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SPOTLIGHT
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Humans headed toward obsolescence

Published on -10/1/2012, 10:06 AM

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This was going to be a rant.

Then I thought about it, which was a mistake. As any experienced ranter can tell you, thinking about it has the unfortunate tendency of turning a good, clean rant into a muddy quagmire of fine points, conditional sentences, and digressions as delicately balanced as a Swiss watch.

You want to flambe the target of your ire, but you find yourself conscience-bound to admit: maybe your target has a point. Such was the case last week when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law legalizing self-driving cars in the Golden State. Cali joins Nevada in allowing Google and other manufacturers to test "autonomous" cars on its roads. The law in both states requires that a human driver be onboard to take over in the event of emergency but the cars, which use a combination of sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence to stay between the lines, apparently don't need the help.

If you are a kid -- "kid" herein being defined as anyone younger than 35 who uses the phrase "back in the day" when referring to 1992 -- you're probably wondering what the fuss is. The notion of self-driving cars probably sounds cool to you -- or whatever word your generation uses to mean cool. "Jiggy" ... "da bomb" ... "fo' shizzle" ...whatever.

If you are a grown-up -- "grown-up" herein being defined as someone older than 35 who has begun to look with faintly homicidal malice at those kids who insist upon traipsing across your lawn -- you understand quite well what the fuss is. Bad enough you now use a computer to order a pizza, and you have to interface with a machine to buy your groceries, pay your parking or communicate with your own kids. Bad enough you have to press one for English, then press two for the service department, then press three if you are over 6 feet tall, then press four if you are left-handed, then press five and hop on one foot if your favorite color is red, then listen to 15 minutes of Kenny G before you are allowed to speak with another human being. Now the machines will drive our cars, too?

When "The Terminator" came out in 1984, it postulated an apocalyptic future wherein machines had risen against us. Having arrived in that future, we now know better. The machines won't kill us. But they are removing us from the equation.

Anybody remember a little thing called the human touch? Me neither.

That was going to be the basis of the aforementioned rant. Then I made the aforementioned mistake.

Its backers say autonomous cars will reduce traffic jams because they will communicate with one another to use the highways more efficiently. Because they will spend less time in gridlock, they will lessen the emission of harmful pollutants. And, they will give greater personal mobility to those who, because of disability or age, cannot drive.

Perhaps you envision a scenario where there is a software error and a car full of nuns plows into a busload of orphans while a computer screen is showing an hourglass icon.

But even if that happened once a month, it would still fall far short of the more than 32,000 traffic fatalities compiled each year by texting, intoxicated, radio-changing, sleep-deprived, make-up applying, cellphone-chattering, chin-shaving human beings. And it won't happen once a month.

Google tells CNN its cars have racked up 300,000 miles with only one accident. And that happened with a human driver in control.

This is where my rant went south. How do you rant against fewer traffic jams, greater mobility, less pollution and more safety?

Now I'm too depressed to rant, too depressed to do anything except contemplate my -- our -- looming obsolescence. Of course, there is one bright spot in all of this. They haven't come up with a machine that can write a whiny newspaper column.

Yet.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist

for the Miami Herald.

lpitts@miamiherald.com

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