The Remarkable Unremarkable: A short trip in a driverless vehicle

06 February 2018

Jack Scott, LinkedIn Repost, January 22, 2018

The 6th January 2018 could be a milestone day in my life. On this day I took my first ride in an autonomous vehicle – a vehicle that is not driven by a human – and I don’t think it will be the last!

For such a momentous occasion it actually felt quite unremarkable. An 800 meter trip, in a futuristic shuttle bus, from the metro stop to Gardens By The Bay in Singapore. The vehicle looked a bit space age, but otherwise it was all pretty normal. Boring even. It picked up passengers from a designated point. It dropped them off at another designated point. It avoided pedestrians in the road as well as human-driven shuttle busses (though note this was on a private road, not the open highway, making it somewhat easier to navigate). It even had an accompanying audio commentary about the local area across slightly muffled speakers. So far so normal.   Indeed, one of the fellow passengers remarked “I don’t really get what all the fuss is about”.

It was only a little later that the significance of this sunk in. The trip was by all accounts unremarkable. And that’s exactly what makes it so remarkable and staggering. That shuttle was driven by artificial intelligence. AI (and other tech) has replaced the human driver so completely that the passengers couldn’t tell the difference (ignoring the promotional signage and audio commentary).

I’m reminded of Alan Turing’s “Imitation Game”. In my experience, the computer was indistinguishable from the human.

I think there’s also a link to Raymond Loewy’s MAYA Principle – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. The idea that most people are not ready to accept solutions to their problems, if the proposed solution is too radically different from what they’re familiar with.

It’s been widely publicised that there are clearly a lot of challenges to be resolved before autonomous vehicles become mainstream. But for me at least, having seen the technology in action, it’s a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’.

One final reflection. Like all of us, I had heard about autonomous vehicles well before 2018, but it was only when I experienced the technology first hand that it felt ‘real’. As great and powerful as digital technology can be – sharing knowledge, augmented reality etc – it still doesn’t match the power and fun of experiencing something yourself in real life. As digital agendas accelerate and robots become even more present, I hope we don’t forget that.