I’m a huge fan of tech, especially cutting-edge tech that holds the promise of saving lives, keeping us safer and helping us to care for our loved ones. Which is one of many reasons why I was incredibly saddened to hear about two recent incidents in which cutting-edge tech failed, allegedly causing the injury of a child in one case and, in another case, contributing to the death of a motorist.
On May 7, an Ohio man was killed in a car crash in which his Tesla Model S, operating in “autopilot mode,” ran into and underneath a tractor trailer. (Source: The Verge, “Tesla driver killed in crash with Autopilot active, NHTSA investigating,” by Jordan Golson, June 30, 2016). This was the first known fatality in a Tesla where Autopilot was active. (Id). It also appears to have been, “the first known death caused by a self-driving car… Against a bright spring sky, the car’s sensors system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway…” (Source: The Guardian, “Tesla driver dies in first fatal crash while using autopilot mode,” by Danny Yadron and Dan Tynan, June 30, 2016). The NHTSA notified Tesla it is investigating.
And earlier this month, a 300-lb robot security ‘guard’ on patrol at a mall in California allegedly “ran over” a toddler. The 16-month old boy’s mother said the robot “ran directly into her son — striking him in the head and knocking him to the ground. The robot continued forward, running over the boy’s right foot.” (Source: CNNMoney, “300-pound mall robot runs over toddler,” by Matt McFarland, July 14, 2016). Thankfully, the child was not seriously hurt. “X-rays taken after the incident were negative. The toddler has a scrape on the back of one of his knees.” (Id.).
The harsh reality is that technology (especially leading edge tech) will never be “perfect.” Technological advances often require many iterations before realizing their full potential and certainly before meeting consumer expectations and attaining mainstream acceptance. Even then, no technology is perfect. In ten years, self-driving cars will still be involved in accidents.
The question is not, however, one of “perfection,” but of advancement. Are we better off with significantly fewer accidents on the road (and thousands of lives saved), or are we so outraged when technology fails us that we reject advancement and regulate progress away? Do we value a drop in crime that results from automated robots patrolling a mall, or are we so incensed at the injury of a child (and rightly so) that we take all the robots “offline?”
I respectfully suggest that the answer is, “both.” (taking my cue from my three and half year old son who tells me it’s not “or” daddy, it’s “and,” when I ask him to make a choice he doesn’t like, either). Consumers and companies alike must reject the false choice of wholeheartedly embracing tech or rejecting it outright. We should be angered when tech fails us, and we should value and support the advances that the same tech has produced and enjoy the improved safety it provides. (See this July 21 report of a Tesla Model S’ Automatic Emergency Braking system reportedly saving the life of a pedestrian in Washington, D.C.). There will never be a time when technology is 100% fool proof. But if we can be deliberate and thoughtful about our approach to tech, if we can embrace the advances and manage the setbacks as they inevitably occur, we may then be able to improve our world, improve our lives and improve our communities through technological advancement without sacrificing who we are or what we value. Companies and organizations that understand, acknowledge and evangelize that truth will inevitably come out on top.