Technology making a “human” decision – what could go wrong?

Technology making a “human” decision – what could go wrong?

Every day, we are surrounded by technology that promises to enhance and enrich our lives. Our smartphones allow us to communicate in real time with people sitting either right next to us or in a different country halfway across the world. These devices can entertain us with games and social media or provide us with information on millions of different topics almost instantaneously at the simple click of a button.

Technology, specifically smartphones, can provide opportunities for us to improve our own lives – but there are also several distractions and problems that arise as a result of these gadgets. Lets say that I’m trying to work on my math homework: after only two problems and five minutes of calculus, my phone buzzes with a text from my friend about the physics homework that was assigned, and after I interrupt my math to lend a helping hand to my friend, I realize that I don’t know how to do the next problem, so I Google the steps for differentiating variables, and then Google suggests a fifteen minute YouTube video that explains the concept, but as soon as I start watching the video, I see an ad and look at the suggested videos on the side, which tempt me to click on pointless videos of people playing with their cats. Although I had the self-restraint to refrain from clicking on the distracting suggested videos, the video doesn’t make sense, so I open up my email with the intent to send my math teacher a message with questions about the math homework, but then I see five unopened emails from colleges in my area sending me information about their open houses and stellar programs, and so I click on the links they provide and start learning more about the information on their website in hopes that this will assist me in figuring out the rest of my life after high school.

Obviously each of those other tasks that distracted me were constructive, but they took a total of forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes that should have been spent on math homework.

Granted, the distractions illustrated above aren’t entirely the smartphones fault: I “agreed” to interrupt my math homework and pause my attempts to differentiate equations to answer to the temptations of my smart phone. However, even if we can manage to resist the alluring LED screen of our devices, our willpower is bound to snap at some point as a result of the constant torrents of information raining down on us and thousands of notification’s vying for our attention.

I’m guessing you can probably think of an instance where you wanted to just disable every feature on your smartphone instead of being bombarded with the constant decision of focusing on the task at hand or allowing the pop-ups and emails and texts and links to distract you– I know that I’ve definitely felt that way before. The technology we have now can heavily influence our behavior, but we have to allow it to have this element of “control.”

We are always the ones who are truly in control over our technology: even if my phone starts ringing, I don’t have to answer it if I’m trying to accomplish something else. The Facebook app can’t publish my political views for me, I must write out my own ramblings if I would like to be the center of a heated debate in the comments section of the post. Amazon can’t choose to purchase a new flat screen TV for me using my credit card, I have to voluntarily add it to my cart and complete the purchase.

Artificial intelligence (AI) that has the capacity to make decisions in place of a human has already been developed, but it doesn’t yet affect the daily life of the average person – all of the technology that we use on a daily basis (such as a computer or a tablet or a camera) require controlled input from the user and some form of action before making any kind of decision, important or trivial. With technology continuing to advance, it is highly likely that AI will soon become a more widespread phenomenon: if devices can decide for us or complete tasks that are a part of our daily routines, wouldn’t that make our lives easier and allow us to be more efficient? The technology might also eliminate human error, therefore making it more “perfect” and less likely to fail than if a human was the one in charge.

Obviously, this is a highly simplified description of the situation that heavily advocates for the benefits without including the downsides – but these oversimplified benefits are the means that advertisers will use to elicit customers. The designers of AI are already trying to sell us on the wonderful benefits of various forms of technology, but there are certain assumptions within their reasoning that cannot be ignored. If we are imperfect as a human race, is it possible to make us “perfect” using these advanced methods? Is it even possible to create such a technology that could attempt such a lofty goal? And if the technology became a reality, would people even want to purchase it and incorporate it into their lives?

Self-driving cars is one of the pieces of technology that would prompt me to ask these questions, and engineers are already working to release these cars onto the road. This page compiles data from numerous prominent news and media sources to illustrate that self-driving cars might be on the road in as little as 4 years from now. Although it’s unclear what many of these sources mean by “self-driving” (does the driver ever have to do anything? Does the car handle all dangerous situations or can the driver override the technology?), these cars will still be making at least some potentially life-altering decisions in the place of the driver because of the nature of the vehicle.

At first, the idea seems enthralling: wouldn’t it be great to input a destination and then be able to sit back, have a snack, and scroll through Facebook on your smartphone while your car speeds you to work or school in the morning? To be less likely to be in an accident because the vehicle can communicate with the other vehicles on the road while being unable to submit to distraction like a human would? Even if you enjoy the process of driving, aren’t there still times when you’re wishing your car would drive itself home since you’re half asleep on the drive home from a late-night event?

Most articles discussing the problems of self-driving cars begin by introducing some type of extreme scenario: if a driverless car has to choose between hitting person A or person B, who should it hit? Or in the case of this article (which also discusses some of the ethical decision implications), should it kill the family of 4 in the car if it saves the 5 year old who ran into the road without knowing any better?

This ethical debate is an oversimplified instance of what would be occurring on the road and what the car would do to react to the situation. If self driving cars are moving down the road at a speed that doesn’t allow it to stop quickly, it’s unlikely that there would be kids playing with bouncing balls near the road or near the cars. In the person A/person B scenario, there are countless other factors that aren’t described in the simple scenario, including why the people were on the road, whether the people should have been on the road, the age and mental abilities of the people on the road, etc.

These over-simplifications are something we should caution ourselves towards: the problem of self-driving cars is typically being illustrated to us in a way that minimizes potential problems and causes us to debate over imperfect solutions. Naturally, we are concerned about whether these cars are safe for us to use and whether they are safe for our family and friends.

When we take away the human component, we allow something that operates “perfectly” to replace us. This sounds like a better situation, because the technology won’t fail in the same way that a human would. However, it seems impossible to program the human ability to make an ethical, informed choice into a piece of technology. If it was possible, is this what we would want?

We should be careful of making over-simplified assumptions about complex problems surrounding technology. It seems as if situations with Artificial Intelligence would make our lives better, but many of the resources use over-simplified scenarios to try to define and solve a complex problem.

As humans, we are prone to distraction and error – consider the example of the ever-distracting smartphone. We make human decisions that are sometimes imperfect. If technology is able to “perfect” these decisions – and that’s a big if – would we really want to try to “perfect” what is imperfect? In a world where media sources are arguing for improved and advanced technology, we should educate ourselves on the implications of having technology control too much of our humanity.

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