Deliveries by drone and cars that decide whether you live or die: the future is here, but is it really what we want?
From simple web pages to the ‘splinternet’, our relationship with digital technology is changing faster than we can imagine
In the basement of Glasgow’s new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, all is quiet except for the whirr of electric motors and the soft sound of rubber rolling across smooth concrete floors. It comes from the ‘automated guided vehicles’ (AGVs); robot porters that are programmed to transport medical supplies, linen, food and waste.
Unveiled last year, the AGVs access their own ‘smart lifts’ to reach the different floors. They have sensors
preventing them from bumping into people or objects (and announce their presence with the words: “Attention, automatic transport”) as they travel across the hospital’s 166,000sq metres and 14 levels. They ‘sleep’ when idle and move to charging stations when their battery is low.
Stephen Whitelaw, Glasgow University computer science graduate, digital marketing consultant, social media evangelist and public speaker, cites the robot porters as an example of our digital future, a future that is here now. Another also involves transport: self-driving cars, but this time the benefit comes with a conflict, a choice between life and death: “They are designed to kill you; software has been written that will terminate your life.”
What is he talking about?
Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are being driven with your partner and two children, the car finds itself heading unavoidably towards a group of pedestrians crossing the road. Should the car brake, but potentially still plough into them, or swerve and smash headlong into a brick wall (or worse, drive off a cliff), killing you and your family?
What decision should the car be programmed to make?
According to Whitelaw, major manufacturers and Google – the most high-profile proponent of self-driving cars – cannot agree on the correct outcome. One favours preserving the lives of the occupants, no matter the consequences, another believes the number of lives saved should be the priority, while a third is consulting insurers on the financial implications of choosing one over the other. But, as Whitelaw points out, self-driving cars will be infinitely safer than those driven by humans, whether you are inside or out.
It is these contrasts that Whitelaw is adept at highlighting. Some are relatively well known. The quotes from Thomas Watson, IBM’s chairman, in 1943 – “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers’ – or Bill Gates, Microsoft’s cofounder – “640k of memory should be enough for anybody” – for example. Others, less so; a picture of a 5MB hard drive, weighing a ton, being loaded onto a Boeing 747 and another of Honeywell’s 1969 ‘kitchen computer’, that cost nearly $11,000, but at least came with an integral chopping board.
What message should we take from Whitelaw’s perspective?
The potential of more unique data being created in 2016 than there has been in the past 5,000 years, or the fact that 2015 saw the highest rate of divorce (caused in no small part by the leak of confidential information from dating websites). That young people have more information at their fingertips than ever before, or that digital detox holidays for teenagers is a growing business.
One certainly is that commerce and consumption are unstoppable; from deliveries by drone, currently being tested in Scotland, to wirelessly connected buttons that can be stuck around your house so you can order goods – toilet rolls, washing powder, cosmetics – with a simple touch and, ‘even better’, domestic devices that have their own IP address – a coffee maker, for example – and can order top-ups themselves.
Also, that we are entering an era of ‘mass customisation’; which combines high volume production with customers’ individual’s needs. Whitelaw said that 3D printing has the potential to disrupt many traditional industries and provide breakthroughs in health and medicine. Augmented and virtual reality will add layers of experience to our daily lives. A step yet further is the Google-backed company Magic Leap, which creates stunning holograms.
Our increasing connection with technology comes at a price; you will be hacked, says Whitelaw, by criminals or by your government. Countries are attacking each other; the site digitalattackmap.com displays in real-time the source and target of such activity. Social media can reveal your location: “If you are a terrorist, or you are having an affair, or if you are a terrorist having an affair, they’ll know.”
Even basic assumptions about the internet and the world wide web can be questioned, said Whitelaw. Email is dying, teenagers are deserting Facebook and the ‘splinternet’ – closed networks based on technology or geography – is growing.
If you are interested in understanding what the future might hold, he recommends visiting longbets.org, a philanthropic site, and “an arena for competitive, accountable predictions”, supported by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos.