• David Mindell and the cover of “Our Robots, Ourselves” (Viking/Penguin)

    David Mindell and the cover of “Our Robots, Ourselves” (Viking/Penguin)

    Photo (Mindell): Len Rubenstein

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Robots and us

David Mindell and the cover of “Our Robots, Ourselves” (Viking/Penguin)

Should cars be fully driverless? No, says an MIT engineer and historian.

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If you follow technology news — or even if you don’t — you have probably heard that numerous companies have been trying to develop driverless cars for a decade or more. These fully automated vehicles could potentially be safer than regular cars, and might add various efficiencies to our roads, like smoother-flowing traffic.

Or so it is often claimed. But the promise of artificial intelligence, advanced sensors, and self-driving cars could be achieved without full autonomy, argue scholars with deep expertise in automation and technology — including David Mindell, an MIT professor and author of a new book on the subject.

If robotics in extreme environments are any guide, Mindell says, self-driving cars should not be fully self-driving. That idea, he notes, is belied by decades of examples involving spacecraft, underwater exploration, air travel, and more. In each of those spheres, fully automated vehicles have frequently been promised, yet the most state-of-the-art products still have a driver or pilot somewhere in the network. This is one reason Mindell thinks cars are not on the road to complete automation.

“That’s just proven to be a loser of an approach in a lot of other domains,” Mindell says. “I’m not arguing this from first principles. There are 40 years’ worth of examples.”

Now Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and also a professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has detailed the history in his new book, “Our Robots, Ourselves,” being published Oct. 13 by Viking Books.

To be clear, Mindell thinks that “it’s reasonable to hope” that technology will help cars “reduce the workload” of drivers in incremental ways in the future. But total automation, he thinks, is not the logical endpoint of vehicle development.

“The book is about a different idea of progress,” Mindell says. “There’s an idea that progress in robotics leads to full autonomy. That may be a valuable idea to guide research … but when automated and autonomous systems get into the real world, that’s not the direction they head. We need to rethink the notion of progress, not as progress toward full autonomy, but as progress toward trusted, transparent, reliable, safe autonomy that is fully interactive: The car does what I want it to do, and only when I want it to do it.”

Shooting for the “perfect 5”

To see why Mindell thinks history shows us that automation is not the endpoint of vehicular development, consider the case of undersea exploration. For decades, engineers and scientists thought that fully automated submersibles would be a step forward from the seemingly risky work of deep-sea journeys.

Instead, something unexpected happened with submersibles: Technological progress, including improved communications technologies, made it less useful to have fully automated vehicles sweeping across the sea floor. Instead, Mindell notes, submersibles “are more effective when they have even a little communication” with people monitoring and controlling them.

Or consider the Apollo program, which put U.S. astronauts on the moon six different times. Originally, Mindell notes, the expectation was that moon missions would be fully automated, with astronauts nothing more than passengers. But in the end — and partly due to the feedback of the astronauts themselves — astronauts handled many critical functions, including the moon landings.

“The sophistication of the computer and the software was used not to push people out, but to give them true control over the landing,” Mindell says.

And then there are airplanes. Commercial airliners do have many automated systems, such as cruise control-type features and even systems that can automate landings in certain circumstances. But it still takes highly trained pilots to manage those systems, make critical decisions in the cockpit — and, yes, frequently to steer the planes.

“Commercial aviation is incredibly safe,” says Mindell, himself a qualified civil aviation pilot with more than 1,000 hours of flying time to his credit. “Part of the reason is there are a lot of highly technical systems, but those systems are all imperfect, and the people are the glue that hold the system together. Airline pilots are constantly making small corrections, picking up mistakes, correcting the air traffic controllers.”

Drawing on a concept developed by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Tom Sheridan, Mindell notes that the level of automation in a project can be judged on a scale from 1 to 10 — and aiming for 10, he contends, does not necessarily lead to more success in any given endeavor, compared to a happy medium of technology and person. In the space program, Mindell reflects, “The digital computer in Apollo allowed them to make a less automated spacecraft that was closer to the perfect 5.”

