Blessing or Curse? Competing Visions of a Computer-Controlled Future

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Computers dominate how we live, work and think. For some, the technology is a boon and promises even better things to come. But others warn that there could be bizarre consequences and that humans may be on the losing end of progress.

Photo Gallery: Ceding Control to Computers Photos
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Federico Faggin has lived in the United States for more than 40 years, but he's still living la dolce vita in classic Italian style in his magnificent house on the edge of Silicon Valley. The elderly Faggin answers the phone with a loud "pronto" and serves wine and antipasti to guests. Everything about him is authentic. The only artificial thing in Faggin's world is what he calls his "baby." It has 16 feet -- eight on each side -- and sits wrapped in cotton in a cigarette case.

About four decades ago, Faggin was one of the first employees at Intel when he and his team developed the world's first mass-produced microprocessor, the component that would become the heart of the modern era. Computer systems are ubiquitous today. They control everything, from mobile phones to Airbus aircraft to nuclear power plants. Faggin's tiny creation made new industries possible, and he has played a key role in the progress of the last few decades. But even the man who triggered this massive revolution is slowly beginning to question its consequences.

"We are experiencing the dawn of a new age," Faggin says. "Companies like Google and Facebook are nothing but a series of microprocessors, while man is becoming a marginal figure."

The Worrying Speed of Progress

This week, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Google chairman Eric Schmidt opened CeBIT -- the digital industry's most important annual trade fair -- in the northern German city of Hanover, there was a lot of talk of the mobile Internet once again, of "cloud computing," of "consumer electronics" and of "connected products." The overarching motto of this convention is "Trust" -- in the safety of technology, in progress and in the pace at which progress unfolds.

This effort to build trust seems more necessary than ever, now that those who place their confidence in progress are being joined by skeptics who also see something dangerous about the rapid pace of development.

In his book "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future," American computer scientist Martin Ford paints a grim picture. He argues that the power of computers is growing so quickly that they will be capable of operating with absolutely no human involvement at some point in the future. Ford believes that 75-percent unemployment is a possibility before the end of the century.

"Economic progress ultimately signifies the ability to produce things at a lower financial cost and with less labor than in the past," says Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. As a result, he says, increasing effectiveness goes hand in hand with rising unemployment, and the unemployed merely become "human waste."

Likewise, in their book "Race Against the Machine," Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), argue that, for the first time in its history, technological progress is creating more jobs for computers than for people.

Transforming Industries and Lives

The information-technology sector is indeed becoming increasingly important. In the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the club of industrialized nations, some 16 million people work in this field -- a figure that does not include important manufacturing countries such as India and China. The trillions in IT sales worldwide already exceed those of other key industrial sectors, such as the chemical-pharmaceutical and auto industries.

At the same time, more and more jobs are being lost in traditional industries. According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, the most recent economic crisis in the United States and the collapse of many markets in 2008 forced US companies to make massive layoffs. Although production had returned to pre-crisis levels by the fall of 2011, it did so with 7 million fewer workers.

The new technology is shaking up all old industries, changing their products, revolutionizing work processes and transforming companies. Digitization isn't just changing work; it is also profoundly altering the way people think, act and live in their daily lives.

Eliminating Inefficiencies

A ghost car is driving through the streets of San Francisco. An ordinary mint-green Toyota Prius is negotiating the sharp, downhill curves at the end of Lombard Street. But there is no driver. Instead, there are numerous cameras installed on the Toyota that scan its surroundings in all directions. Processors calculate how far away obstacles, traffic lights and pedestrians are from the vehicle and, based on this information, they send commands to levers that push the gas pedal, press on the brake and turn the steering wheel. It's a car that has essentially taught itself to drive.

The vehicle is part of a revolution being spearheaded by a team of 15 researchers at the headquarters of Internet giant Google in the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View. The team is headed by Sebastian Thrun, a native of the western German city of Solingen who has been a professor of artificial intelligence at Stanford University for the last eight years.

Thrun is working on a vision of the automobile of the future, one in which people will eventually no longer have to own their own cars. Thrun cites some enlightening figures. The average car, he says, actually spends only 3 percent of its life in motion, while it stands around doing nothing for the remaining 97 percent of the time. The average street, Thrun says, is only used at 4 percent of its capacity, and yet new roads are constantly being built.

"It's about eliminating society's inefficiencies," Thrun says.

Yielding Control to Computers

So why not develop a car that you order with your cell phone and that arrives on its own controlled by computers? Why not control the flow of traffic in an intelligent, automated way that reduces congestion?

The example of the car says a lot about the issues of freedom and the loss of control in the digital age. Human error can have dramatic consequences on the road. In the Western world, traffic accidents are one of the most common causes of death. "Technology is superior to human beings," Thrun says.

Still, he doesn't believe in vehicles that communicate with one another, saying that it "would take forever until all cars are truly linked." On the contrary, Thrun argues, cars should remain autonomous, but they should also learn and understand the rules of the road and recognize when another car unexpectedly appears or a construction site suddenly turns up in the middle of the street. In Thrun's opinion, cars should be intelligent -- that is, artificially intelligent.

It doesn't trouble Thrun that this would mean allowing machines to control people and to deprive them of their autonomy. He wants to design a new automobile that virtually rules out the possibility of technical failure. Under certain weather conditions, pilots in the United States are no longer allowed to land their aircraft on their own. In this case, Thrun says, the machine has already replaced the human being. "So, does that mean we don't get on planes anymore?" he asks.

Computers on Four Wheels

The Google car isn't ready for mass production yet. It has already logged well over 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometers) on public roads in the United States, and the use of such autonomous cars is already permitted under certain circumstances in the southwestern state of Nevada.

As an example from Volkswagen demonstrates, these engineering efforts aren't just for sport. The company is developing a van that drives itself and can be summoned with a cell phone. "Such technologies will likely be standard by 2020 at the latest," says Ulrich Hackenberg, Volkswagen's head of development.

Indeed, cars have been rolling computers for some time, and new ones come equipped with dozens of processors. If we would let them, they could use facial-recognition technology to determine who is driving and an iris scanner to detect driver fatigue. They could also be programmed to automatically slow down to comply with low speed limits. The fact that none of this is happening yet has to do with the seemingly banal question of who is legally liable when something does go wrong: the carmaker, the chip manufacturer or the driver?

In England, the company Cooperative Insurance launched a program a year ago in which about 100,000 new drivers have agreed to be monitored by satellite. Now even the British Automobile Association has adopted the model. Drivers who agree to install a GPS unit in their cars that will monitor their speed, their braking behavior and how quickly they navigate curves receive a discount on their insurance premium.

When the insurance company Norwich Union tested the system with 15,000 drivers, the number of claims dropped by up to 20 percent. Since drivers know they're being monitored as part of the study, they drive more carefully. Indeed, the chips haven't just changed the cars; they altered driver behavior, as well.

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