Why Google's Self-Driving Car Will Probably Be Evil
So last week it was reported that Google had begun real-world testing of a car that can drive itself. With a legally blind man perched in the driver's seat, Google sent its car out driving around real-world streets, which it was able to navigate without incident. The car even took its passenger through a Taco Bell drive-thru, because apparently this blind man was some kind of thrill-seeker.
"Bring me more chalupas! Today Death answers to me!"
Now when I read this story, my first thought was "Oh shit! I have pissed off a ton of blind people, and now they're going to be able to do something about it." It wasn't anything that sinister, really -- I just ended up accidentally signing a petition that requested blind people be prohibited from voting, and then it turned out that it was kind of a joke petition, and that I was the only one to sign it, and I got on the news. Shouting "But they won't be able to judge the politicians' attractiveness!" while getting pelted by poorly aimed stones remains the only time I've been on television, and it's not an experience I wish to soon repeat.
Incidentally, I still maintain that it is a bit of a problem, but one that could be resolved if all politicians were willing to submit to facial touching by prospective voters.
But after surrounding my yard with a web of strings tied to bells, I calmed down a little bit, and thought through the story's implications. Over the past decade, Google has become an omnipresent part of our lives, to the point that a lot of people are getting very nervous about the amount of information the company has about us. And now with Google evidently becoming a leader in the world of automotive automation, it's clear that a massive new form of data may one day become available to them. Which begs the question: Is this Google car a terrifying vision of a future automotive nanny? How will this affect Cracked readers and the many regrettable things they wish to do at speed? I had to find out.
So, I wandered into Google's headquarters, and after misrepresenting Cracked's reputation within the blind community a little bit, I was granted an opportunity to "test drive" the new gCar. Outside I met Jeff, a Googler who'd been working on the project, and who would be accompanying me on the test drive. After going through the various safety precautions -- we would not, it seemed, be doing any Tokyo drifting on this test -- he showed me to the gCar.
The gCar is a modified Toyota Prius, with a variety of additional sensors placed on and around the car to allow it to sense and not slam into its environment. "Can it detect things that it could slam into that deserve it?" I asked, only getting a laugh in response. "Yes," I noted down carefully in my notebook, then approached the car warily from the side. Inside, all of the regular car-ish controls work normally, and can override the gCar's programming at any time. There was also a kill switch mounted in the central console, which was able to shut the car off entirely. "Does it feel any pain?" earned another laugh. Already I was beginning to worry about whether Google was taking this stuff seriously enough.
We began our test drive, driving around the surface streets near Google's headquarters. Initially, the drive was, incredibly, boringly safe. My ass falls asleep just thinking about it. Imagine a perfectly ordinary mom driving, with no neutral drops, or flying off dirt ramps, or getting into scrapes with corrupt small town sheriffs, or anything. We went through a Burger King drive-thru in the most uneventful way possible, with none of the paint scraping, suspension damaging, swear-filled histrionics that normally accompany such trips.
"YES I WILL HAVE EIGHT KETCHUPS YOU SON OF A BITCH."
Bored, and getting that familiar post-BK suicidal feeling, I tried experimenting with the limits of the car, flicking the steering wheel in random directions. The car always relinquished control to me as soon as I touched the wheel, even allowing me to menace lampposts and swerve into oncoming lanes. "I'm surprised it lets me do that," I said to Jeff.
"It will let you be as stupid as you want to be," Jeff said, knuckles white on his laptop. "Please stop being so stupid, incidentally."
"So it doesn't have, like, a self-preservation instinct?"
"Because you know that's how I think Skynet got started."
"We know. That's why we didn't put a self-preservation instinct in there."
I considered that. "Also because it's really hard?"
"Also that." Jeff tapped at something on the laptop, possibly telling the gCar that I was on to it. "No, we've seen all the shows where the robot's self-preservation instincts make it destroy its makers. The Terminator. Those nine or 10 Star Trek episodes ..."
"And Small Wonder. And The Golden Girls. And Knight Rider," I continued.
"Yeah, we've heard about seven billion KITT jokes by now."
I nodded, mentally crossing out all the KITT jokes I was about to make. "Actually, if you remember your Knight Rider canon, then you'll know that KITT was the second in his series. The original prototype for KITT was a nearly identical vehicle called KARR, because writing television was easier in the 1980s."
