Autonomous Technology Still Needs Humans After All


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We have the technical know-how, but are humans fully ready to allow machines to do most of our thinking for us?

The topic has become quite pervasive. Tech giants like Google and Uber and car manufacturers like Ford, GM and Tesla are beginning to publicize their investments into the research and development of the self-driving consumer vehicle and other “smart” systems. Such systems promise to make our lives easier, more efficient and, ultimately, safer.

Yet concerns abound around issues of safety, privacy and effectiveness of these growing technologies. And understanding the usage and applications of autonomous systems, such as as self-driving vehicles, requires an in-depth discussion beyond the mere novelty of smart products.

Dr. Michael Francis is the chief of advanced programs and a senior fellow at United Technologies Research Center (UTRC). He leads the development of advanced aerospace technologies, including autonomous and intelligent systems, as well as unmanned vehicles.

As Dr. Francis puts it, autonomy itself is a technology that is changing very rapidly. And while the technology is here in some form, it is still in its infancy.

The  still has to be engaged with the system, he cautions, debunking the notion that autonomy, as we understand it on a consumer level, means completely giving up control to our prized machines.

Take for instance the recently reported Tesla crash and subsequent death of one of its car owners, who crashed into a tractor trailer as his car drove itself along the highway. As details emerged following the tragic accident, it was revealed that the driver was completely disengaged while the vehicle was operating.

Tesla responded in a statement: “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.” Even on autopilot, the company asserts, drivers must keep their hands on the wheel at all times.

The same instructions apply across the board to all “autonomous” vehicles and systems. There is still some human interaction required — at least for now.

As Dr. Francis explains, there is a tendency for the operator to be mentally distracted while everything is going fine. If something goes wrong, it’s hard for our brains to respond quickly and take action when they need to.

And therein lies our challenge in employing autonomous systems.