Humans can drive cars

There’s been a lot of fuss lately about Google’s gad­gets. Com­put­ers can drive cars—pretty amaz­ing, eh? I guess. But what amazed me as a child was that peo­ple can drive cars. I’d sit in the back seat while an adult con­trol­led a ma­chine tak­ing us at in­sane speeds through a clut­tered, seem­ingly quite un­safe en­vi­ron­ment. I dis­tinctly re­mem­ber think­ing that some­thing about this just doesn’t add up.

It looked to me like there was just no ad­e­quate mechanism to keep the car on the road. At the speeds cars travel, a tiny de­vi­a­tion from the cor­rect course would take us fly­ing off the road in just a cou­ple of sec­onds. Yet the adults seemed pretty non­cha­lant about it—the adult in the driver’s seat could have re­laxed con­ver­sa­tions with other peo­ple in the car. But I knew that peo­ple were pretty clumsy. I was an un­gainly kid but I knew even the adults would bump into stuff, drop things and gen­er­ally fum­ble from time to time. Why didn’t that seem to hap­pen in the car? I felt I was miss­ing some­thing. Maybe there were mag­nets in the road?

Now that I am a driv­ing adult I could more or less ex­plain this to a 12-year-old me:

1. Yes, the course needs to be con­trol­led very ex­actly and you need to make con­stant tiny course cor­rec­tions or you’re off to a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent in no time.

2. For­tu­nately, the steer­ing wheel is a re­ally good in­stru­ment for mak­ing small course cor­rec­tions. The de­sign is some­what clum­si­ness-re­sis­tant.

3. Nev­er­the­less, you re­ally are just one mis­step away from death and you need to fo­cus in­tently. You can’t take your eyes off the road for even one sec­ond. Un­der good cir­cum­stances, you can have light con­ver­sa­tions while driv­ing but a big part of your mind is still tied up by the task.

4. Peo­ple can drive cars—but only just barely. You can’t do it safely even while only mildly ine­bri­ated. That’s not just an ar­bi­trary law—the hit to your re­flexes sub­stan­tially in­creases the risks. You can do pretty much all other nor­mal tasks af­ter a cou­ple of drinks, but not this.

So my 12-year-old self was not com­pletely mis­taken but still ul­ti­mately wrong. There are no mag­nets in the road. The ex­pla­na­tion for why driv­ing works out is mostly that peo­ple are just some­what more ca­pa­ble than I’d thought. In my more sunny mo­ments I hope that I’m mak­ing similar er­rors when think­ing about ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Maybe cre­at­ing a safe AGI isn’t as im­pos­si­ble as it looks to me. Maybe it isn’t be­yond hu­man ca­pa­bil­ities. Maybe.

Edit: I in­tended no real anal­ogy be­tween AGI de­sign and driv­ing or car de­sign—just the gen­eral ob­ser­va­tion that peo­ple are some­times more com­pe­tent than I ex­pect. I find it in­ter­est­ing that mul­ti­ple com­menters note that they have also been puz­zled by the rel­a­tive safety of traf­fic. I’m not sure what les­son to draw.