And the voice said, 'Welcome to the future'

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

            I’m dropped off at work. I turn to tell the driver good-bye but there’s no one there. Still, I’m told to “have a nice day” as I exit the car.

            I approach my building. The door opens automatically, greets me by name and asks if my son’s cold is better. “Yes, thank you,” I say out loud.

            Am I hearing voices? Yes, but really I’m probably just catching a glimpse of a whisper into a few short years in the future – a future of driverless cars, cute robots, “sentient” buildings, brand-new jobs, artificial intelligence and a whole range of ideas and devices that are already disrupting our routines, tinkering with our daily lives and changing the story of Arizona.

            That’s what I learned last week at the annual State of Our State Conference, which carried a theme of Innovations Poised to Transform Arizona’s Transportation and Workforce. Organized for the ninth year by ASU Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the event featured presentations and panel discussions that probed the pitfalls and possibilities that are coming just down the road.

            Speaking of roads, we’ve already heard about driverless cars and ride-sharing. But how much do we know about their coming impacts on traffic congestion, commuting patterns, light rail, parking, public safety, cybersecurity or the need for reconfigured infrastructure? We heard a lot about it Tuesday from Bob Hazlett of MAG (Maricopa Association of Governments), Carlos Contreras from Intel Corp. and Rena Davis from Lyft.

            But we also learned how much more there is, and will be, to learn.

            We’re talking here about the Share Economy – wait, I mean the Gig Economy, or the Peer-2-Peer Economy, or maybe the Access Economy. These are some of the labels for the paradigm shift that is now underway, according to San Diego law professor Orley LobeI, a speaker at the conference. Business as usual (think shopping, video and record stores, ordering dinner) is being disrupted by a seemingly constant stream of innovations – innovations that are sending out widening ripples of change in in the areas of regulation, taxation, safety, health and more.

            The bad news is that some, perhaps many, traditional jobs are being eliminated, noted Jaime Casap of Google, whose job title (honestly) is Education Evangelist. The good news is that many new jobs are coming, including those in fields we haven’t yet heard of. Meanwhile, said Luke Tate of ASU’s Opportunities Initiatives, we must be vigilant to ensure that this wondrous evolving technology is made available to the largest possible population, to prevent a worsening of those social and economic inequities that already exist.

            But the overwhelming message from Tuesday’s speakers was an optimistic one. In fact, ASU futurist-in-residence Brian David Johnson said that most pessimism over what’s ahead, while perhaps titillating and even frightening, is simply wrong. Johnson, who said a futurist’s role is to think about what happens after something new happens, surmised the correct view of an evolving utopia is a flawed future that people working together can continually improve.

            Right. I can relate. The Nov. 7 conference left me with a lot to think about and with renewed curiosity – not fear – about what we’re facing in the coming years. Or sooner. As if on cue, Waymo, a Google spinoff, on the day of the conference named Arizona as its first global testing ground for truly driverless cars on public roads. Quickly adapting, at the conference we debuted the video of the driverless cars in Chandler. (The video can be seen on our website and on YouTube.)

            In his closing remarks, Senior Research Fellow Grady Gammage Jr. pointed out  Waymo opted for Arizona because California was too slow because of its overregulated red tape. Arizona is wide open for innovation by understanding that the future is happening in real time.

            So, if you’re hearing voices, listen closely. They just may be the next great innovation for a better world for all, saying: “Welcome to the future.”

Andrea Whitsett

Morrison Institute blogs are intended to further public discourse regarding key and timely issues via diverse voices, expertise and experiences – including, when appropriate, in pro-and-con format. Blogs do not represent any official position of Morrison Institute for Public Policy or Arizona State University.