Owning a Tesla Almost Killed Me
What would our world look like if we all relied completely on automation? We're getting too close to finding out.
After three close brushes with death, I had a vision — a Black Mirror-meets-WALL-E future of humans floating around in armchairs with built-in technology that keeps them from ever lifting a finger. The surprising inspiration behind this dystopian foresight: my Tesla.
My wife and I have two cars. Once in a while, I take the Jeep Wrangler, but mostly I drive the Tesla, and I had been exclusively doing so for months when my wife asked to use it. I had a company lunch that day, but I told her, "No problem. I can manage the Wrangler."
I quickly discovered, however, that I could not. In the 45-minute drive, I almost had a driving blunder three times. I was veering out of the lane; people were slowing down; and I was barely catching myself in time to hit the brakes. I kept repeating out loud: "What the hell is happening to me?"
Despite three close calls, I made it safely to lunch that day, but in the final 20 minutes between my last slam on the brakes and arriving at my destination, I realized what it was that had happened to me: Automation.
Easier and faster is not always better
You can find it everywhere — AI, machine learning, sensors, natural language processing. People want products that make life easier. Instead of doing tedious tasks like reading, we can press a button to hear an artificially intelligent machine read for us. Ask Google Assistant to make a hair appointment, and a realistic human voice will do the mundane work of calling the salon to schedule it for you, maybe even with better social etiquette.
Automation gets work done faster, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Unfortunately, faster can also result in a reduced quality of product. A five-cent T-shirt made in a mega-factory in China, for example, might resell for $100, but the color bleeds after the first wash, and the seams come apart in the dryer.
But the threat behind automation is more than a few holes and pink socks.
More automation means less skill
This is why I found myself nearly wrecking my Wrangler three times despite an otherwise perfect driving record. After months of depending on my Tesla's automation, my skills as a driver had suffered. First, this dependency shows itself through small mistakes — a slower response time, difficulty turning the wheel — but soon it becomes a complete inability to carry out a task. The more automation, the more there is an inability to carry out any task.
What doesn't a Tesla do? It keeps me in my lane; it forces me to slow down. If someone in front of me brakes and it determines my speed to be too fast to stop in time, it veers to avoid a collision. Even without autopilot, I trust my Tesla to protect me, and in turn, I relinquish my effort and skill to the machine.
The coma of living in an automated future
The general goal of society today seems to be pointing toward a zero-effort future: automated calendars and emails, auto-synced signatures, user data collection. Even the tasks involved in booking a hair appointment — calling and interacting with another human — will soon become a skill of the past as automation spreads its ease.
But what happens when everything is automated? If a machine can feed, wash, and play fetch with your dog, why have a dog in the first place? What happens to the intrinsic value of having a dog and bonding with it if a machine puts in all the effort? What happens to the skills learned in caring for the animal, or even the understanding that other living beings need care?
What would be left to achieve if all we had to do was sit on our floating couches, ordering delivery and entertain ourselves without actually ever speaking to anyone? Why would anyone bother with anything? If you met someone like that today, you might worry about their mental health. If society were to become fully dependent on technology, this worrying state of mental health would become the norm.
When going automated, keep a clear head
We can protect ourselves from becoming dependent on automation by never sacrificing our commitment to quality. What can this look like in action? How about instead of drip marketing that list of 50 people with some automated sequence, you pick up the phone and call them? It might take more time, but a human touch in your efforts ensures better quality than a machine's work could ever provide.
Maintaining quality keeps you in control. The Tesla's automation is efficient, but if I had taken the time to keep up the quality of my driving skills, I would have avoided several near-disasters when driving a different vehicle. That day, I saw how easy it can be to lose control of my abilities when I let technology displace their quality.
Full disclosure: I love automation. And, I love my Tesla. I might not plan on driving it less, but I will be driving it as a regular car from now on instead of letting myself fall into the coma of its automation. Sure, machine efficiency has its benefits, but without the human touch of effort and intelligence in our technology, we run the risk of losing the effort and intelligence in our humanity.
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