automation

The machines are growing. They are getting smarter, and they are coming… for your jobs. We have experienced scares in automation before, but now we are finding ourselves faced with a future of smart phones, smart cars, smart everything. Don’t be fooled. Skynet is going to take over, but it’s not going to enslave humanity so much as make it obsolete, at least in the workplace. Before you know it, you could find yourself terminated, and unlike any movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, this means less of “joining the human resistance,” and more of “joining the human unemployment line.”

A New Virus for McAfee
According to Andrew McAfee in his book The Second Machine Age, we find ourselves in the midst of a machine revolution. This is not the type that takes control of our nuclear launch codes and sends oddly quixotic bipedal robots to attack us. No, this revolution has to do with the automation of our lives. If Google cars can replace taxi drivers, and software can replace computer coders, than we are heading toward a world where the machines will no longer need us. We’ll be like an old operating system on an iPhone, obsolete and full of bad choices. Robots, automation, and software are getting to the point where they can do our jobs better, faster, more accurate, and -more importantly- cheaper, and the best example of this lies with self-driving cars.

They are already real and they already work, well sort of. Some estimates say that there will be about 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020. For many that means being able to watch Harry Potter while driving. However, for truck drivers, bus drivers, cab drivers, construction equipment operators, garbage truck drivers, and many more like them, this automation means unemployment. This group will possess an entire skill set that is no longer required in the economy. Consider that conservative estimates put current transportation jobs as employing a little over 3.5 million people in the US, but this new technology could cost as many as 10 million people their jobs. For instance, the auto-parts industry employs almost 1 million people, many who will be downsized. This new trend also have the potential to drop the number of cars on the road from 245 million to just 2.4 million vehicles. So, the auto-insurance industry, the rental car industry, the used car dealers, even the parking lot industry, are all going to take hits. That is a lot of people out of work, and its just the tip of the iceberg.

Blue collar, white collar, professional, and even creative jobs are all at risk. There is software that can take care of payroll, budgeting, advertising, and even human resource problems. There are computers that can answer the phone, sound human, and be responsive enough to solve people’s problems. Computer programs can even write stories, news articles, and compose music. Computers are even being given the capability to write and improve computer code, including their own -which admittedly seems by Cyberdyne to us. However, it also means that even the jobs that create computers which threaten your job, could themselves be threatened by automation downsizing. As for doctors and lawyers, they have an app for that. With the advent of wearable biometric technology -such as FitBits- you are no longer going to need to have regular physician check-ups. Your phone will be able to tell you everything from your cholesterol to your blood type. It will warn you of an impending heart attack or diagnose that sniffle you woke up with. You may still have to see an actual specialized doctor for serious issues, but general practitioners will eventually become a thing of the past. Similarly, there will still be lawyers, but all the grunt work of law will be done by computers, not interns or pre-law students, or even Charlie who has failed to make partner for thirty years. Less lawyers, less doctors, less teachers, less policeman, janitors, grocery store clerks… Hasta La Vista.

Resistance is Futile and Unnecessary
Conservative estimates put unemployment rates in this new economy at 20%, but it could run as high as 75% in the long term. So what do we do? How do we fix this automation annihilation?… Maybe we do nothing. Anything we try to do to bolster a human driven economy over automation is only going to delay the inevitable and perpetuate the dangerous idea that humans have no purpose in life but to work. After all, why the hell do we work forty or fifty years at jobs we barely tolerate? What do we get out of it? Satisfaction? Maybe if you’re one of the lucky ones. Even worse, we condition ourselves to believe that it is our employment that makes us useful or fulfilled. We make work to make jobs to make more work to make even more jobs. How many people often retire and have no idea what to do with themselves? It is because they have been conditioned to think that they need to work and they have never experienced a world where that was never true. Jobs are -in essence- prison walls. “First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

Back in our hunter-gather days, estimates put an average day’s work anywhere between four and six hours. -Of course 25-30% of hunter-gathers also died by homicide, but that’s a whole other issue- The point is that we have to ask ourselves if the purpose of human life is to sit behind a desk, earn a wage, pay into a pension, and wait for death once you retire? Twenty years ago, futurist believed that we would only be working about a 25 hour work week, because we would have things like 24-hour access to our messages, devices that would let us work from anywhere, and computers that could take a lot of the necessary grunt work out of our lives… Well, they were right about everything, except the length of our work week. Even with our automation it stayed at 40-hours, not because of necessity, but because of fear and tradition. It is arguable that our current 40-hour work week does more harm than good, yet we cling to it, because of fear: fear of poverty, fear of the unknown, but also fear of uselessness. So maybe a robot uprising is not the worst thing that can happen to a lot of people. After all, there will be plenty of work to do in the human resistance… or you’ll just be dead, but to many that might be more preferable to being obsolete. Because without work, what would be do?

