Google recently announced that it is building 100 prototypes of a fully autonomous, or driverless, car. All of the human control equipment (pedals, steering wheel, etc.) is gone. As an Economist article on this development pointed out, this move turns the driver into a passenger and frees up an enormous amount of time for doing other things (like watching Google served ads on your car dash). All kidding aside, the announcement is an important signal of things to come. As I head to the 5th annual PSCR Stakeholder conference, I can't help wondering how much of what humans do now in public safety will be taken over by autonomous systems. The Economist article rightly points out that the Google car still faces many obstacles: the technology needs testing, it is still far too expensive, there will be many regulatory and legal hurdles (i.e. who pays for the accident if you weren't driving your own car), and resistance from some deep part of our human psyche. On the other hand, it will presumably become clear over time that it is vastly cheaper, safer, and more convenient to let the analytics do the driving. How long can we hold out against the clear advantages? Will you be able to get car insurance in 15 years if you insist on taking the wheel?
This trend will impact public safety as well. How long until the fire fighter driving the truck isn't needed anymore? How long until robots and drones take over many of the most mundane or dangerous aspects of policing?
This point was reinforced for me when I had the recent privilege to tour a watch center operated by a local emergency management department. Several staff monitored 911 traffic, television stations, and the Internet/social media. The center is 24/7 and does a great job from all accounts. However, I can't help but think that the technologies driving the Google car are going to drive right through that watch center. There is already technology that sifts social media and various other "data feeds" and it is only getting better, faster, cheaper, and more automated. How can the humans keep up?
The implications of this trend are multifold. Certainly public safety will be improved and it will most likely get cheaper as it gets better. On the other hand, there won't need to be as many public safety employees and the ones that remain will need more and better training. Humans will focus on decision-making and tasks requiring creativity and intuition. lt will also mean a tremendous cultural shift for public safety practitioner and the public.
Despite some of the downsides, I remain optimistic about how broadband and the many other technological trends will impact public safety and the world in general. The changes will be profound but we have proven our ability to adapt in the past.