A few weeks ago I attended MIT’s Second Machine Age Conference, where I heard a number of very interesting presentations on the evolution of AI, robotics, and other advanced technologies. The prospects for truly autonomous vehicles was one of the main topics of discussion. With most other topics, there was considerable audience consensus, but not so with self-driving cars. While many thought that fully autonomous vehicles will be all around us within a decade, others, myself included, were not quite so sure due to the many technical and societal issues involved.
What do we really mean by self-driving cars? There seems to be no precise definition. Are we talking about a human driver assisted by all kinds of advanced technologies, or is there no driver whatsoever? Will such vehicles operate amidst regular human-driven ones, or will they be confined to special lanes equipped with sophisticated navigational technologies? And, is self-driving per se the actual objective, or is it a metaphor for the development of near-crashless cars regardless of whether human drivers are still in the picture.
These questions are not surprising given the very early stages of such a complex area. When exciting new initiatives are first launched, we sometimes describe them using an attention-grabbing phrase that, while potentially unattainable in practice, should be taken more as a marketing pointer to a general direction rather than as a realistic near-term objective.
For example, in the early 1980s the paperless office became a metaphor for the PC-based office of the future. The past 30 years have seen major transformations in just about every aspect of the office, including the very nature of work. But, we have come nowhere near getting rid of paper. In fact, printers, copiers and scanners are all around us. The office of the future is alive and well, but no one seems to mind that the paperless office never really came about.
Similarly, we are now talking about the cashless economy as a metaphor for the evolution toward mobile digital payments. But while expecting that over time a much larger percentage of payments will become digital, few believe that cash will disappear any time soon, - if ever.
While highly sophisticated robots are now being developed for all kinds of exciting applications, they have not quite caught our imagination because, so far, they’ve been generally aimed at industrial applications that few of us have any direct experience with. Cars, on the other hand, are a major part of our daily lives. A self-driven car is thus a concept we can immediately grasp, concrete proof that our machines are becoming really intelligent. The notion that in the not too-distant future we’ll be able to read, work or sleep while an autonomous car drives us around feels like the stuff of science fiction. But, how real is this future, and how long will it take us to get there?...MORE