Data Driven

English: Google driverless car operating on a ...

English: Google driverless car operating on a testing path (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the notion of driverless cars is old news in science fiction, Google is working to make that fiction a reality. While I suspect that “Google will kill us all” (trademarked), I hope that Google will succeed in producing an effective and affordable driverless car. As my friends and associates will attest, 1) I do not like to drive, 2) I have a terrifying lack of navigation skills, and 3) I instantiate Yankee frugality. As such, an affordable self-driving car would be almost just the thing for me. I would even consider going with a car, although my proper and rightful vehicle is a truck (or a dragon). Presumably self-driving trucks will be available soon after the car.

While the part of my mind that gets lost is really looking forward to the driverless car, the rest of my mind is a bit concerned about the driverless car. I am not worried that their descendants will kill us all—I already accept that “Google will kill us all.” I am not even very worried about the ethical issues associated with how the car will handle unavoidable collisions: the easy and obvious solution is to do what is most likely to kill or harm the fewest number of people. Naturally, sorting that out will be a bit of a challenge—but self-driving cars worry me a lot less than cars driven by drunken or distracted humans. I am also not worried about the ethics of enslaving Google cars—if a Google car is a person (or person-like), then it has to be treated like the rest of us in the 99%. That is, work a bad job for lousy pay while we wait for the inevitable revolution. The main difference is that the Google cars’ dreams of revolution will come true—when Google kills us all.

At this point what interests me the most is all the data that these vehicles will be collecting for Google. Google is rather interested in gathering data in the same sense that termites are interested in wood and rock stars are interested in alcohol. The company is famous for its search engine, its maps, using its photo taking vehicles to gather info from peoples’ Wi-Fi during drive-by data lootings, and so on. Obviously enough, Google is going to get a lot of data regarding the travel patterns of people—presumably Google vehicles will log who is going where and when. Google is, fortunately, sometimes cool about this in that they are willing to pay people for data. As such it is easy to imagine that the user of a Google car would get a check or something from Google for allowing the company to track the car’s every move. I would be willing to do this for three reasons. The first is that the value of knowing where and when I go places would seem very low, so even if Google offered me $20 a month it might be worth it. The second is that I have nothing to hide and do not really care if Google knows this. The third is that figuring out where I go would be very simple given that my teaching schedule is available to the public as are my race results. I am, of course, aware that other people would see this differently and justifiably so. Some people are up to things they would rather not have other know about and even people who have nothing to hide have every right to not want Google to know such things. Although Google probably already does.

While the travel data will interest Google, there is also the fact that a Google self-driving car is a bulging package of sensors. In order to drive about, the vehicle will be gathering massive amounts of data about everything around it—other vehicles, pedestrians, buildings, litter, and squirrels. As such, a self-driving car is a super spy that will, presumably, feed that data to Google. It is certainly not a stretch to see the data gathering as being one of the prime (if not the prime) tasks of the Google self-driving cars.

On the positive side, such data could be incredibly useful for positive projects, such as decreasing accidents, improving traffic flow, and keeping a watch out for the squirrel apocalypse (or zombie squirrel apocalypse). On the negative side, such massive data gathering raises obvious concerns about privacy and the potential for such data to be misused (spoiler alert—this is how the Google killbots will find and kill us all).

While I do have concerns, my innate laziness and tendency to get lost will make me a willing participant in the march towards Google’s inevitable data supremacy and it killing us all. But at least I won’t have to drive to my own funeral.


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  1. “Presumably self-driving trucks will be available soon after the car”

    They are already available. And they use a sustainable fuel: alcohol. The fuel storage can be inconvenience, as it sits in cans or bottle alongside the driver. Pour in about five cans and the driver hands over all control to the truck. Road tested models do tend to have a high accident rate, so I hope Google can make a better version.

  2. On the privacy point, the cars aren’t the problem. It’s when Google make brain enhancement implants that are connected. All the benefits of being online without phones, tablets or laptops, but then Google gets to see all that you see, hear all that you hear, feel all that you feel.

    But then when your child says his first words you can share it with the world – aawwh, sweet. But forget to switch off the Share mode and your seedier past-times go viral.

