I don’t know how many times I have said the words in the title of this blog to people. I admit the “Machines” is a rather rather new, because in the past machines were not considered “smart” enough to screw up, but now we must admit them to the club (perhaps I should have said People/Robots}
This comes to mind because of two widely reported incidents in which Tesla cars, equipped with “Auto Pilot” capability were involved in crashes, one fatal to the driver, and the other consisting of two impacts with guard rails followed by overturning of the car. Both of these made the New York Times, the first on the front page, the other more buried within the paper. Had the cars not been harbingers of the much reported era of “Autonomous Cars”, they would in all probability not qualified for such notice. However, we have not only bought into the possibility that machines, especially computers, will take over more and more functions from people, but that they will do better at it—i.e. fewer “Accidents”.
I am a fan of Tesla Motors, who I think has made it plain to owners of cars with their auto pilot capability that this is an aid to drivers, not a replacement, and that the technology is,in fact, new. And someone had to take the lead in using some of this technology with real people in real traffic. People being what they are, it is not surprising that owners might, as they used to say in the Air Force, push the envelope. So I find the two incidents regrettable, but not surprising, and in spite of people’s wishes, examples of the title of this post. You can kill yourself (and others) in any car if you do not understand the limitations of the technology.
Ironically, I visited my farm escape in the Sacramento Valley a couple of days ago, and there in the midst of a partly-harvest vast field of rice, was a lonely looking big-time John Deere Harvester. I recognized it as belonging to my friend, the owner, since it was in his field, but it was unusual to find it looking abandoned in the middle of the field. I found that it was broken — in short, the mechanism holding one of the tracks had failed, resulting in breakage of a huge casting and other components. The reason was probably inadequate securing of a large nut, but that is not the point. It received emergency care, with the result that it is now in action again, with a maintenance bill of only $20, 000 dollars.
The point is that this is a very sophisticated and expensive machine (on the order of $700,000) built for very high performance (one of them will service hundreds of acres at high speed with great accuracy) and full of advanced technology (gps control, etc.), by one of the leading manufacturers of agricultural equipment and it failed, either because something broke and/or people/machines screwed up.
Although the present wave of optimism resulting from the amazing progress in technology may seem to be heading to a perfect future, in which people and machines, especially “thinking” machines, never fail, don’t believe it. I am confident that the title of this post will hold true as long as homo sapiens exist.