The task of keeping up with technological change gets harder by the day. One human brain (mine) just can’t grasp the complexity and rapid progress. Just the other day, I was mentioning the robotic transformation of manufacturing, Anthony commented about how microcontrollers are easier than ever to embed into almost everything, and now Toyota and Lexus are introducing driver assistance technology that gets us ever closer to self-driving cars. Of course, as blog readers should know, Google has been sending their autonomous cars out on to the highways for over a year now and their record – in real traffic – in California! - is flawless. This is something I keep bringing up, but I am not sure too many people appreciate, how close the roads are to be taken over by “robots”. It is not a question of function. The electronics, the sensors, and the software are already here. Audi already has a car that parks itself (with video). The only thing keeping self-driving cars from hitting the road are cost, laws, regulation, and fear. People are fearful that the “robots” cannot drive as well. I am not too worried. If the Google car can drive thousands of miles through traffic without an accident, that is better than most humans. Heck, robots have been flying planes and driving trains for decades now. Boats should not be much of a problem either. When you really think about it, most driving is not very difficult. The situations that require sophisticated manuevering on the part of the driver are few and far between.
On the cost front, Audi is already shrinking the parts needed to incorporate self-driving technology into cars. It will be expensive at first, but not out of the reach of typical wealthy early-adopters.
On the regulation front, lawyers are wrangling over liability, legal, and safety issues, but I am unsure why self-driving cars should not be regulated like other mass transportation. There are plenty of automated trains around the world. Getting into a self-driving car would be just like getting into a miniature passenger rail car or bus. The door opens, you sit down, the vehicle goes to your destination. The only difference is the driver. Instead of a person (bus driver), there is a “bot”. For self-driving cars, just as in the case of a bus, the “riders” are not legally liable for anything relating to “driver” error or vehicle malfunction. It is the company that built the car and developed the “robot” driver that should be legally liable when the car causes trouble. This is unless, the driver “takes the wheel” for whatever reason. Right now the laws in Nevada, California, and Florida assume that self-driving cars are a human-machine combo and the driver is still liable for everything. Let me tell you this, when I get a self-driving car, there is no way I will be driving it. What would be the point? The point is to relieve yourself from the burden of driving. I would much rather be talking, working, sleeping, or partying while the bot drives.
Of course, besides cars, “bots” (software and machines) are showing up everywhere.
- There is a humanoid robot on the ISS.
- Plenty of new robots are showing up at this year’s CES.
- Bots run the Internet and financial markets for the most part.
- We have mostly autonomous military airplanes and new land based quadruped robots almost ready for action.
- Here is one of the fastest recent robots, modeled after a cockroach.
- Bots have even been proposed for lifeguard duty.
While most of these inventions and uses for bots are done for “good” (except for the military applications – which are designed to help destroy things), one cannot help but get a little uneasy feeling about how fast it is all developing. When self-driving cars arrive, you will always be tracked as the cars will be maintaining a near constant connection to the internet and will have very advanced recording devices – essentially a “black box” for the car. This has implications for privacy and freedom. There are also concerns about safety as so many machines and devices become connected and autonomous. Will some of these be hacked and used for nefarious purposes? Could someone kill you by hacking into your self-driving car?
And then we come back to the issue of jobs. Some people speculate that people will find new areas of work once robots take over most of the mundane and physical work to make the human world go ’round, but I don’t think most people will have the skills or knowledge for advanced “futuristic” jobs. There is a chance that most people could be left behind, as portrayed in this very good short science fiction story about the future (with a happy ending).
In the end, I accept that things change. Even my profession will likely be automated away. Standing in the way of progress is a good way to get steam rolled, so I figure the best thing to do is to guide progress and stay informed as best as I can so that the future is brighter, no matter how things evolve.
Have a good Thursday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under Technology
This post was written by jloew on January 10, 2013