Volvo Cars, the long-established Swedish luxury auto brand, has adopted some Pentagon technology. It is developing vehicles that will rely on LiDAR, which uses lasers to map the landscape and create a picture of the environment that cars can use to see. A data point of significance is that LiDAR technology is very expensive; so it’s important that developed countries such as the US afford it. According to LiDAR’s developers, it can do only a few tasks, including mapping a car’s route, monitoring its speed and diagnosing issues. There are lots of big challenges, but nevertheless, that’s a pretty reasonable list of features for cars.
They might be even more obvious, and more novel, than the Valemon and his synthetic-intelligence machine. But then, they wouldn’t just be wrong about LiDAR, they’d be wrong about basically everything else.
Artificial intelligence, for example, isn’t a smart machine (although it is pretty smart). It’s the software that enables intelligence. Without that software, intelligent machines can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do. If you can’t model your self, you can’t make it smart.
In a recent Public Knowledge blog, which rebutted a Defense Department study warning of Chinese military might in coming years, Joseph Parilla, an MIT researcher, made another excellent point:
“After decades of hyping AI and citing it as the secret weapon of the future, there is zero evidence that AI has anything much to contribute to current military warfighting capabilities,” he wrote.
Elon Musk, for his part, is telling his fellow billionaires that artificial intelligence poses one of the biggest challenges of our time.
That is, it’s hard to imagine any situation in which it’s useful to boost artificial intelligence. It isn’t useful for anything. All it’s good for is widening the gap between rich and poor — and it’s hard to see how the military will help that, especially in times of conflict.
But why risk it? We have seen in recent years what happens when you get too big and too advanced, especially in military contexts. The Chinese hacked the US military’s technology and intellectual property, the Russians used it to hack social media sites (including Facebook), and Iran used it to create fake characters. As Parilla observes, that’s what HypeBots is aiming to avoid.
LiDAR could well be one of the more benign military technologies available in the future, with better and better tools to support autonomous weapons and new techniques for visual analysis. That would be a valuable contribution, for all sorts of reasons. But let’s be practical here: If you’re going to take billions of dollars and invest in futuristic technologies, at least make sure they don’t do any harm.
Volvo’s LiDAR project follows a number of other innovative efforts to make cars smarter, or more practical. The Tesla Model 3 includes the Highway PND, a rather small, but effective traffic-stopping device; the Volkswagen Passat can also operate in three- and four-wheel drive on fully autonomous super-highways. These are in fact automated, and not really roads, but they do represent a small step in the right direction, and it would be a shame if they were eliminated by a mismatch between imagination and reality.
The companies competing to build killer robots remain unmoved by public worries. Toyota Motor’s self-driving car project recently acquired artificial intelligence start-up Clarifai, but says it’s not worried about self-driving cars being used for evil. The autonomous bugaboo isn’t an invention of the right-wing Right; the Democrats are pretty much the only ones interested in smart robotics, so some rare ground is won against the robot-fixated Right.
The danger is that the idea of smart robotics is losing its currency and slowly dissolving into myth — and as LiDAR, Highway PND and AI technology become cheaper and more widespread, robots will be wreaking more havoc than the Skynet characters imagined in the movie. The cognitive benefits of upgrading driverless technology are, for now, only real if they can be matched with real improvement in human performance.
Today, LiDAR technology is nowhere near there. At the “Terminator” movie set in LA, a driverless bus is free to leave its lane at will.