Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Street Smarts?


What is smart? Does the automated car they tell us is almost here qualify as smart? It’s pretty smart if it can steer itself and avoid obstacles. It’s very smart if it can recognize lane markings and traffic lights. How about reading street signs?

We know cars are smart enough to park themselves. What about NYC’s famed alternate side of the street parking? How smart does this car have to be for you to trust it with your life? The lives of your loved ones?

Living creatures are smart because they adapt to changes in their circumstances, e.g., the three-legged dog. Computers (and other machines) cannot. They are limited to their programming,

Can cars be programmed to be better drivers than humans? Not better than any human, but they can be programmed to be better than the worst human drivers. For example, they will never be distracted.

So far, I’ve been asking questions about the skill of automated cars versus humans. Skills can be programmed. The real question we should be asking is not about skills but judgment.

Can automated cars make decisions as well as humans? Can the designers of these vehicles anticipate every possible situation the car might encounter? What about life or death decisions?

I’m not saying humans don’t make mistakes. Tens of thousands of drivers still choose to drive impaired. Even more can’t ignore phone calls or texts. And texting is eight times more dangerous than driving drunk.

Automated cars won’t make those mistakes. The problem is, until we have years of experience and millions of miles with these cars, we won’t know the mistakes they might make.

Like drivers, programmers are not perfect. Unlike drivers, programmers can’t react to situations. They must anticipate them, instructing the machine accordingly. Can they foresee everything?

We encounter faulty programming everyday on our devices. (If you don’t, you’re not paying attention.) Programming a car to move safely in traffic is far more difficult than programming a stationary device.

Learning to drive doesn’t end with getting a license. Experience is what tells you someone will turn even if they don’t signal. Or that they won’t turn if a signal’s been on for blocks. How much experience will the programmers have?

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