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Analyze This: Trip abroad reveals pros, cons of technology

Vijay MehrotraBy Vijay Mehrotra

Just in time for the beginning of the fall semester, my family and I have returned home from a seven-month overseas sabbatical, most of which was spent living in Madrid, Spain (a big thanks to my dear friend Javier Francisco Prieto for inviting me to visit the Department of Statistics at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid). It was by far my longest trip to Europe since my student days 30 years ago.

Our travels did not get off to a good start. After months of planning and preparations, our day of departure finally arrived in late January. Friends had driven us to the airport, where we checked in for our flight, got our boarding passes, went through security and walked toward our gate, cheerfully carrying our cabin luggage and walking our dog Spartacus.

Disaster struck suddenly and without warning. At the end of a moving walkway, Spartacus abruptly began to whimper and squeal. Looking down, we realized that one of his little toes had gotten stuck under the metal at the end of the moving walkway. His foot was pinned there for 30+ seconds before we could extricate it, at which point his toe was bleeding somewhat heavily. My daughter’s instinctive and audible response — to repeat “Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” over and over again — gave voice to what we and literally hundreds of observers and bystanders were all feeling. It quickly became clear that the dog was going to the veterinarian, and that we would not be leaving for Spain that day as planned.

And just like that, a mere 45 minutes after leaving home, we found ourselves trapped in our own personal “no-fly” zone, unable to either return home (our house had been rented out to tenants) or to continue on toward our destination. Ultimately, we were delayed — and dispirited — for three full days. The financial cost of the whole ordeal (vet bills, hotels, airline charges) turned out to be quite substantial.

There was nevertheless one silver lining amidst this darkness: As I scrambled to address a bunch of immediate logistical problems, I found myself marveling at the magic of 21st century technology. For starters, I was able to use WhatsApp on my smartphone to send a (free) text message to our landlord in Spain to inform her of our setback and to update her as new information became available. Our veterinarian e-mailed care instructions directly to a vet in our new neighborhood in Madrid (and to our air carrier, who required proof of the dog’s fitness to travel before re-booking us). Our new boarding passes were issued electronically and scanned directly from our smartphones when we finally boarded our outbound flight. And once we landed in Madrid, our cabbie had no trouble finding our apartment in a narrow street in an old neighborhood thanks to a map app on his smartphone.

Almost as soon as we got out of the taxi, however, I began to curse our dependence on technology. The plan was to contact our landlord once we arrived, but in our exhausted state we realized that all of the contact information that we had for her was on our smartphones, which were no longer connected to any kind of network. From here, it was something of a comedy of errors, as I went first to the Irish pub on the corner (where they spoke English, took credit cards, but had no Wi-Fi network) and then to the bar across the street (where they had Wi-Fi, spoke no English, and didn’t take credit cards). Fortunately, by the time I returned from making these inquiries, our landlord had arrived to let us in (she had tracked our flight status online, of course).

Throughout our trip, I could not help marveling — and cursing — the role of technology in our travels, especially when contrasted with my days backpacking around Europe as a college student. Back then, I had relied on travelers checks and cash transfers, and avoided restaurants that accepted credit cards (those were the expensive places at the time). This time around, we got cash from ATMs, and nearly every restaurant in Madrid cheerfully accepted our credit cards. Back then, we occasionally made (expensive) long-distance phone calls from (inconvenient) designated locations, whereas now we had many apps on our smartphones that let us talk to friends and family back home — and to cab drivers, Airbnb hosts and countless other people around the world — on a regular basis and for free! And back then, I would hungrily scarf down the occasional English-language newspaper or magazine. This time, I felt up-to-date at all times, thanks to the online versions of my favorite publications, not to mention Facebook and Twitter.

As we were winding down our time overseas, I received an e-mail from Harvard Business Review touting a series of articles on artificial intelligence and machine learning. In the lead article, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that AI/ML should be thought of not as a collection of tools but rather as a general-purpose technology that will have far-reaching applications and a transformational economic impact. Definitely worth a read.

Another piece in this HBR series, this one entitled “Inside Facebook’s AI Workshop,” caught my attention for a different reason. Describing a conversation with Joaquin Candela, head of Facebook’s Applied Machine Learning group, author Scott Berinato observes that “AI is woven so intricately into the [Facebook] platform that it would be impossible to separate the product… from the algorithms.”

Probably because we had been overseas for several months when I read this quote, it immediately reminded me of how so many travel-related activities are now so tightly bound up with the enabling information technologies that they feel inseparable from one another. Thanks in large part to all of the IT that is already out there, technological change is coming at an even faster pace now, with AI/ML at the center of so much of it. As such, I anticipate that the transformation of travel is only getting started. Optimized driving routes based on real-time traffic data are here already, but this seems like just the beginning. On my next trip to Europe, I suspect that there will be a lot more intelligent algorithms embedded into the information technology that we travelers depend on.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 30 years for me to get back to find out.

Vijay Mehrotra (vmehrotra@usfca.edu) is a professor in the Department of Business Analytics and Information Systems at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management and a longtime member of INFORMS.

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