Autonomous Cars: Sully’s Worried. Maybe You Should Be Too.

There are two long-standing schools for the role of Artificial Intelligence. The first is Autonomy, where AI devices and systems simply replace us. The second is Augmented, where AI serves us as a new toolset: I favor the toolset approach and am writing Augmenting People: Why AI Should Back Us Up, Not Push Us Out to explain why you should be concerned as well.

Ultimately, decisions made today between AI augmentation and autonomy will shape the future of the human race. Over the next 10-15 years,  this choice will restructure our relationships with machines, each other, the planet and the universe. Right now some of the smartest technologists in the world, working in some of the best established and most promising tech companies in the world, are inventing ways for AI to do everything from nanobots that will swim through our blood zapping cancer cells to cars that are so autonomous that they are outfitted without steering wheels and with fold-out beds for a good snooze.

You’ve already read about the cars and how great they will be. In the autonomy/augmentation debate, it seems the decision has already been made, robotic cars will prevail. The government, insurance carriers, and even car-makers are just about unanimous that these vehicles are safer and far less polluting. A younger generation seems to prefer self-driving to their parents’ preference for being behind the wheel and in control.

Just about every automaker is moving toward what is called Level 6 Autonomy, which means the driving machines do it all while humans do whatever they please. Volvo is even designing a sleeping car because passengers need to do nothing but get inside the car and tell it a destination.

There are mountains of data arguing the case for automobile autonomy. Millions of miles have been logged by traditional and new automakers with very few mishaps and only two fatal accidents—both blamed on distracted humans who made fatal errors.

Cases like this sound pretty compelling. Data is the protoplasm that makes AI seem, well, intelligent. The stats argue that if we remove humans from the loop, lives will be saved, pollutions will be reduced, existing roadways can be retrofitted to enable more cars to use existing infrastructure at higher speeds and travel time will be reduced.

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