Automation versus Autonomy in the $1T Industry at the Heart of The American Dream

With the recent deaths of Chuck Berry and Robert Pirsig, and the growing reality of self-driving cars, there is a sense that one chapter of American life is coming to an end, and another is beginning.

To a young Englishman growing up in suburban London in the 1970's America (and particularly American rock and roll) was the focus of all my dreams and imaginings. Driving to the London Gateway service station on the M1 late at night was really a trip down Route 66 or the Ventura Highway (in my mind) with a soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, or Chuck blasting away on the tiny car radio. My pals and I may have been in a clapped-out Renault 5, but in our imaginations we were in a souped-up cherry red 53 or driving down to the levy in a Chevy, even though we didn’t know what a levy was! Driving meant music, and the best music had the G-force of a tight corner at 80 mph.

Fast forward a few years and I re-traced Phaedrus’s journey through Montana and Idaho in a back-packing tour bus, dreaming that I was on a Honda Super Hawk 305.
The wide open vistas of the American west was the perfect backdrop to ponder the metaphorical road ahead and think deep thoughts; or least about how to get the attractive fellow back-packer sitting in front of me to realize that I was the solution to all the problems she was running away from.

America and cars go together like Laurel and Hardy, like Biggie and Tupac, like AT and T. Stop someone on the streets of Buenos Aires or Moscow or Ulaanbaatar, and ask them what comes to mind when they think of America, and I’d wager that once they’d got past giggling about El Hombre Naranja en la Casa Blanca they’d talk about driving a convertible through Malibu or Monument Valley, or about hanging with Prince in a little red Corvette, or about heading out with Broooooose and Wendy on a last chance power drive. Motorcycles and “Murica” aren’t far behind – drive to your local Home Depot on a typical Sunday afternoon and you’ll pass Hog after Hog out pretending they’re not really an accountant or an electrical contractor but Wyatt or Billy, sticking it to the man as they take an easy ride, before the conventional ordinariness of Monday morning rolls round again.

The open road is at the heart of the American dream. Getting behind the wheel or gripping the handle bars runs through the DNA of America in deep and profound ways. Though the French may have invented much of the underlying technology of the early automobile, the Italians and English the art of racing, and the Germans the industrialization of the ultimate driving machine, it is America with which the car will always be most closely associated in the global hive mind. A $1 trillion industry (the size of the current US auto market) isn’t built on utility or functionality or MPG alone; it is built on dreams and fantasies and sneaky feelings best not discussed in polite society. It is built on looks and curves. On freedom and on mastery. On torques and pistons. On (horse) power - the machines, and yours.

At its most elemental it is built on the human need for autonomy.

The autonomy a 17 year wants from his parents.

The autonomy a 27 year wants from his starter job.

The autonomy a 50 year wants from an underwhelming career and a life not quite as advertised.

Behind the wheel of a car, perfecting the turn, leaving the jerk to eat your dust, beating the lights, you are in control. You’re a master. A winner. You’re a boss. You have power. You are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.

When I was a cub consultant in the late 1980’s I worked for a short time on a project that went really badly. The project was rubbish but more mortifyingly I was rubbish. I didn’t really have the skills the client needed and on a daily basis became more and more exposed as an idiot totally out of my depth. My colleagues avoided me as a bad smell and the client team glanced alternatingly angrily or pityingly at me as I sat at my lonely desk trying to look like I was a thrusting young master of the universe.

Every day at clocking off time I got in my car and sat there for a few minutes not sure if I wanted to scream or cry. Most times I did both. But every evening a strange thing happened. As I started driving, my confidence slowly came back. As I started accelerating and weaving through the motorway traffic I felt my spirits begin to buoy again. As I floored it I morphed from an over-priced, under-performing stiff-in-a-suit into the under-paid, yet-to-be discovered, newest member of the McLaren Formula One racing team. At the wheel of my baby beamer I bounced back into the person I thought I really was, not the person who I had been all day.

The control I had in the car, the mastery of the machine and the road, the autonomy I felt – after a day of feeling powerless and emasculated – brought me back to life. Over the course of the three months of the project my commute became shorter and shorter. What took an hour to begin with took no more than 40 minutes on the sweet day that the project finished.

The autonomy I had in my car was a life saver. Looking back on that period (which in retrospect was a very significant time in my life, one learning more from one’s failures than one’s successes etc.) I’ve often felt that if I had had to commute on public transport I don’t think I would have been able to stick it out. I would have probably quit the job in frustration and shame, and in doing so, changed the trajectory of the life that I then went on to lead. Truly a sliding doors moment.