Full automation a “20th-century narrative”

So why, in the case of cars, are we back to a point where many people are envisioning a driverless future? In a way, Mindell says, this vision of the future belongs squarely to the past.

“I think the narrative of full autonomy is a 20th-century narrative,” Mindell says. “It’s a narrative of industrial mechanization that’s kind of filtered its way through the 20th century, supported by 20th-century science fiction. These narratives can and should change.”

Still, the idea of total automation is the approach taken by Google, most notably, in its development of self-driving cars. Yet as Mindell also observes, there are many challenges to the Google model: Its cars must identify all nearby objects correctly, need perfectly updated mapping systems, and must avoid all software glitches.

Ultimately, Mindell writes, “Google’s utopian autonomy is a more brittle, less functional solution than a rich, human-centered automation.” He predicts that the fully driverless model will not be the most successful, both for technical and social reasons.

“The notion of ceding control of something as fundamental to life as driving to a big, opaque corporation — people are not comfortable with that,” he says. Additionally, other companies and research groups looking at automating cars are “very clearly not going for the Google approach to fully driverless cars.”

Other scholars have found “Our Robots, Ourselves” to be valuable. Ian Bogost, a professor of media studies and interactive computing at Georgia Tech, calls the book “a lucid, hype-free exploration of how robotic automation really works” in tandem with human design and operation.

Mindell says he is eager to see how technologists, especially robotics engineers, react to the book. Among the places where Mindell is scheduled to speak on his current book tour are Microsoft and, yes, Google. In time, Mindell says, he believes his perspective will come to be more widely accepted, and that full automation on the roads will not seem as desirable a goal.

“I think the public discourse is slowly coming around to there is another way to do it,” Mindell concludes.

Topics: Research, SHASS, Technology and society, School of Engineering, Books and authors, Robotics, Autonomous vehicles, Artificial intelligence, Program in STS, Aeronautical and astronautical engineering


I agreed from day one.

a sane voice. finally!

Philosophically and theoretically interesting, but the question of autonomous cars comes down to one simple point: either the human is driving or the computer is. How do you go halfway on something like that?

Some nice thoughts, but David's historical comparisons are crude fits at best. With the Apollo missions, there was marginal value for making everything fully atonomous; there were men onboard anyway ( that was the whole point according to JFK!) and they might as well have a job helping control the thing. It was reasonable for the mentioned benefits of adaptability, higher level decisions, etc... Compare that to unmanned probes beyond the moon that are quite atonomous and are cases where going closer to '10' makes sense.

The difference with daily commutes versus moon landings is that there is more _value_ in making automobiles fully autonomous because if a drivers can give their undivided attention to other things during their daily commute, they can gain significant amounts of time and productivity on a regular basis. Driver assist only gives a marginal relaxation of attention--perhaps you can make a phone call, but you cant watch a video, do research, write a paper or work on a spreadsheet. This is the point of making the leap to fully autonomous cars. That said, its clear that they don't always have to be autonomous.., perhaps just over certain segments of the drive, for example in special lanes on an interstate; there they can still bring value for 90% of the trip (for some commutes). I don't think Neil Armstrong wanted to catch up on I Love Lucy during the lunar landing.

David's second example is planes. In that case there IS value of completely removing the pilot. We call them UAVs and they aren't going away any time soon.

So I like some of Mindell's points but I call BS on the appeal to history.

Don't talk to me about "driver-less" cars until after you show me the navigation system that I don't need to override, knows all the current detours and road changes and doesn't give up in a heavy rain or snow storm.
Driver assistance ....... ok......... Takeover in the heavy stop and go daily commuting traffic.......sure........Tell me when I'm too tired and prevent a low speed crash ...... absolutely...........but a drive in Vermont in the fall, down an empty rural 2 lane on a bright sunny day..........no thanks ..... I'll do that drive.

