John Grindrod: Some thoughts on AI

On a beautiful fall Saturday last year, with both a deep blue sky and a bit of a snap in the air at 61 degrees, I asked Alexa if it was a pretty day. There seemed to be a bit longer of a pause from my AI roomie before “her” voice replied, “I don’t know that one.”

I found this pretty interesting. While the device could tell me the temperature and the absence of rain and other meteorological data, and, even when I asked the previous evening what is the fastest animal on the planet, which prompted a rapid fire response (the peregrine falcon with a diving speed of 242 miles per hour), the device couldn’t make a judgment call.

When I watch TV, I always have to laugh when I see the commercial featuring a self-driving GMC Sierra with a soundtrack using that old Queen anthem, “We Will Rock You.” Now, I know self-driving cars use artificial intelligence to make decisions based on data gathered by the car’s sensors.

But as I watch the people in that Sierra doing their rhythmic clapping, giving it their all to help the late Freddie Mercury’s lead vocals, I always have two thoughts, well, actually three, with the first one being that Freddie Mercury before his early departure from this earth in 1991 needed no help in belting out a song thanks to his incredible pipes.

As for the other two thoughts and the meat of today’s offering, let’s start with the first. I think about what I often read, such as the more than 25 confirmed deaths that have occurred since artificial intelligence first began being used in the automotive industry in addition to the multiple injuries and damage to property when the inevitable risks appear when people try to turn too much over to technology.

I’ve read several accounts of autopilot systems that activate when they shouldn’t or fail to activate when they should, of cars that crash into street signs or cement barriers that divide lanes in construction areas, of cars that burst into flames when the lithium-ion batteries combust and of AI-manufactured cars that fail to recognize pedestrians crossing the street.

Automakers reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that in 2022 alone almost 400 crashes of vehicles with automated driver-assistance programming occurred. According to contributing writer Sebastian Blanco in his article in Car and Driver, since 2019, Tesla’s self-driving system was complicit in 736 crashes and 17 fatalities.

As for the term autopilot, I see a word that is at its core a classic misnomer, since the fine print in the literature explaining the system always includes directives that there be a person with his or her hands on the wheel at all times. So, I guess that Sierra guy rhythmically clapping and looking around at his passengers to join him isn’t really representing the innovation properly. After all, the NHTSA’s official stance on AI technology in the auto industry is that all advanced driver-assistance systems require drivers to be both in control and fully cognizant of the task of driving at all times, that the laws of each state mandate that the person behind the wheel is responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle and that the person behind the wheel is legally liable if something goes wrong.

As for that other thought I always have when I see the Sierra commercial featuring those folks so proud of themselves for giving Freddie Mercury their hands, it’s actually a question, one, at least for me, that is rhetorical. If I’m required to have hands on the wheel and be fully cognizant and if I’m legally liable if something goes wrong, why on earth wouldn’t I just drive that Sierra myself?

When it comes to newer technology, I truly believe there’s always a price we pay when we turn yet another job that humans once performed themselves using old-school brain power and physical exertion to technology. Of course, that price paid is the steady drip…drip…drip of one of the core virtues that built America, which is self-reliance.

Now, I’m not suggesting I’m going to stop using calculators and go searching for an abacus any time soon when it’s time to balance my checkbook or even stop using Alexa for that matter, but when it comes to the judgment calls in my life, especially when I’m behind the wheel, I think I’ll handle those myself and deal with the occasional knucklehead lapses as they arise.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].