The Automation Instinct
As I’m back in San Francisco walking amongst Knightscope security robots and constantly seeing self driving cars from Waymo and Cruise, I recall one of my earliest instincts, which I call the automation instinct.
From a young age, I remember being oriented around engineering and understand how things, especially physical things, worked. I was curious about the physical world, especially our inorganic, human creations. It wasn’t long before my young mind began to obsess over future creations and not just how things were, but how they could be. I remember specific examples related to my bicycles.
I would guess I was about six or seven when I got my first bicycle. I remember training wheels, fumbling around anxiously worrying about falling, and that gleeful moment when I discovered balance on two wheels and discovered that when in motion, I could fly like a bird on the sidewalk. I absolutely loved bicycling, and inherently also loved the bicycle. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about how to make it better.
I remember thinking, bicycing is fun, but pedaling isn’t. I wasn’t the the most athletically oriented child and I would get winded pretty fast, which is remarkable considering that for the first few years I only rode up and down one small street. I thought, maybe my bicycle could have an engine like our lawnmower. I wanted to automate pedaling. Before I got too far down that road, I got a new bicycle and my prerogative shifted.
The new bicycle was bigger, which was crucial because I grew, but notably also had many new features. My first bicycle as a child was a fixed gear and brakes only by backpedaling. This new bicycle had shock absorbers, basic hand brakes, and 21 speeds; 3 up front and 7 in back. In not too long this bicycle was equipped with headlights, tail lights, an additional shock absorber in the seat, and a Cat Eye speedometer. I decked out my bike with every imaginable gadget available on the market, but my mind went further.
I was excited about the 21 speeds, but quickly found them to be annoying. I erred towards the higher speeds (lower gear ratios) and found that I didn’t use many of the lower speeds or found it too annoying to bother changing into them. When I really needed to go into a lower gear, like when climbing a hill, I’d often drop the gear abruptly and too far. Changing gears became a consistent frustration and by this age, maybe nine or ten, I was aware that cars had automatic transmissions. So naturally, my thought was to automate bicycle gear changes.
My mind imagined an elegant future in which I would just pedal and my bicycle would intuitively know what gear was best and put itself there. I went comically far down that rabbit hole. It turns out there’s no elegant way to do this.
Unlike a car engine which has predictable power output and torque and different engine speeds, the motor that is the human body is temperamental when it comes to its power output and influenced by factors like strength, energy levels/exhaustion, and how hard they actually want to pedal. But my dream, an instinctual desire to automate, persisted for some time.
I looked into electronic shifters, and explored ways to automatically downshift when torque at the pedal exceeded a certain amount (kind of like the kickdown switch in a car) or even a tilt sensor. The sensors were solvable, but before tiny electronic shifting servos had become relatively commonplace, the actual gear actuation proved insurmountable, or merely not worth the trouble. I begrudgingly gave up. But looking back on that small obsession, I engineers still automating today are motivated by a similar instinct.
Sure, the laws of economics a powerful force that create a profit incentive to automate. But I know many of the people who have started the companies that do the automation. I see that they too were like me, interested in robotics and automation from a young age, before any of us were thinking about dollars and IPOs. I think there an instinct to automate amongst some of us that is more primitive than the instinct to make money.
My own automation instinct faded with time. Once I began driving cars, I came to appreciate the enjoyment of mechanical interactions that were not automated. I stubbornly insist on driving cars with manual transmissions and even manual seats when possible. This is why I respect but don’t personally like Teslas. For me input isn’t error; it’s the connective tissue that expands man through machine. Being in San Francisco today, I wonder where my own automation instinct might have taken me.
It’s clear to me that we will automate just about everything that we can. If not you or I, someone else will have the automation instinct and see it through. In the long run, economics should dictate that automation will persist. Through personal preferences may lead to the occasional retrenching. High end watches with traditional automatic movements, while still automated, are incredibly inefficient as time keeping instruments, yet still highly valued. I think many will continue to value a lack of automation, as we still value analog in a digital world. But overall, it seems automation will win out.