Google hits the road in self-driving car

Google’s futuristic vehicle could make driving a thing of the past.

Google has been licensed to bring a driverless car to the roads of Nevada. The high-tech ride will mean fewer accidents and less stress – but do we want to give robots the wheel?

We use its online calendar to plan busy days, rely on super-detailed maps to find our way in towns and cities, and access a huge internet brain through its advanced search algorithms. For many in the modern world, Google is crucial to day-to-day existence.

For most of its life, the tech giant has kept its business to the information superhighway. But yesterday, it announced a move onto the open road. Google has a new license: to take a driverless car on the streets of Nevada, USA.

Using futuristic GPS trackers, video cameras and lasers, Google’s self-driving car will ‘think’ and act just like any human driver: braking for pedestrians, stopping at red lights and changing routes to avoid traffic. The passenger’s only task is a single drive, to ‘teach’ the car a route.

Alarmed by the thought of your life in robotic hands? The truth is that Google makes a much safer driver than mistake-prone humans. A computer will never get drunk and drive. It won’t misjudge overtaking distances, or get distracted when its favourite song comes on the radio.

With robots at the wheel, journeys could become time to catch up on work, check emails, even read a novel. Cars guided by the perfect rationality of computers would rarely wander into traffic jams. Pollution would ease. Deaths on the road would plummet. Some insurers are talking seriously about a world in which accidents are a thing of the past.

The futuristic vehicle is not the first to beat humans at our own game. Calculators make real brains look dim when it comes to sums. Machines replaced hands on manufacturing lines long ago. Airline pilots cruising through the sky now struggle with boredom as computer systems deal with flying the plane, and computer programs can now diagnose breast cancer more accurately than most consultants.

When a robot named Watson swept the board at quiz show Jeopardy! last year, his opponent took it well. ‘I for one welcome our robot overlords,’ the general knowledge nut cried. With artificial intelligence playing an ever-growing role, his enthusiasm could soon be shared by everyone.

Robots at the wheel?

Some look forward to a time when technology sees to every need. Huge amounts of time and energy are now wasted on mundane tasks like driving, cleaning and remembering information. When technology frees us from such burdens, the potential for human growth will surpass our greatest imaginings.

But what are we left with when we are freed from these ‘burdens’? Memorising facts, getting accidentally lost in a city or spending a few hours behind the wheel are things that make life rewarding. By removing the work and effort of the everyday, technology robs us of a crucial part of being human.

You Decide

  1. Would you travel in a driverless car?
  2. Could life ever become too easy?

Activities

  1. Design a new product that uses artificial intelligence technology to help you with something you really dislike doing.
  2. Imagine a future world, where new technologies see to our every need. Write a short story about life in this new society. How do people spend their time?

Some People Say...

“I’d like robots to do everything for me.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this self-driving car just a bit of a pipe dream?
Not at all. The technology being used here is similar to cruise control used in cars today. Google’s self-driving car has already travelled thousands of miles safely – and it is not the only futuristic vehicle: Mercedes and Volkswagen are also developing prototypes that could be hitting showrooms as early as 2015.
Is Google planning anything else offline?
Absolutely. Perhaps even more exciting is Google’s ‘Project Glass’: augmented reality spectacles, that allow users to access maps, email, information – anything a smartphone might provide – projected onto high-tech glasses. Developers say the project is the future of the internet, which will integrate information and entertainment seamlessly into our lives.

Word Watch

Algorithms
In computer science, an algorithm is a set of instructions that determine a set of responses to certain inputs. The word comes from an inaccurate Latin transliteration of Al Khwarizmi, an Arabic mathematician who introduced sophisticated mathematics to the West.
Information Superhighway
This phrase was used during the 1990s to refer to the internet – and more specifically the lengths of fibre-optic cable that transferred online information.
Jeopardy!
A popular American quiz show, Jeopardy! tests contestants’ general knowledge in trivia topics like literature, art, humanities and sport. It frames its challenges in an unusual format – by suggesting answers and asking contestants to create questions that fit them.

Subjects

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