Life and Death at the hands of an Algorithm
Wrapping up two grueling days of APAC Executive Committee meetings in Hong Kong, my boss invites me out for dinner. We head down to Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Central and settle in for a nice meal. We both have a mutual passion for cars, so naturally the conversation veered to his latest exploits on the track.
He was telling me how his friend took a Lamborghini Gallardo across to Zhuhai and was doing about 100km when the tire blew.
“Lucky it’s a 4-wheel drive” I said.
“No no, it’s a rear wheel drive” he insisted.
“I’ll bet my MX5 for your Ferrari 458 it’s a 4-wheel drive” I said jokingly, placing my car keys at the center of the table.
“Done” he responded confidently using a financial term we use to seal deals.
I was shocked.
It was hardly a fare deal. My little Mazda roadster was a lovely car, but way cheaper than a 458 Italia.
I was pretty confident of my knowledge of cars, but his confident and quick response unsettled me. I knew nearly all recent cars from the raging bull were 4-wheel drive but they had released a special edition lightweight Balboni in rear wheel drive to cater to rich and serious petrol-heads. Then again, he lived and breathed supercars. He was always one of the first in Asia to receive the latest model Ferrari. Back home in France he had a dream Modena Challenge Stradale. But would his devout loyalty to the prancing horse marque be his downfall?
I backed down from the bet.
Checking his smartphone as steaks were served…
“You were right, 4-wheel drive!”
I had wimped out and lost the opportunity win a Ferrari. I kid myself it was a good thing. I mean, you couldn’t take a Ferrari off your boss could you? Would he have honoured the bet? I have no doubt yes he would, but it would have made an interesting conversation with his wife – “Err Honey Bunny….”
This leads me to a more serious issue.
As you know, Google and others are set on making taxi drivers redundant by developing driverless cars. Obviously safety is a priority which they are working on. Sensors will be able to detect objects within a certain distance, the front bonnet may be made of foam which compacts upon impact etc.
But an accident is inevitable.
Imagine the tire blowing and the car loses control. There are kids playing on the sidewalk and the car veers toward them. It is raining, and the auto-brake kicks in but the car starts to aquaplane.
At this point the algorithms that control the car need to assess the situation and calculate the best outcome scenario – save the car and the passengers by hitting a soft object, which in this case could be kids playing on the street, or try to avoid the kids and hit a wall causing serious injury to the passengers. A quick check on the Internet and it appears that the presenters over on Top Gear had already thought of this in a program that aired a few months ago.
Now initially it appears that Google intended for one of the passengers to act as a reserve driver in case of emergencies. The driver could take control and act accordingly. They decided against this idea as the hand-off was problematic. I mean the driver is hardly going to be concentrating on the road, and if he was, he may as well drive the damn car. So it looks like the avenue they are pursuing will be to have no reserve driver, but perhaps an override brake button – Emergency Stop.
However they solve these problems, whatever technology they adopt will ultimately result in life and death decisions being made by algorithms.
And then there is the question of liability in the case of an accident, not to mention the possibility of your car being hacked, technical failures, how your car will navigate a traffic light failure when traffic police use hand signals, what if a one-way street direction was reversed but your GPS has not been updated.
But then you might argue that the aerospace industry has been using autopilot for decades.True. And airplanes have sensors to detect objects (radar). The obvious difference is proximity, which gives the pilot time to takeover the controls. In a car, accidents often occur without notice.
And ultimately what is the point of all this? I don’t even think Google knows. There may be some noble goals – I mean a driverless car would be great for the sight impaired, and that is something I would fully support. But isn’t the world already becoming too convenient? Is there not a connection between technical advances and obesity in developed nations? Can you imagine how mundane a world will be if machines drove us around, cooked for us, fed us, changed our babies nappies. I watched a video of someone using his smartphone to summon his Tesla from the garage. Please – lets just leave these as speciality projects for the disabled.
One of my greatest pleasures is hitting the open road, top down, wind in my hair.
Please Google, don’t take that away from me.
Dean Owen is Co-Founder of Quimojo, a revolutionary new concept in Global Campus Recruitment."
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