The autonomy of my daily commute (traffic congestion and all) kept me going, kept me sane, at a time when I hardly had any autonomy in my overall life.

This, writ large, is central, I would content, to the story of the automobile. The car has offered autonomy to generation after generation of people who have little autonomy at all in their lives. People who have bosses telling them what to do. Who have wives or husbands telling them what to do. Who have kids telling them what to do, and/or where to go. Parents still telling them what to do. Who have law enforcement officers telling them what to do. Tax collectors telling them what to do. Journalists telling them what to do.

Very few people have much autonomy at all. Even the most powerful CEO has a board and activist investors telling him or her what to do.

Cars fill the vacuum of our powerlessness. A car does what we tell it. A high performance car can do amazing things if you’re really skilled at telling it what to do. What else responds like that? Maybe a dog (if you’re lucky). No wonder dogs are popular too.

Autonomy. Power. A huge industry. A huge part of the modern world. With its poets (Mr. Berry) and its philosophers (Mr. Pirsig).

But now a new chapter has begun. A chapter entirely antithetical to the chapter that precedes it. With an entirely new vision of what autonomy is and what it means, and with an entirely new version of the American dream on offer.

Autonomously driven vehicles challenge the tenets of everything I’ve written above. They stem from a completely different point of view. Elon Musk and the other proponents of self-driving cars may not even recognize the psychological dimensions of the tale I’ve told. Though Mr. Musk has had his setbacks and challenges along the way he likely has never felt powerless or not in control. He may have never have sought or found autonomy behind the wheel of a car.

Now the autonomy on offer is more time to do email or play Candy Crush or watch the Westeros and the Targaryen’s fight to the bitter death for power – for autonomy.

The dream and crusade of self-driving stems starts in two very different places, both of which in their own right are elemental; firstly, from the technical challenge, and secondly, from the impulse for safety.

The earliest developers of autonomous vehicles, mainly academics at places like Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Bundeswehr University in Munich, wanted to work on automation simply because, like Everest, “it was there”. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, self-driving cars were a thing of science fiction and Hollywood; things that had been imagined but not made real. If you were a budding computer science major with a stash of Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert novels by your bedside, building cars that could drive themselves was the most logical thing in the world you could work on. As the underlying technology hardened and started its journey to commercialization the incoming wave of entrepreneurs (including Elon Musk) logically seized on the safety implications of machine driving – i.e., namely that most car crashes are caused by human error, and that self-driving cars could potentially be safer drivers than humans – as the sales U.S.P. Again, a completely appropriate, noble cause.

Fast forward to 2017 and autonomously driven vehicles are on the cusp of becoming reality; Tesla’s can already sort of drive themselves. (Nobody seems quite sure whether this is really true, or really legal or not, it appears versus, but the debate notwithstanding, it’s a pretty safe bet that in the next few months, and certainly years, self-driving cars will be entirely real and legal.

Self-driving cars will find a ready audience. Every single notable auto-manufacturer believes this to be the case. All of them are working on introducing autonomous vehicles into their fleets. Some will offer cars with full autonomy - Level 4 in the jargon, i.e. no driver attention needed -, some with higher and higher levels of “driver-assist”, but stopping short of Level 4.

Moms, the elderly, the handicapped, the too-busy-to-drive, the early adopters, the tech-geeks, the show-offs, the curious, the I-hate-driving, the I’m-no-good-at-driving, will all no doubt be in the line at the auto-dealer (which might just be your local Macy’s to get a car that can literally drive itself off the lot when they become generally available.

But I wonder how large this audience will be? Specifically, how many men aged 17-50 want to take their hands off the wheel? [Please note; I say “men” with some trepidation. There are obviously many women that like driving, and like the autonomy driving provides, but I would – in an entirely non-scientific way suggest – there are less women than men in the cohort profile I am writing about. I may be entirely wrong, and if that is the case, I beg for your forgiveness].

If I was a betting man I would put my money on there being far fewer 17-50 year old men wanting a self-driving car than Mr. Musk and others believe. Far fewer. For all the reasons I’ve outlined above. The automation of driving will run headlong into the autonomy that driving, in its current form, provides. The sales pitch of safety will be emotive and powerful; some manufactures will try and shame people out of driving. Many drivers will feel that shame and like the parents badgered by their kids into quitting smoking a generation ago will take their hands off the (disappearing) wheel.

But again, I iterate, fewer than imagined.