Well, there is nothing mentioned about the Mars Expedition and their autonomous vehicles. The future is uncertain, but we have trends to have some probabilities towards the possibility of an autonomous car. On the 60 minutes program it was shown how far this technology has gone so far. If the situation is generalized it can be said that humans are always going to have some control in their vehicles. Nevertheless there is a particular situation which could be interesting to explore. Have you gone to amusement parks? There are rides that do not have a driver because they are attached to mechanical, electrical, and computerized systems, and everybody have fun. It is short and the attention is not focus on the fact that is driveless. You think that you are monitorized every single second of the ride. That somebody is in charge. Some years ago there was a video showing how a parking lot in a golf course had implemented the driverless cars. It is a close system. The speed and the routes are invariable and if there were exceptions; there were minimal. I think in the short term the landscape we can envision is; small communities with short circuits but long distances, routine routes but with individual itineraries, and specially crowded and congested traffic but with specific rush hours; that can take fully advantage of the driverless cars in full. It is an economy solution. There are businesses that will flourish with this special and singular situation that happens many times in many places on Earth. I think the author of the book got short in his findings.

The issue isn't weather driverless cars are as safe as the best drivers, or even as safe as the average driver. The reason that driverless cars is appealing is (1) to permit lots of transportation by car that would not have happened if driverless cars did not exist, (2) to free up people who would prefer being passengers to drivers, and (3) to replace unsafe drivers. If a human and computer share the driving, then none of these three advantages is possible.

Hot garbage. Mindell is trying to increase potential sales of a book whose answers will fall on the wrong side of history. Full automation will arrive, and we will welcome it. People already surrender control everyday. Board a plane, and if your not the pilot, you are in another humans hands. Is the pilot drunk, hungover, reeling from a bad divorce or distracted by gambling debt, you will never know. Every time you step into a cab, get into the back of a limo, get on a tram, city bus, subway, or cruise ship, you surrender control. The imagined social push back against automation will never materialize and the benefits of increased free time to work, or to lounge and sleep will be obvious from day one.

Professor Mindell is comparing situations where human decision makers are highly trained professionals such as astronauts and passenger plane pilot to daily driving where the average human decision maker is more likely to be an idiot(people switch off while driving) distracted by his smartphone.

The reason for the large amount of optimism currently for driverless cars is largely based on the recent and significant advancements in AI image processing. The entire current movement is completely predicated on the success and iterative improvement of image processing. This is something the article seem to completely ignore.

When this it taken into account, looking at our historical failures is completely irrelevant. Is it possible that there will be more road blocks that can't be overcome with our current technology? Of course. But history cannot be our guide on this. We just don't know yet and the only way to find out is to keep moving forward.

Also, it's not like the entire industry is ignoring the idea of having increased automation with a human still in control. This is basically what Tesla just released with their new autopilot feature and I expect we will continue to see more products like this in the future.

However, to lose sight of the end goal of full automation is folly. There are too many advantages that it provides that partial automation does not, as Jim Orlin pointed out already. From the ability to provide disabled individuals with more access to transportation to eliminating fatalities caused by drunk drivers, it should be obvious why full automation is a virtuous goal.

It is difficult to argue against technological progress. Self-driving cars and increased automation is a problem that a lot of smart people and money is working towards. I would be surprised if they weren't on roads certainly in the next 20 years.

I am the author of the book described in the article, and appreciate all the thoughtful comments here. That said, nearly every objection raised is addressed in detail in the book -- the issue of progress, the issue of unskilled ("idiot") drivers, etc. The MIT News article misreads the book's argument as based on history -- it is not. It is an empirical study of the way people use robotics and autonomy today, and how every case I found has human inputs added into the system as it moves from laboratory to field. The book never argues against technological progress, but rather tries to define a new way to measure progress -- for we do know that what we think of as "progress" at any given moment is likely to change, and I am arguing to change it. The argument about fully autonomous cars increasing safety is presently notional, with no empirical data to support it. It focuses on all the stupid things people do to cause crashes (which are many, and well studied), and ignores all the invisible smart things people do to avoid crashes (which are far more numerous, and poorly studied).

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