algorithms are never going to drive your car

The wave of the future is you sitting in your car reading a book or drinking a beer on the way home from work. Man, that’d be sweet. Trillions will be spent trying to make this happen. But I still don’t believe it’ll ever happen in large scale.

Once upon a time I dabbled in computer science. It’s been so long since I did that, that in writing the word ‘algorithm’ in this post’s title I had to re-spell it like ten times. But I remember enough to know just how flawed computers are. It’s why everything eventually breaks, at least once. Or has to be restarted every now and again.

I mean, airplanes don’t tend to crash anymore, but remember those are always human input at the end stage. It’s interesting that in all these autonomous car dreams (experimentally on the road today) that nobody seems to be seriously considering autonomous airliners. I’d bet a substantial amount of my freestanding international gold reserves that your average person would be a hundred times more comfortable getting in a robot car over a robot plane. Even though the fatality rate on the roads is astronomically higher than the skies.

The challenge with the robot car is not the computer hardware, or the sensors, or even trying to rewrite thousands of federal, state, local, and insurance road laws. It’s the algorithms. These algorithms will guide the way the car drives, navigates, how it responds to failures, how it handles emergencies, dangerous situations, and so on. If the algorithms don’t work, or are flawed, at least some badness will always occur. And in my mind, since algorithms are always written by humans, the flaws are never going away. And you can’t restart your car while you’re driving 65 mph down the road. Though I suppose the car could pull you over and then restart, if the algorithm handles the error resolution correctly.

But also, it comes down to what humans are willing to entrust to an algorithm. For example, I heard this used in a play on that morals exercise, if you’re in a car at 45 mph and you go left you run over one person, if you go right you run over three people. What do you do? But in more relevant terms for our discussion here, at 45 mph if you go left you run over one person, if you go right your car hits a jersey wall. Your significant other is in the passenger seat.

Or, with different circumstances, what if you go left it’d be two people you’d hit. If you go right you still hit the wall, but it’s just you in the car. How does the situation change if you’ve got kids in the back? Do you go left or right? Both these options suck, but it’s a decision that determines the fate of other fellow humans, or you and your car partner.

Yet in the self-driving car world, the algorithm makes this decision for you. You have no say. Then the programmers have to turn around and pre-program (somehow) for the car to handle a limitless number of other eventualities. Would you let your car decide any of these situations for you, for your family? I wouldn’t. An algorithm doesn’t get to make those kinds of choices for me. Only I do.

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