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July 25, 2017

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Home » Business » Autotalk Special

Autonomous driving: Is hyperbole overwhelming reality?

RIDING the gold rush of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars are headed toward the wild, wild west.

Whenever my friends ask me my opinion on how close we are to autonomous driving, I wonder if they have considered all the implications of letting an unseen hand take the steering wheel.

I don’t mean to sound like a die-hard conservative, as the automotive industry itself has often been depicted, but one can ever be too careful when confronting life-changing technology.

It is a bit chilling to see the bloodbath created by remotely hacked self-driving cars in the movie “Fast and Furious 8” and to witness robots outsmarting and rebelling against their creators in the HBO series “Westworld.”

Both popular dramas look to tell a tricky tale about the much-hyped buzzwords “artificial intelligence.” The concept is now in a complex stage of real-world evolution, and some of its developers cannot wait to declare the revolution is “on” ­— hail, the world’s fourth industrial revolution!

Today’s auto industry headlines are dominated by carmakers in a rush to deploy artificial intelligence in their products or to acquire artificial intelligence startups. Silicon Valley is the new Detroit. Coding is the new word in vehicle engineering. Car owners dream about taking a nap while motoring to a destination.

“If I had a self-driving car, then why would I need my husband?” my friend Yasmin joked.

I refrained from mentioning that her job as a bank teller might also become obsolete as artificial intelligence moves into the financial realm.

My friend Andrew, who works in the venture capital business, said financing for artificial intelligence has skyrocketed in the past year. In China, where the public is particularly open-minded about technological innovation, the artificial intelligence industry is expected to be valued at 1 trillion yuan (US$147 billion) by 2030, with autonomous driving as one of its vanguard applications.

“This is one of the biggest futuristic gambles, and nobody wants to miss the party,” Andrew said. “The self-driving car is all geared up with money, and there is no going back as I see it.”

The ongoing unbridled, run-amok growth of artificial intelligence frightens many, including Elon Musk, whose Tesla prides itself on being an aggressive pioneer in autonomous driving pioneer. His Mars immigration plan designed as a refuge is case of artificial intelligence colonizing Earth.

He and the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking keep sounding alarming bells over artificial intelligence, suggesting that our own aggression or ignorance might spell the end of human civilization as we know it.

A quandary

Developed to help human beings surpass their own limits, artificial intelligence is destined to become a quandary. Either it makes too little progress to prove its usefulness, or it eventually takes off on its own by outpacing its creator in evolution. The invincible AI-enabled AlphaGO master, which notoriously beat the best player in the world, is the latter scenario as a nutshell.

Though the thought of rogue robots going about killing people still seems too ridiculous to contemplate, some harsh reality begins to sink in when people see a fatal Tesla crash with a disconnected driver relying on autopilot functions.

That’s why I was really stunned to see Baidu testing its self-driving car on a busy Beijing highway. The event was live-streamed at Baidu’s artificial intelligence developer conference earlier this month. It was really courageous of Baidu founder and CEO Robin Li to ride shotgun, putting his personal safety at risk. Not to mention that Baidu didn’t have a license to do this stunt on public roads.

In response to his controversial ride, Li later said he believes robocars will eventually be safer than those driven by human. It is a common view held by the auto industry and other developers of artificial intelligence, who believe that machines can operate rationally, free of emotional distractions and drive fatigue.

What if the autonomous cars, designed to mimic us, learn road rage and the foul language that goes with it? After all, when Microsoft created a chatbot to conduct automated discussions on Twitter, the machine learned sexist and racist comments from waggish users only hours after its launch.

“It is possible for autonomous vehicles to develop their own characters, just like their makers,” said my friend Eric, who is developing robotic wrestlers. “It all depends on their learning programs. I personally think it is inevitable that machines will develop their own consciousness and then their own emotions because we are now striving to create a new, elevated version of ourselves.”

If so, how would they react to moral conundrums? It is a classic thought experiment in ethics to have to choose one’s priorities in face of a predictable accident, leaving the rest to god’s mercy.

Would it make us feel better if we left the decisions completely to cars? Who should take legal responsibility for self-driving cars? Do the engineers who pre-program a car’s reaction in an accident situation have the right to play god? These questions demand answers before it is too late to reply in a new technology frontier that is now basically autonomous.

“Do you think self-driving cars will lead us to a dystopia like in science fiction?” I asked Eric.

“Well, I guess we will get what we deserve,” Eric said. “Where there are no rules, the only boundary is our own conscience.”


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