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Automatic Pilot

David Bouchier

Summer time, and the living is easy? George Gershwin was a genius when it came to songs, but obviously he was no gardener. Summer time in the suburbs is just what it always has been - the season of the most brutal physical labor. A large part of this labor consists of dragging heavy hoses across the lawn, and then rolling them up again.

Eventually we rebelled against this particular form of domestic self-oppression and had automatic sprinklers installed, controlled by a small computer in the basement. After studying the manual for about a year, I could even program the computer to switch the sprinklers on and off at more or less convenient times, such as in the middle of a garden party.

This is just one simple example of what used to be called "automation" – instructing a computer to do a dull, repetitive job like switching sprinklers on and off, and never forget.  In fact, these sprinklers are smart enough to notice when it has been raining and cancel their watering for that day, which was not always the case when a human being was in charge. Robot lawn mowers are also available, at a price. They run around making their predictable stripes and circles, cleverly avoiding flower beds and sleeping cats, once again doing a better job than the average householder.

William Levitt, the honored founder of Levittown and the grandfather of all suburbs, believed that a house and garden would always keep a man fully occupied and out of trouble. In those days, back in the 1950s, a suburban home was indeed a full-time job, but not anymore. Now it almost takes care of itself: computers control the heating and cooling systems, even the temperatures of the pool and the hot tub if you have such decadent luxuries. The house protects itself with fire alarms, burglar alarms, and self-activating outdoor lights. If the basement floods, it will be pumped out automatically. There are remote controls for everything, and the vacuum cleaner has been automated as neatly as the lawn mower. The coffee maker starts itself in the mornings, whether we want to get up or not, and the laundry and dishes are all taken care of by our helpful machines.

I was delighted and indeed excited to read about a new robot being developed that will be able to put together the kind of cheap flat pack furniture that comes from big box stores in small boxes with a tiny sheet of instructions in Chinese, and which no human being is smart enough to assemble. But this is a task of such extraordinary complexity that the robot is still years in the future. Simpler jobs like surgery are already being undertaken by robots, and it is predicted that they will soon replace human carers in old people’s homes. Education is becoming an automated industry with a tablet computer in every child’s backpack and a broadband connection in every classroom. Teachers and librarians will soon be nostalgic figures from the past.

So we may confidently expect that in the future our machines will give us more and more leisure time. But what shall we do with it all? If William Levitt was right: the social problem of the twenty-first century may be not bored teenagers but bored suburban homeowners liberated by technology, prowling the streets looking for trouble. We’re not quite there yet. Children still require a lot of attention, and even cats and dogs demand the human touch. But you can be sure that somebody in Silicon Valley is working on that.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.