Should we tap the brakes on our self-driving car expectations?


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Yes, the pun in the title was intended.

One of my favorite podcasts, for many reasons, is EconTalk. Primarily, I caught on to EconTalk due to the fact that the host, Russ Roberts, authored one of my favorite books within the economics genre, The Choice which is a highly readable fable that indicates why free trade is highly beneficial. The other reason I love EconTalk is that it does not just focus on micro or macroeconomics topics that many people may not be interested in, rather the podcasts explores many different aspects of economics, social sciences, business, public policy, and innovation. A recent episode in which Roberts converses with David Mindell, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at MIT, on his recent book, Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy  is a case in point.

As someone that works within the Healthcare information technology field, I found the analogies and insights in this episode interesting and thought provoking. While I am not a computer science major nor do I do the physical coding on the solutions, in the past I have been in product management roles and currently I work closely with hospital organizations to implement and optimize technology designed to predict events such as an imminent Sepsis event in which alerts are triggered and sent to the clinicians caring for the patient coupled with Clinical Decision Support Systems designed to give guidance and recommendations to the clinicians on the appropriate actions to take. On the development side, it is easy to let hubris set in and believe that the system is essentially a wonderful piece of art that should continually push the boundaries of completely removing human intervention. Mindell serves up a nice reminder that the systems themselves are built by humans and often have those biases coded in.

Mindell reiterated on a number of occasions that the best systems are those that work within the human framework, automating what makes sense but still factoring in those elements that could only possibly be managed by the human in complex settings. At one point, Mindell indicated that, “the humans in these settings are not idiots…” and too often the natural thought of the product designer is that all things can be solved for and human error can be eliminated if there is just one more tweak to the system to remove the human factors. This episode of EconTalk served as a great reminder that the best systems are designed to allow those closest to the actual action to use the systems for all that they can do, but allow the inevitable human intervention that complex events will require. Healthcare is full of the “9 foot snowbanks in Boston” that Mindell referred to, so it was helpful to hear the perspective.

Lastly, as someone that has loved the idea of summoning a car with a mobile application and then reading the newspaper to commute to work, the implications of what Mindell discusses here were somewhat disheartening. That being said, the ability, as he calls it, to use automation to participate more fully in the world around you was a nice way to reorient my thinking. Instead of reading a newspaper and not observing what the automobile is doing nor observing the environment around me, why not use the technology to embrace such innovations as having the car provide reports on local events going on that align with my interests, places to go with any requisite information (tickets, availability), places to eat that fit my tastes, recommendations on music programs in the local area, provide updates and historical facts about the locations I am driving in, alert me in real-time to dangers going on in the vicinity or divert the vehicle rather than head into an accident or traffic jam, etc. In other words, perhaps the more exciting aspects of the automated car of the future will be allowing us to more fully immerse ourselves in the world around us and interact with us rather than allow us to put ourselves into a self-absorbed cocoon.


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