Inside the Artificial Intelligence Revolution: A Special Report, Pt. 2
No technology symbolizes the progress – and the dangers – of smart machines like self-driving cars. Robots might help build the phone in your pocket and neural networks might write captions for your vacation pictures, but self-driving cars promise to change everything, from how you get from one place to another to how cities are built. They will save lives and reduce pollution. And they will replace the romance of the open road with the romance of riding around in what amounts to a big iPhone.
But the imminent arrival of self-driving cars also brings up serious questions about our relationship with technology that we have yet to resolve. How much control of our lives do we want to give over to machines – and to the corporations that build and operate them? How much risk are we willing to take in doing so? And not just physical risk, as in the case of self-driving cars, but economic risk too, as financial decisions become more and more engineered and controlled by smart machines. With self-driving cars, the invisible revolution that is behind everything from Facebook to robotic warfare invades everyday life, forcing a new kind of accounting with the technological genie.
The self-driving car is not just a research experiment. Already some Mercedes can essentially park themselves and adjust brakes to avoid collisions. Tesla recently released Autopilot, a new feature that keeps its cars between lanes on the highway, allowing near-hands-free driving, as well as a safe distance away from other vehicles in stop-and-go traffic. As for fully autonomous cars, Google is not the only one pushing this forward: Virtually every major car manufacturer has a program in development, including Toyota, which recently announced it is investing $1 billion in a new AI lab in Silicon Valley that will focus on, among other things, technology for self-driving cars. But the most aggressive newcomer is Uber, which raided the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University, hiring away 40 researchers and scientists. Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick has made no secret that his goal is to cut costs by rolling out a fleet of driverless taxis. When I asked Chris Urmson, head of the Google self-driving-car project, how long it would be before fully autonomous cars will be on the road, he replied, “It’s my personal goal that my 12-year-old son won’t need to get a driver’s license.”
The arrival of self-driving cars is the confluence of many factors, including advances in machine learning that allow cars to “see,” the proliferation of cheap sensor technology, advances in mapping technology, and the success of electric cars like Tesla. But the biggest factor may be the sense that cars as we know them today are a 20th-century invention poorly suited to our 21st-century world, where everything from climate change to the declining wealth of the middle class is calling into question the need to have a throaty V-8 – and big corporations excel at building sexy devices to sell products and siphon off our personal data. As one Apple exec said, teasing rumors that the company was exploring the idea of getting into the auto business, self-driving cars are “the ultimate mobile device.”
I get back in my Hyundai rental after cruising around Mountain View in the Google car, and the first thing I notice is how lousy most human drivers are – pulling out of parking lots without looking, cutting off people during lane changes. I find myself thinking, “The Google car wouldn’t do that.” One study estimates that, by midcentury, self-driving cars could reduce traffic accidents by up to 90 percent. “We really need to keep in mind how important [the adoption of autonomous vehicles] is going to be,” says Urmson. “We’re talking about [the lives of] 30,000 people in the U.S. – and 1.2 million worldwide. If you think about the opportunity cost of moving slowly, it’s terrifying.”
Tree of Life Mass Shooting Trial Begins With Victim's 911 Call
- Tree of Life Shooting