Driverless cars propel us into an uncharted future

Google’s self-driving car at the Google X campus in Mountain View on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Google is developing an autonomous car that will drive itself safely.
Google’s self-driving car at the Google X campus in Mountain View on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Google is developing an autonomous car that will drive itself safely. Sacramento Bee file

When federal auto regulators this month opened the door for development of Highly Automated Vehicles – the rest of us call them driverless cars – the news emphasized a need for strong oversight.

The step is significant. But the real happening could be a historic public policy embrace of the arrival of artificial intelligence, the real driver of such vehicles.

The guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation make some interesting observations related to artificial intelligence, or AI:

▪ Highly automated vehicles “hold a learning advantage over humans.”

▪ At their best, “the automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them.”

▪ The speed with which technology is advancing “threatens to outpace conventional regulatory processes and capabilities.”

The development and acceptance of driverless autos is one of the more dramatic illustrations of how pervasive AI is becoming. It’s also wake-up time for public policy to deal with the situation.

As to automated vehicle development, the transportation officials note it has “the potential to transform personal mobility,” and could cause cities to “reconsider how space is utilized.”

“We must rapidly build our expertise and knowledge to keep pace with developments,” the department says. That statement is equally applicable to all levels of government and to the full breadth of AI developments, of which there are many.

Five of the world’s largest technology companies have started meeting in pursuit of a standard of ethics for AI creations. The stated purpose is to discuss the social and economic impact of further developments in AI.

We need to encourage responsible corporate behavior. But we also should be mindful that these companies may be concerned about government stepping in to fashion some rules for their behavior.

An even bigger undertaking, and a persuasive acknowledgment of the big time arrival of AI, is the establishment of The One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University. The project overview states: “As a society, we are now at a crucial juncture in determining how to deploy AI-based technologies in ways that promote, not hinder, democratic values such as freedom, equality, and transparency. For individuals, the quality of lives we lead and how our contributions are valued are likely to shift gradually, but markedly.”

The study will focus on specific changes affecting the everyday lives of people.

The inquiry will look at eight domains of current or projected AI impact: “transportation, health care, education, low-resource communities, public safety and security, employment and workplace, home/service robots, and entertainment.”

One cannot look at that list of eight domains without noting that they are overwhelmingly the domains of public policy. One would hope that our representatives would be fully engaged in discussions of something as potentially consequential as AI to the well-being of individual citizens and society.

If they are, however, they are keeping it very quiet. We hear nothing about it in this election campaign.

The Stanford project makes three policy recommendations: accruing technical expertise in AI at all levels of government; removing impediments to research; and increasing funding for interdisciplinary studies of the societal impact of AI.

As to the first recommendation, the Stanford study report notes: “Without an understanding of how AI systems interact with human behavior and societal values, officials will be poorly positioned to evaluate the impact of AI on programming objectives.”

Artificial intelligence and related advances in technology are game-changers, leading us into a future of unceasing change. Established institutions, policies, and processes will be challenged more dramatically than ever, and may not survive. New and different approaches in public policy will be required.

The fundamental public policy issues that must be addressed are: What governing is required and what is required to govern?

Our policymakers should take advantage of corporate discussions and the findings of the Stanford project and get fully engaged in the forces shaping our future before it shapes us.

John M. Hein is a public policy consultant and the former director of governmental relations for the California Teachers Association.