The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


The Right seems obsessed with perpetuating 20th century technologies and excluding those of the 21st century. Like the Left so frequently does on other topics (think: the "dangers of vaccines or the "threat" of genetically modified foods or fracking), the Right now embraces junk science and makes outrageous and unsupportable claims that internal combustion engine (ICE) automotive technology is less polluting and more sustainable that electric vehicle technology. The Right also implies that current tax credits for electric vehicles (which sunset for every company that makes EVs) are somehow "unfair" and that companies like Tesla would not have succeeded without them. That's nonsense, but whatever.

Now, with the first death attributable to an autonomous vehicle (almost every autonomous prototype is an EV), the Right is obsessing over the "dangers" of autonomous driving to the public. In breathless tones, David Goldman recounts fatal accident (the first) in which an autonomous prototype (with a human monitor) hits and kills a woman walking her bicycle across the street. He writes:
The video shows a woman walking her bicycle across the highway: the Uber car was going at a good clip and coming over a rise. Not quite three seconds pass between the first sight of the pedestrian and impact, enough time for an alert human driver to spin the wheel. The human driver in the car was supposed to correct for machine errors, but the video shows one Rafaela Vasquez a/k/a Rafael Vasquez staring downwards until the moment of the crash.
Of course, what Goldman conveniently fails to mention is that using the 20th century tech that he seems so enamored of, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 4,092 pedestrians were killed in accidents with motor vehicles and 59,000 were injured last year! That's an average of 11.2 deaths every day! All caused by a combination of driver and pedestrian error. For example, in the case of the fatal accident Goldman mentions, it's also the pedestrian's responsibility to watch for on-coming traffic and act accordingly.

Autonomous vehicles are in their prototype phase. They are capable but certainly not perfected. They are usable in limited driving conditions, but not all driving situations. I know this to be a fact, because I own not one, but two.

But Goldman continues:
That is cold comfort to the family of Ms. Herzberg (the accident victim), whose death we can watch in a real-life horror movie. It is probable that improved sensors and communications might be able to prevent this sort of accident in the future; the sort of situations which AI never will master are things like lane changes in traffic in which one driver has to communicate intention to other drivers in order to avoid collisions.

But that is now beside the point. The cultural damage done by the Utopian vision of brain-as-a-machine is enormous, and the skepticism with which the public now must view Artificial Intelligence is a healthy corrective. The vulgar determinism of the brain-as-machine Utopians has worked its way into the broad culture and corrupted institutions that should be expected to offer resistance.
I have, an a number of occasions, expressed my own reservations about unfettered A.I., but to suggest that those who use domain-limited A.I. (i.e., the type used for autonomous driving) are exhibiting some form of "vulgar determinism" is akin to what the Luddites said about cotton and wool manufacturing in the early 1800s.

Possibly because the tech industry leans decidedly left in social policy, the Right seems to want to make advances in automation and A.I in general a "liberal" construct. Those advances are nothing of the sort. They are, like other advances throughout the centuries, a natural progression of human knowledge and invention. They should be monitored, but they should never be demonized.


A Tesla EV was involved in a fatal accident in which the vehicle caught fire after a high speed head-on crash. A number of right-leaning blogs (e.g., here) suggested that Li Ion batteries and Teslas in general were "unsafe" because the batteries can catch fire. What these geniuses failed to mention is that the NFPA reports that in 2015 (the last year records are available) there were 174,000 vehicle fires (virtually all were ICE vehicles) in the United States and 445 deaths attributable to the fires—that's more than one death per day! This singular incident involving a Tesla Model X is just another example of the phenomenon I note in the body of this post.