26 November 2020
26 November 2020
We only notice that a new form of technology has conquered the world once it has become an indispensable part of our everyday lives. The smartphone, for example, became an ordinary part of our lives at astonishing speed. But don't we find ourselves wishing we could just put it down now and then? Doctors and scientists are increasingly issuing warnings about the potential for addiction among young people. This is the unpleasant side of an innovation that has by and large enhanced our lives.
Can we learn from this and many other comparable examples? When we are developing new forms of technology, can we identify possible negative effects as well as the benefits so that they can be eliminated in the long term? Yes, says Elizabeth Hofvenschiöld, futurist at Daimler AG, who is responsible for dealing with the social and ethical questions raised by new technology.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the main areas of her work. At Daimler AG, this technology is used for all kinds of applications in areas ranging from manufacturing to the final product, from distribution to the legal department. In future, automated driving will be the most important use at the product level, explains the researcher, and with it, a technology that can make everyday mobility more convenient anywhere in the world, significantly increase traffic safety in general, and minimise the risk of accidents. Automated driving holds enormous potential. However, it will take some time before vehicles are able to transport us without our intervention. Hofvenschiöld sees this as a great opportunity: “We can eliminate the undesirable potential consequences of disruptive technologies like these during the development phase.”
In concrete terms, this means that critical questions are not only justified but also essential if engineers and developers are to be sensitised to the need to adapt technology such as automated driving – which would not be possible without AI – to human habits as seamlessly as possible. And also to build confidence in passengers and other road users. Only when we have accepted this technology as a part of our everyday lives will we be able to exploit its potential in full and make our mobility safer, more efficient and more convenient.
An automated vehicle has to be guaranteed to drive at least as safely in traffic as a human and to brake reliably at pedestrian crossings, even if somebody crosses the road without paying attention.
In situations like these, it is essential that the automated vehicle recognises people if it is to function without a hitch. For the developers, making sure of this is a highly complex task. AI also demands a capacity for abstract thinking from us humans. As its name indicates, once it is fed the right data, AI learns to function largely independently. This makes it so valuable, yet it also takes some getting used to.
Transparency and responsibility
We cannot imagine the breathtaking quantity of data that self-learning algorithms can analyse in a matter of seconds. Data handling requires a number of clear, understandable rules. These do, in fact, already exist: where the data comes from, which options users have to influence the distribution of data, and also the ways in which companies can collect this data – all this is regulated by law. However, these rules must also be communicated transparently.
“It is important that we also teach the technology human qualities such as mindfulness and inclusiveness at the development stage to ensure that different groups of people are treated fairly and equally,” says Hofvenschiöld. Daimler AG is accordingly the first automobile corporation to adopt four principles for the use of artificial intelligence. These are: 1. Responsible use, 2. Explainability, 3. Protection of privacy, and 4. Safety and reliability. In other words: to develop a form of technology as transparently as possible that will make our lives better. Maximum safety is one of the key brand values of Daimler AG. This is clearly reflected in Vision Zero, an initiative that is pursuing the vision of accident-free driving – something that would be inconceivable without automated driving and AI.
Technology and empathy
Alexander Mankowsky also engages with the ethical questions raised by automated driving. The futurist and his colleagues at Mercedes-Benz are working on ways to enable automated vehicles to communicate efficiently with road users.
The “cooperative vehicle” is a taste of what could lie ahead. Lighting elements have been installed on the roof of a converted S-Class which emit signals telling road users that the vehicle is in automated driving mode. Slow flashes indicate that the vehicle is braking, fast ones that it is about to set off. People should be able to recognise these signals intuitively. The idea is to create a kind of informed trust between automated vehicles and human road users, explains Mankowsky.
In January, with the Vision AVTR, Mercedes-Benz offered a view of a distant future. The vehicle study is based on this idea of a cooperative vehicle: “Vehicles have to learn some degree of feeling, since we, too, are more likely to be guided by feelings than by rational thought,” says the futurist.
There is still a long way to go until we can “merge” with our automated vehicles in the way imagined by the creators of the Vision AVTR. Until then, engineers will continue working to make sure that AI can take the measure of us humans as precisely as possible.
Reconciling the logic of algorithms with human thinking is one of the tasks of Alexander Mankowsky, Elizabeth Hofvenschiöld and many others at Mercedes-Benz. “It’s about creating a balance between innovation and responsibility. If this happens consistently, we can change the world for the better in the long term,” says Hofvenschiöld. The goal: a future in which technologies have learned to act responsibly, and in which a basic human need is met – the feeling of safety.
By Hendrik Lakeberg