If you think the digital revolution has been an unalloyed joy, Google has some good news for you. Everyone else -- buckle up for a bumpy ride.
According to a report in The New York Times, engineers at Google up in Silicon Valley are hard at work on developing a car that drives itself. You just climb inside, press a button, enter in some destination information, and sit back.
The guys at Google, of course, see nothing but the upside in this. As the Times says: "Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception, and do not get sleepy, distracted or intoxicated."
Let me add this: all things digital remove responsibility from all things human.
Just imagine it: your robo-car crashes into another at an intersection. Suddenly, it's no one's fault at all -- the blame belongs with the robot, or with the hardware company, or the software creators. Or some interfering electronic impulse from a digital dishwasher in the house on the corner where the accident took place. The blame is everywhere and anywhere but with the humans involved.
This is exactly what has happened with social interactions in the digital universe: misinformation is spread, feelings are hurt, all under the cover of anonymity provided by the internet. About a year ago, I was at a father-daughter Girl Scout dance, where one of the other Dads told me about his older teenaged daughter -- who had become addicted to "commenting" on the web. He described this world as something like a massive masked ball -- the anonymity freed everyone from any social restrictions, and unleashed behavior they would never exhibit in conventional face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice) interactions. When no one is to blame, there is no blame to go around.
Take this ethos into the world of driving, and you can smell trouble as stringent as burning petrol. Every driver of a robo-car becomes, in essence, anonymous: the human isn't really "the driver," is he? Did he mistakenly program his car to hit the Honda that belongs to the plumber down the street who overcharged him last week to unclog his toilets -- maybe it was a software error, or perhaps a virus from China attacking all Japanese-made cars in retribution for the yen's strong performance against the yuan.
Let's hope Google doesn't stop there: maybe it can work on, let's see -- how about robo-marriages? Fault-free from day one: if I forget my anniversary, not my problem. Raise my voice a bit much during an argument? Don't blame me.
I'm sending them an e-mail about this now.
Anonymously, of course.