Currently, the narrative tide is running with the self-driving crowd. Some of the manufacturers and their advocates in the chattering classes see the battle as won. Automation is a done deal. Some believe that the last car to be made with a steering wheel is just around the corner. Some, like Audi, have teams of people working on early-stage ad campaigns to help people think of what to do in a autonomous car and deal with the boredom of the experience Privately, some manufacturers admit they’re not entirely convinced that people will want to stop driving, but they have to develop the technology in case they do; not participating at this crucial stage of market development could leave them far behind if the market did take off.

The narrative though is being pushed by disrupters; new market entrants like Tesla and those within the major established manufacturers who fear (quite rightly) making the mistakes media and music and entertainment businesses did when faced with new technologies and new business models. At the moment few people are putting the case for the defense; for the status quo, for the power of an idea that has driven America and the world for over 100 years, and which I believe has a long way to go – the idea of autonomy.

Both Chuck Berry and Robert Persig spoke to the power of autonomy. Both of them hit a nerve in the general consciousness because they expressed what humans like to do; to drive, to be in control, to master their surroundings, to drive around with no particular place to go, to be at one with their machine. Automation is a powerful force with antecedents that stretch into antiquity and a road ahead that stretches into infinity. But autonomy – “one who gives oneself one’s own law” – predates automation and will still drive man forward until the last man expires. Perhaps in a car crash.












Your 2016 Digital "To Do" List

So, as 2015 winds down and re-runs of It’s a Wonderful Life beckon it’s that time of year again; to think – post holiday – what 2016 has in store and what should be the focus for your year AHEAD.

In that spirit I offer you seven ideas that should make up your Digital “To-Do” list for 2016. With an ocean (of digitally driven business transformation) to boil many folks in companies large and small are – in my observation – bewildered and paralyzed about what to do next.

There are a million things you could do – indeed, need to do. Some of them are strategic, big, heavy. Setting up a “New Co” spin off to attack yourself is strategic, big, heavy. Likewise getting off your ERP platform is entirely non-trivial. Kudos to you if you’re already on these cases or planning to get there soon. 1-800-Cognizant if we can help!

But there are a number of tactical, small, light things you could do which might just be the jamcrackers in your organization - your “single step”. Do one or all of them. Trust me, they won’t hurt!

1.Stop doing something – the first “to-do” is a “don’t-do”! The best question you can be asking yourself, your boss, your team, at the moment is not “what should we be doing?” but “what should we not be doing?” Assuming your 2016 budget has been nudged up by 3-5% you don’t have a ton more resources or people or time than in 2015. To make room to do the new things you’ve got to stop doing some of the old things. Stands to reason, non? But very few people/organizations seem to apply that logic. I’d recommended stopping doing 20-30% of what you’re currently doing. That might be a bit much for you; I’ll accept 10%. Deal. (And as an aside, don’t immediately fill the vacuum – let it percolate, let it breath. Don’t fill it with the first idea/thought that enters your head. But in time, if you jump, the net will appear).

2.Value an algorithm – the CIO of a big Cognizant client told me recently that one of his teams had valued an algorithm in their business at $100m. One algorithm.$100m.Wow! Though I’m a big believer in the ROI of the Future being pretty opaque, and the hunt for it, a fool’s errand, this struck me as a pretty good proof point for doubling down on tomorrow. Can you unleash some of your folks to go CSI and track down similar pots of gold? Bet you could. Probably worth it. Imagine if you found some. And imagine what the universe might be telling you if you didn’t...

3.Attend a conference/trade show focused on the future - either solo, or with a team, go to a show where the MO is not to CYA but to expose it. Tech Crunch Disrupt, LeWeb, Ignite, SXSW Interactive, Web Summit. All good choices. Immerse yourself in discomfort. Go and feel square and stupid. Good for the soul. And good for understanding how much there is to do and how late it is.

4.Give everyone Tableau – tell them it’s either a late or an early Christmas present. Though you need to hire a bunch more data high priests you should make everyone worship data. (We only trust in God, all else bring dataetc). Amazing what new things people see when you give them the new tools of the trade. Telescopes showed us the stars and the moons and gave us Copernicus and Nietzsche and Freud. Microscopes showed us electrons and atoms and gave us Curie and Fleming and Shockley. Who knows what the new “Datascopes” will show us and give us? Bezos and Zuckerberg (and a bunch of others) so far. Lots more to come it’s not hard to wager. Maybe you, or one of yours?

