A Pirelli magazine issue 1 / 2019

to ride
the fractious

It is 25 years since Pirelli launched its slogan “Power is Nothing Without Control” and today those words feel more relevant than ever. As we look to the future, what guidance can they give in the light of the latest developments in technology?

In a 1901 speech before a convention of engineers, the aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright compared an airplane to a “fractious horse”. A plane has enormous power, he explained, but it lacks stability. Just as an unruly stallion has to be tamed by an experienced rider, a flying machine requires the talents of a skilled pilot to achieve the “balancing” necessary for flight. The expert aviator, Wright suggested, acts as a kind of “peacemaker”, controlling the machine in a way that allows its power to be released with constructive rather than destructive force.

Wright’s words have import well beyond the realm of aviation. His equine analogy illuminates mankind’s fraught relationship with modern technology in general. Thanks to our ingenuity and imagination, we humans are proficient at creating machines of great power, ones capable of reshaping nature, society and even our own bodies and minds. But we are less adept at controlling that power. Too often, through negligence or a lack of foresight, we allow the horse to run wild.

The costs can be high. In just the last few years, we’ve seen how seemingly benign social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be used to spread propaganda and hate and to manipulate opinions and emotions. Many of the problems could have been anticipated and avoided. They stem, after all, from the dark side of human nature. But our enthusiasm for the beguiling technology, stoked by the utopian rhetoric of Silicon Valley, blinded us to the threats. As individuals and as societies, we failed to exert sufficient control over the potent new communication tools.

“Many of the problems could have been anticipated and avoided. They stem, after all, from the dark side of human nature”

In the years ahead, advances in computing will continue to raise dangers even as they open new opportunities for progress. Developments in the technologies of automation, from artificial intelligence to robotics to in-home sensors and controls, threaten to pose particularly difficult challenges. As machines become more adept at performing sophisticated intellectual and manual tasks, taking over work that was once the preserve of people, long-held assumptions about the human condition will be tested. We will have to arrange a new division of labour between people and machines, and in the process we will be forced to ask hard questions about our roles and responsibilities in the world.

“As machines become more adept at performing sophisticated intellectual and manual tasks, long-held assumptions about the human condition will be tested”

The biggest risk lies in forfeiting the very talents necessary to manage the power of technology. As Wright pointed out, a deeply skilled individual is often required to derive the greatest benefit from a complex tool while reducing the possibility of accidents or other problems. Even in highly automated systems such as autopiloted planes, there’s always a risk that the technology will fail or unexpected circumstances will be encountered, and human expertise will be needed – expertise that has been gained through experience. If we become too reliant on robots and algorithms to do our work for us – whatever our profession – we may sacrifice the opportunity to develop and maintain our most subtle and valuable talents. We’ll become wards of technology rather than its masters.

“If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds,” Wright said in that speech more than 100 years ago, “but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.” By seducing us into a life of ease and passivity, automation technology threatens to turn us into fence-sitters and birdwatchers, passive observers of the world rather than active and engaged participants in it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When well designed and used with skill, technology can have the opposite effect. By providing us with the encouragement and the means to develop and exercise our own knowledge and talent, it can open the world more fully to us. Technology’s power, when governed with expertise and care, fosters human flourishing rather than thwarting it. The secret lies in achieving what Wright termed a “balancing” – an equilibrium between the strength of the machine and the wisdom of the person using it. Without that balance, we risk creating a world better suited to robots than to people.

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