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I love technology — but there’s a limit

Self-driving cars and digital lawyers.

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If you’ve bought a new vehicle in the last five years, you will know that cars these days are loaded with computerized doo-dads. There are digital sensors that tell you about open hatches, tire pressure, oil pressure, combustion quality, and even if you’ve filled up with cheap gas. I like the one that says Catastrophic Engine Failure which usually comes on when you’re hurtling down the highway, or better yet: Self-destruct sequence initiated. You have 45 seconds to pull over and exit the vehicle.

The dour chief of service at your dealer tells you that his best mechanics could not figure out the problem and it’s probably a software glitch, so they’ve rebooted the system and you’re ready to go!

I read recently that Apple is working on a self-driving car. Absolutely nothing could go wrong with that.

Technology — can’t live without it; can’t shoot it.

For a boomer, I embrace technology with enthusiasm. I am the guy called on to troubleshoot home computer problems and hook up ent­er­tainment systems for friends and relatives. 

In the 2013 movie, Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a nerdy writer who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). 

Meanwhile, 2014’s Transcendence with Johnny Depp, shows us how humanity’s ambition to use technology to advantage may instead bring about our end. Depp’s character, dying after being shot with a radioactive bullet by techno-terrorists, has his consciousness uploaded into a quantum computer that almost takes over the world until it’s killed by a virus.

It’s the same danger that writers of scientific thrillers from Mary Shelley to Michael Crichton have warned us about: Never trust an invention.

Technology should be in our service, not the other way around. When dealing with businesses, the retort “The system won’t allow us to do that” doesn’t strike me as a particularly good justification for refusing an otherwise reasonable request from a customer.

A buddy of mine at a multinational law firm says the immutable standard for all printed word produced by the firm is a microscopic 10-point font. The ‘system’ will not permit a larger one. Good thing the firm has a vision-care plan otherwise there would be a lot of squinting going on.

Nowadays even the legal profession faces competition from technology itself in the area of personal legal services. It’s the DIY age. When you want to find out how to do something, where do you go? That’s right, the internet. More likely than not, there’s an eHow article, YouTube video, Wiki page or internet forum that tells you everything you need to know. 

One year I wanted to rig up a system for self-watering a Christmas tree; it’s a nuisance when you forget to water the darn thing and the needles fall off. A quick Google search directed me to a number of articles and videos about how to set up a reservoir with a siphon that self-waters a tree using only the power of gravity. The reservoir itself (consisting of a five-gallon pail) is disguised as a large present. My days of vacuum cleaner hoses clogged with spruce needles are behind me.

We are fortunate to live in an era when technology affords ordinary people the opportunity to apply the sum total of knowledge of our entire species.

Whether it’s snaking a toilet, setting up a small business or divorcing your spouse, do-it-yourselfers can find the information they need with just a few mouse-clicks. Another quick search and I find a number of online legal service providers digitally proffering their wares, mostly in the United States. A company called Rocket Lawyer operates in the U.S. and the UK.  I also find two operating in Canada (Legal Zoom and Law Depot). Most offer form-filling services of one kind or another that results in legal documents of some sort. I’m not vouching for the efficacy of the services, I’m just saying they’re there.

On the other hand, I imagine that Samantha, the self-evolving artificially intelligent OS from Her (who already gives advice) might make a pretty decent lawyer. If cars will soon be able to drive themselves, then maybe self-evolving artificially intelligent digital lawyers representing flesh-and-blood clients are not far behind.