5.Tweet – Twitter is a Rorschach test. Some people see in it the Jungian collective unconscious of the modern world, with all the pleasure and pain that has surrounded us since time immemorial. Some see it as a silly waste of time. Whatever you think it is untenable to imagine that you (you singular or you plural i.e. in your corporate instantiation) can master the modern world if you simply don’t care for it. It’s unlikely that Picasso dragged himself out of bed of a Monday morning and said “Zut Alors, I’ve got to go and do some more painting today …” You should Tweet like there’s no-one watching (very probably quite true for the foreseeable future) until the new doesn’t feel so shocking. This is particularly true if you are over 40 and/or The Man in your neck of the woods.

6.Hire a Squanto – when the Pilgrims started figuring out the new lay of the land and realized they weren’t in Kansas anymore they put a young local called Squanto on the payroll. Good move. He showed them where the fish hung and the corn popped. I’d suggest you do the same, maybe unofficially (i.e. get your kids to show you how they Hotline Bling on Instagram) or better, officially, by having a 25 year “shadow” you for the year. Your objective shouldn’t be to show him/her how great you/the department/the company is but to show you the new lay of the digital land. Learn his/her lingo, customs, mores. Figure out what folks value in this strange new land. Understand how they think. Understand the future that they represent. Sure, over time, your Squanto will become more like you – “I like you kid, you remind me of me” – and at that point you can give him/her their freedom (!). But in the osmosis between you in the next 365 days you’re going to learn a lot about surviving in Digital Native terra incognita.

7.Visit the Collaboratory – the last, but most important, thing on your 2026 Digital “To Do” List is to come spend time with us here at the Collaboratory in midtown Manhattan. However long you can spare – an hour, a morning, a day, a month – we’d love to host you and your teams and collaborate with you in our laboratory on discovering the future of your work. Folks who have visited will happily tell you the water’s fine and you should jump on in. The Digital Lifeguards are standing by!

That’s it folks! Seven easy steps that will help you inch towards the future that starts at 00.01 01/01/16. Hope they help!
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and best wishes to you and yours for an outstanding 2016!

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Seven Predictions for "Digital" in 2016

2015 has been an incredible year for “Digital” as the pace of adoption and transformation has accelerated.

2016 is set to be even bigger and more impactful. Here are seven predictions from Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work team on what lies ahead.

2016 Will be the Year of the Algorithm ...

Mobile and sensor technologies are the tip of the spear for digital transformation. They extend our physical senses beyond our physical reach, provide situational awareness and and let us take instant action from afar. They allow us to share experiences and gain insights remotely in real-time, not just digitally, but also tactilely. They enable globalization where business, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and customer interactions can move beyond the walls of our offices, and into the fields of world markets. These technologies serve to compress time and distance and enable businesses to operate remotely from anywhere. They enable us to manage operations and project our influence, brands, products and services to all corners of the globe. They enable massive volumes of real-time data to flow in and out from the field, which requires more complex analytics, intelligence and automation to decipher meaning and determine action. Algorithms are increasingly the key to global business as the speed and volume of data outpaces human’s capacity for analysis, decisions and execution. 2016 is the age of the algorithm and real-time operational speeds. Competing in this age will require digital transformation and investments beyond what most companies are anticipating and planning for today. By Kevin Benedict

... In which nobody known to humankind will be able to hide from the omniscient “Watsonator”.

In 2007, Gartner published as a “maverick” proposal “Meet Goog-Azon, World Dominator Circa 2016”. We’re not that far off. But like the “Goog-Azon”, what if Watson had a love child with The Akinator? For the uninitiated, the Akinator is a deceptively simple, branch-logic online game of “20 Questions”. You think of a character, and the Akinator – in an almost creepy way – can usually sleuth it out with stunning accuracy. The key word being “usually”. What if it could answer with 100% accuracy, every single time? A sign the Singularity is near? More probably, a sign that AI – Watson included –has made a quantum leap. If you moved past characters, into everything that’s on your mind, an “Omniscient Akinator” would essentially be a mirror-view of Watson’s star-turn on Jeopardy: when Watson beat Ken Jennings, et. al., the machine raced the humans to get to a single version of the truth, but sometimes failed. The humans still knew knowable truths. But in an Omniscient “Watsonator World” of 2016, humans try – but cannot beat it. No human no longer knows an unknowable truth. The Omniscient Watsonator knows all. By Rob Brown

Big parts of society – like Healthcare - will be re-engineered.