Answer: The Impossible
As automation improves there will be economical difficulties. Our products will become cheaper, faster, and more disposable. Yet, that doesn’t mean all the problems will be solved. If we find ourselves in a world  with 75% unemployment, welfare is going to skyrocket and possibly collapse. With this new world, our economical thinking will have to be adjusted, and maybe it is time to revisit an idea that Nixon himself once suggested. A Guaranteed Minimum Income would give everyone over the age of 18 or 21 a small base annual income and take the place of Social Security, Welfare, and Unemployment. In 2006, conservative intellectual, Charles Murray, suggested eliminating all welfare transfer programs and substituting an annual $10,000 cash grant to everyone 21 years and older. The Alaska Permanent Fund does just that. It’s not communism, as people can make additional money on top of a minimum income, but it is a small cushion to help people, especially those who have been terminated by a toaster.

We do not mean to get too preachy here, but it must be said that maybe it is time we start basing our society, our lives, and our purpose on this planet a o more than mere acquisition of wealth and material. That is an instinct within us that stems from days when resources were scarce and each winter was a struggle. The US is a society of abundance -not for everybody but certainly the majority- and that is only going to grow as technologies like 3D printers, automation, and robot overlords give us what we want for pennies instead of dollars. Maybe it is time to find new meaning in life, especially in the United States. Maybe it is time to look toward the acquisition of knowledge, the creation of creativity, or the ability to help others as the driving forces behind society. We’ve talked a lot about Terminator, but maybe to get answers we really need to look to Star Trek.

Boldly Not Going to Work
The Federation, is a society built not upon commerce or greed but upon discovery and the maximum potential of humanity. They are not driven by the need for objects or money, because why would they be? They don’t need or want anything. You want ice cream? Boom… replicator makes you ice cream. You want to go to the beach? Boom… teleporter. You want the latest fashion? Download them and replicate them… Boom… The only thing left to them to get excited about or hungry for is discovery and creation. Art, music, poetry, and science are the driving factors of the Federation… And the occasional Borg invasion. Some utopian Earth of automation is not going to happen in the next fifty years, but does that mean it is not a worthwhile goal. It may seem overly optimistic, but when you think of the future, wouldn’t you rather shoot for the optimism of the Federation over the ruin of Skynet?

Either way, we need to prepare for what is coming, because like a bad sequel starring Jai Courtney the automated economy is going to keep coming up again and again in the near future. It’ll be back…

No Man's Sky

We want to start out by saying that this is not a review for No Man’s Sky, the hotly anticipated game by Hello Studios. If anything, this is just us thinking aloud about what this game is and what it means for gaming going forward. The game we released for Playstation 4 on Tuesday and is being launched on PC through Steam today, and there are plenty of reviews already out there. We have poured over all those reviews from both professional and amateur game reviewers and one theme has emerged among them, most people still don’t know what to make of No Man’s Sky.

An Atlas to a Larger Universe
Here is what we know so far with reading reviews and playing through the beginning of the game. First, No Man’s Sky, is -at its core- a game of discovery, but it is also a survival game. Gathering resources to fuel and repair your ship, to power up your exosuit, and even to upgrade and arm yourself are essential gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, this means that -especially at the beginning- you are going to be spending a lot of time gathering resources just to stay ahead of dying. Thankfully, this is not a hard thing to do and all indications seems to point to the fact that once you upgrade your tools and exosuit a little the task will become easier to accomplish. However, we doubt it will disappear entirely, but that may not be a bad thing.

Being forced to mine also means being forced to explore and if there is one thing that No Man’s Sky gets high marks for it is the sheer scale and wonder of the galaxy it inhabits. While searching for minerals or just trying to survive you can find yourself coming across the most amazing sights. This includes animals of all shape, sizes, and temperaments; plants as big as houses; subterranean caves of fire or ice; or almost anything you can imagine. The galaxy of No Man’s Sky is generated completely by complex mathematical algorithms, and has literally quintillions of worlds to see. That means that whenever you step on a planet or see an alien creature -or run for your life from an alien creature- you are almost certainly the first person ever to do those things. You might be the first person to feed a pink giraffe, or the first person to set foot on a world with floating forests.

Exploration might be the stated goal of the game, but real truth is that there is no goal of this game. You can choose to be guided by an artificial intelligence named Atlas, but even this computer’s instructions are only limited to the most basic of hints. For the most part, players must figure the game out on their own, and that is good. Too often modern games hold our hands and tell us where we need to go and what we need to collect or destroy. No Man’s Sky seems to religiously avoid any hint of having linear goals or quests. This will turn some people off, because it means you may never find that sense of satisfaction you might get from completing a game or beating a final boss. However, there is also a marvelous sense of freedom that comes with literally being your own person. It is just you, your ship, and the ‘black.’ This will probably be the most divisive aspect of the game, but it is also its core principal.

As your own person you can choose to continue exploring or even try your hand at space piracy, but be warned there are consequences. Combat in the game is possible and even sometimes necessary, but thanks to automated sentinels and over-aggressive space police choosing the route of violence has serious consequences. Being a pirate means garnering a vast amount of resources quickly, but it also means having to fight your way past an ever increasing number of galactic police that make the cops in GTA seem tame. It is the kind of thing that would be easier if you had a partner, but that actually leads us to the biggest oversight of No Man’s Sky.

