Technology

Approaching the end of this phase of my career, I am surprised at how much of my time is being invested in technology. I imagined that this phase of my career would be dominated by face-to-face visits. I imagined I’d make a round of calls an meetings to express my farewells to the various organizations in which I’ve served over the past 25 years, have a few meals with friends, and generally be out and about amongst the people. Instead, I’m doing three or four video conferences each day, conducing a full digital audit of the church to make sure that there are no user names or passwords that aren’t documented for the next generation of leaders, trouble shooting glitches in the church’s Internet technology, and broadcasting daily prayer over Facebook. None of these tasks even remotely entered my mind when I began my career.

I am not a luddite. I have embraced technology where it makes sense for ministry. I was an early adopter of a personal digital assistant and I continue to use my smartphone for calendaring and address functions, with some of those addresses having been entered into that original palm pilot device. I’ve learned a lot about cloud-based technologies and database management over the years.

But I watched a video the other day that has me worried about technology taking over too much of the old ways. There is a technology company Rocos that is working with Boston Dynamics to develop robots for dangerous search and rescue operations. The basic idea is that the small robot, equipped with a lot of cameras, including ones that can “see” in dark places, can be used to search for human survivors in extreme situations such as earthquakes, fires and floods, where it might not be safe to risk the life of human searchers. It is a job that currently is done by a wide variety of specialized search animals. I was interested in the video because, as chaplain for Pennington County Search and Rescue I have been around searchers who work with dogs and have seen their value.

The video I watched was made in New Zealand, where a 2011 earthquake killed 15 people and injured thousands.I can understand why officials were eager to give the robot, which has received the nickname of “Spot” - through its paces and begin to assess its effectiveness and envision changes which might make the device more capable at its task.

The robot can right itself if it falls or is pushed over, even if it is completely inverted. It can maneuver over rough terrain and obstacles. I don’t know how it works, but I suppose it has some kind of stabilization similar to that used in flying drones and sensors that can determine direction and even which way is up and down.

So far so good. I’m in favor of using the best of our technology for search and rescue. I’m delighted that brilliant minds have collaborated to create a device that might help save lives without risking the lives of others. I can see the devise as a supplement to the already dedicated human searchers and the highly-trained and very capable dogs that are currently in use. I can imagine our Search and Rescue team embracing that technology as they have already embraced advanced all terrain vehicles and unmanned arial surveillance systems. When it comes to lifesaving technology, there are plenty of people who can see the value and justify the expense.

The red flags went up in my mind, however, when Spot the robot, as part of the New Zealand testing program, was turned out into a pasture along with the sheep dogs to see if it could herd sheep.

(Quick reminder aside: I grew up in sheep country. My high school mascot was the Sheepherder.)

Researchers had already noticed that there was a distinct difference between the way urban pet dogs and working farm dogs. In the urban setting the dogs reacted with fear towards the robot, barking and even attempting to bite it and knock it down. Out on the ranch, the robot was ignored by the sheep dogs. They reacted to it in a similar way they react to vehicles and other ranch technology. They stayed out of its way but mostly just didn’t pay attention. At any rate, the robot wasn’t intuitive and quick to react like the live sheep dogs. It could get a band of sheep to move, but wasn’t effective in moving the sheep to a desired location without the assistance of the working sheep dogs.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the robot dog couldn’t really herd sheep by itself. My twisted imagination can envision some future time when robot dogs herd robot sheep that produce genetically manufactured protein for humans to eat. They have already figured out how to make synthetic substitutes for wool. Maybe it is only a matter of time before technology renders sheep obsolete. That would be a dim future indeed.

I don’t know if they know it but there are some people in this world whose whole way of life is caring for farm and ranch animals.Take away those animals and there is little meaning or purpose in their lives. And ranchers are among the best people in the world. I don’t want to live in a world without ranchers. I don’t want to live in a world without sheep. I don’t want to live in a world without sheep dogs. Just to play it safe, I’m going to make sure that Cody, my sister’s Australian Shepherd never sees the video of the robot sheep dog. Cody is a bit challenged when it comes to herding sheep. He’s not the best sheep dog and I’m pretty sure that when they start the layoffs he’d be the first to get a pink slip. Our friend Rick thinks Cody aspires to be a cow dog, not a sheep dog. My sister has no interest in raising bum calves.

I think there are still some things that require living, breathing souls and that technological devices won’t replace all of us any time soon. At least I hope there will be sheep dogs around for as long as I’m around.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!