In Tech We Trust
Election season in the United States has caused us to, once again, dive deep into demographics, both in identifying significant ones and redefining what makes me distinct from you. One split in the population that has stood the test of time is the old and the young. A rose is a rose, and this time we're calling it a millennial, a Gen Y-er who, at the turn of the millennium, was between 5 and 20 years old.
Interestingly, the dividing line in what determines someone Gen X or Gen Y roughly aligns with the proliferation of the Internet. Gen X largely entered the workforce pre-Internet, while Gen Y entered post-Internet. Possibly due to this shift, a Gen X-er and a millennial have vastly different opinions surrounding technology and what it can or should do.
Every day we're hurdling closer, if Elon Musk is to be trusted, to the rise of self-driving cars and the decline of ubiquitous private automobile ownership. Moreover, this week alone Uber both sent its first self-driving truck on a beer run and announced its next phase: self-flying cars that will take to the skies within the next ten years.
After reading the resulting onslaught of Internet hype and hysteria around what these emerging technologies might mean for the average American by as soon as the next U.S. presidential election, I found myself reflecting on my own attitudes toward technology—would I get into an Uber without a driver?—and toward humans, as well.
As a millennial working in the technology industry, I am unsurprisingly excited about the prospect of self-driving cars. Human drivers are prone to emotion, irrational decision-making, and distraction and, therein, are largely untrustworthy. When I drive, I don't trust anyone else to brake, to stop for pedestrians, or to obey basic traffic protocol. I'd much rather drive alongside an automated vehicle, which behaves precisely and predictably.
Recently, I was struck by an article that got only an afternoon's worth of media interest: a Vox/Morning Consult poll revealed a massive age gap in attitudes about emerging transportation technologies.
As you might guess, the poll found those under 30 have more favorable attitudes toward self-driving cars than those over 65. But more interestingly, among those under 30, 47 percent predict that self-driving cars will save lives. Among those over 65, only 24 percent say self-driving cars will be life-saving, compared to 49 percent who disagree. Almost twice as many 30-and-under year olds trust self-driving cars more than they would trust human drivers, with human lives.
The data we have, however, shows the belief that self-driving cars will save lives is irrational.
In 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 1.08 human fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. As of October 2016, Tesla's new "autopilot" cars have driven 222 million miles with recorded fatalities. To make a statistical comparison of fatalities per mile, given sample sizes of 222 million miles driven and the NHTSA reported 3,026 billion miles traveled in the U.S. in 2014, would certainly be a mistake. We simply don't have the data necessary to rationally determine whether we can or should trust autopilot cars to outperform those operated by humans.
So why does my generation have an unearned, irrational trust in technology?
The answer might lie in the late 90's. Millennials, like I, learned to use computers as children. We were taught to be skeptical, and rightfully so, of human users on the other side of our screens, but not of the screen itself.
What's forgotten is that behind every code, however, is a human. Behind every piece of glass there is, at some point, a human. Technology as we know it is entirely human-spawned.
So, is it another logical fallacy to trust a machine over a human when, in fact, behind that machine are only more humans? Am I only proving my original assertion that humans are irrational actors, not to be trusted, by admitting my own beliefs are irrational?
I have a theory: perhaps Millennials more readily divorce creator from created. Since I can remember, Amazon has delivered me gadgets that seem to spontaneously generate, just like a stork delivering babies to a hospital. But we all have to learn eventually (SPOILER) there are no storks, just people who believe in bringing something into the future. I've come to understand that to say that I believe technology can outperform humans is to say I believe together we can create something better than ourselves. And that's why I work in tech—because I do believe that to be true.
To trust in technology is simply to trust in the people behind its creation, to trust in our best and brightest, and that's something I can rationally stand behind.
In summary: yes, I would board that self-driving Uber. Would you? Let us know in the comments below.