Monday, 11 November 2013

Are self-driving cars a good idea? [ TechSc1ence ]

Recent news stories have indicated that the technology to create driverless cars may soon be widely available. In an interview on Sky News, the racing driver Amanda Stretton and robotics specialist Emma Byrne stated that this innovation could have a profound influence on the future direction of traffic, and seemed broadly sympathetic to it.

I wish I could share their enthusiasm. Of course, the improvement of public transport – or indeed, the actual creation of a public transport system, considering the existing ‘public transport’ is all owned privately – would be an excellent thing, I am by no stretch of the imagination attached to the idea of cars as a concept or status symbol. But we should be extremely weary about creating a matrix-like control grid where all vehicles are tracked and everything drives itself.

Firstly, before going into the deeper issues, there must surely be questions over safety here. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the existing road network is far from safe, and this is naturally completely correct. Thousands of people die on the roads every year, this cannot be contested. But everyone that currently applies for a driving licence and goes out onto the road knows these dangers, or would have to be incredibly ignorant not to be aware of them.

The potential for accidents to occur due to computer and mechanisation errors is completely different. We all accept driver error as an in-built risk of driving a vehicle. Would people really accept being put at risk due to errors by artificial intelligence? I’m quite sure that the people proposing this will argue that it’s completely failsafe, no such errors can occur, and no accidents are possible. This is usual sort of rhetoric that we hear in these cases, and it always turns out to be baseless.

Perhaps a more important issue though is what this says about the future of our cities and transportation within them. I first encountered the concept of such a transport network in a series of videos by an organisation called ‘Forum for the Future’. Their presentation, ‘Megacities on the Move’ depicted a future which I can only reasonably describe as dystopian and Orwellian. Within one of the videos, the female narrator cheerily talks of her commute, all controlled by computer, as being a case of “switch(ing) off her brain, and going to work”. Not really the vision of a society that I’m overly keen on. There are already EU plans to greatly reduce the amount of traffic in city centres, though, and such technology would doubtless receive a bureaucratic thumbs up.

The increasing sophistication and increased usage of technology in our society is absolutely inevitable. However, we really need to remember what it is to be human when contemplating how we’re going to utilise it, no matter how tempting certain concepts may seem.

Christopher Morris is a regular contributor to Yahoo on television, cinema, video games, technology and politics.

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