Thursday, May 9, 2019

Are driverless cars a threat to freedom? - Robert Arvay

by Robert Arvay

Driverless cars are just the beginning. Other technologies, for all their blessings, have a dark side.

My grandfather was the first person I personally knew who had a reliable driverless vehicle. In the 1920s, he had a horse-drawn buckboard-style wagon. When the workload at his farm permitted, he would go into town at night and drink, until he was what today would have been over the legal limit. Then, he lay down in the wagon and went to sleep. The horse knew what to do and got them both safely home.

Today, the horse is long gone, having been replaced by the automobile — but how much longer will it be before the automobile, as we now know it, goes the way of the horse? Will driverless cars fill the roads? And, by the way, this is not just about cars, nor even just about driverless cars. This road goes much farther than that. It may lead to where we wish not to go.

According to an online article, Alex Roy "is a forty-seven-year-old rally-car driver[.] ... He is famous in racing circles for setting a record in the transcontinental Cannonball Run [an illegal road race]."

Quoting from the article:
Unsurprisingly, Roy has deep misgivings about the prospect of a fully autonomous, steering-wheel-less future. In his view, cars that lack steering wheels or are inoperable when disconnected from communications networks subvert human agency, self-sufficiency, and freedom. He likes to say that human autonomy — as opposed to vehicular autonomy — is the only kind that matters. "Autonomy = freedom," he has written. "The freedom to go anywhere, or nowhere at all, or to speed across the country for no damn good reason."
The day is coming when driverless cars on the road will be incompatible with human-driven cars. For example, driverless cars will need transponders, for much the same reason that airliners do, collision avoidance being vital. Human-driven cars will require at least some level of computerization, and indeed, we already see that, with automatic braking, warning systems, and emergency communications. As driverless cars become more sophisticated, and as the infrastructure is gradually altered for them (for example, road signs may disappear), human-driven cars will increasingly find themselves squeezed off the road, just as horses have been.

Driverless cars are just the beginning. Other technologies, for all their blessings, have a dark side. 

A common feature in medieval fantasy movies is the wizard, the character whom no one understands and whose powers everyone needs to fear. In real life, the wizards are CEOs of high technology companies, including well known social media platforms and search engines. Their money has been able to buy legislation that allows them to control the public square, to censor those with whom they disagree, and to know much more about you than you knowingly give them permission to learn.

On top of all this, there is secret technology. While we cannot know what is there, we do have some hints — for example, the massive computer server farms associated with government agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA). Photographs of some of these installations show what looks like small cities or military bases. It is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that these giant computer facilities gather information about people on a scale unprecedented in history. 

There are good reasons to have such capabilities. There is also the potential for abuse, and we are not talking about minor mishandling of information. As serious as the threats are from private corporations, they are dramatically worse in the hands of a small number of "wizards," unaccountable people in government, ensconced behind impenetrable walls of secrecy. (Think of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, or Lois Lerner, but on steroids. Think Orwell's 1984.)

Advancing technology has always posed problems, and also the solutions to those problems. Will that always be the case? Or will we reach a tipping point, a point of no return? 

Having come this far, can even Grampa's horse get us back to safety?

Robert Arvay


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