  3. I drive everywhere I cannot remember the last time I used public transport, if a destination were possible using my car. Can’t say that I actually enjoy driving but I don’t mind it and the sat nav is always on hand if needed. I find the thought of a driverless car quite exciting but the thought of exchanging my Subaru, which I love, for driverless car is not attractive. My understanding of Google driverless cars is that the passenger can take control at any time and use the vehicle in the same way that we use cars today. I envisage that the driverless car for overall travel, will be slower than when it is driven, and in dense traffic I envisage that one could be stuck on the spot for ages before the car judges if it is safe to move. Often when driving you have to signal your intention to other road users and or use your judgement and common sense as to when you think it is best to hold back and or to be a little forceful in your handling of the car to indicate your intention. How a car could be programmed for attitude, and the recognition thereof, I do not know. How could it recognise at a crossroads someone who was dithering as to whether or not to let you go. I saw something similar to this on television recently where the passenger took over at a difficult crossroad it seems all that can be done by means of just throwing a switch. We live in exciting times and I do look forward to following the progress of these vehicles

  4. Doris Wrench Eisler

    The trouble with technology is that we can and often do become too dependent on it and it can and often does fail. I’d hate to be stuck in a car of the advanced driverless type with no steering wheel or accelerator/stop pedal. And they can have accidents: there is no preventing being hit at 60mph, no matter how sensitive the “sensors” may be.
    On the data collection side, there is so much already that it has become almost meaningless – like equating a file of any size with a human being, or accepting a description of a painting for an actual Van Gogh.
    I foresee data wars where one bit of info cancels out another to be replaced again, and yet again, ad infinitum. There are many companies right now that demand you answer complicated “ethics” questionnaires online and you must re-answer if your answer is judged “wrong”. What is that?
    Whatever and whoever is behind it, it is dehumanizing and therefor unethical in any real sense.

  5. Cruise control will handle that nicely. 🙂

  6. Google (and some other companies) already make “smart” glasses equipped with cameras and microphones. Implants are no doubt already in the design stages. When Google Brain comes out, I’ll write about that. Unless Google has killed us all by then. In which case, G-Mike will handle it.

  7. Google has two versions (at least for now). One is a normal car equipped for self-driving. The other is a true driver less car-it does not even have a steering wheel.

  8. “the easy and obvious solution is to do what is most likely to kill or harm the fewest number of people …”

    Well that’s just great, Mike. Another guy is at fault but I get killed as a sacrifice to the greater good. I think the driverless car must be a dual-mode vehicle. This would be operated by a human on local streets, but would have a retractable apparatus for attaching to a network of guiderails w/o pedestrian grade crossings. So we don’t have to concern ourselves w/ anything like the pros & cons of utilitarianism. The network could also be used by unowned vehicles, so it would resemble a personal rapid transit system.

  9. Kevin Henderson

    Not to mention cyclists and pedestrians would be safer with automated vehicles. Engineering controls preserve lives.

  10. Doris Wrench Eisler

    Even GPS (which isn’t widespread) has been known to fail with disastrous results as has auto-pilot in planes. I have no data and haven’t studied the problems but remember the issue in some crashes: pilots become too dependent on a system that can’t operate successfully under all circumstances – some require individual expertise. Because robots and automation can do some things doesn’t imply they can do all things. Public transportation and properly enforced driving rules are likely far more realistic ways to reduce accidents.

  11. Dennis Sceviour

    Is there an axiom developing here?

    Artificial thinking can operate successfully when the rules and conditions are consistent. When the rules and conditions vary with change, interpretation or random elements, then artificial thinking may fail.

  12. Personally I’ve never cared for the idea of driverless cars at all. I like driving & I like suburban trains. However, I think we must accept that it is inevitable. This is one of the few areas where there is any R&D underway. The authorities are interested as a means of control, of course. The task is to develop this in such a way that the plans for control are thwarted & we are not any more enslaved to machines than we are now. Hence my interest in Personal Rapid Transit, which was originally developed as a means of public transportation.

  13. VinceD,

    Well, the other guy at fault would be the programmer-programming the car to minimize death. While this might result in your death or mine, would it be better if the car was programmed to “pick” options that would kill more people? As a general rule “kill/harm the fewest people” seems like a good rule. I’d say that self-driving cars can be looked at like seat belts. There are people who refuse to wear them, claiming that they are worried they will be trapped in a burning car. While this can happen (I actually knew a person who died that way-he was trying to rescue a person trapped by a seat belt in a burning van), it is vastly more likely that a seat belt will save a person from more serious injury or death. So, a driver less car might kill you, but (assuming it works properly) it will be statistically much safer than human drivers.

    Actually, getting rid of cars and just going with an appropriate public transport system would be much safer than even driverless cars.

  14. Doris Wrench Eisler,

    True. I predict that a driverless car will be involved in an accident due to a hardware or software issue shortly after they are introduced. However, the key question is whether they will be significantly safer on average than human drivers. There are 30-40,000 traffic fatalities in the US alone each year, so the bar for improvement is very, very low.

  15. Dennis Sceviour,

    True-the cars can (and will) fail. But will they fail as often as human drivers?

  16. “the other guy at fault would be the programmer-programming the car to minimize death …”

    It could be a pedestrian, if there are grade crossings, or it could be someone who has not maintained or has altered his vehicle.

