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The Navigator: Needed - a step beyond STEM

For more than a decade, education advocates have made the case for a greater effort in teaching kids about science, technology, engineering and math. As an engineer, I’m all for STEM. More of our population needs to understand these topics. However, as I get older and continue to observe the impact of technology on humanity and society, I’m more convinced than ever that we need an A for Art included in that bundle.

Science is all about building a fundamental understanding of how the world around us works. Math is the language used to express that understanding. Engineering is about applying that knowledge to solve real problems, and technology is the result of all those other efforts.  The key word in all four these areas is “how.” All too rarely in these disciplines do we ask the equally (if not more) important questions of why or who? Why are we choosing to address certain problems and not others? Who will be helped, and who will be hurt…or helped?
Much of STEM focuses on articulating the quantitative. But all too often we leave out the qualitative. The result is that we frequently end up doing things or creating products because we can. What we often leave out is the discussion of what people will do with these tools that we develop.
More study of the Arts and Humanities is crucially important as technology becomes ever more sophisticated. The absence of understanding how people will use the tools at their disposal—and in some cases abuse them—often leads to products that society may well be better off without. Take the case of automated driving.
As humans, there is no question that we do in fact make the mistakes that lead to most traffic crashes and fatalities. However, when you consider that Americans now drive more than 3.2 trillion miles per year and yet we only have a reportable crash about every half-million miles (about once every 30 years for the average driver), we’re actually pretty good at it. We manage to negotiate our way through all kinds of weather and traffic conditions on a daily basis, mostly without incident.  

The modern development of automated driving was launched in 2003 by DARPA in hopes of taking soldiers out of the way of deadly roadside bombs in war zones. But it soon became clear that the technology had important civilian uses for reducing traffic deaths and enabling mobility for those who can’t drive. Over the last five years, there has been a veritable land rush of startups hoping to make a fast buck on the technology by disrupting traditional transportation and automotive industries.  

While it’s certainly important to find a pathway to revenues in order to have a sustainable business, it’s not sufficient to simply focus on grabbing the same affluent urban dwellers who already use ride-hailing services. We need to design mobility that addresses the needs of all of society. That means creating safe, affordable systems that enable lower-income residents to get to jobs. It means systems that the elderly and disabled can access with minimal or no human assistance.  

But such systems also need to account for the ways that other people will interact with them. Engineers can’t assume optimal human behavior. People will continue to jaywalk in the path of AVs; cyclists will cross vehicle paths without signaling. Predicting “normal” human behavior is proving to be one of the biggest challenges for AV developers.  

Then there are those who simply feel threatened by automation and take out their frustrations with vandalism and violence as some Arizona residents have done with Waymo test vehicles.  

It’s not sufficient to focus on the technical details of making an automated driving system function. These machines are meant to serve human beings, making lives safer, more convenient and less stressful. Engineers must also have empathy for the humans that these machines will serve. A broader spectrum of education that encompasses humanities topics is an essential part of that. 

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