Thursday, April 23, 2015

We will control...

A friend sent me a link to an article about attempts to prevent owners from repairing or modifying their vehicles. With the increased prevalence of computerized, software-controlled functions in automobiles, the issue is whether intellectual property protection laws can or should be used to prevent people from modifying, repairing, and tuning their own cars. 

Manufacturers are taking the position that allowing people to access and change car systems is potentially risky. Their motivations are varied, and some of their stated reasons seem ingenuous to me, but there is little doubt that the car companies are seeking to protect their R&D investment with copyrights, in the face of recent patent "erosion". Obviously, there are other financial considerations, too, both because of possible liability issues and because of possible loss of repair revenue. 

Gearhead owners point to improvements made by "civilians", to hacking issues that have been poorly addressed if at all by manufacturers, and to some high-profile cases in which the manufacturers demonstrably did not know better, and failed to see or to deal with critical safety issues.

By coincidence, I later came across the most recent of several articles I've seen lately about self-driving cars. Ray Kurzweil of Google predicts that autonomous cars controlled by AI are coming, and says, "The technology works. It's not far away." 

Three weeks ago, Nissan's Carlos Ghosn was saying that they want to put self-driving cars on Japan's roads next year, and have them autonomously navigating urban roads by 2020. I would hope that the technology is more reliable than that of the considerably simpler airbag inflators: the news a few days ago said that Nissan has added 45,000 small cars to a previous recall, apparently in response to a Louisiana woman being injured by flying shrapnel from an exploding air bag.

On the other hand, there are many people in Japan--particularly the elderly in remote areas with insufficient public transportation and few options for finding other drivers--who would benefit greatly by being able to go by self-driving car to shops, hospitals, or community centers. 

Nevertheless, I see more potential problems than benefits.

I've been driving for a long time, and I enjoy it, a lot. I would be reluctant to relinquish control of my vehicle to an artificial intelligence for that reason. Not, however, only for that reason. I've also been using computers for a long time, and interacting with AI in its various forms as it slowly has progressed.  Whether manifested as simple algorithms for predicting words in a text message, or somewhat more sophisticated ones controlling enemies and passersby in video games, I can't say that AI has reached--or even approached--the point at which I'd want to trust it with my life, driving my car.

Every time I think of the possible consequences of a self-driven (i.e., AI/computer-driven) car, I remember how many times over the years that my computers have shown me the infamous BSOD, and reflect that if the car system failed, the "fatal" part of "fatal system error" could apply to me.

Whether control over maintenance and tuning, or control over the driving of the vehicle, I'm very dubious about it. It reminds me of the ominous introduction to The Outer Limits, a long time ago.

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