It was one of those typical emails which show up with the inbox fog, about train crews of all things.

You get those in when you have an editor@ email address, those kind of “Letter to the Editor” emails which were sent to a particular newspaper but if the sender has a list of addresses, well heck, send it to the world. Originally addressed to an editor for some New England -based newspaper, he made the click and sent it to the world, which included my world.

An effort is being made to move train cabs from two-man crews to single-man crews. Train crews are fighting this. The temptation is to say “the union if fighting this” because that’s the way we talk, but in this case it’s the crews, who are union members, who are using that affiliation to organize their protest of the suggested change. Train crews, my letter writer being one, are fighting this. (I didn’t run the letter; he’s not from around here.)

Currently you have an engineer and a conductor in the cab. One’s driving, the other’s keeping an eye out while the train is underway and doing whatever it is you do to trains when it’s stopped. Management (as the train crews put it) wants to move to engineer-only staffing, eliminating the second position. Automation would be used to remove the need for the second person, is the logic.

Personnel cost is a huge expense in transportation, and management would like to lower that expense. Technology keeps getting better, and a robot keeping an eye on what the operator’s doing would be, the logic goes, more reliable and less expensive.

The airplane biz has gone through something like this. Back when aircraft cockpits included flight engineers, a third person, who monitored systems and otherwise kept an eye out. Since then automation and more predictable systems have removed the need, and airlines have gone to two-person cockpits. The modern pilot in that environment has a role addressed as “management,” as the autopilot is turned on shortly after takeoff and systems are monitored as the robot steers the plane to its destination. The process is so refined that the robot can land the airplane, if the manager-pilot chooses for that to take place.

One of the problems is the lack of, let’s call it “apprenticeship.” A conductor watching an engineer, a flight engineer watching a captain and co-pilot gets real experience seeing how things are done and what the expectations are when they take that seat. Now that experience is taught in a simulator with the robots of automation making it as real-world as possible. Automation, the robots, marshals them through the learning process and robots, the theory goes, will keep them, the machine, and what the machine is carrying safe as they go about their maneuvers.

My defibrillator fired last week. I’ve talked about this before, about having a pacemaker/defibrillator, put in after a heart failure in 2007. Last week it read a series of conditions and fired, sending a mega-jolt of electricity to my heart in order to reboot it and make it stop doing what it was doing at that moment.

It was like getting punched in the chest while brushing up against an electric fence. It didn’t hurt so much as scare me. After it happened I punched the button on a machine on my bedstand and sent the data down to my heart doctor’s clinic as to what the pacemaker/defibrillator sensed was going on before it punched me. A nurse called me the next day, telling me my heart was running really fast and wrong (not the medical terms, but I’m a liberal arts guy) so it shocked me, the bedstand machine told them.

A robot, apparently, a heart robot in this case, had saved my life.

A big topic going around is how automation will change our world in the next 10-20 years or so. Automated trains and planes, automated health care, cars that stay in their lane and – not kidding here – automation which produces newspaper columns, stories about life and outcomes from a personal perspective.

I’ve read some of that sort of copy. It seems real enough, and I’m sure someone’s working hard on the programming to make it all-the-more real-reading. The big discussion is how many of us, not just newspaper or transportation types, but all manner of employees, will have their jobs taken by robots in the years to come. Projections vary, but it’s “most of us” when it’s all said and done.

And an electric jolt comes down and extends your life, or sends a signal to make sure the trains run on time.

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