(Previously published in AndMagazine, January 21, 2017)
Everyday robots are getting smarter. Soon, robots will soon become so smart that they will steal your job. And do it better than you ever could! But long before robots steal your job, they will probably save your life!
Some writers have talked about robots helping in hazardous work. Putting out forest fires, working with toxic or radioactive materials and even supporting the police in a hostage or terrorist situation. However, far more lives are at risk from “normal” events. Over 35,000 Americans are killed every year in car accidents. Around a million Americans are in traffic accidents and receive lesser injuries. That’s a staggering amount of injuries. Yet, if we had the same rate of injuries today as in the 1970’s, there would have been 85,000 deaths.
Why is it that driving is so much safer today? Technology. Miniature computers and sensors made airbags possible. Anti-lock brakes, collision detection software, and other technology enhancements have made driving safer than ever before. Now that cars have begun to drive themselves, we can expect even more improvements. Over time as more robots and fewer people drive cars, we can expect traffic related deaths to continue to drop. If only robots drive vehicles, the number may drop to virtually zero.
It’s not just a matter of robots being better drivers, although that is a larger part of it. Already, robots drive better than humans, with fewer accidents. Aside from just driving skill, robots have several advantages over humans. Humans choose to drive even when they are tired, and their reflexes are impaired, or even when they are falling asleep at the wheel. Humans drive when they drink and they drive when they are drug impaired. Human drivers get into accidents when they are distracted by an argument with passengers, or even when they get a call on their cell phones. Drivers take selfies of accidents, only to get into an accident themselves. As more and more applications arrive on phones, there will be more and more distractions… and accidents.
On the other hand, robots will get better all the time. Every minute that a car is on the road, contributes to databases that help robots become better drivers. New standards are being created so that all robot drivers can communicate with each other, sharing information on road conditions in real time. Oil spills, debris on the road, and accidents that are just around a corner or over the next hill are transmitted to other robots drivers, providing more time to change lanes, slow down and compensate. And robots not only see with visible light, some of the newest self-driving cars supplement this with infra-red, ultraviolet and radar sensors that can cut through fog, rain, smoke and other visibility hazards.
But are we ready for robot cars? Are they really that good? Take a look at this YouTube video. You see once car spin out of control and another car hit the first car. We see the video from the point of view of the third car, a Tesla with self-driving features. You hear a “beep” as the Tesla’s computer signals that it detects and accident and it is taking over control of the car, which is then brought to a smooth stop well short of the first two cars. Did you hear the beep? Did you notice that the beep starts about 2 seconds BEFORE the accident? It predicted the accident. And prevented a new accident.
Technology is already saving the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year. Will 2017 be the year when we turn over control of our cars to the robots? The sooner we do, the more lives we will save.