Automating Our Lives: Human vs Machine

Today’s world is spun by advancements in technology. It’s not the future we predicted 20 years ago with flying cars, no, not yet. But it feels like we are knocking on the door. Elon Musk of Tesla tweeted earlier this year that his self-driving car technology is just two years away. And he’s not the only one committed to the technology. Google is also formulating prototype vehicles “designed to take you where you want to go with the push of a button.” But the question remains―if Musk’s prediction is true, are we ready for it?

Google's Self-Driving Prototype Vehicle
Google’s Self-Driving Prototype Vehicle

It’s hard to imagine cars driving themselves. An incredible feat and concept but in actuality the idea receives mixed reactions. There are the autonomous appreciators who welcome sophisticated technology to navigate the roads for them. They are imagining all the time that can be spent doing things reserved for leisure or work that can now be done in-between errands or commuting.

On the other hand driving is a big part of our history and culture, and something we take pride in doing. Even when manual shift cars started to be phased out, true driving lovers mourned the loss of the ability to easily find such a feature in practical a sedan. The feeling of control, of powering how a car works, is something that an automatic just can’t satisfy. And what better sense of freedom and autonomy is there than taking your car for a long drive or road trip? It’s about a relationship with the road that you create with your car. It’s also arguable that the first taste of adulthood is sensed when getting behind the wheel for the first time. It’s a rite of passage―suddenly, the responsibility for your own life is in your hands as you maneuver a powerful machine. The thrill, the control, the ownership. Would we lose out on these experiences if driving is done for us? And, would we trust a machine to keep us safe instead of our own intuitions and life experiences?

Learning to Drive: A Rite of Passage
Learning to Drive: A Rite of Passage

Perhaps. But there is one thing we cannot deny: technology will continue to be increasingly more prominent in our lives. Self-driving cars are just one example to signify a huge cultural shift. We will only continue to leverage technology for things that were once powered by a human that can be more efficiently powered by machines, or things that are out of reach for a human that can now be obtainable via technological advancements. There are many questions nowadays around if robots will replace humans and how far it will go. Technology will continue to reshape how problems are solved, but if you ask me, not without flaw. It will also create its own set of problems. Frustration sets in when machines aren’t working properly and we don’t understand them. In addition, as humans, it is natural to want to do things on our own, with our own two hands. Accomplishing something on our own creates a sense of gratification and pride that we just cannot get from something automatic.

Image from MIT Technology Review article about computer-guided automation
Source: MIT Technology Review, “Who Will Own the Robots?”

We see this technology versus human conundrum constantly. In the promotional products industry specifically, we are often faced with the option of human vs machine when developing production strategies for our clients. It’s a part craft and part high-volume manufacturing business. We have the big vendors touting their latest technology that can crank out just about anything with a multitude of colors or even in 3D, and yet we still work every day with true craftsmen of their trade who do amazing and beautiful work that we haven’t seen large-scale manufacturers have the ability to replicate. One is not necessarily better than the other, but different situations call for different solutions.

I recently visited a smaller embroidery and screen printing vendor just outside of Austin with a group of other sales support staff. The first warehouse area we walked through was the embroidery area. A buzzing filled the room as computerized sewing machines with pin point accurate stitching autonomously decorated a hat with a logo. Each stitch is programmed through software and allows for up to 550 stitches per minute with dozens of them synced up in an orchestral fashion. It was quite impressive.

Sewing Machines Embroidering Hats
Sewing Machines Embroidering Hats

Then we went to the screen printing area, where there was a behemoth of an automatic screen printing machine that could print 1,000 shirts per hour. But it laid there dormant. Next to it was a man working diligently and hand-printing one shirt at a time. Although at first it was a surprise, I began to understand the reasons why hand-printing a shirt can at times make more sense than using the machine. It could be that a very specific design is needed with special care or attention, or that the setup required for the automated press takes longer and is more costly than just swiftly taking care of it by hand. Whatever the reason, this situation called to leave the automated resources for another time.

Imprinting By Hand
Imprinting By Hand

There is a delicate balance where technology and the human element intertwine. What rings true across the board (at least, for now) is that we still require both. Which means, we must learn to co-exist and accept that while at times, a machine is more efficient, there are other times when the machine cannot replace the human mind.

Moving forward with your day, week, or year, take notice of the situations in which you lean towards using a machine instead of doing something the old-fashioned way. Do you use the self-checkout machine or do you wait on the cashier? Do you use the ATM instead of going to see a bank teller? What types of situations may require you to choose differently? In which do you decide to trust a machine vs a person? And while these simple technology-driven conveniences are all around, how soon can you imagine the car next to you without a human driver? We may be closer than you think.

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