Alone in the Void
There is no multiplayer, and that needs to be stated clearly and unequivocally. You will never be able to find your friends or meet up with another human in the game, and in our opinion, that is the biggest missed opportunity of this franchise. No Man’s Sky could have been like DayZ, but in space. We’re not sure how that would work with the procedural generation of the galaxy, or the astronomical mathematical impossibilities it might take for two players to actually find each other among quintillions of planets and stars, but just knowing that it would be possible would have been a great addition. Multiplayer has been one of the biggest mysteries of this game. Even we were fooled initially by the early reports of what No Man’s Sky would and wouldn’t be. Perhaps, Hello Games never saw this as a multiplayer endeavor, but a game about surviving alone in space. Unfortunately, we believe it may take away some of the replay value for some people. When that initial awe of exploration wears off, what are the vast majority of people going to do?

We are going to use DayZ as a comparison. Similar to its younger space-based brother it is a survival game. There are no goals but to collect items and loot corpses to give yourself a better chance at surviving another day in a zombie-based world. However, the survival and even the zombies do not give the game its main appeal. It is the interactions between players, the weird and crazy things that happen when people are allowed to roam free with no clear objectives. People form survival groups, become fire-extinguisher wielding superheroes, play in a Hunger Games like contest, and generally just get to experience the mean, generous, sadistic, crazy, caring, insane world of a game driven by the players. Now can you imagine all that, but in in an infinite galaxy of worlds and stars? How long would it take before a group of players become a galactic empire, or started a Federation? How long would it take for people to form a Firefly-esque crew of smugglers and outlaws, or an Enterprise-esque crew of explorers? Maybe that would take away the initial lonely space survival feel that Hello Games was looking to achieve, but it is an appealing idea.

To Infinity and Beyond
So what does the future hold for No Man’s Sky? Hello Games has already stated that they will be continuing to support the game with new patches and features going forward. They talked about things like player-owned freighters and even space stations. Maybe they might even choose to add in multiplayer one day, but that is pure speculation on our part. After all, the game is selling like hotcakes -which makes us wonder how well hotcakes actually sell these days- and with today’s release of the PC version there seems to be no indication of it slowing down. It will be interesting to see what the game looks like in a month or six. Will people still be enthralled by its endless wonder or will they have moved back to Call of Duty?

As much as it feel sanctimonious to suggest this, maybe No Man’s Sky is not quite the game we have been waiting for all our lives. Do not get us wrong. We love it and we will be playing for a long time to come, but it is not quite there, at least not yet. More and more online games are trending toward the idea of directionless-player-driven content, and maybe this game is just another large step in the direction we want to go. All it means is that we have not yet reached the Ready Player One aspect of gaming, where players can travel, explore, conquer, and completely shape the game they inhabit. It may take 20 years but we believe that is coming.

So maybe it is unfair to judge No Man’s Sky based upon our astronomical expectations, because let’s face it, if this game had only half the hype that surrounded this past week’s launch then by any metric it would have been a mind blowing success. Over the past few years the game became a magnet for everyone’s unrealistic presumptions, and yet even with all the inflated hype it still manages deliver a beautiful and immersive experience. Perhaps that is why most people and most reviewers -including us- still don’t know how to classify this game. Is it a space-sim, a survival game, some sort of genteel zoological study? Then again, maybe going forward those types of labels are going to be less and less applicable. With the increase of computing power and more open and infinite world simulations, we might find it harder and harder each year to be able to label exactly what games are and what they aren’t.

End Transmission
As for the freshman game by Hello Studios, most of us still aren’t even sure what or if this game will evolve into something completely different later on down the line. The developers have been very tight-lipped about the surprises, Easter eggs, and other content that players are going to find and discover as they progress. Maybe there is still amazing things to uncover that we cannot even fathom yet. What we do know is that No Man’s Sky is about exploring, but real exploring. Truly surviving in space would be a tedious and sometimes incredibly dangerous endeavor and this game does not shy away from those aspects. Yet, even those annoyances are overshadowed by the sense of scale in No Man’s Sky. It is truly mind-blowing.

Living on Earth we might have the academic or existential understanding that we are small specks floating on a small speck in one corner of a small galaxy in a near-infinite universe of stars and planets. However, when you are playing No Man’s Sky that understanding is not just academic, it is driven home with almost every action you take. You could walk for hours on a planet and not even experience a fraction of all it has to offer, and yet you can get into your ship and rocket into space watching as that singular and unique world becomes nothing more than a mote of dust below you, as if it never mattered at all. If there is one thing we can say that this game succeeds wildly at, it is making us feel very very very tiny.

“Look alive, squad. Contact, 30-k and closing, 9-low.” The voice brought Kyle Mason out of his own thoughts. The targeting computer on the HUD in his flight helmet immediately registered the enemy aircraft as they came into LR sensors range, appearing as red triangles against a green background.

“9 o’clock?” responded a disembodied voice from the other end of his earpiece. “Hell, I don’t get up before 11.”

“Cut the talk, two-two,” came the clipped British response. “Two-six, control your flight.”

“Aye, command,” said Mason.

“Assigning targets.”

