IDEA FRIDAY: The Elon Muskian Future of Driverless Cars

I RECENTLY poured myself into this article that discussed the ramifications of having driver-less vehicular activity on our streets using the poignancy of philosophical thought experiments, particularly the Trolley Problem (which you can blame on Philippa Foot, who first coined it in her 1967 paper, “Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect”). Essentially, what the thought experiment purports is that it is acceptable to perform an activity that might cause harm to the other person, provided it causes the maximum good to more people or rather for the greater good. So, in the event that you are in a driverless car and you ‘both’ happen to find yourself in a precarious position which will inflict maximum damage and harm, the car decides to calculate that you guv’nah/duchess must part your mortal coil in order to save the most number of people, there, moral conundrum erased! Here’s some quick math for two countries, our glorious Kenya and the Star-Spangled America: So Americans take roughly 250 billion trips annually, and in the process, 30,000 folk are killed per annum. The trolley problem would suppose that it is okay for the 30K than over 300 million folk taking those trips. Let’s cross the Atlantic and apply the same fuzzy logic to our own Kenyan situation where the travel demand rate as of 3 years ago when the population of Nairobi stood at 3 million, was 2.5trips/person/day, the total travel demand rate in Nairobi being 7.5 million trips/person/day; a fact I am sure is growing as ever by the blowing of the wind. Now, if possibly a thousand of people died in the process, then is acceptable collateral effect as long as the other 45 million are making their trips. What I am trying to say is, and all evidence to support this statement implies that we would kill far fewer people with an autonomous vehicle grid.


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When I think about autonomous vehicular activity I in no doubt think of Elon Musk, who wishes that you own a driverless car in the very, very near future. Elon Musk has been described as the “Tony Stark” of our day, and quite frankly, I agree with that premise, besides I admire the man! He has quite a few days ago, been quoted to say that in the future it might become illegal to driver non-autonomous cars. The Tesla CEO spoke Tuesday at Nvidia’s developers’ conference, reportedly boasting: “Tesla is the leader in electric cars, and we’ll also be the leader in autonomous cars. If anyone is interested in working on autonomous cars, we’d love to have you at Tesla. It’s going to be the default thing and save a lot of lives.” Speaking of self-driving cars and safety, Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving car project, declared at the TED conference Tuesday [16th March]that he wants to make the autonomous vehicles the standard in five years for a personal reason: His son is 11 and due to take a driving test in four-and-a-half years.

“My team and I are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen,” he said. Urmson also continued to elaborate that those autonomous cars would help reduce the sheer number of cars on the roads, and getting stuck in traffic jams. Additionally, he pointed out that, “some 1.2 million people are killed on the roads around the world each year. That number is equivalent to a jet falling out of the sky every day.”

Nvidia revealed more details about its car supercomputer, the Nvidia Drive PX, during a keynote speech by Huang where Musk was boasting laughingly. That supercomputer is designed to be the brains of a self-driving car, but the supercomputer alone still costs about $10,000. As far as safety is concerned, Musk authoritatively said, “The evidence is already overwhelming” that self-driving cars can be better at situations like alerting us to brake lights ahead than human reflexes can possibly do. Musk did make an interesting comment when he decreed that “It’s not going to all transition immediately.” It’ll take quite a while,” revealing that it would take at least 20 years for that to even be a possibility since the current world fleet of vehicles to be replaced, even if autonomous vehicles became commonplace right now. So, am going my first driverless car, when am in my forties, not too pleased about that!

Self-driving cars, deep learning artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, all these technological evolutions that are taking us to a TECHNOTOPIA bring with them a peculiar excitement (I wish Leonardo da Vinci was alive, he would never sleep a wink), yet lurking in this glare is a sort of darkness that goes along with extreme technological leaps. And if we are going by thought experiments, I would have us consider the one that is fondly called “The Chinese Room” where the experiment asks you to imagine that an English speaking man has been placed in a room that is entirely sealed, save for a small mail slot in the chamber door. He has with him a hard copy in English of a computer program that translates the Chinese language. He also has plenty of spare scratch paper, pencils, and file cabinets. Pieces of paper containing Chinese characters are then slipped through the slot in the door. According to Searle, the man should be able to use his book to translate them and then send back his own response in Chinese. Although he doesn’t speak a word of the language, Searle (John, the originator of the concept in the 80s) argues that through this process the man in the room could convince anyone on the outside that he was a fluent speaker of Chinese. Effectively, the Chinese Room thought experiment in order to refute the argument that computers and other artificial intelligences could actually think and understand. The man in the room does not speak Chinese; he can’t think in the language. But because he has certain tools at his disposal, he would be able convince even a native speaker that he was fluent in it. According to Searle, computers do the same thing. They don’t ever truly understand the information they’re given, but they can run a program, access information, and give a clear impression of human intelligence. So, driverless cars with their deep learning AI programs would hold the fate of us, making vital decisions on the road, and every other dynamic involved in the driving process. An interesting future, yet terrifying I guess, there are three sides to every coin-the side belonging outside the realm of our causality. Either way, to a driverless future!


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