Will Human Short-Sightedness Screw Up Our Next Technological Miracle?

Over at the the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo presents some great reasons to be optimistic about the future — 3-D printing, self-driving cars, modular construction and other technologies could finally transform our inefficient ways of living. But then he raises a good point: could human nature screw it all up?

Top image: Self-driving car, via Motortrend

Manjoo looks at the techno-optimist book Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century by Matt Rogers and Stefan Heck, a couple of management consultants. They argue that the transformation that's happened in information technology hasn't yet reached manufacturing and transportation — and when that happens, everything will change. We'll get self-driving cars combining with ride-sharing services and electric engines, to replace your unsustainable commute with something much more environmentally friendly.

Writes Manjoo:

That would create something like an autonomous car-sharing "train" in which electric vehicles would platoon down suburban commuter corridors, shipping people off to work, delivering packages or transferring us between high-speed public transportation lines.

This all sounds plausible. On the other hand, just as it is with our cars today, people could decide to use autonomous vehicles in inefficient ways, too.

That's the crux — you can try and predict the future vectors of technology — but good luck predicting the irrational behavior of humans. For example, people might never embrace self-driving cars, or might decide to use them in weird and wasteful fashions. If your car can just drive around and around without your input, what's to stop someone just living on the road? Pausing only to recharge the electric engine? Likewise, modular construction could result in smarter houses — but also bigger ones, that keep getting extended and enhanced like the Winchester Mystery House.

The whole article is definitely worth checking out. [New York Times]