straight and narrow, safeguarded against distractions such a fetching young mare waving her tale in the air over on the sidewalk.  Were but human drivers possessed of an App for that!

In any case, 2024’s autonomous cars seem to make driving so easy that the very technology that is meant to avoid crashes rears up and bites them in the supine back sides.  It’s like, first there was no horse for the cart and then there was no horse before the cart and now we’re the horses without blinders pulling ourselves by the reins at the mercy of mindless technology.  Who’s putting the horse before the cart on who?  It’s a bit dizzying and would make hay for a late-night comedy skit if only the results weren’t so tragic.

Ironically, following high profile crash deaths Tesla’s certainty that driver error was to blame came from more digital excrescence: security surveillance cameras revealed an absence of telltale glowing brake lights on the part of the offending vehicle.  This purportedly showed that the driver hadn’t performed the task of applying manual foot labour to the brake pedal.  Yet, anyone who’s ever deigned to visit a local Lordco to buy a replacement bulb for their car’s brake lights knows that a light being on or off is by no means the key indicator of whether one’s brake lines are functioning! Car and Driver Magazine reports that in recent years half a million instances of nonconsensual acceleration without braking are under review – such as a Tesla that “suddenly accelerated over the curb and into a structure, breaking the windshield of the car.”

To top it all off, let us to remember that almost all cars nowadays have a crucial computer running things that we often can’t begin to understand  – the Bentley that seemed to go out of control before crashing at the Rainbow Bridge border crossing in Ontario is one mysterious instance, and with the Black Box damaged it remains a possible case of a too-wired realm going haywire.  We might also remember, with a grin, that without the ability to gleefully crumple up a sheet of paper before chucking it in the wastepaper basket, many a laptop-bound writer struggles to release pent-up aggravation.  Who’s to say at some nether-worldly karmic level computers, too, need a release from their own maddening glitching ways.  Unlike locomotives of yore and cars until now, EVs have no ability to excrete an effluvia, to let off steam—yet maybe they still have a need! To be sure, my town’s main tourist attraction, an old steam train, is in many ways most alluring precisely for the exhaust plumes it creates!  But in all seriousness, like a horse that goes haywire for no apparent reason and bucks its rider, the matter remains that EV’s are culturally still seen more as panacea than pain in the rump.  The value in our university education, as always, lies in our ability to think other than with the consensus, to move against the current enough to glean new perspectives – lest we drive the wrong way in the traffic of history!

That future history may be closer, and more calamitous, than we would imagine.  A new technology of war has emerged: Artificial Intelligence as the pilot of nuclear fighter jets.  HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey with a vengeance, if ever:

“The AI-controlled F-16, called Vista, flew Kendall in lightning-fast maneuvers at more than 550 miles an hour that put pressure on his body at five times the force of gravity.  It went nearly nose to nose with a second human-piloted F-16 as both aircraft raced within 1,000 feet of each other, twisting and looping to try to force their opponent into vulnerable positions.

At the end of the hourlong flight, Kendall climbed out of the cockpit grinning.  He said he’d seen enough during his flight that he’d trust this still-learning AI with the ability to decide whether or not to launch weapons…Even though the technology is not fully developed, the service is planning for an AI-enabled fleet of more than 1,000 unmanned warplanes to be operating by 2028.”

Perhaps there’s hope that a nuclear fighter jet would disobey orders and decide not to drop a planet-wrecking bomb.  That depends on whether its programmers overcome the tendency in our times to believe that orders, commands, restrictions, and demands are given by those who know what they’re doing.  Hey, video games have secret hacks built into them, so you never know!  Maybe, in true Revenge of the Nerds fashion, AI-powered unmanned F-16s would have an inner loophole that would prevent their top brass masters, or an elected buffoon, from enacting a Final Solution on humanity under the guise of peacekeeping or fighting tyranny.  Only time will tell, but we can be sure that we feeling, thinking, humans will bear the consequences.

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