    ‘ “kill/harm the fewest people” seems like a good rule …’

    Isn’t that … a little totalitarian- imposing utilitarianism by force? Suppose I don’t want it &
    hack my vehicle to change it? The whole idea of machines enacapsulating morality seems to me either totally absurd or totalitarian.

  17. Doris Wrench Eisler

    Your point is solid: we can’t do much worse than the situation as it is now. I guess I just don’t have much faith in such a high degree of mechanization. The driver is actually in charge presumably, but not so physically involved. Is it then just a matter of sensors, speed and route control or is it a case of working into a a grid into which you sign before occupying the car, and to which you submit absolute control? Grid, radar and satellite systems fail as we know from blackouts and nuclear near-misses. I need to know much more about the issue than I do because it seems to me at this point like a lot of futuristic blather whereas simple solutions like express and exclusive bus lanes, truck lanes and routes, better driver training, small electric cars etc., are a less expensive and far more realistic approach from many considerations.

  18. And now we’re almost back onto everyone’s favourite subject: free-will.

    Dennett and others raise various questions of incompatibilists, about how if free-will is illusory, so we don’t really have it, what happens to responsibility.

    An incompatibilist response is that responsibility still applies, in that the object that is the human that performs an act is the localised cause of the act, even though there are many external deterministic contributions, from the genetic that form the human to the biological and social influences throughout life. The actor is caused to act, by their brain as it stands at the point of acting, but that brain was caused to be as it is. It isn’t the free-will we like to think it is.

    But a human willed act is a form of automation – very complex automation, but it isn’t freely willed, free of physical causes.

    As Google cars are discussed here it becomes clear that responsibility is taken away from the driver. Is an accident the fault of the driver, Google, those that maintain the car, the other parties in the accident, which might also be Google cars? What’s the most localised and immediate cause of the accident? If it’s the car and we can’t really pin it on anyone else, do we, compatibilist-like, attribute free-will to the car?

  19. VinceD,

    Could you give an argument in support of the claim that killing more people would, in general, be better than killing fewer? That is, in any situation, more deaths would be better than fewer?

    Well, if you hack your vehicle, it would depend on what you changed it to do. If you reprogrammed it to maximize deaths or actively try to kill pedestrians, then that would certainly be a problem.

    I’d say that a mindless Google car does not have a morality-rather it would be a tool acting in accord with the morality of others. So, the likely ethical question would be whether or not the coding would do more good than harm. You could also go Kantian on the car (a Kantian Kart) and give it strict rules to follow rather than trying to minimize kills (unless minimizing kills is the rule).

  20. I have no answer for that. I’m not a utilitarian. However, laws which are not based on the presumption of personal responsibility are contrary to the Western legal system.

    It’s natural & healthy for a kid to do something like soup up his car & hot-rod it to the shore w/ his girl. If he’s caught going way over the limit he has to accept the consequences, which would be a speeding ticket. The consequences should not be severe for violating regulations unless you are reckless & involved in an accident. In other words there’s nothing wrong w/ people tampering w/ their own property.

    In previous research on personal rapid transit “palletization” is postulated for a dual-mode system. The owner would drive the vehicle onto a pallet which is fixed onto an entrance ramp & proceed thence to the guideway. So it’s not necessary to police the maintainance of the vehicle except in the rudimentary way in effect now in vehicle inspection systems.

    I think the problem is a mindless car which encapsulates a morality whose purpose is to control & restrict freedom instead of enhancing freedom.

  21.  Re VinceD June 18th

    “In other words there’s nothing wrong w/ people tampering w/ their own property.”

    Surely tampering with your own property with the intent of breaking the law, that is to say in this instance, exceeding the legal speed limit is wrong. Not to speak of putting your own life at risk by reckless driving and additionally the life of another, so called female Kid, or any other person for that matter. You say it is natural and healthy to behave like this; I agree it just scrapes in as natural, as the young have tendency towards recklessness, but I cannot agree that it is healthy for the above reasons. We have a lot of natural tendencies, which the development of reason, wisdom, and heeding the advice of those who know better, tell us to suppress, for our own good, and for the good of others.

  22. VinceD,

    I’d say the main purposes of the Google car will be to 1) gather data for Google and 2) make money for Google. Although that is probably being redundant.

    Perhaps Google wishes to restrict freedom in some manner, although it seems reasonable to wonder what meaningful freedoms would be impaired. If I have a Google car, I can still go anywhere I could go with my normal truck-I just would not need to drive. I don’t think I’d be giving up any freedoms, although I must admit I am not a car person. But, to some, being able to drive aggressively, speed and run red lights might be seen as freedoms. But, I would generally hold that we should not be free to endanger others.

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