Uber's Death Car and the Cracks in Liberal Culture

Video of Uber's self-driving car killing Elaine Herzberg is available on YouTube. It will--or at least should--produce shock waves in the culture. The Silicon Valley cult of Artificial Intelligence (AI) -- and the related cult of brain science -- is a main source of today's cultural despair. If the brain is merely a machine that white-coated lab techs can measure and manipulate like any other machine, and if machines can be programmed to emulate the human brain, then human existence has no purpose. Our destiny is fixed in the same way that the paths of the planets and the orbits of electrons are fixed, and our free will, moral responsibility, devotion to the past and regard for the future are the random effluvia of a deterministic process.

If that is the case, then it doesn't matter what we do. We can pursue whatever pleasures or perversions strike our fancy at the moment, because nothing really matters. We are alone in a hostile universe and find our humanity, if such a thing there be, in arbitrary acts of self-assertion. The highest virtue is to define one's own identity, because only the willful assertion of individual particularity answers the emptiness of the universe, and the next-highest virtue is to reinforce other people's arbitrary self-assertion (for example by eliminating offending male-and-female pronouns in order to protect the sensibilities of transgender people).

That's why Hollywood grinds out movie after movie about computers coming to life, programmers falling in love with their avatars, and so forth, starting with Steven Spielberg's ghastly "AI" (2001). The liberal techno-utopians of Silicon Valley believe they are beneficent Dr. Frankensteins, creating the New Man.

And now we have video of the man behind the curtain.

The video shows a woman walking her bicycle across the highway: the Uber car was going at a good clip and coming over a rise. Not quite three seconds pass between the first sight of the pedestrian and impact, enough time for an alert human driver to spin the wheel. The human driver in the car was supposed to correct for machine errors, but the video shows one Rafaela Vasquez a/k/a Rafael Vasquez staring downwards until the moment of the crash. Reports Arizona's 12News:

According to records from the Arizona Department of Corrections, the safety driver sitting in the front seat of a self-driving Uber in Tempe at the time of a fatal pedestrian crash is a convicted felon.

The driver, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, served several years in prison under the name Rafael Vasquez. She was charged with unsworn falsification and attempt to commit armed robbery. She was released from prison in 2005.

The Wizard turns out to be an obese and indifferent minimum-wage employee with a prison record pretending to work while Uber pretends to pay him or her, as the case may be.

Hundreds of billions of dollars of tech valuation hang on the belief that AI can make cars drive themselves, and the industry-sponsored flow of hype has been gargantuan. This has all but drowned out the voices of the skeptics, for example the distinguished physicist and venture capitalist Dr. Henry Kressel. He wrote last year in Asia Times:

In a well-controlled environment (like driving on a track), the computer can be expected to respond to situations consistent with programmed information. The problematic situations are the accidental ones when something happens on the track that requires a quick response different from the programmed actions. This is where the awareness and quick response of a human driver come into play and where the response of a computer making the decisions is quite another matter. And this is the skill that differentiates race-car drivers from the rest of us – and computers from all of us.

Industry experts know that driverless cars are more hype than reality. As I noted earlier this week in Asia Times: "The Information, a consulting organization that showcases industry specialists, recently held a conference call on self-driving where one expert warned: 'You have to remember that self-driving does not work, at least in… a highly functional, driverless robotaxi sense. It does not work. And there are many folks clamoring for architectures to get there. Again, think back to flight. Do you ever watch those YouTube videos where the guy pumping the umbrella and the dude with a big corkscrew and the person with the bird wings? I would think of it more that way. It is left to be seen which one of those architectures gets you to a useful outcome.'"

That is cold comfort to the family of Ms. Herzberg, whose death we can watch in a real-life horror movie. It is probable that improved sensors and communications might be able to prevent this sort of accident in the future; the sort of situations which AI never will master are things like lane changes in traffic in which one driver has to communicate intention to other drivers in order to avoid collisions.

But that is now beside the point. The cultural damage done by the Utopian vision of brain-as-a-machine is enormous, and the skepticism with which the public now must view Artificial Intelligence is a healthy corrective. The vulgar determinism of the brain-as-machine Utopians has worked its way into the broad culture and corrupted institutions that should be expected to offer resistance.

In 2016, for example, Jewish studies professor Alan Mittleman published a book ostensibly on the subject of Jewish philosophy through the Tikvah Fund, a Jewish outreach organization that includes on its board of director such notional conservatives as Bill Kristol. It styles itself conservative, or rather neo-conservative. I reviewed Mittleman's book for the Jewish webzine Tablet, and took him to the woodshed for repeating the same deterministic gobbledegook that we hear from the liberal techno-Utopians. Mittleman had written:

From the neurobiological vantage point, the selves to which we return and freedom of choice they seem to enjoy may well be illusions. But if the self or free will is an illusion, it is a deep and peculiar one. … It might, however, be akin to the illusion of a unified visual field. … If, for the sake of argument, we consider that visual coherence and stability are an illusion, then we might have an analogy to free will as an illusion.

Moral choice, the starting point for the life of religious people, becomes in Mittleman's account a self-consoling illusion. Mittleman's rubbish does not characterize the thinking of all concerned at the Tikvah Fund, but the fact that his book was the top item in Tikvah's front window gauges how pervasive is the influence of techno-Utopian determinism. (Mittleman's view conflicts with the traditional Jewish understanding of free will).

One doesn't have to believe in a personal God to understand why the Utopians are crazy. The great British mathematician Roger Penrose (Stephen Hawking's frequent collaborator) wrote a brilliant book nearly thirty years ago arguing from mathematical fundamentals that computers could never think like humans. Penrose is a philosophical Platonist rather than a religious man, but he founded his argument on the work of the great 20th-century logician Kurt Goedel, whose efforts to rescue human intuition from mathematical formalism arose from a deeply religious impulse. The techno-Utopian claims for Artificial Intelligence are not only morally repugnant but scientifically incompetent (as some of the great religious thinkers of our time understood).

It will take more than the avoidable death of Elaine Herzberg to persuade the public to light their torches and march on the castle of the Frankenstein wannabes. Nonetheless the disaster offers a teachable moment. The liberal obsession with arbitrary self-definition rests on the pseudo-scientific premise that we are the determinate, machine-like outcome of physical processes. Destroy this premise and the whole artifice of liberal thinking will crumble.