Autonomous Vehicles: Why?

Do you pay attention to the tech news, especially in relation to the financial markets? The idea of self-driving cars and trucks and their near and long-term prospects gets a great deal of attention among the pundits. But why?

Okay, at one level it reflects the growing operational power of artificial intelligence (AI)and neural networking in ever more powerful computers, many designed specifically for cars and trucks. We do live in a culture that assumes quite uncritically that 1) any new technology is better than old technology, and that 2) technological advancement is inevitable anyway. I must disagree.

The Trajectory of Technology and Human Control

shutterstock_self-driving_chombosanThe answer to the first claim is, not necessarily. The answer to the second is, no longer likely, in fact almost impossible beyond an uncertain point. The only real way to answer these questions is first to examine, good for what, and second, inevitable in what timeframe and for how long.

History has clearly shown us that particular technologies may be good or bad, depending on the context. That is, who controls it and for what purpose? History also demonstrates that what at first we might be told is a “wonder drug” (say, OxyContin) or a source of unlimited clean energy (nuclear energy) turn out later to be a scourge on the people and/or planet.

Often, things are not as they seem at first. A technology that appeared to be very good at first, turns out to be a disaster later. What its promoters claimed to be a “non-addictive” pain medicine, turns out to be more addictive than any other. Atomic bombs aside, nuclear power plants offered endless energy production supposedly cheaper and cleaner than any other source.

Now that the radioactive spent fuel piles up and nobody seems able to develop safe storage, and now that utility companies have to decommission and cleaned up old plants at great cost, no financial institution will finance even new supposedly safer atomic power plants without government protection.

Now that the synthetic opioids have a track record of massive human wreckage, many people and institutions are challenged in court their medical “efficacy” and their producers’ ethics.

Techno-Slaves or Slaves to Technology

So, what is wrong with autonomous vehicles? Of course, the complexity of the software needed to perform automated driving is vast. Nevertheless, assuming the basics can be accomplishedTech.Meaning, which at this point appears to be the case, what about driving ethics? Many situations occur where a driver has to choose between two or more options to avoid an accident and minimize the risk to passengers and/or pedestrians.

Should I go off the road and risk killing that woman with her baby carriage, or should I swerve left and hit that oncoming school bus without knowing how many children are inside? How can the software engineers design into their systems the moral dilemmas people face in real life? Well, they cannot.

In theory, if all vehicles were driverless, they could mutually coordinate for greater safety and more efficient transportation. However, to fully implement and test some theories can become so costly, mostly due to their complexity, that we really must question whether the increased convenience of humans having little left to do is worth the cost. Is this another case of intermediation blues?

Renewable Robots? Unlikely in the Anthropocene

On top of that, we are moving deeper into the Anthropocene and the industrial age is waning because of resource depletion, climate chaos, ecological destruction, and species extinction. In these times, who imagines that we can continue on the path of ever-increasing complex technology, which needs ever more energy to run it? Converting electricity production to “renewable” sources also has its costs and is not, contrary to the eco-modernists and system designers, a boundary-free path.

Again, in theory, with full automation and ubiquitous artificial intelligence, nothing is left for humans to do. What is the point in that? Not only are such utopian dreams of techno-financial plutocrats unrealistic in terms of energy and materials-use. They are fundamentally un-human. The utopian dreams of industrial civilization are way overdue for reassessment on the basis of facing the reality of life within the bounds of the Earth System, which we are currently destroying.

What values do we really need to pursue?

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