On Sunday night, a woman riding a bicycle in Tempe, Ariz., was killed by a self-driving Uber SUV in what has been reported as the first death caused by autonomous technology in the United States.
It is fair to say that we are entering an era of unprecedented technological progress and productivity — over the past 40 years, we have witnessed exponential growth in areas like computing efficiency, computer memory and non-commercial flight distance.
But this technological boom has not come without its fair share of problems, and the recent Uber-related death may just represent the tip of the iceberg as it relates to the dangers of autonomous technologies becoming increasingly public. If anything, this should serve as a warning to our computer-crazed society that we should take a step back and see if the upward trend of technological progress is really the safest direction to be traveling in.
Earlier this month, I attended a talk in Chicago by Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times. Friedman, who writes as the newspaper’s foreign affairs columnist, was speaking about his newest book, “Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration.”
Friedman’s book describes the ways in which the current era of technological revolution is reshaping various elements of our society, ranging from the climate to politics to the workplace. The name of the book came from a personal anecdote: One time, when a colleague ran 15 minutes late to a meeting and frantically apologized upon arrival, Friedman responded by thanking him for being late. The extra 15 minutes had allowed Friedman to collect his thoughts on a topic that was escaping him.
His book boiled down to the idea that technology is increasing at a rate humans cannot keep up with, and in the process of trying to keep up, we often forget to slow down — even when it might be beneficial.
The events that transpired Sunday in Tempe present an additional piece of evidence that both supports and complicates Friedman’s narrative.
Insofar as Friedman talks about the dangers of technology — the exponential increase in global warming and the straining of geopolitical tensions due to globalization — the death of the Tempe woman fits in this narrative.
And while this was the first death caused by autonomous technology, it is not the first time a similar incident has occurred. In 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board partially faulted Tesla for a deadly crash involving its autopilot system in Florida, and earlier this year a self-driving Uber car ran a red light in California, prompting the removal of all such cars by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Similarly, in the wake of this recent tragedy, Uber announced that they would halt the testing of all autonomous vehicles in the United States and Canada.
In his book, Friedman attests to the exponential development of technologies over time, demonstrated by Moore’s Law, a 1965 theory created by Intel Co-Founder George Moore that argues for the doubling of computer power every two years at the same cost. However, the shutdown of Uber’s self-driving car program represents a technology giant slowing down their own trajectory for fear of negative consequences — a clear departure from Friedman’s narrative.
This is all to say that while Friedman gives us guidance on how to keep up with technology, we may be better off staying in place.
Friedman’s end goal is to prove that there are ways for humans to catch up to the rate of technological progress, such as inventing new algorithms that make educating and governing more widely applicable and efficient. He claims that when humans do catch up, it will make technology all the more powerful and helpful for countries across the world.
While the benefits of this type of growth are high, the risks are even higher. As firms continue to compete for the fastest computing power, replacing humans day by day, it comes at a cost that may even equate to a human life.
So what does this mean for the average college student?
It means confronting the technology obsessions that resonate through each of our daily lives, from food delivery applications to cash transfer services. It means taking a moment, or two, to slow down and realize that the dangers of technology may not be present immediately, but have wide-ranging, tangible consequences.
It might even mean taking your foot off the gas when you’re running late to a meeting or lecture — trust me, your classmates won’t go anywhere.
Ben Charlson can be reached at email@example.com