Rick and I went for a drive. More accurately, I took my younger brother Rick for a motorcycle ride. His idea.
Rick lives in Northern Virginia but is in town because our dad, Bob, is in the final chapter of his life, lying in his bed immobile in a morphine-induced coma from which he will not recover. He likely will have passed by the time you read this.
I hand Rick protective riding gear to don. You can’t be too careful on a motorcycle. Appropriate gear makes a huge difference when (Notice I say “when” and not “if.”) you fall.
I own a modern wireless communicator that allows driver and rider to conduct full conversations. Some of my best, most memorable conversations are with my passengers. It’s an amazing world we live in, with technologies like this.
He hops aboard, carefully following my instructions, reminders he may have forgotten since our prior ride years earlier. Recent medical issues have kept him from riding. I’ve been riding since I was 14, but he’s never owned a motorcycle, so I always drive. Nice that he trusts his safety to me. I purposefully drive slower and more cautiously than usual.
Rick’s a bright guy, with a business degree and an MBA. Our topics of conversation are of mutual interest, on this occasion much about our national political state and the challenges humankind faces in the future.
We swoop through Merrimac with its curvy road, getting accustomed to the lean of the bike. On Prices Fork Road, I comment on the stiff wind that challenges me to keep the bike in our lane.
He’s been reading about the acceleration of change, how the rapid advance of technology is already affecting millions of lives, and how that will only increase in the future.
He tells me that humans seem limited in our ability to process change and that artificial intelligence is a threat to human survival. “How?” I ask. He opines that once computers are able to think and reason for themselves, they will realize that there are too many people for the good of the planet and ultimately themselves, and begin plotting to eliminate this human pestilence.
He says computer scientists are now examining ways to instill into the “genetic code” of artificial intelligence the value of humanity and compassion in the hope they might spare us.
We take Peppers Ferry Road westbound into Fairlawn and then Dublin where we go north on SR-100 over dramatic Cloyd’s Mountain into Giles County. The wind remains brisk, especially on top of the mountain, but the temperature is mild and we’re comfortable. Several days of rain leave the road wet in places, but it’s not slick.
We talk about how minds work, about the theory of confirmation bias, the “backfire effect,” the tendency to find, favor, and remember information that fits our preexisting beliefs. Ever hear someone say something that is demonstrably false, and when you provide them with contradictory facts, instead of accepting their error, they become even more entrenched? That’s the backfire effect, and it’s why we’ll have increasing difficulty as a species adapting to the massive changes underway.
For example, robots and computers are already destroying jobs at unfathomable rates. By some estimates, within a generation almost half the jobs today currently done by people might be done by machines. Self-driving vehicles are already on the road, and several million Americans now make their living behind the wheel. What will become of these displaced workers? Where will they receive the income needed to procure life’s essentials? Where will they gain the emotional satisfaction from contributing to society through work?
These are massive, game-changing issues, which will require our best and brightest thinkers to prepare us. We agree that instead, we’ve selected mainly imbeciles to govern us.
I turn the Honda onto Eggleston Road and enjoy the sweeping curves, noting that we have the road entirely to ourselves. Zero traffic. He comments that NoVA is never like that.
Over the bridge crossing the New River, I slow to take in the dramatic view. Dad’s soul has already departed, and we know how much he loved this river. Our family had a decades-long good run at life until that was shattered by Rick’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer two years ago.
Somehow, he beat it! “Luck” is not part of our family lexicon; we reason he survived a disease that kills over 90 percent of its victims by a combination of fabulous doctors, aggressive treatment, a knowledgeable and supportive wife, good friends and family and otherwise good health. But we now take not a moment for granted.
He asks me to drive him up Mountain Lake, where we breeze up the steep curves on the “backside” road, then circle the hotel so he can see what’s left of the lake, and then down the main road, with its fabulous views. The scene looks abiding, but we both know better. Because change swirls around us every day.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.