Science Fiction Moments in Life and Technology

Categories: AI and MLDigital TransformationAutomotive

We as humans have a tendency to adjust rapidly to our environment and to begin to consider it “normal” in a very short time. This has probably been key to the survival of our species: we can’t afford, biologically, to be constantly triggered by recurring events. Instead, we set a new baseline and then are “aroused” only by changes to that baseline.

We’re all familiar with entering a new environment and at first noticing a distinctive odor or sound—baking bread, a person’s perfume or cologne, or the whine of an aircraft engine, for example. Then, within a few minutes, we are no longer consciously aware of it. Although we see this same “habituation” effect happen at a macro level in the technology world, every once in a while the novelty of the situation shines through, and we have a little epiphany—or in the technology space, what we might call a “science fiction moment.”

When I worked for a previous company and was spending a lot of time in India, my company assigned me a car with a driver. Having a local driver was a necessary safety factor given the driving conditions in India in those days, and it was a common practice both for visiting foreigners like myself, as well as for many locals. Coming from the US and being used to driving myself, I found having a driver to be very awkward at first. It seemed absolutely unfathomable to have someone drive me to work and then sit and wait many hours until I was ready to leave. I felt guilty about it.

Even though having a driver in India was both common and reasonably inexpensive (by US standards), the idea that I was keeping an actual person waiting on me—literally—all day long was hard to get used to. But I did get used to it. In just a few weeks, I not only enjoyed having a driver, but I began to appreciate the advantages. For example, I was able to ask him to run errands for me while I was working, enjoy his conversation on long drives, and appreciate my favorite coffee “to-go,” which he’d get for me before he picked me up in the morning. In short order, I was thoroughly “spoiled.” While I still very much appreciated—and over time became friends with—my driver, I no longer felt guilty about his waiting for me when I was busy (unless I was going to be very late). In other words, I became thoroughly habituated to this new experience.

I see the same effect when I travel. I travel a lot on business, and generally I am so focused on my work that I am not too aware of the novelty of my surroundings. Every once and a while, though, something will happen, and I’ll notice what a fantastic place I’m in. We ran an architecture workshop for a client in Paris, for example, in a conference room that had an amazing close-up view of one of the major Paris landmarks, the Arc de Triomphe. As we conducted the workshop or took a break, I’d glance out the window and think “I love my job!”

There are other magical moments—a dinner with my colleagues in an outdoor public square in Lichtenstein, eating roasted chestnuts from a street vendor in Zurich on a cool fall day—that punctuate the habituation of frequent business travel. These and other such moments remind me of something I’ve become habituated to and so often take for granted: what amazing places I’m privileged to visit, and how lucky I am to do such interesting work with such great people.

Something similar happens with technology. When we get a new technology or device, we often feel a sense of fascination or delight. This quickly fades, and while we still enjoy the benefits we get from that device, we start to take them for granted. Then something happens that reminds us of what an amazing era we live in.

This happened to me the other day. I drive a Tesla that has a “navigate on autopilot” feature. This feature was introduced about a year ago (as of this writing), and I’m fairly used to it by now. However, I always enjoy how the car automatically navigates the freeway exit nearest my house. The freeway exit ramp makes a fairly sharp right turn and then a complete U-turn before it joins the major intersection that I take to get home. If you take your hands momentarily off the wheel, it’s pretty obvious that the car is following the road and steering all by itself. The other day I happened to be using Siri voice commands to send some notes to myself at the same time that my car was automatically driving itself around this exit and toward my home. I didn’t consciously plan these things happening at the same time, but it struck me very forcefully that I was having a science fiction moment.

The situation of having a spoken conversation with my “pocket computer” while being automatically driven home by my artificially intelligent car was literally science fiction just a decade ago. We’re not all the way there with either technology, of course. But every once in a while, something like this will happen to remind me that we’re living in a future that people only dreamed about just a short time ago.

I don’t think we can avoid becoming habituated, technically or otherwise; it’s hardwired into us as humans. I think we can, however, stay alert to situations that remind us of what exceptional times we live in, and what exceptional opportunities we have.

All the best for a joyous and prosperous New Year and in the upcoming 2020’s.

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