Mason watched as a red circle flared to life around one of the small triangles on the heads up display. Simultaneously, a double red circle appeared on the main display of his helmet, outlining a firing corridor that led to his assigned hostile. Visually he could not see the craft, but he could tell where it was. He held down the confirm switch on his flight stick and double blinked his eyes on the radar target to set the lock. A satisfying deep baritone hum sang in his ear as the computer acknowledged the command. “Lima,” he called out.

The phrase was repeated ten more times across the board as the men and women in the formation around him found their own targets.

“Breach,” the single word floated to him through his headset as if spoken by some voice of his own imagining.

For a surreal moment the most distant part of his mind registered that the speaker of the word was not American. Too little emphasis was put on the “ea” sound. Mason had always been fascinated how by different people could look at even a single word and come up with so many ways of saying it.

The more active part of his mind only registered the command and the implied action. “Fox 3,” he called out as he slammed home the firing button on his stick. The cockpit below his feet rumbled as the launch doors opened. The delay between pressing the button and the rewarding ignition of the missile had always irked him. Realistically, he knew that his payload had to stay concealed below the airframe to maintain the craft’s stealth profile, but instinctually Mason had always wanted more of a one-to-one response, like how it was in the video games he grew up playing. Maybe that’s why pilots had come to jokingly to call the delay Server Lag.

The time between trigger and ignition was, in actuality, less than a second, and finally Mason heard the ALRAAM roar to life. The seeker streaked away trailing a brilliant blue jet of flame and joined a flock of its brethren as they emerged from the bellies of the craft around him.

Their targets, Dragon-24 Hōshō aircraft, didn’t stand a chance. They were more than ten years out of date and could barely be called Gen-7 fighters. Their sensors had no way of warning their pilots of the danger they were in until it was too late. Mason’s own craft, the MF-52 Archangel, was top of the line Gen-7 tech. It was never going to be a fair fight. You almost never saw a Ho in the air anymore, except in training simulations.

All eight hostiles scrambled. Their signals blurring momentarily on the HUD as the craft activated their SHIELD systems to try and fool the locks, but their pilots might as well have been warding off the missiles with fly swatters. Five craft vaporized under the salvo, one was clipped but maintained and two managed to evade. Mason’s own target was left as nothing but scrap and ash.

He wondered if the pilot had managed to eject. He always wondered that. Mason never thought of himself as a killer, but that was only because air combat was so impersonal. It was easy to blow up a piece of technology, it was hard to remember that there was a person inside it. He hoped that the pilot had managed to bail, he always did.

The three remaining enemies turned tail and lit out, one limping away on his only working engine.

“Lima,” said a voice in his head.

“Stand down,” Mason said. “Two-five, stand down.”

“I’m not going to just let them get away.” The voice was female and had a hard edge to it. He found no noticeable accent to her voice, most likely American. He could barely place her face, with only a vague memory of dark long hair drawn tightly into a pony-tail.

“Stand-down, two-five.” Mason put an edge to his own voice. He had been put in charge of Bravo Flight and he wasn’t about to let some pilot’s frantic ambition endanger the parameters of the mission. He knew the commander was listening. “You’re not cleared to fire.”

“Aye, sir.” The response was terse, spoken through gritted teeth. He could almost hear her thumb ease up off the firing switch.

He let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. The reprieve was brief.

The cockpit suddenly went wild. A screaming tone wailed inside his head, and the HUD flashed red. The main display began a quick succession of calculations that ended in a growing red dot at the edge of his peripheral. As he turned his head to track it, the cockpit around him seemed to disappear beneath his gaze. The digital overlays in his helmet transmitted directly from the Angel’s sensor skin, giving him an unobstructed view of the pearlescent sky and the small crimson pixel that was growing to become a discernible digital circle.

“I’m painted red!”

“Ghosts, bloody piss.”

“Missile lock. Missile lock. ”

“I’m red!”

The in-line channel was full of chatter as pilots around him started coming to the same conclusion he had. They were caught in an ambush, and time was running out.

The clipped British instructions of air command were lost among the chaos of the other ILC transmissions. The words came so fast that the calls began stepping on each other, like a frantic crowd of people clawing over one another to escape a fire, but there was no escape. So there was just panic.

“Scatter!” someone called, and Mason watched as the neat, orderly formation began to break up. Aircraft banked and dove, trying everything they could to shake their lock. It was every man for himself, every woman for herself. The terror was contagious and the more hysterical some of the pilots became the more the group as a whole began felt the effects.

Waves of electromagnetic energy washed over Mason’s instruments, momentarily darkening them, as one or two of his more panicked squadron mates began to prematurely activate their SHIELDs.

All the while the small circle of his own incoming seeker had grown to the size of a shirt button, 25 klicks and closing. Mason fought to keep his sense of fear in check, with the memory of a plan swimming up out of the murky depths of his mind. “Cease alarm.” The insistent blaring tone instantly died.

“Bravo flight on me,” he said switching from squadron channel to flight channel. He could do nothing for the full group, but calming three voices as opposed to eleven was a lot easier.

“On your six,” came the immediate and surprisingly calm American female voice.

“On your wing,” said another voice, with barely a hint of any accent. Mason had not recalled hearing it before.

