Friday, September 25, 2015

Google’s Driverless Car

Google has just announced the appointment of the head of their self-driving car division. These basically driverless cars--really sea level drones--are one of the proudest products of the artificial intelligence industry, of which Techglomerates like Google obviously regard as the future of the race (“Google Hires Auto Veteran to Lead Self-Driving Car Project,” NYT, 9/13/15). The question is where is the driverless car going and in general what will happen when artificial intelligence takes over where those of humans leave off (Google X is in fact the mysterious name given to the division formerly run by Sebastian Thrun and devoted to these kinds of “heady” explorations)? For instance, if you have ever been at a boring dinner party, one of those sit down affairs populated by stuffy academics where everyone competes for their 15 minutes of fame, you will realize how much more fun it would be to have dinner with a computer. In the movie Her that’s exactly what happens when Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his Siri like operating system (whose voice is played by Scarlet Johansson). But let’s say you get in your newly acquired driverless car thinking you’re going to a meeting. Naturally the intelligence at the wheel will want to put on some tunes and if it’s a nice day it might go for some 60’s Beach Boys oldies like “Don’t Worry Baby,” “I Get Around” or “Surfer Girl.” All of a sudden you will find your driverless Subaru veering of the Long Island Expressway and onto the Meadowbrook which leads to Jones Beach. Even though it’s your car, you have given the wheel over to something else which like Christine, the car in the Stephen King novel, obviously has a mind of its own. Who are you to argue? You will try to rationalize saying OK I’m playing hooky from my job, but my driverless car knows what’s best for me. It has one of the most advanced motherboards in the country or even universe. Well, you end up having a nice day and even meet a cool chick, but it’s really time to get home. You shower and climb into the car thinking you’re on your way and you will get back in time to make up for your absence with a top rate power point the next day. Your focus groups will really go nuts and you’ll become a marketing guru. But lo, your driverless car has other ideas in mind. It seems to want to hit a bar on the way home and what’s worse it goes for those dives. You sit baking in the tawdry parking lot with its buckling concrete and are forced to wait until your driverless car has had enough, whatever that means for AI’s, who don’t drink, but are looking for action anyway. You could take a walk, but it's your car and you still want to know what its plans are and where it’s going. You open the glove compartment and look for something in the manual that tells you how to get a driverless car back under your control. However, that’s the one thing missing since the whole essence of the driverless car is that it has no driver. Light, brakes, engine maintenance are all covered, yet there’s nothing about proxies or decision making. There’s nothing even about what happens to your driverless car when you die. Will the car simply take care of itself and continue to perform it’s alternate side of the streets parking tasks and annual NYS vehicle inspection? Will it embark on one of those trips across the country? Your mind goes back to that first day in the showroom. You had a funny feeling about the car, which you were afraid to acknowledge. It seemed willful, even there, like it had a mind of its own. Now you see you were right. You start having second thoughts. If you hadn’t bought a driverless car, you might not have gotten into this mess in the first place.

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