It had to happen. First, Asimov warned about rogue robots and we saw proof with the Synths on “Humans”. Now, suspicion of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles (AVs) running amok, with a healthy dose of disdain for “social” media and vox populi thrown in, finds expression in fiction with “The Passengers” by John Marrs.
In a dystopian near-future Britain, Level 5 (fully-autonomous) AVs have reached the market and the government has decreed that all non-Level 5 cars will be banned in ten years. But crashes still occur, and it is the task of a secretive government-appointed jury to allocate blame. This always (spoiler alert) falls on the humans, never the vehicle, because loss of confidence in AVs would harm the economy (coal mining, anyone?). But there is a radical group trying to bring the whole hi-tech policy down, and the primal fear of loss of control in cars without brakes and steering wheels is tapped into.
Eight people are trapped in their cars and set on collision course, all shared in real time on social media. It comes to light that the AI used in potential conflict situations isn’t set to minimise harm, but (and here comes another primal fear) is contrived to save “valuable” people over those less useful to society, by weighing up all that is known about each individual from Big Data and social media. So a pensioner will be sacrificed to save a pregnant woman or a member of parliament; an obese person loses out to an athlete; other losers include dementia sufferers, the unemployed and refugees. A family of three are killed rather than an RAF pilot.
There is also a dig at the providers of frontier technology. After a few years, your car’s software can no longer be updated and you have to upgrade to a new model. (I curse Apple but still doggedly use my iPad with its outdated IOS rather than give them my pension dollars for a new device, so I can relate to that.)
Ridiculous, of course. Except that most readers on “Good Reads” gave the book four or five stars; only one said they couldn’t finish the book because it was beyond belief. Does this presage a difficulty in getting the level of trust in AVs and AI that will need to be overcome if the dreams of the tech pioneers among us are to be achieved? While Marr’s writing style is a bit clunky (he can use the antiquated “whomever” but doesn’t know the difference between object/me and subject/I, and insists that people “lay down” when they rest), the book does touch on some critical questions.
Some are already topical: how is responsibility and liability to be allocated in crashes involving AVs? How much control needs to be given to occupants even in Level 5 vehicles? How will the mix of vehicle types be handled, and how and at whose cost will software upgrades be delivered?
Enthusiasts for AV technology will not like this book, but these sorts of fears of what might possibly arise should not be ignored. AVs and the AI behind them may be getting closer, but selling it to the public may prove harder.
“The Passengers” by John Marr, Penguin Random House, 2019. The book is available as an eBook through your library.