“If we’re going to die, we might as well do it together,” said two-two, his distinct Aussie accent clear, even over the ILC. The last craft tucked itself almost effortlessly behind his right wing.

“We’re not going to die,” said Mason in a voice that radiated a calm he did not feel. His own hand was shaking so hard on the flight stick it was a surprise that his craft wasn’t swaying wildly back and forth.

20-k and closing fast, read his display and the circle was now the size of an egg. The details of the missile were just visible beneath the digital outline.

“Follow the leader,” called Mason and he swung his Angel around, pulling hard on the stick. For a moment the world was sideways, the growing red circle on his helmet swung toward the metal flooring of the cockpit. Slamming the stick forward he put his craft into a steep dive toward the deck, his fellow pilots only a few hundred meters behind him, the world was plummeting up to meet them.

He risked a quick glance at his sensor readouts. It showed all four missiles bearing down on them. They had crossed the 10 kilometer barrier. All around him the blue marks that had once represented the other members of his squadron were winking out of existence, their cries of help silenced one by one on the squadron-wide ILC frequency. With his tail to the chaos he could only imagine the sight of their fiery defeat.

He put the images from his mind. “Climb and SHIELD, only on my mark.” His voice was strained from the G’s pushing him back in his flight cushion. The inertial compensators were practically screaming, but he wasn’t done yet.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest filled the view of his windscreen, but a quick glance behind him showed that the red circle had grown to grapefruit proportions. It was less than 4-k and still coming. Mason waited only another second, daring not to hesitate any longer.

“Mark,” he screamed and pulled back hard. His vision blurred only slightly before his flight suit constricted, stemming the blood loss from his head. The warning lights flared to life again. The Angel’s onboard LAI smart computer was compensating his maneuver, easing the sudden jerking movement out over a softer arc to protect the integrity of the airframe, but even with the unwanted interference it was less than a second before blue sky once again replaced his view of the deep green forest.

He locked his eyeballs on a switch in the forward controls of the cockpit. The flight stick was still fighting him, he couldn’t risk moving his hands for even a second. Instead, he dub-blinked on the switch, watching as it lit up blue, as the computer acknowledge his selection. “SHIELD,” he said, and the node went from turquoise to emerald.

Over the rushing sound of wind and air friction against his cockpit he never heard the modified electromagnetic pulse activate, but he felt its effects as they rocked his plane and sent static across his instruments. A countdown timer appeared on the side of his helmet. Two minutes to recharge before the System to Hull Integrated Electromagnetic Lock Defense could be used again. That could be overridden, but a pilot ran the risk of frying his own circuitry along with any missile in a 700 meter area.

His electromagnetic burst was followed closely by three more as his flight mimicked his maneuver almost perfectly. The missiles, on the other hand, had a harder time. Even against less sophisticated ALRAAMs activating a craft’s SHIELD was no sure defense, but coupled with the hard maneuver and the force of gravity they were dead in the air.

The seekers were nearly on top of them when the EM wave disrupted their systems and fogged their SatNav guidance. Unfortunately an armed but targetless missile was a still an armed missile, and as the four long slender cylinders plummeted past Mason’s Angel two collided. The explosion fell away, but the shockwave rattled the airframe of his craft, to say nothing of the teeth in his head.

Not all his pilots were so lucky. At the tail end of the formation two-five screamed as the explosion engulfed her. “Fu… ” The line died.

Mason turned his head just in time to see the trailing Archangel lose altitude. It tumbled wildly, burnt and sheared. Blue flames poured from the now exposed engines. Then it was gone, blocked by cloud cover as the three remaining Angels ascended back toward the ceiling.

“She’s going to be spewing mad,” said his Aussie wingman.

“Keep your head in the clouds,” said Mason. “This isn’t over.” As if to illustrate his point the HUD picked up six new contacts closing on them fast. It was the ghosts. They had come into active SR sensors range, which only meant one thing, they’d depleted their long-range ALRAAMs and were coming in to finish off their prey.

Mason leveled off and took a quick assessment of the situation. They were the only three Angels still in the sky. The rest of the squadron was destroyed or had lit-out of the arena. They were facing two to one odds against craft they had not even known existed two minutes before. Running was out of the question. There was only one thing left to do.

His Angel roared as the afterburner kicked in, and even now a familiar thrill wrenched at his gut as the craft below him rocketed forward. “Break formation and engage.” He smiled despite himself. “Time for a little payback.”

The air cracked as his craft broke the mach-2 barrier and the gap between him and his two targets melted away. Mason could see the silhouettes of the approaching aircraft against the backdrop of the white-blue sky. They were Dragon-32 Haneul-nim fighters. He, like most of the Allied pilots, had only ever heard rumors of them. They were said to be the first Gen-8 fighters ever built. Not many who encountered them had ever lived long enough to tell anyone about what they saw.

With a flick of a switch he cycled to his four AIM-14L Sidewinder missiles. A tone began to beep with increasing rapidity till it became a hollow single long sound. Almost before he heard the noise his finger was depressing the firing button on his flight stick. “Fox 2.”

