The Times, Giles Coren, 31 May 2014.
Why stop at driverless cars? Robots wouldn’t stone people. Or vote racists in. Or get involved in child abuse . . .
I had a bit of an epiphany on Thursday while reading this paper’s report on the new Google car, which not only drives itself, as such prototypes have always done, but in its new manifestation does away with steering wheel, gas pedal and brake altogether, removing the option of manual override in an emergency and rendering the motorcar completely independent of human will.
The vehicle doesn’t need front seat controls, says Google, because “our software and sensors do all the work”. It can be summoned by its driver with a phone app, senses objects up to 200 metres away so can never crash, and joins automatically with other cars on motorways to form a sort of “train” that will make huge reductions in energy use. Meanwhile, inside, you can get on much more safely with reading, eating, texting, snogging, snapchatting your naked goolies and all the other things you currently do when driving but know you probably shouldn’t.
A fully automated car. Well, I certainly knew what I was going to write about that, never mind that it could prevent 600,000 road deaths annually. I have backed myself over the years into a broadly anti-tech position on this sort of thing (mostly out of laziness and the professional need to have a position) and was all set to write, “Oh the humanity! Whither the open road? Où sont les voitures d’antan?” and all that jazz, riffing on the freedoms we will surrender, warning of the possible risk to human life in the event of mechanical failure (which they’ll never have thought of), and waxing nostalgic over the old MG of my student years, whose boot you had to open with a crowbar on cold mornings to get at the jammed fuel pump and give it a whack with a hammer so you could start, as long as you’d remembered to tape a carrier bag over the torn plastic quarter-light and were wearing wellies against the tidal flow that came up off wet roads through the rotted sills — the sort of things that contributed to real motoring, the authentic poetry of the highway and all that is good and sound in man’s relationship with machine.
But then I read the adjoining analysis by my semi-namesake, Giles Whittell, not only endorsing but positively drooling over the future heralded by the Google car — he saw a commuting revolution, time regained by the end of traffic jams and parking delays, suburbs reborn and cities decluttered — and I thought, hang on a minute, he’s right.
And in fact, if Giles is right, and driving should just be left to Google because Google knows best and computers and robots are more effective than people can ever be, then why stop at cars? It’s not just our roads that are clogged and smelly and dangerous, the whole world is utterly buggered. The human project has blatantly failed. Surely Google should be doing everything? Look, let’s go through the paper and see what would happen.
Okay, the front page: “British girls become the fattest in Europe”. That wouldn’t happen if we replaced girls with Googlebots, would it? Or at least restricted their food intake to what Google, with its access to all human knowledge on the subject of nutrition, recommended. Nor would two thirds of British adults be overweight. The obesity crisis is a facet of human weakness. A failure to operate according to logic. Fatness is a disease of the mind, not the body. Two thirds of British people are fat because two thirds of British people are mad and stupid. There’s nothing wrong with their bellies, it’s their heads that want sorting out. So wire their slack, gibbering brains into Google and watch their arses shrink before your eyes.
Now, the sidebar: “Coe named front runner for troubled BBC Trust”. Okay, let’s see: Chris Patten was finished off, as the piece says, “by the fallout from the Jimmy Savile sex scandal”. The problem was a corporate shortage of knowledge, a lack of omniscience and a failure to intuit the bleeding obvious. If Google had been chairman of the trust, it would have just run Savile’s face through a pervert-recognition programme and screamed “Paedo!!!” — with none of the fudge and fiddle that cost so many jobs and so much money.
Turning to page three, I see that Stephen Hawking has cobbled together some bogus equation to work out England’s chances of winning the World Cup, but it’s only a formula for running random stats and Google does that automatically, a billion times in an eye-blink. Replace the old boffin with a computer and you get the same result — “none at all” — with much less fuss.
As we go through the paper, it’s just story after story showing the ways in which humans are simply not fit to organise their own affairs. A family of Googlebots, for example, would not stone one of its junior members to death outside a Lahore courthouse, would it? The behaviour is not rational, not productive, not contiguous with any notion of human interest that one would programme into a machine. It is an example of humans as savage wild animals unfit for any sort of role in society and ripe for replacement by machinery.
And would a Google Europe lurch without thought towards the populist right and elect an army of racists to high office? It would not. Would a computerised television entertainer sexually abuse children? Would a British-made smartphone at large in California shoot girls because it was a virgin? Would an internet singing tutor spank its young male students? Would a legislature of robot representatives spend £750,000 a year on alcohol as the House of Commons did in 2013?
Would Scottish Googlebots in disagreement with each other about whether to secede from British Googlebots fail to decide anything because they had got all their sums wrong? Would a Brazil run on computerised logic invest £6.5 billion in football stadiums for the most reviled World Cup tournament in history at the expense of education, healthcare and vital infrastructure for its impoverished people?
The answer is . . . well, don’t ask me, I’m only human. Let’s run the questions through Google. Yup, as I thought, the answer is “no”. Humanity just cannot be trusted to do anything for itself any more. The Google car is merely a metaphor for our total failure as a race. There is nothing for it now but to settle back with a book or a nice magazine and wait to arrive at wherever the car is taking us. At best, we might lean forward occasionally and indulge in a little backseat driving.
But of course there is no one sitting in the front to take any notice.