Each one of us will have a health profile with full medical history that can be shared among doctors, hospitals and insurance companies (with an individual’s consent). The health profile will be integrated with health based wearables such as Fitbits or Jawbones, to track real time health conditions and lifestyles. The impact? By collating and analyzing all the resulting information in one place, healthcare providers will have better insights to deliver personalized patient care while creating end to end operational efficiencies, new partnerships and reduced costs. Moreover, insurance companies will use this data to create personalized insurance rates. Individuals will use their real time data to make adjustments in their lifestyles to stay healthy. 2016 will see more and more startups focused on enabling this huge potential opportunity. By Meenu Sharma

‘Trust’ will get re-defined in a “Digital-First” world...

The Internet and digital technologies are transforming the lives we lead, but the scale and speed of these changes present a challenge. The appropriate use of personal data is one of the critical factors determining consumer trust, and is increasing in importance in the minds of consumers. The nature of trust between digitally empowered consumers and variety of companies across industries will get re-defined in 2016 and beyond as consumers change their priorities that influence their trust with companies. We will witness the shift in economic value of ‘consumer trust’ for companies in the digital-first world. By Manish Bahl

And Privacy will fight back.

Although perfect privacy has never existed and never will, to argue that privacy is now dead – so get used to it – is both a misreading of human need and technological development. Three trends will accelerate in 2016, all focused on reclaiming rights that have been withering in ways observable and unobservable for quite some time.

Firstly, “going off-line” for a broader range of interactions and transactions will become more the norm. Secondly, “Snapchat” style applications (i.e. self-destructing with no digital afterlife) will emerge in business. Lastly, the “dark web” (services like Tor, Signal, and Vuvuzela) – used for non-dark purposes – will boom.

Although the forces of digitization are unstoppable the need for control and agency are inviolate. Big money will be made in 2016 (and beyond) by those who can give us the tools to maximize the upside of our age and minimize its downside. By Ben Pring

The war for talent will intensify and get more complex.

Winning your firm’s digital future means rebuilding the talent model. A new breed of worker emerges, who is knowledgeable, self-guided, tech-savvy, able to work with creativity and flair. But being digital doesn’t belong to any one demographic: Digital is a mind-set and it’s changing work norms and the people needed to succeed. The interplay between work and our personal lives, how we collaborate to get work done, how we gain value from it, get paid for, incentivised and motivated to do it, all radically change in 2016. Something more iterative, transient and networked emerges. The social contract is being rewritten. By Euan Davis

In short, 2016 will be a Digital rocket ride!

In 2015 we all had a front row seat on the digital economy roller coaster. The rules of the business game seemed to almost come unhinged from anything we’ve experienced before. Why? Nearly magical technologies, accessible cash, growing demands and expectations by consumers, and exciting -- even crazy -- new ideas collided, and the force drove a year of Schumpeterian creative destruction.

2015 was the biggest year in history for mergers and acquisitions (at a jaw loosening $4.6 trillion). Likewise, 2015 saw one of the highest venture capital investment levels in several decades. Many large companies hit the headlines as they combined (Time Warner with Charter), split apart (HP), or re-structured (Deutsche Bank). Successful start-ups became “decacorns” (a tech startup worth at least $10B, because $1B just doesn’t cut it), and the stock markets felt even more like the card tables in Biloxi or Monaco than the rational stabilizing force we desperately need.

So what does this mean for decision makers in 2016?

The short answer is: get ready to navigate through some bumpy air. At a broad level, digital will drive two general trends in 2016 that will impact virtually all of us. Firstly, organizations will re-tool for Digital. Perhaps even more than in 2015, cheap oil, wildly fluctuating valuations, and continued uncertainty about jobs and technology will drive many large firms – many of which are still sitting on huge cash reserves accrued over years -- to roll up, break up, and reorganize in an attempt to achieve life-sustaining growth. Some will succeed, but others will not, and this will impact thousands of jobs and families all over the world.

And secondly, there will be new money, new markets, and new rules. In 2016 massive enterprises will make increasingly significant advances in “becoming digital” as business models pioneered by the likes of Uber, Palantir, GE, Discovery Health, and airBnB impact many more companies. A growing number of large firms will tap into significant revenue (and cut costs) by using technology to change both internal processes and customer experiences. Similarly, the startup community will continue to bloom with cool ideas. Some will be fun but trivial, but others will shape companies and even entire sectors.

2016 will continue to present symptoms of being in the early days of a much larger digital shift. If you’re disinclined toward evolving business rules, this year (and next) might be filled with a few Maalox moments. If, on the other hand, you’re jazzed about your role in building the future, buckle up and get ready for your rocket ride! By Paul Roehrig