And this is how the machines take over

Contributing WriterJune 7, 2014 

How would you like to have a car one day that drives itself while you just sit there with your arms folded?

That’s similar to asking: How would you like to take out your own appendix?

I have misgivings about a car that drives itself, allegedly avoiding trees, trucks, rivers, kids and cats. But we read in one news story after another that it is no more than a few years before the birth of an automobile that has the capacity to do the driving and, more important, do the stopping when that is needed.

Sure it’s probably possible that a car with all sorts of sensors can drive itself, but many owners won’t let it. It’s unmanly to give up the steering wheel and the accelerator and the brakes, leaving the driver sitting there feeling useless and emasculated.

This is not the first time humans have been the beneficiary of idealistic transportation that gets you where you’re going and gives you the thrill of the wind in your face and the bugs in your teeth.

I refer, of course, to the horse, the noble friend we replaced with a bucket of bolts. You could go either way with a horse — ride it fast and wild or take a nap in the saddle or the buggy while Dobbin can be counted on to take you back to the barn.

Living here in wheat country, a new vehicle has appeared among us, an unmanned vehicle already in use several years ahead of the car that drives itself. I speak of a machine that will take us accurately on a route up and down the field while the farmer just sits there giggling at the lazy joy of his job.

I’m talking about a combine, a big hulking machine, rolling up and down gentle hills gathering the gold that is wheat. And it’s already in use and not a future hope. This new combine, directed by GPS equipment, can guide itself up and down the field, turning the corners and following an invisible path back and forth.

The farmer goes along for the ride and watches it work. But he isn’t exactly necessary. He could go into the house and watch a baseball game on television and let the combine go on about its business.

In part, the farmer rides the rig only to deal with the possibility of an emergency — such as a malfunction that might result in driving the vehicle over a cliff or into a cow that can’t run fast enough to avoid being bashed by a horrifying wheat-harvesting machine.

When I was born, back before World War II, approximately 40 percent of the population was on the farm. Today, that number is down to about 2 percent. Farms have become super-automated. First, the horses went and self-propelled machines started to take over. Then the farmers found themselves with better machines, not just smart machines, but brilliant machines with doctorates in dirt.

Now it has come down to the day when, technically, the farmer will become borderline obsolete.

Next the farmers will disappear and the combines will take over, harvesting wheat and other crops. It is at that point that more and more machines will menace us before they finally own us and tell us what to do.

When that happens, we will try to jump in our cars and run for the hills, but by then, our cars will refuse to take us there.

And not long thereafter the day will dawn when our electronic toothbrushes will brush our teeth whether we want them to or not.

Bill Hall can be contacted at wilberth@cableone.net or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501

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