Monday, June 23, 2008

Our Decadence Will Be Our Undoing.

Carnegie Mellon University is once again in the news for its research and development of cutting edge technology. This time the story is about autonomous driving technology. For those of you challenged by tech-speak, what that means is "driver-less cars". It turns out that General Motors and the university have announced a five-year partnership, entailing $5 million in funds earmarked to make this strange sci-fi proposition into a reality. This shouldn't be much of a surprise to those of us on the local scene. We all well know CMU's obsession with everything robotic. In fact many of us even recognize that the vast bulk of their student body is made up of robots- or at least individuals with a similar capacity to relate to human beings.

Anyway, the car company and the tech school certainly see something promising in the idea of taking the driver out of the vehicle. Just consider the words of Larry Burns, GM vice president of R&D and Strategic Planning- “Imagine being virtually chauffeured safely in your car while doing your e-mail, eating breakfast and watching the news.” Naturally we would all like to see the day come when we spend so much time in our cars that we can accomplish all of these tasks in transit. Actually the solution for that type of freedom seems to be staring us in the face in today's reality- it's called public transportation. And much of that infrastructure is already in place, although it is being slowly eroded by neglect.

But as in many things in our modern society, we like to go beyond the simple answers. If there is one skill-set that humans appear to excel in, it is in their capacity to make things infinitely more complex and confusing. So we search for the proper way to set up a contrived "system", while a natural one already exists. However we first need to iron out all of the pesky details. What if the computer that pilots your self-directed machinery goes haywire? What if it blows an electrical fuse? How does the digital guidance system account for and adjust itself to the random qualities of ordinary human error? How will the driver-less car respond to an alien abduction? These are all questions that the eggheads down at CMU need to work through.

On one level I have to admit that there are elements of this idea that attract me. There is indeed something enticing about removing a bit of the American personality from our road systems. I'm sure you've noticed that the particularly aggressive nature of our citizenry seems to manifest itself most easily behind the wheel of the automobile. People automatically gain six inches of height and fifty pounds of muscle when they are encased in a couple of tons of hard plastics and metal. Surely the engineers over in Oakland will decide to keep these troublesome inclinations away from their programmed personalities. And it would be great if something would take over for those fools who already try to eat breakfast or do their business while driving.

Yet with all the potential benefits of "autonomous driving technology", I can't help but wonder whether we are truly addressing the most pressing concerns of society. Is it really appropriate in this day-and-age to be investing huge sums of cash into figuring out a way that commuters can sort through their e-mail in their SUVs? How did US car manufacturers identify this as an important objective in the current economic climate? Wouldn't it be more appropriate and useful to actually develop, build, and market American-made vehicles that get decent gas mileage? What about making cars that we will be able to afford to drive in the coming years? I think it says a lot about the personality of the nation that they have made driver-less cars a priority.

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