The blue tail of the missile was momentarily blinding as it sped away, locking onto the heat signature of the closest of his approaching targets. At the same time a new sound vied for his attention as the Dragons fired their own heaters.

Instinct took over and Mason pulled back hard on the flight stick. “Chaff,” he called out and the computer responded be releasing a trail of glowing hot metallic embers. The sparking superheated metals shavings fell away from his craft like a comet’s tail, existing for only the briefest moment in time. The first missile slammed home and exploded amidst the glowing field of red-hot debris. The shockwave rattled his craft and sent him spinning.

The cockpit rang with grunts and curses as he fought to regain control of his ballistic Angel, but even when the horizon returned to its proper orientation he wasn’t out of danger. The second heater came screaming in on him, only having been momentarily diverted by the death of its comrade.

Mason rolled his craft over, the missile passing within meters of his right wing. He watched it soar out for several full klicks before wheeling back for its next pass. He heeled his own craft back around and scanned the arena for the ghosts.

They weren’t hard to find. After easily avoiding his initial salvo the two wingmen had reformed and were streaking back toward, intent to catch him between a rocket and hard place. There was nowhere to run with the missile closing behind him and his enemy ahead, but running was never his plan.

The heater was back on him in seconds, 500-m, then 300-m, and then 100 meters away. Mason made sure to dub-blink the control switch before throwing his Angel into a wild barrel roll. “SHIELD,” he yelled and this time heard the hum of the electromagnetic turbines as they spun to life, making the hairs on his neck stand at attention.

It was called a Drescher Maneuver, named after some German pilot Mason could never remember. The heater shot past him, it’s guidance and electrical systems momentarily scrambled by the pulse. Most missiles had pretty sturdy shielding against even modern EM waves, and were programmed to reset to their default directive. For SatNav seekers that meant regaining a lock on the assigned target, but for heaters, which weren’t controlled by satellite guidance, that meant locking onto the first available heat source. In this case, that was the lead dragon.

“Fox 2,” for good measure Mason fired one of his own, and even as the enemy pilot dodged the re-aimed missile the second one took the Ghost almost completely unaware. The sky lit up with the explosion.

His HUD went red, as the Angel shook around him. The second dragon strafed right past him, its guns blazing a molten hot trail of cannon fire down his fuselage. His helmet display highlighted parts of the Angel that were damaged or inoperable, as the craft’s eternally placid female voice rattled off the critically damaged systems, including his SHIELD system, self-repair systems, and a worrisome coolant leak in his right engine. Without the coolant his hydrogen-shockwave fuel cells were going to start reaching critical temperatures, but only if he lived long enough for that to happen.

He threw his craft into a half-loop to get behind the second dragon, but the LAI screamed at him to stop. Thanks to the damage, the stress on the airframe was too great. The sheer force of air-friction was threatening to tear skin panels from his plane.

The dragon started a similar move and for a crazy moment the two craft looped around each other like a carnival fun ride.

“I need a little help here, mate,” said two-two. Mason’s HUD showed two dragons chasing down the Aussie’s already damaged Angel. Then, one of the chasing enemies exploded as two-one, the last remaining Angel, appeared on scene, even as he was being chased by two more dragons. To Mason’s naked eyes the event looked like nothing more than a distant flash in the sky, like a small firework exploding.

He stopped his loop and kicked in the afterburners heading for his wingmates. His own pursuing dragon seemed caught off-guard by the change in tactics and was slow in coming after him.

The computer chirped as Mason switched his firing back over from HeatSeek to SatNav and barely waited for the lock tone before letting loose his last ALRAAM at one of the two enemy craft trailing the fourth and most silent member of his squadron. Immediately the dragon peeled off to escape the incoming seeker.

He pulled a wide wheel and switched his missiles again back to HeatSeek. “Fox 2,” he fired a wild one at the second dragon still in pursuit of two-one. From his distance the missile was easily avoidable, but Mason hoped it would be enough to distract the pilot.

“Two-two, two-two,” he called over the ILC. “Light out of the arena. I’ll cover your six.”

“No worries, Tw…” Two-two exploded in a blue ball of flame and shrapnel.

“Shit,” cursed Mason as he finished his slow maneuver toward where the Aussie pilot had been moments before. The wide arc brought him directly behind the dragon that had been shadowing his now dead wingmate. He was so close he never bothered waiting for a lock signal. He dumb-fired his AIM-14L. Without the standard lock warning his target had no idea what was coming till the missile slammed into his engine and exploded. Flaming pieces plummeting after two-two, but despite the satisfaction of the kill it didn’t bring back the downed Aussie.

A familiar warning tone began blaring, signaling that Mason’s forgotten pursuer had finally caught up and unleashed another heater.

On the HUD he saw the last Angel begin to wheel around and come back toward him.

“Belay, two-one. Light out.”

The fighter kept coming.

“That’s an order, pilot. Get the hell out of here.” Mason, flicked his wrist forward and dove toward the Earth, releasing the last of his chaff. This time the shockwave of the missile explosion knocked something loose. The HUD highlighted his flight control systems, and the stick was sluggish in his hands.