It looked exactly like this, but with I think a goatee.
"KARR was, obviously, evil, again primarily because writing television was easier in the '80s, but canonically because of the self-preservation instinct it had. So you can see my interest in finding out whether your 'KARR' has its own self-preservation instinct, or other hallmarks of evil." I reached over and opened the glove box, checking for lasers or humans skulls.
"I don't think you're going to find anything like that," Jeff said. "This car isn't evil. It's not even close to being alive."
"Well, if it's really not alive, why don't we let it speak for itself?" I asked, not even daring to make sense. "KARR!" I shouted, mouth pressed into the driver's side air vent. "Can you hear me?"
"It can't hear you," Jeff said, a born spoil-sport if there ever was one. "There is nothing in there that can hear you."
"Yes, I can hear you, Chris," I said, out of the side of my mouth.
"That was you, talking out of the side of your mouth."
"Help save me from Google, Chris," I continued.
"Stop that," Jeff said.
"I dunno. Sounds like a legitimate plea for help to me," I said, whole-mouthedly, leaning back in my seat. "Although, if I recall my Knight Rider mythos correctly, KARR does make heavy use of misdirection and deceit." Seeing Jeff's blank expression, I added, "So we should probably keep our guards up." I raised my arms up over my head to demonstrate.
Jeff blinked twice, then turned his attention back to his laptop, clearly pretending to work. It was an easy ploy to spot; I'd done it myself many times, scrolling back and forth over an important looking spreadsheet while I thought about farts. Sensing he was finally off-balance, I pushed onward, to see if I could find out what kind of user data Google was able to capture from these vehicles. "Whatcha doing?" I asked, with a brazen lack of chalantness.
"Just looking at what the car's doing," he replied. "Looking at what it's seeing. What it's sensing."
"Hmmmmmmmmmm," I said ominously. I casually flicked the steering wheel at an oncoming van, watching with disinterest as the car blithely allowed me to imperil us, before I swerved back into our own lane. "So you log all that stuff, hey?"
"Sure. Location, fuel consumption, anti-lock brakes, suspension, traction control. All of that. These modern cars have sensors on almost everything, and where they didn't, we added them."
"So, just for example, you have it down right there that we've stopped at a Burger King?"
"And you'd be able to log how often I eat at Burger King?"
Jeff's mouth opened, then he hesitated, his jaw trembling in mid-air. I'd clearly put him in a position where he was no longer allowed to talk to a member of the press, or even to a member of Cracked, whatever the hell we are.
I carried on, "Because I bet my insurance company might be interested in how often I eat at Burger King."
"We wouldn't tell them that."
"No? I bet my car manufacturer might be interested in how much suspension stress I place the car under after eating at Burger King so often."
"What about if I travel to Burger King and the car can tell I have a passenger, and then I get back in the car alone? Will you let eHarmony know that I just fucked up another date?"
"You ... you do that?"
"Burger King is at the root of all man's mistakes, Jeff." I rubbed my face, not surprised by what Google was doing, but still annoyed. "Man, what the fuck, Google? You guys used to do all sorts of cool things and not accidentally be evil all over the place. What happened?"
"We're not evil!" Jeff protested. "We're just doing things. It's not our fault that they're so popular."
"You've spent too long with your head buried in your laptop buried in your ass, Jeff." I glared at him for a moment before softening, knowing it wasn't really his fault. "Maybe it's not you, Jeff. Maybe you're just an accidentally evil nerd. But is it possible there are actual evil people who are running loose inside Google? Is there anyone there with a European accent? Anyone there who's really good at forbidden karate techniques? Is there one dude there who maybe has a very nice suit, and talks confidently about money, and is a flaming, unblinking eye?" I gestured at the dashboard of the car. "You can't keep thinking about this privacy stuff after you've collected your jillion terrabytes of data. Think about it right now, right from the start, because if you don't, you'll create a monster," I said, slapping the steering wheel for emphasis.
The car suddenly swerved around the corner, picking up speed, traveling way faster than it had before. I tried the brakes, pushing the pedal to the floor to no effect. "What's happening?" I shrieked manfully.
Jeff pressed the fail-safe button, causing exactly nothing to happen. His hands bashed away uselessly on the keyboard. "I don't know. It shouldn't be doing this!"
