Autonomous Vehicles — “Thinking Machines” & AI for Everyone?
by Morgan Stonelake
Autonomous Vehicles: it’s a concept that has saturated every corner of our media from science fiction novels to film franchises, comic books, video games, the list is extensive. Yet how far off are we truly before bringing home our very own self-driving vehicles? Interestingly, man’s fascination with creating autonomous, ‘thinking machines’ is a question that has been with us as far back as the ancient Greeks, long before the existence of computers. The extent of mans’ imagination has always far exceeded our technological grasp until we at last fill in the gaps, through research and invention, to solve real world problems. The Greeks were fascinated by the laws of mathematics and how this displayed itself in everything from geometry to musical theory. It would seem they recognized the power of these mathematical trends that would one day help us create intelligent ‘thinking machines’, e.g. machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
This is the ethical dilemma of our time: the place of AI in our homes and products. Meanwhile, the tech giants and car companies Tesla, Uber, Google, General Motors, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz, are all locked in a race, as they endeavor to produce the first and most user-safe, fully autonomous car. Tesla has already released such vehicles but their safety is questionable at best having ended the life of one such driver via a depth perception malfunction, which raises the question, will autonomous vehicles ever truly be safe?
My initial reaction to the promise of self-driving cars was pure excitement, the makings of living in a futuristic utopia, as envisioned by special effects artists. I imagined all the unique benefits autonomous vehicles would have for those who would otherwise be unable to operate a vehicle because of youth, old age, health problems, or physical handicaps. They would provide the added benefit of safety, privacy, flexibility, and independence of transportation that no other form of public transportation currently matches. My understanding of the genuine danger involved was nonexistent.
However, the future of autonomous vehicles is more of an inevitability, rather than a debate. The autonomous vehicle global market is expected to reach “$36 billion by 2025, with North America owning 29% of all the self-driving vehicles in the world”. That’s a lot of self-driving cars to let loose on our roads. Yet they are coming, faster than we know it, because of the money to be made on commercially appealing “AI” products despite any substantial evidence to prove their long-term safety and efficacy.
As I began to look at the facts and understand the real-world struggles for programmers developing autonomous vehicles, it surprised me just how far behind the technology is compared to how it has been presented in the media and by companies like Toyota, Google, and Tesla who tell us we’re just a few years away. Autonomous vehicles still pose a tremendous threat to pedestrians and drivers. Pattern recognition software utilized by autonomous vehicles, like those used in a project that was later abandoned by Uber, completely failed to identify a human pedestrian, resulting in her death. The tragedy of this event is highlighted by the fact this vehicle was also being driven by a licensed Uber driver who was watching a T.V. program on their smart phone because they trusted the autonomous features of the vehicle.
Blind faith in a budding technology, too early in its development and the big business to be made on its rapid commercialization? Sounds like a bad case of thintelligence, a term coined by science fiction author, Michael Crichton. He used it to describe scientific hubris as having the appearance of knowledge without any understanding of the consequences.
This is a looming crisis, given the current state of self-driving vehicles being seen as a lucrative industry and a covetable luxury item. While companies may force the public into accepting more autonomous vehicles onto our roads, I personally feel the technology needs much more time for testing, investment, and development especially in the areas of visual recognition of humans and life saving measures during crashes. Overall, my opinion of autonomous vehicles has changed drastically from one of optimism to great caution and further curiosity. However, this one statistic provides me some hope for the future: “Once driverless cars are four or five times safer than they are now, people will trust them as much as human-driven vehicles.” I’d like to believe this is true. Until then, I’ll see you in a couple years.
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