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Automation October 15, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

A not uninteresting piece here on the dangers of automation by Tim Harford in the Guardian. I’m particularly taken by the points about automated cars. The oddity of them is that I always thought – from depictions of the future, that automated cars would function more like pods that travelled along clearly delineated routes from A to B – perhaps intercity or what have you. The actual future appears to be a lot more messy and contingent. And Harford notes that if there’s a point at which an automate vehicle cedes control back to humans then it may be that their skills will have atrophied to the point that human control is worse.

Looking at pilot automation he suggests that:

Some senior pilots urge their juniors to turn off the autopilots from time to time, in order to maintain their skills. That sounds like good advice. But if the junior pilots only turn off the autopilot when it is absolutely safe to do so, they are not practising their skills in a challenging situation. And if they turn off the autopilot in a challenging situation, they may provoke the very accident they are practising to avoid.
An alternative solution is to reverse the role of computer and human. Rather than letting the computer fly the plane with the human poised to take over when the computer cannot cope, perhaps it would be better to have the human fly the plane with the computer monitoring the situation, ready to intervene. Computers, after all, are tireless, patient and do not need practice. Why, then, do we ask people to monitor machines and not the other way round?

I suspect costs will trump that. Ultimately semi or near complete automated aircraft will take to the skies, pilots simply there as psychological as much as a real fall-back.

Some interesting stuff too on Hans Monderman who introduced mixed usage traffic approaches in some Dutch villages. The idea is that bicycles, pedestrians and cars all share the space and in such a way that cars slow down to near enough totally safe speeds. It seems to work (though one has to presume that approaches are sign posted – no?). The point being as Harford notes:

In Monderman’s artfully ambiguous squareabout, drivers are never given the opportunity to glaze over and switch to the automatic driving mode that can be so familiar. The chaos of the square forces them to pay attention, work things out for themselves and look out for each other. The square is a mess of confusion. That is why it works.

I have to admit that is a very compelling vision of how matters might proceed, with human autonomy remaining paramount. But again, costs, convenience, expedience, capitalism… can it be sustained?

And yet we know, from the devices that surround us that failure is always an option. Recently in work my computer wouldn’t start in the morning without plugs being pulled out etc. It took a day or two to realise that usb peripherals hooked up – indeed not even peripherals but just cabling – was causing the problem. We are so far from a technology that is, in Arthur C. Clarke’s words, due to its seamless, non-intrusive, near invisible nature and consistently indistinguishable from magic that one feels it may never arrive. But it may.

And linking into that an even more important point is this one here:

We are now on more lists than ever before, and computers have turned filing cabinets full of paper into instantly searchable, instantly actionable banks of data. Increasingly, computers are managing these databases, with no need for humans to get involved or even to understand what is happening. And the computers are often unaccountable: an algorithm that rates teachers and schools, Uber drivers or businesses on Google’s search, will typically be commercially confidential. Whatever errors or preconceptions have been programmed into the algorithm from the start, it is safe from scrutiny: those errors and preconceptions will be hard to challenge.


1. sonofstan - October 15, 2016

for some reason we ended up discussing driverless cars in a class i was doing during the week and someone asked a question to which no one had a definite answer – do you still have to put petrol in them yourself?

There was a good piece i read somewhere recently about how google maps may be the start of a sinister plan to privatise navigation and then the road network in the service of their driverless pods. In other words, they would own the roads, and the way the cars navigate them and, like Apple and their operating system, there would be no way out, and no access for a rival OS or hardware.

on the idea of mixed routes with equal rights for pedestrians/ cyclists/ cars – the council here in Wycombe have tried it for one small area of the town and I’ve nearly been mown down by 4X4s more than once – but it seems to be getting better as drivers get used to it.


2. CL - October 15, 2016

‘The title Jaywalking with the Irish refers to the movement of cars and pedestrians on the streets of Cork City, where “people of all ages were cavorting in the traffic, dipping and diving into its flow like surfers probing waves.”’

Driverless cars will put a stop to that kind of anarchy.


gendjinn - October 15, 2016

We won’t see driverless cars in our lifetime without a human poised to immediately intercept or dedicated lanes.


3. roddy - October 15, 2016

I hear the Healey Raes are demanding a pilot scheme for Kerry as an alternative to driving home from the pub half blocked “in third gear at 30mph”!


4. gendjinn - October 15, 2016

Instead of the current approach of creating a perfect driver AI, there is a far better approach. Invest our resources in driver aids. Recently in a rental car for the holidays (a ridiculous GMC monstrosity I was “upgraded” to) the car in front of me slammed on the brakes and immediately my seat and steering column rumbled to alert me to the rapidly approaching car. Had my attention drifted at all the signal would have had my foot stamping the brakes.

There are so many low hanging fruit on this. So ask yourself, why do you we need driverless cars? Really? What problem are they solving?

The Murder Cars are heading our way. That has to be nipped in the bud. It has to be illegal for a car to prioritise the occupants over strangers. You don’t squash it now you’ll have the high end luxury cars saving their occupants, and the low end models not.


5. FergusD - October 17, 2016

I don’t understand driverless cars either, not the wy tey seem to be implementing them. Why not have “road trains” on motorways/fast roads with cars being controlled by something in the road? That could prevent congestion. But then, isn’t that re-inventing the train and the bus?


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