“Acknowledged,” came the response from the remaining member of his flight. He watched as the Angel looped back around and headed out of sight. One of the dragons fell into pursuit, but Mason locked on and fired his last heater. It was enough to deter the dragon and within seconds two-one was beyond his sensors range.

The heat-level in his right engine was reaching critical. His onboard computer was doing all it could to bleed the engine compartment, opening vents and filtering in additional coolant, but the fuel-cell was beyond help.

“Recommend, engine one shut-down,” said the calm female voice in his head.

“Override, Betty” he responded, just as the cockpit warning started up again with not one but two incoming missiles.

Mason kicked the craft upward in the opposite direction of where two-one had disappeared. He wanted to get the dragons as far away from his wingmate as possible. The force of acceleration pushed him back into the flight couch, but the missiles and remaining dragons were still gaining.

The blue of the sky parted and faded to darker shades. Despite the fact that it was still midday, Mason opened his eyes and, for a moment, saw the stars against a dark cerulean field. Then, everything exploded.

He probably screamed though he couldn’t remember if he had. He instinctively braced himself as his vision went dark. He didn’t relax until the simulator cockpit began to rise around him and light from the outside world flooded into his small black cocoon. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the glare of the steel gray room and government issued LED ceiling lights of the training center.

He took off his helmet, slick with sweat, and let out a deep breath.

“G’day, mate,” said the voice of a figure standing over his open cockpit. The man reached in a hand and helped Mason from the simulator. “Xavier Given, but you can call me Bogan, all my mates do.”

“First Lieutenant Kyle Mason. Pleased to meet you.”

“What do you say to a pint?” said the sandy-haired Aussie with a wink.

Mason gave the man a weak smile as he steadied his shaking legs. “Yeah, I can use one.”

There is no doubt we are living in the future. Even Dr. Emmett Brown would agree that we’ve come a long way, but there is still one small thing we never seemed to master, flying cars, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, who would really be able to afford flying car insurance? You see that is the thing about the future, by the time you reach a level of technology to make things possible; society and culture have changed to the point where those are no longer the things people want. So, if we can’t have flying cars, what is the future of our automobiles?

Autos Transform and Roll Out
The short answer is that our cars will become smarter, and there is a lot of new technology on the near horizon that will help with things like fuel efficiency and distracted driving. However, the long answer -and the far horizon- tends to be more interesting. As we talked about above, predicting the steady climb of technology is often easy, especially when compared to predicting the erratic child-drawn squiggly lines that make up the progress of culture and societal needs. In truth, we have the technology to make flying cars, but with things like fluctuating gas prices, frivolous lawsuits, the influence of big car companies, and the near-constant worry of having a Buick fall on your sun deck, suddenly flying cars no longer seem like a good idea. So what is it that people in today’s texting-while-driving, longer-working, shorter-attention-span-having world want from their cars?

Many experts agree that the wave of the future is not flying cars but self-driving cars. What some people are already calling “Autos,” a self-driving car that would be able to function like a robotic chauffeur combined with the intelligence of Siri. So, basically an Autobot, except without their advantage of being able to get up and walk away when the not-famous person in their driver seat tries putting awkward moves on the hot girl in the passenger seat. Seriously, that is like someone hooking-up in the back seat of your head. Regardless, companies like Google, Apple, and Uber are already testing self-driving cars. They already exist and Google has already driven them thousands of miles on California roadways. They are still not perfect, but in a world where most accidents are caused by human error -driver inattention, alcohol impairment, poor decision making, etc- Autos have a remarkable potential to save lives and time.

There are a lot of benefits to self-driving cars. Humans will have more time to spend working, reading, playing with their kids, or just sleeping. In fact the cars of the future could basically become large extensions of our smart phones, with wifi and state-of-the-art info and entertainment options. So, expect to one day pay for that extra data plan for your car, just like your phone. Yet, also think what this means for that hour commute you have each morning and night. Suddenly, that is an extra hour to sleep, read, do work, or play Angry Birds. Long family road trips become family board game time, or family movie nights as the Auto travels to the destination for you. There will be no more need to switch drivers on long road trips, or risk falling asleep during a marathon drives from New York to Miami, and once the entire road becomes full of self-driving vehicles even traffic could start to become a thing of the past.

According to Reuters, the US Commuter spends about 42 hours a year in traffic, and highway congestion costs us about $160 billion each year. Traffic -especially for working commuters- has been linked with increased depression, anxiety, anger, and a sense of social isolation. It also affects people’s sleep and blood pressure, but change is already happening. Last year, Tesla released an update for their S-model which allowed the cars to be switched into a self-driving mode, and many commuters have already begun adapting to this new and potentially life-changing technology. We are not decades away, but years away from what most experts see as a fully autonomous car, and perhaps less than twenty years away from them becoming commonplace, and that is good. Self-driving Autos can alleviate a lot of the factors that make driving such a hassle and could give humans more time to be… well human.

The New Model on the Lot
Now, let’s take it one giant robot step forward. GM just recently invested $500 million into a company called Lyft. It is a ride-sharing service similar to Uber, but more than just being a good investment it shows how GM may be thinking ahead of the curve. Ride-sharing and the Uber model are starting to catch on all over the world and in many areas of business. Often comparable or cheaper than a taxi, Uber allows for quick and easy access to transportation all from the touch of few buttons on your phone. Yet, the ride-sharing giant is not done innovating.