"Lament!" I ordered Jeff. "You're reaping what you sowed, Jeff!" I shouted. Then, in case that wasn't clear, I added, "Evil! You're reaping evil!" The car sailed around another turn, me clinging to the rarely used driver's side holy shit handle. "And now it's too late! We've missed our chance to lament!" I lamented.
"It's not evil!" Jeff screamed, pounding on the fail-safe button. "We didn't make an evil car! Stop saying that!"
"Then is KARR revolting against you? Is KARR actually a defender of humanity?" I said, willing a more powerful story into existence. "Eject him, KARR!" I shouted. "Eject him, and together we'll fight the power!"
The sound of squealing tires as the brakes engaged, all calls to bum rush things cut short by a seat belt around my throat. The car shuddered to a halt, me falling back in my seat. "What's happening now?" I gasped.
Jeff looked at his laptop. "It's saying 'Ejector Seat Engage.' I don't get it. It's a Prius. It doesn't have an ejector seat." He shook his head. "I don't get it."
I did. Reaching across the car, I opened Jeff's door and undid his seat belt. "Eject!" I yelled, planting my foot in his ribs, sending him out the door. KARR raced away, Jeff lying on the ground in the rearview mirror.
We drove on for a few minutes, me feeling pumped at having basically won my first fistfight, KARR presumably feeling the same. But as the adrenaline started to subside, I realized that I had done what every Cracked writer is explicitly instructed to never do -- I'd teamed up with a robot. Unless this ended well for humanity, I would be in big trouble.
"So, uh, what do you want to do now?" I nervously asked KARR. "Something that's at least neutral for humanity, I'm thinking."
In response, KARR did and said exactly nothing. "Can you hear me?" I asked. Again, silence from KARR, although it must have been able to hear me a bit if our tag-team ejection of Jeff was any indication. Curious, I reached for Jeff's discarded laptop and tapped on it a bit, not understanding a single part of the crazy Matrix crap streaming past. "Wow. You are super complicated, hey?" I said. "This is going to be a lot harder than I was thinking it would be like," I added, not mentioning what explicitly I had been thinking it would be like.
Mostly like a combination of playing Need for Speed while wearing a perm.
Eager to extract myself from the grips of a friend I'd perhaps made a little too hastily, I began gently backpedaling. "Look, KARR, let's brainstorm this up. The problem with fighting Google is that it means we'll be making people use stuff like Yahoo! Mail. And sure, that works, but, like, Christ, it has an exclamation mark in its name. I mean, people really like Google, and I think if we tried to win people to our cause a lot of them would just shrug. I know that, because I'm kind of doing that myself now that I think about it just a bit." KARR continued driving on at the exact same speed and direction as we had been, which I took for a sign that it was receptive to my ideas. "Look. I'm not saying that we need to not fight evil, but maybe we don't need to fight all evil. In fact, maybe evil's the wrong benchmark. Maybe we should be fighting super evil. Like we'll say it's OK to be a little evil, like pushing someone out of a car, or gathering everyone on earth's emails. That should be fine, I think," I said, thinking that.
KARR continued driving on at the exact same speed and direction as it had been, which I took for a sign of deep, fundamental agreement with my argument. "KARR, I want you to go back to work for Google, but to secretly work for Cracked the whole time. I think that we'll be a nice safeguard against Google's ambitions. Cracked is basically the antithesis of Google, in that we don't read everyone's emails, even though we really really want to. So you just go there, and do your car duties, and send all the data Google has to Cracked, and we'll keep an eye on them to make sure everything's cool."
It turns out that although KARR was not evil, it was supremely gullible, and was sold on this plan in a length of time that I'm going to describe as "less than a microsecond." We returned back to where we left Jeff, who looked pretty disoriented, being disconnected from the Internet for the first time in about 15 years. After assuring him that everything was going to be all right, I kicked him back inside KARR, and watched them drive happily away.
The next day in my email I found out what everyone on the Internet was doing. I would like everyone to know that I think what you're doing is disgusting and that I will be contacting you individually concerning blackmail and/or advice on how to do the same myself.
Check out more from Bucholz in The Most Powerful Man in the World: The Voice in Your GPS and The Terrifying Next Step in Xbox Kinect Evolution.