Events, Opinion, Science & Technology

Whatever Happened to the Horse and Buggy?

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

Two salesmen from a lighting control company did a presentation at my work a couple of weeks ago, regarding their new light dimming technology. Intensity increase and decrease buttons replace the traditional sliding dimmer, with multiple other buttons to program specific zone lighting and a remote control to change the setting. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly remember which light switch is for the living room and which is for the stairs in my own house, which makes ten switches on the wall seem like overkill. “What happened to the on/off light switch?” The marketer mentioned that he always counters this common question with, “Well, whatever happened to your horse and buggy?” Touché.

Let us get into a discussion of new technology on the market, which brings me to my first question: just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

Today we are farther than ever in the development of horseless carriages because, ready or not, we are well on our way to a self-driving car! Two weeks ago, Tesla released its new autopilot system for their Model S vehicles as part of a software update, which means the theoretically “self-driving” car is officially on the roads. Autopilot combines hands-free lane control and lane change, automatic parking, and 360-degree collision warning. After setting the top speed and preferred following distance from the car ahead, the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC) feature will adjust according to traffic.

Autopilot is activated by pulling twice on the lever to the left of the steering wheel, and deactivated by pushing it once. It operates using sensors, radar, cameras and GPS to collect data on lane markings and surrounding cars or obstacles.

Lane control requires either clear lane markings or a car ahead to follow, and will keep to the centre of the lane when rounding a curve with the system constantly updating. When the driver signals a lane change, the car will sense if the coast is clear before smoothly transitioning over. Automatic parking requires two other parked cars and a curb as reference, and is only available with the driver inside the car. It will also brake automatically in the chance of a collision.

These features are not entirely unique. Mercedes-Benz has had active cruise control for about ten years now; Mercedes, Acura, Jeep, and Volvo models have lane change correction systems; and self-parking is available in Chrysler, Ford, and Volkswagen models. However, Tesla’s combination of hands-free driving features makes it new and exciting, as the closest thing to autonomous driving right now.

As with any product, there is a right and wrong way to use it. For example, you must actually be inside the car. Drivers are advised to keep their hands on the wheel, and be prepared to take over control if necessary. If they do not respond to the periodic prompts to touch the wheel, the car will come to a complete, controlled stop. Autopilot is not meant to act as a valet or chauffeur: the driver should always be present and aware. And no, it is not cool to read the paper, fix your makeup, or check your phone in the car. Your newsfeed will still be there once you reach your destination.

These days, cars are not the only product on the market with artificial intelligence. Barbie dolls can now boast this same attribute, with the ability to converse with her playmate. Whatever happened to Cabbage Patch Kids?

U.S. toy company Mattel revealed “Hello Barbie” earlier in 2015, which is now available for pre-order online, and is expected to hit American stores next month and Canadian stores sometimes next year. Hello Barbie has an embedded microphone to record children’s voices and other voices nearby. The WiFi connected doll transmits these conversations to a server, where they are processed using voice recognition software to produce a tailored response, resulting in a unique interaction with each child. This software was developed by a company called ToyTalk, and it is similar to Apple’s Siri.

The “smart” doll is part of an attempt to boost revenue after Mattel’s profit dipped 15% in the first ten months of 2015 compared to the same period last year, as children’s entertainment moves farther away from traditional toys. However, Hello Barbie was greeted with negative responses from parents, branding the toy as creepy and possibly a spy.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is an advocacy group which launched a “Hell No Barbie” campaign, warning parents to keep this doll away from their kids. It has “has taken off like no campaign [they’ve] ever done”, with their petition to pull the doll off the market boasting 5000 signatures in less than a week. CCFC argues that the doll is an invasion of privacy, and will use this “trove of valuable information” from the child’s conversations for marketing purposes.

Josh Golin, the group’s executive director, worries that “Mattel may be cutting deals for what products the doll is talking about,” which would expose the child to advertisements or other unwanted influence.

However, both Mattel and ToyTalk were clear that this was not the intent with Hello Barbie. “All parties involved are prohibited from using the data to advertise to the child,” said Tom Sarris, ToyTalk’s head of communications.  He also stressed the effort to protect children’s privacy, saying they “have integrated a variety of privacy and security measures into Hello Barbie’s hardware and software”. In addition, Barbie does not have a GPS built in, and the microphone only records when activated.

