Signs of the times: 2 unexpected ways technology is changing the world

Technology isn't just changing the way we do our jobs, it's changing everything.

Image credit: Sony

Last week, I came across two technology stories so strange yet so compelling I felt like they should come from the Weekly World News or some schlocky science fiction novel. But no, they both showed up in the Gray Lady.

Taken together, their appearance in that most mainstream of newspapers, the New York Times, points to a world where technology is forcing us to rethink just about everything we thought we knew about how things work.

Forget about distracted driving

First, there was this story about how Utah Valley University was so worried about students walking around campus with their noses buried in their smartphones that it created a texting-and-walking lane in a stairway in its campus life and wellness center.

In fact, the stairway actually has three lanes – walking, running, and texting – and the whole thing started as a joke to encourage students to look up from their devices to avoid bumping into each other. But as often happens, the real world caught up with the joke, as the Times notes that the National Safety Council reported last week that texting while walking caused an estimated 11,000 injuries from 2000 to 2011. Although most of these injuries occurred at home, not in crosswalks or on college campuses as you might have expected, the problem can only have gotten much more dire since 2011.

Ironically, I'm not sure that this will catch on without the addition of even more technology. After all, if you're staring at your phone, how are you going to notice if you accidentally swerve outside the texting-and-walking lane unless there's a motion-sensing/geofencing app to gentle nudge you back into line?

Robotic grief

Despite the risk of injury, that story was positively light-hearted next to this one. It turns out that people are grieving over the "deaths" of their beloved pet robots.

Remember when Sony introduced the Aibo robotic dog back in 1999? The mechanical canines enjoyed a nice run, with 150,000 sales by 2006, when the company stopped making them. While they may have hard plastic instead of soft fur, the Aibo could "move around, bark and perform simple tricks," speak more than 1,000 words and understand more than 100, let you see the world through its video-camera eyes, and express up to 60 emotional states.

Although the technology may be outmoded by today's standards, Sony continued to maintain the devices (toys? critters? Pets?) until March 2014. And now that the spare parts are running out, the aging Aibos are beginning to break down for good… and many of their human companions are devastated. The Times video shows a Japanese Aibo "funeral," and the participants' grief looks plenty real to me.

I've gotten pretty attached to some inanimate objects over the years, but it was always clear that they were objects, not beings. With the Aibo and the more sophisticated physical and virtual robots that are no doubt following in its footsteps, that line is increasingly blurred. Questions around the fate of such entities have long been the subject of speculative fiction, but now they're becoming real in mundane yet profound ways.

I don't know whether it makes sense to grieve over an Aibo, but that doesn't matter. People are doing it.

See also: 1,000 Pepper robots sell out in a minute on launch day

And just like the "need" for walk-and-text lanes, that simple reality speaks to the unintended and unforeseeable consequences of the technology we create and implement. I have no idea what the long-term implications of cloud computing or big data or software defined networking or whatever the next big technological advance will be, but I can bet there will be some that nobody's thought of yet.

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