Sunday, March 22, 2015

Robotic Cars and Your Basic Human Dignity

As an engineer, I really hesitate to criticize Elon Musk. This is a guy who, when it's all over with, will probably have done more for technological progress than anyone since Edison. So this is like Joe Shlabotnik criticizing Mickey Mantle. But success can breed hubris. Musk thinks that, for safety reasons, it should eventually become illegal for people to drive cars. All cars will be driven automatically by an algorithm.

Cue the satire.

Banning human-driven cars? Not a moment too soon, I say. Over 30,000 people a year are killed in car accidents in the U.S. If there's one thing that made this country great, it's the avoidance of all possible risks. Who can forget the great Federal Actuarial Council of 1968 that calculated a 10% risk of death for the Apollo astronauts, and pulled the plug on the foolhardy moon mission? Or the Over-land Travel Committee of 1840 that made it illegal to cross the Mississippi without 180 days' hard rations, six draft animals per person and a federally approved wagon? That stroke of genius stopped what would have been a disastrous mass movement to the west. Experts say that without that act, America would have eventually taken California from Mexico. When you look at the miserable standard of living in, say, Palo Alto these days, I consider that to have been a bullet dodged. America the Safe.

Anyway, robotic cars are still driven by humans, they're just driven indirectly by humans. Someone still has to design the car and determine how the steering algorithm functions. But let's face it, most humans are unqualified to decide the safe speed for a car, and they're getting worse by the day. The average person has little understanding of rigid-body dynamics. The navigation of cars should be restricted to those who can write the Lagrangian for a mass-spring-damper model of an automobile and derive the equations of motion.  

The Google self-driving car

The self-driving car from Sleeper by Woody Allen

I say let's take it to the next logical step. Many car trips are unnecessary anyway. The best way to avoid an accident is to just stay home! If your car can control which route to take and how fast to go in getting to the destination you select, then certainly it can just refuse to start at all, if its algorithms determine you don't need to be taking the trip. It should be very simple to track how many trips to the grocery store you made this week. Let's face it, if you can't get your groceries in two trips, you should just order out. In fact, it should be illegal to drive to the grocery store at all. It's much more efficient and safe, and easier to control your food consumption, for the grocery store to make delivery rounds with an automated van. And I hardly need to tell you how many people are abusing their driving privileges to attend demonstrations, visit the wilderness and annoy government officials in their places of work. Enough is enough.

Call me a dreamer, but I envision a day when nobody will leave the house at all. We can just stay inside, happily consuming infotainment and food of scientifically calibrated goodness.  

Libertarian extremists think everyone has the right to choose his own level of risk. But that kind of anarchy has led to the situation we have today, where maniacs think that just because it's a clear, dry day free of heavy traffic and they are late for their daughter's wedding, that it's OK to go 73 miles an hour down a rural interstate. What's next, the return of do-it-yourself auto repairs? Yeah, like I really want to drive on streets filled with cars whose oil was changed by shade tree mechanics instead of ASE certified automotive technicians.

The future looks bright. Instead of the constant, day-to-day grind of having to make decisions in the face of incomplete and uncertain information, people will be freed to live tranquil lives in which the only course of action permitted is that determined as optimal by algorithms created and approved by a central body of experts. You'll wake up and a message on a screen will tell you which color pants to put on.

Satire concluded.

The question you have to ask yourself is: are you using technology help you live, or are you using it to live life for you?