Artificial intelligence takes on the road as truck drivers search for alternatives

Empty cashier lines at grocery stores is one example of the ways in which humans are becoming obsolete, Csordas said.  (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Exchange)

There is evidence all around us that humans are gradually becoming obsolete, the empty cashier lines in the grocery store while customers choose “self”-checkout, being just one example. There was a time when science fiction was just that—fiction—and the fantastic world of technology was just a dream. But reality is different today and the world of James Cameron’s “Terminator” suddenly seems more realistic than ever.

The most recent development has been the creation of automated automobiles, an idea that has been around for many years but has always seemed too far-fetched. Until now. Cruise control has a whole new meaning in these vehicles, as advanced computers use GPS and radar to electronically guide them through the streets. Innovation has occurred mostly in large transportation trucks, 18-wheelers.

In theory, it’s a good idea. Products would reach their destinations faster, less accidents would occur because humans will not be behind the wheel and because no one is driving, companies will not have to pay as many workers, saving them money and (hopefully) passing that down to their customers.

But as reality is often different than theory, so is this one. It is rather unsettling to imagine 18-wheel-wrecking-balls being piloted by a computer. We all know how often those self-checkout machines need very human support to do their jobs. Who will support a machine traveling at 60 miles per hour?

And this is completely ignoring the truckers themselves. As Natalie Kitroeff of the Los Angeles Times puts it, “at risk is one of the most common jobs in many states, and one of the last remaining careers that offer middle-class pay to those without a college degree.” As factory jobs have gushed out of the country, the unemployed in their wake have turned to trucking as a source of income. It is, after all, one of those jobs that cannot be exported.

Yet it is one that can be automated, apparently. Uber’s Otto, one of the first self-driving trucks, has partnered with Budweiser to test run the technology by bringing beer to millions of customers without being driven by the human hand. So far there have been no accidents to report, but a fully trained driver is required to sit inside of the truck, making sure everything operates correctly. What will happen when this is no longer the case?

...at risk is one of the most common jobs in many states, and one of the last remaining careers that offer middle-class pay to those without a college degree

According to the American Trucking Association, there are an estimated 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, most of whom stand to lose their jobs if automated driving becomes the norm.

An automated society is a very foreign topic to us. What would our lives be if we lived like the Jetsons? It is scary because it is unknown, but it holds its benefits as automated trucks do as well. In Texas in 2013, while only 3% of the traffic is made up of tractor trailers, they cause 12 percent of the motor vehicle deaths in the state. If a computer drove these trucks, it might be able to compensate for dangerous situations better than a human. GPS and radar do not need light nor clear skies to see well, after all. By automating trucks, we take the human error out of driving.

Maybe a good solution is somewhere in the middle, similar to what Budweiser and Otto are doing. Test out the new technology, with a driver present in case something goes wrong. Once more data is known about the matter, and the public is more comfortable with the idea of driverless trucks, then make plans on how to proceed.

We must be careful when inventing artificial intelligence so as not to disrupt what makes us human. Sometimes tasks that can be done by machine should still be done by humans. With self-checkout in the grocery stores, customers miss the personal touch of communicating with a cashier, for better or for worse. High-school students certainly miss the employment opportunity. In the words of Christian Lous Lange, “Technology is a useful servant, but a dangerous master.”


David Csordas is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at david.csordas@uconn.edu.