Driverless cars and the future….

Interest in driverless cars began over 30 years ago and was accelerated by the European Prometheus project that put up over 1 billion dollars (in today’s money) for research and development. In 1994 this effort achieved a major milestone with the successful demonstration of two identical vehicles driving more than 1000 km in normal traffic on Autoroute 1 near Paris at speeds up to 130 km/h, including lane changes overtaking conventional vehicles. Given that the experimental vehicles did not use GPS technology and conventional computers in those times were a thousand times less powerful than they are today, this was a very impressive accomplishment.

In late 2007 General Motors announced that it was working towards a target date of 2018 for a driverless car that would be available to the public. The car, using GPS guidance and an array of sensing equipment, would be capable of completing long or short journeys involving all the challenges of today’s driving, including stop lights, stop signs and parking.

To date, billions of dollars of public money (Japan, Europe and the U.S.) have been spent on driverless car research and development and probably an equal amount of private funding. Given the downturn in GM’s fortunes it seems unlikely that they will meet their target date for a driverless car, but the bigger question is ‘who needs it?’

The first issue is that any dreams of reading a book or snoozing while ‘James’ takes responsibility for getting you to your destination can be discarded immediately. It is inconceivable that GM or any other automobile manufacturer would take responsibility for any accident that might occur. Designs for the cars include a conventional set of instruments and controls for a human driver who will have full legal responsibility for the vehicle. I visualize large, bolded warnings in the interior of the car – “A qualified driver must occupy the driver’s seat and be ready at all times to override the automatics! The manufacturer accepts no responsibility for any damages or injuries that may occur in the operation of this vehicle!” If you have ever wondered what kind of stress a driving instructor is under as he monitors his student’s cautious best efforts, monitoring a driverless car will be your chance to find out.

The larger issue is “what is the point?” If the goal is convenience or safety this will only be attained when the transportation system is completely automated. Then, all vehicles will be networked so that they can be aware of the position and motion of all other vehicles. The irony is that when that position is reached it will no longer make sense to have ‘personal’ vehicles.

With a computer-controlled fleet of vehicles it will make far more sense to make it into a publicly owned taxi system where you use your smart phone to tell the system that you need transportation to point ‘Y’. The transportation system will then use its GPS sensors to locate your current position and route the nearest available vehicle to pick you up. I can visualize that you might pay a premium for single occupancy. The ‘standard’ fare arrangement would permit the rerouting of your vehicle to pick up another passenger with a compatible destination.

But the largest issue of all is that in that future where robotic intelligence has reached the point that it ‘takes charge’ of our transportation, we will be on the brink of a future where we are no longer the dominant species on this planet. That position will be held by the ‘monster’ (aka ‘artificial intelligence’) that our ‘Frankenstein’ scientists have created. We may, for a time, delude ourselves into thinking that we are in charge of the computer intelligence but once our dependence on it crosses a point of no return we will be committed to a future that we will not be able to control.

Ray Kurzweil in his book “The Singularity is Near” (which is to be released as a movie in early 2010) describes a future where robotic ‘transhuman’ intelligence is dominant. His premise is hard to dispute. The ‘singularity’ he refers to is the exponential growth of artificial intelligence. The driving force behind this exponential growth has three major components. The first of these components is Moore’s Law that has successfully predicted the growth in computing power per dollar (or per square centimeter) for the last 30 years. (Moore’s Law predicts a doubling of computing power every eighteen months.)

The second component is research into how the human brain works. This research is unraveling the mysteries of how, today, our brains are able to ‘outsmart’ computer intelligence. The third component is ‘nanotechnology’ which is the development of ‘machines’ whose dimensions are expressed in terms of nanometers (One nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter). Prominent among the techniques being used to assemble ‘nanobots’ is what is called ‘wet nanotechnology’ where living organisms such as cells or viruses are manipulated to become ‘factories’ for assembling raw materials (particularly carbon) into electronic components.

Ray Kurzweil believes that, by 2015, we will be able to assemble an artificial intelligence that transcends the intelligence of any human being on Earth. Past that point, since future computing power has always benefited from the fruits of current computing power, it is certain that the ‘intelligence gap’ between our machines and us will grow ever wider.

There are those who, like me, feel that a computer intelligence, will always lack a ‘certain something’ (one word for which is spirituality) that only Nature can provide. But even if we are right, it will not affect the question of ‘who is the boss’. As Kurzweil says in his book (page 260) “A more intelligent process will inherently outcompete one that is less intelligent, making intelligence the most powerful force in the universe).”

The bottom line is that driverless cars will probably go down in cosmic history as the ‘Edsel’ of the 21st century – a century that will decide the future of our species. Enormous brainpower and research funding is currently being directed to the creation of technologies that are infinitely more dangerous than nuclear or even biological weapons.

The insidious thing about the GNR revolution (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics) is that it has the potential to provide enormous benefits and, even, to make our species immortal – but, as with all our technological successes, it has a very dark flip side. Whether as a laboratory accident or by falling into the wrong hands, the products of the GNR revolution could swiftly bring an end to our species and, even, to all life on Earth.

Those who, like Kurzweil, are optimistic about a ‘transhuman’ future are fearful that opposition to their optimism could lead to government controls that delay ‘progress’. It has become a part of their propaganda to label opposition to their optimistic visions as ‘Luddism’ drawing a parallel to the uprising in England in 1811 when handloom operators vandalized mills employing weaving machines, fearing that their already deprived lives were going to be made worse as their jobs were being eliminated. Today the term Luddism is used with ‘technophobia’ as a derisive way to label those who express concern for a ‘post Singularity’ future.

I am not afraid of being labeled a Luddite and, in fact, I would take pride in it because it would mean that my views were being noticed and were seen as a threat to Kurzweilean ‘progress’.

My philosophical position is that we are not yet ready to manage the ‘post Singularity’ era. Our technological prowess has outstripped our maturity as a species. We must urge our governments to put a brake on GNR research and development so that controls and defenses against accidents and abuse are in place before it is too late. Even more importantly, we need to give ourselves time to ‘grow up’ to become future man.

One thought on “Driverless cars and the future….

  1. Excellent article. I had no idea that driverless cars were being considered. Regarding GNR, I share Peter’s concerns around ethics. Pathological loons are always in power, it seems, to abuse and destroy.

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