In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach wrote the following about the Mercury Capsules that took America’s first astronauts to space, “the astronaut doesn’t fly the capsule; the capsule flies the astronaut.” Roach explained that this was evident from two test flights that took chimps to space and returned them to Earth. If a monkey could fly to space, then we could question whether the astronauts were really necessary, a slight tarnish on the otherwise impressive feat of being the first Americans in space. The question raised during the Mercury Capsules is still with us, and as technology in all areas of life automates, it is more common than ever. Do we need to drive our cars, or can our cars drive us? Do we need to go grocery shopping, or can the fridge order food for us? Do we need to work, or can machines work for us?
In our lives we all like control. We may not be piloting space ships, but still like to feel as though we are in control of the machines and destinies of our lives. We don’t generally like to believe our destiny is a pre-set course, and we don’t want to feel as though our machines are in control of us. Some of us may be fully ready for the world of self-driving cars, autonomous kitchen gadgets, and artificial intelligences that can end the world of work as we know it, but for many of us, each step toward automation is terrifying. Many of us fear what we lose, what control goes away, when we hand over more of our lives to machines and computers.
I think that for many of us, these fears are a little late. Our retirement savings may already be dependent on algorithms that direct computers to trade stocks at super high speed. We already depend on sanitary systems that are incredibly complex and virtually impossible for any single person to comprehend. Sometimes a single human error or ship run aground in a canal can disrupt global systems driven by humans, machines, and algorithms. The reality is that we really don’t have the control we always like to believe that we have. We are not flying the ships of our own lives to the extent we like to believe, quite often the machines, systems, and institutions on which we depend are really flying our lives. Fully automated or not, there isn’t actually that much that we have direct control over.
As we move forward into an uncertain and confusing world, many of us will have an impulse to push back against technology, innovation, and automation. We won’t want to accept that we are as dependent on machines, algorithms, and artificial intelligence as we are and increasingly will be. We will hold back progress and development, but we will only temporarily delay the inevitability. Humans won’t be needed for many things, and while that will be scary, it may open new doors for human potential that we can’t imagine now. We should recognize that humans have never truly had control over their own lives and destinies. We have always in one way or another been flown by forces bigger than ourselves.