GM’s investment into Lyft was not just about ride-sharing but self-driving. Uber is also investing heavily in self-driving cars, because they see the potential for synergy with their service. As cheap as rides currently are they can still get cheaper, especially when you cut out the human driver. Imagine using your smart phone to summon an Auto to pick you up, no matter where you are: the airport, the club, your weird uncle’s house, etc. Then with no human driver and GPS traffic navigation you reach your destination in record time, all for literal cents on the mile. Suddenly, taking an Uber is no longer about making awkward small talk with your driver but about sitting back and relaxing as your personal Bumblebee or Wheeljack or Optimus Prime -depending how much junk you’re hauling- takes you to wherever you want to go, around the block or around the country.

Now consider how much you pay for you car. There are regular expenses like car insurance, oil changes, and tire rotations, as well as other expenses: regular maintenance, car washes, that time you needed to clean the interior after your buddy had one too many tequila shots, not to mention gas fill-ups, the initial price of buying the car, and things like speeding tickets -which you got while racing home before your friend could tequila all over your leather seats. Thanks, Todd- Some estimates put the yearly expense of owning a mid-sized sedan between $8,000 and $12,000 a year. Ubering is still slightly more expensive annually -about $18,000- but that could change, and if it does we should not be surprised to see an attitude change toward car ownership. Many people living in big cities already do away with car ownership, especially since many cities are already moving away from cars centered designs. In fact, the car culture in America and the percentage of people who have a driver’s license has been steadily decreasing since the 80’s. With this new innovation we could start to see car-less families become the norm, even in places outside of major metropolitan areas. It is entirely possible that owning your own car -at least in urban and suburban areas- will come to be seen as an extravagant and unnecessary expense.

How It Goes Horribly Wrong
Unfortunately, every technology has its flaws and self-driving Ubering Autobots are no exception. We won’t lie, there is a small likelihood they could become sentient and seek our energon cubes, but it is probably more likely that we will just become dumber. One of the main concerns with self-driving cars is that it will be the final nail in the coffin for our sense of direction. Think about it. How often do you use your smart phone’s GPS to help you get where you are going, even if you already sort of know the way? Isn’t it just easier, especially if it helps you get around traffic or roadblocks? We have been losing our sense of direction ever since the days of MapQuest, but in the past ten years the tendency has increased dramatically. A 2008 study by the University of Tokyo found that people asked to reach a destination on foot drew less accurate maps when they were assisted by GPS than when they were not. If cars are suddenly doing all the navigation for us, how long will it be before we completely forget how to get anywhere, in much in the same way no can seem to remember anyone’s phone number anymore.

We also have to accept that this new industry will also mean job loss, and we’re not just talking about all those Uber drivers who will get replaced by smart cars, either. Remember, big business is often the first to adapt new technology and automation, especially if it means saving money. Suddenly, trucking companies, bus companies, delivery companies, maybe even your friendly neighborhood ice cream truck could soon be driven by heartless machines. The transportation industry employs almost 4 million people in this country. That is a lot of people who stand to lose their jobs outright, but that does not even include the number of construction drivers, forklift drivers, valets, parking attendants, crossing guards, NASCAR fans, and others that will be indirectly affected by a driver-less economy. If a smart Auto can do things cheaper, faster, and with less risk then how could humans even compete?

Unfortunately, putting Sideswipe in the driver’s seat also comes with other complications, including moral ones. This tends to be the argument that most people on the Internet often point to when talking about self-driving cars. If your Auto is driving along and suddenly a child runs out into the road to chase a ball, what will the computer do? Will it choose to kill the child and spare the passenger’s life, or crash into a tree to kill the passenger but spare the child? What if there is more than two people in the car? What if it isn’t a child but an old woman who has lived a good life with her six cats? What if the person in the road is your time-traveling grandfather? Does the car take all those factors into account? What is the computer’s priority in those situations? Do they protect the driver or the greatest number of people? Unfortunately, we have no answers yet.

What’s the Point?
Those kinds of questions are kind of the point of any thought experiment on future technology, like Autos. We often think of all the shiny new gadgets we can have but rarely stop to think about their cultural and societal impacts, which in turn will create new shiny gadgets. Technological advancement is not a straight line, but a pyramid, building higher off its own foundation. It also does not exist in a vacuum. Self-driving cars will create a new infrastructure, and vice-versa. New roads, new cities, new moral dilemmas, and new ways of living.

Autos are just a matter of time. Maybe not in five, ten, or twenty years, but they are coming and we will be faced with the new questions they present. That is why we need to consider them now. What will happen to our economy, our brain power, or our moral fortitude? According to a recent survey, even though many people are ready for self-driving cars more than 50% still have serious concerns about their safety, especially if there is a potential that your car could one day choose to save someone else’s life over your own. After all, in a world where your car could turn on you any minute in favor of a pedestrian, your transportation would probably begin to feel less like an Auto-bot and more like a Decepticon.