Could autonomous cars threaten our humanity?
There is a trope in sci-fi movies in which an alien or machine intelligence determines that humans are a bane and that in order to protect the galaxy, humanity must be eradicated. There is no shortage of examples, but some of my personal favorites include The day the earth stood still, Extraterrestrial and Planet of the Apes. And who could forget the T-800’s grim prognosis in Terminator 2 that “it’s in your nature to destroy yourself”?
Back in the real world, we’re not quite to the point of developing an artificially intelligent Skynet that will take control of our nuclear weapons and cause our collective demise. But one Vox Last week’s article leaves me with concern that we are headed in the wrong direction.
The story, written by Rani Molla, centers on Tesla and Waymo, two tech giants competing to develop fully autonomous vehicles. That is, cars that can be driven without any human intervention. Molla is a cheerleader for this innovation, arguing that such wonders on wheels will help reduce human suffering – road crashes are the leading cause of death among those under 30 and fatal car crashes are on the rise. increase.
Molla poses the current state of vehicle autonomy as a contemporary interpretation of an exercise familiar to anyone who has undertaken a basic study of ethics: the cart problem. The cart problem involves a driver whose cart is about to collide with several pedestrians. He can change lanes and save those people, but then he will be directly responsible for the murder of a single person on the other lane. Molla writes that if we don’t switch to self-driving cars, 1.3 million people will die in car crashes each year. But the technology isn’t quite road-ready, so to speak, for safe everyday use. “In the meantime,” Molla says, “it could lead to deaths at the hands of robots, even humans.”
The reasoning used by Molla is uncomfortably similar to that of our cinematic alien intelligence. Humans are the problem. It is in our nature to destroy ourselves. Therefore, human agency must be taken out of the equation. The slugline of the article even asks if “continuing to let humans drive” is worse than robot death.
I don’t know what kind of movies Molla is watching, but maybe she knows that the plot of the Terminator The franchise focuses on an effort to make weapon systems more secure by handing control over to artificial intelligence. It eliminates flawed human reasoning, but computers then decide humans are the real threat, and everyone dies anyway. I’m not saying our self-propelled Chevrolets will develop the motivation to kick people out so they can enjoy the freeways without us. But news from the United Nations that autonomous weapon systems – killer robots – may have recorded their first human casualties is reason enough to take a break from stepping up AI.
However, the real threat is not that autonomous vehicles will lead to our physical demise. Molla is undoubtedly right that technology will eventually advance to the point that these cars will save lives. It is, however, disappointing that an author apparently familiar enough with moral philosophy to invoke the cart problem did not raise a different question: Is autonomous technology a threat to our humanity? And is it worse?
Insects are known to go to extremes in ensuring their survival as a species. They will adapt to lose their pigmentation in order to survive in caves, for example. But we are not cave insects. We are humans. A key part of what makes us human is our agency. We have the ability to reason and take personal responsibility for our choices. If life boils down to pushing buttons – or having buttons pressed for us – to ensure maximum safety at all times, what good is it?
One of my favorite writers, Matthew Crawford, has addressed these questions. Crawford, political philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic turned researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, argues for human action in his first book, Buy the class as Soulcraft. There, he laments the loss of manual skill after discovering that he derives more satisfaction from the bike wrestling than from his brief tenure as the head of a think tank.
Yet, we live in an age where many cars don’t even let you check their oil level – the car sends you an email when it needs service. In his latest book, Why we drive: towards an open road philosophy, Crawford denounces driverless cars, linking the removal of humans from driving to a broader philosophy of “safety”, the moral sensibility that it is our duty to eliminate risks to life. The risk, Crawford argues, is part of humanity itself. We thrive in the face of risk. When we sacrifice risk for safety and convenience, we are truly sacrificing ourselves.
We can see the unintended consequences of sanitation outside of these abstract arguments. The American Motorcyclist Association, the lobby group for motorcycle enthusiasts – I’m a card-holder member – closely follows the policy surrounding autonomous vehicles. They are cautiously optimistic that autonomous driving technology could prevent the death of motorcyclists by distracted drivers. But they also envision the worst-case scenario in which AI systems aren’t developed to properly recognize motorcyclists – a tiny minority of American drivers. “The end result could be that motorcycles would be banned from certain roads, or worse, banned altogether,” warns WADA.
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds: European cities like Paris and Barcelona have already banned motorcycles and cars manufactured before the early 2000s, citing environmental concerns. Meanwhile, thought leaders like Molla are questioning whether we should even let anyone drive.
Robert Pirsig, the late author of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, wrote these beautiful words on the motorcycle: “Through that car window, everything you see is television. You are a passive observer and boring everything moves in a setting. On a cycle, the frame has disappeared. You are completely in touch with it all. You are in the scene, not just watching it, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
Imagine what Pirsig would have thought of an effort to make driving even more passive. There is more dynamism in the life of an insect just by trying to avoid the windshield.