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Our society is being digitized at a rapid pace. Smart algorithms are increasingly influencing our lives. Think of personalized Netflix suggestions and ads on our social media. But also the use of apps, the covid-QR code to go on vacation, and the use of computers at home and at work, now mostly at home by the way. Chriet Titulaer’s video telephone of fifty years ago is now a standard part of our communication and is accessible and available to everyone.

Digitalization is also noticeable everywhere in mobility. The car is becoming an iPad on wheels, and flying has already for long been fully computer-controlled. The question is to what extent technology will not only support but also determine our lives. A nice example to think about is the bicycle.

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The first steps in the renewal of the bicycle have already been taken, after the concept of the two-wheeler had remained virtually unchanged for about a hundred years before that. Now many bikes have pedal-assistance, as we affectionately call the electrification of the bicycle. We also use plenty of smartphone gadgets while pedaling, which allow us to navigate and track where and how fast we cycle, whether or not in an online competition.

But how far should we be willing and able to go? One of the biggest issues with cycling is safety. The number of fatal accidents in the Netherlands involving cyclists is significant. The car is getting smarter and therefore safer, but could it be done with bicycles as well?

You can equip the bicycle with airbags, or with sensors, such as radar, wifi, and cameras. We can use these sensors to create connectivity, so that we can automatically detect other road users and they can also detect us, even around a corner. A link with a smart traffic light is then also possible. You could also equip the bicycle, like the car, with automatic braking systems. One step further would be automatic steering.

If we were to do this not only in the event of an acute safety risk, but also provide steering, braking and stabilization support, then the image of the robotic bicycle would come close. I personally love having my car steer itself within the lines of the lane I’m in on the highway, and I also enjoy adaptive speed control. On a bicycle, I don’t think stabilization assistance, especially at low speeds, is an unnecessary luxury. But when I imagine my bike doing everything, I get an unpleasant feeling. Would that be a matter of getting used to? Or do we really want to remain in control of a means of transport like a bicycle that is so close to our bodies?

It is somewhat reminiscent of robot assistance that is currently being developed for heavy lifting, for example in the construction industry. The precision instruments of surgical robots, which can be controlled by surgeons, also fit into this picture. In both cases, humans remain very clearly in charge. And I believe that’s what I want with my bicycle, too. I love a pedal assist and I would also like the sensory enhancements because of safety. But digitalization is there for us, and not the other way around.

Maarten Steinbuch and Carlo van de Weijer are alternately writing this weekly column, originally published (in Dutch) in FD. Did you like it? There’s more to enjoy: a book with a selection of these columns has just been published by 24U and distributed by Lecturis.