The social side of autonomous cars and technological disruption

In my recent travels through Singapore, I witnessed all that this city-state is doing to become a “Smart Nation.” My trip was instructive on many levels, but the primary point that became ever more apparent to me is how big of a cultural shift — rather than a technological shift — we all still need to go through to reach the future in a positive, rather than potentially fractious, way.

It’s one thing to be enmeshed in the ideas of self-driving vehicles, big data, the sharing economy and robots. To me, and those I am generally around, these ideas seem normalized. But when I talk to people throughout the U.S. who don’t often think about these things, the disruption is very real. The idea that a robot may take their job or automate what they do for a living is already happening, and it’s incredibly worrisome.

These fears, and the reality of rapid workforce shifts, are helping fuel the populist ideas gaining traction in the American presidential election — along with populist movements in Europe and Asia. Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan spoke about many of these disruptive forces during the InnovFest unBound conference. He discussed the idea that the global rise of populism on both left and right around the world is not a right-wing or socialist political revolution, but is in fact the result of us all living in a tech revolution.

Taking this from the global perspective to the very local, one example hit home to me recently when my 67-year-old father and I were having drinks and he started getting me talking about these things that I work on. When I inadvertently — and perhaps in retrospect, nonchalantly — talked about the potential demise of the people side of the trucking industry because of self-driving technology, the look on his face was wonder, mixed with a healthy dose of fright.

My father once drove a semi-truck (I remember riding in it with him as a child) and still knows people in that industry. At the same time, he’s a car guy who follows the latest trends. As a result, he is coming around to the idea of self-driving vehicles. To him, the fact that this technology will wipe out a lot of jobs became quite real that night.

The future does not have to be an “either/or,” but rather the next generation will embrace the “and.”

Whether meaning to or not, in that moment, the magnitude of this shift became real to me, if in a different way. By visiting Singapore, some of the answers to how we might approach this rolling disruption became apparent to me in other ways.

Riding in a prototype self-driving car that nuTonomy is testing in an urban environment was illuminating, if a bit shaky at times. The fact that they are testing it in real city conditions certainly gave me additional insight into how the autonomous car transition will play out in the next few years. This was the what, but the how is what has become ever more interesting. And, the how starts with education and moves into demonstration.

Singapore is prototyping a far-reaching educational program with students that really spoke to me as a parent. As they so elegantly and very bureaucratically named it, Developing Computational Thinking as a National Capability integrates tech-enabled toys into everyday learning.

Watching a four-year-old master basic coding, not as the end goal, but as a byproduct of play, made me more hopeful that my dad’s and many others’ fears of these transformational technologies overrunning the workforce and taking all of our jobs only be one potential future rather than “the future.”

Instead, through co-creation, these technologies can make us better and extend our reach, much like the desktop computer did for the last generation. Children integrating greeting cards with circuits and LED lights are still coloring, cutting and creating with their own two hands. The new things they are making are better, and it was visible to me that the future does not have to be an “either/or,” but rather the next generation will embrace the “and.”

Then I saw primary-age students, around 10-11, building their own driverless car test tracks, using the Scratch Jr. programming language. Seeing this was like looking through a window into the future — a whole generation of children that will grow up not only thinking that cars should drive themselves, but helping to shape what this new world looks like.

What will these children — and so many more like them worldwide — ultimately create? What will the future workforce do? Who knows, but what does seem readily apparent is that the makers of tomorrow, the creators of tomorrow, are right here in front of us waiting to learn — and then teach us all.