However, the invasion of privacy is not the only concern with Barbie. Mattel says that, “The number one thing girls have been asking for is to have a conversation with Barbie”, and their goal is to have the child “become like the best of friends” with her. CCFC Board member Dipesh Navsaria, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, says that “children’s well-being and healthy development demand relationships and conversations with real people and real friends. Children do not need commercially manufactured messages.”

Final concern? Hello Barbie comes with a price tag of $74.99 US, which is almost $100 Canadian.

There are definitely valid concerns with both of these innovative new products, but as with anything, may I add. Regardless, the artificial intelligence available in these two products is amazing. Just think about what else is available these days: smart watches, 3D printing of human tissue, Google glass, self-driving cars, and the list goes on.

According to Moore’s Law, a well-known observation in the electronics world, the number of transistors on an electronic chip doubles every twelve to eighteen months, which means that our computing capabilities are growing exponentially. We are a lucky generation: in our short lifetime so far we have witnessed this explosion of knowledge.

Let’s first take an example from the film industry (and I hope everyone watches enough Disney to relate). The other day when I realized that Snow White came out in 1938, Jungle Book came out in 1967, and Lion King came out in 1994, I was very thrown off. When I think of the movies that came out in my lifetime, there is a world of difference in the quality of animation. I wondered how animation barely improved in sixty years, until I realized that, of course, the industry’s drastic change was because of computers. And when you compare these older movies to Frozen, for example, the shift is very evident.

Let’s take another example: cell phones. In 2001, they were basically good for calling and texting. In 2010, smartphones had 5 megapixel cameras, 1 GHz processors, and 3G data connections, and now in 2015 they have 20 megapixel cameras, 2.2 GHz processors, and 4G data connections. I found it ironic when my dad exceeded his data last month and asked me if he would still be able to text with his data off. I explained that calling and texting are the two most basic functions of a cell phone, and yes, as long as it is through his provider and not an app, these functionalities are still available. He told me I couldn’t make fun of him, because in his day the cordless phone was advanced technology. We have definitely come very far.

In the next ten years, the computer chip will reach maximum transistor capacity, with quantum computing expected to replace regular chips by the year 2020. This advancement will be huge. We are talking next level advanced here: the cure for cancer, harnessing the sun’s power as an unlimited energy source, artificial intelligence which will make robots smarter than people, mind uploading, computers installed in the bloodstream, memories stored on a hard drive, and finally “functional” immortality with the merging of humans with machines. Of course, these are just projections, but in short we can expect to witness the unimaginable in our lifetime.

So here is the million dollar question: what is too much technology? I mentioned earlier that just because we can do something this does mean we should, whether for ethical, practical, or any other reason. Here is the thing, though: technology is rapidly doubling and is not planning on stopping. Ever. Developers are not interested in whether or not they should be producing some new product or system, just in money, fame and advancement. So we have to use our own discretion on an individual level.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love my devices as much as the next person, and I’m all for newer, better and faster. If I didn’t support technological advancement I would be following a much different lifestyle by choice, and I would definitely not be in ECE.

However, I do not think there is any doubt that technology is making us lazy. At a very basic level, we cannot even do mental math anymore. Calculators are the simplest kind of computers, and as computing systems become more advanced we become proportionally lazier. I also think it is eliminating original thought. One can argue that there is no such thing as original thought, but that is a discussion for another time. When some random topic comes up in conversation, especially a controversial one, it is hard to resist Googling it to see what others are saying. Can we not think for ourselves anymore? While the internet seems to have all the answers, we are all intelligent and capable of forming our own opinions.

At the risk of sounding like a parent, I do not think it is healthy to be constantly plugged in. However, we live in a world surrounded by technology. There is no escaping it, and to be honest, who would want to? I’m also guilty of marathoning Netflix instead of sleeping, and sitting on my phone instead of studying.  However, I do think we need to be conscious of what we are buying and how we are using it. For example, parents are freaking out about Hello Barbie, but no one is forcing them to purchase it just because it is on the market. The same goes for any technology. After all, we still have free will, or at least we will until machines’ intellects surpass our own and they take over the world.

Whatever happened to the horse and buggy, indeed.

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