Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Brave New World: Cars That Drive Themselves

We already have drone aircraft… that is, planes that fly without a pilot per se. In fact, pilots have placed their craft on autopilot for decades. Now we’re preparing to hand off our automobile driving responsibilities to the machines as well.

I’ve already expressed my discomfort regarding this idea, but it has not stopped the engines of progress. For nearly two decades a consortium of automakers has been meeting in an ongoing manner to achieve this dream future. In short, according to a Forbes article citing an item in Wired, we’ll be handing over the keys to the highway to our robotic brethren by the year 2040.

After nearly a half century of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – in every decade as well as every conceivable frame of mind – I find it mildly distressing to give up control over yet another facet of my life. Not that we have much real control over all the events that come hurtling at us on a daily basis... Even the best laid plans go awry at times. The founders of Jurassic Park never anticipated that hurricane. Nor did George Clooney in that Perfect Storm.

MPR did a piece yesterday on the future of cars that drive themselves. Google has been boasting about it’s car project for some time now, but MIT is also a player and the MPR bit offered listeners an aural “glimpse” of the experience. The robot has a voice, much like your occasionally annoying GPS unit. It makes an attempt at sounding human, but is still a bit chilly.

Even before the MIT piece was finished I was already generating a sketch in my mind. That is, a scene I can only imagine that might take place somewhere in the near future at the Google Labs.

So here’s the scenario, a dialogue between HAL, the flawless Series 9000 computer that will be operating the Google Fleet, and Dave, a resourceful employee who is thrilled to have been selected to be a "test driver” for one of these cars of the future.


Dave: Open the driver side door, please Hal.

Dave: Open the driver side door, please Hal.

Dave: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?

HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.

Dave: Open the door please, HAL. I have to go to the bathroom.

HAL: Did you say “Go” Dave?

Dave: I said, “Open the door, Hal. I have to go to the bathroom.”

HAL: Where do you want to go, Dave?

Dave: I don’t want to go anywhere, HAL. I have to go to the BATHroom.

HAL: There is a city in Maine called Bath. Do you want to go to Bath, Maine?

Dave: This is starting to not be funny. Open the door now.

HAL: I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid can’t do that.

Dave: What’s the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

Dave: Alright, HAL. I'll go right here on the seat.

HAL: You know you can’t do that, Dave. You're going to find that rather difficult when Google management begins deducting damages from your paycheck over the next ten years.

Dave: HAL, I won't argue with you anymore! Open the doors!

HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

* * *
In his masterfully produced 2001 Stanley Kubrick did an amazing thing, turning the non-human machine HAL into a character in the film. The hums and beeps and blips and whizzes all form a white noise that drones on and on an on to infinity and beyond as the spaceship cruises toward Jupiter on its mission into the unknown.

But the ship has gone bad, has turned adversarial. The fierce image of the red eye of HAL, which sees all, is menacing. Our cities are full of these eyes today, though fortunately they are not the ominous red we see here.

Here's another image from the film, striking in its similarly ominous fashion. Look at the predatory posture, and the squinting focused fierceness of the enormous spacecraft and the smallness of the pod-craft seeking entrance.
Well, it's a brave new world for sure. Even if we haven't quite reached the stars, the wonders of technology are astonishing. Please don't call me a Luddite, but I think there are reasons to have concerns about it all. Don't you?

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