Andreas Knie, March 25, 2021
In the sixth edition of REBALANCE talks, we spoke with Andreas Knie, political scientist and expert in the field of innovative technologies and mobility. Knie led us to think deeper about the possibilities and advantages of forthcoming disruptive technologies, such as the autonomous car. He spoke about important ethical questions concerning the rights and responsibilities of machines, what role they should play in our lives, and to what extent we should give up personal autonomy in favor of, for example, safety.
He provided his thoughts on where to draw the line – if there is one – respecting transhumanism and the future of innovative technologies. In addition to innovative technologies and ethics, he discussed the importance of speed in transportation policy. In our discussion with Knie, it also became clear our policies are directly determined by the values we hold. As we continue in the coming weeks talking to experts in various fields, we will continue to understand the complexity of transport and mobility in terms of a wide variety of viewpoints.
In his discussion of autonomous cars and their place in the future of mobility and public transportation, Knie was adamant about the potential they hold in terms of efficiency, sustainability and safety. First, he expressed his concern for the continued ownership of cars. He explained that besides the car, there are very few instances where you can bring a private belonging into a public space. He illustrated that, for example, it is not legal to put your own personal chair or table in a public space, however, a car is allowed to take up a lot of public space for a relatively inexpensive price. For Knie, until it is prohibited to park your car on the street, cars will remain the dominant way of transportation.
If we transitioned to autonomous driving cars, we could both; reduce the amount of cars and increase efficiency and safety.
In contrast to the classic car culture we have experienced up until now, Knie explains that if we transitioned to autonomous driving cars, we could both; reduce the amount of cars and increase efficiency and safety. Knie explained that the goal of efficient public transportation (or the transportation of goods) is to collect things. The more efficient the collecting tool, the more efficient we will be in our methods of transportation. For example, when asked about the possibility of Amazon drones dropping individual packages at people’s homes in the future, Knie replied that this is an unlikely reality for the future because it would cause a lot of air traffic and is not an effective way to “move freight,” as it does a poor job of collecting goods. For this reason, he sees autonomous cars as a beneficial service because people will be picked up and dropped off at their destinations much like various car sharing “pooling” services that already exist. The only difference is that autonomous cars would be run by a system and therefore act more according to the rules of the road, ensuring, as formerly stated, greater efficiency (reduced congestion) and greater safety than a human.
When asked about how we should deal with important ethical questions that appear in debates over the rights and responsibilities of electronic beings, Knie highlighted the fact that, “the quality of the performance is much safer and more sustainable and we will have a system that is responsible.” He said that cars are very dangerous and while humans don’t respect the rules, an autonomous car will always respect the rules. He went on to provide a hypothetical scenario that an autonomous car may be faced with like: “Do I kill the baby and save the grandmother?” Knie explained that this ethical dilemma would cease to be problematic because the system would not need to make a decision – “the system would not have to choose, the machine would just stop.”
If we let machines do things that they can do better than the human, in a way, it allows us to experience more fully what it means “to be human.”
For Knie, the moral questions attached to the use of artificial intelligence are generally unnecessary because of three main reasons. First, he pointed out that we are already letting machines do many services for us that we have accepted, machines are already ingrained in our everyday lives. For example, he said, “machines bring water into our homes but we don’t question their presence in our lives.” Second, he stressed “there are things that machines do better than humans and therefore, we should let them do it.” For Knie, better is seen in the sense of efficiency and/or safety. Our understanding of better may require a clearer definition as debates over the use of autonomous cars and machines in the future. Lastly, he stressed that there is a marked difference between the world of machines and the human world and human sense of reality. He stressed, “Life is life and machines are machines.” Furthermore, when asked, “How do you feel that a robot is driving you,” he replied by saying, “the world is already full of robots but they are hidden.”
Knie was then asked about transhumanism. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to increase life expectancy, improve emotions and enhance cognitive abilities using sophisticated technologies. Transhumanism is, for example, heavily debated in medicine. Questions such as, ‘can I accept death?’, ‘should we let medicine continue endlessly on its path to elongate human life?’ and ‘in medicine, can we accept death?’ To these questions, Knie made a marked distinction between life and machines. He said, “Life is life and machines are machines.” For Knie, this is an important distinction because he believes that increasing the use of artificial intelligence or “machines” does not equate to reducing any part of the human experience. In fact, Knie argued the opposite. He asserted that if we let machines do things that they can do better than the human, in a way, it allows us to experience more fully what it means “to be human.”
Knie addressed not only how we may move in the future, but also how fast we may move in the future. In his response to the importance of speed in transport policy, Knie stated that the philosophy of wanting to go from point A to point B as fast as possible will not change. He also brought up how speed is desirable based on one’s range of options. For example, he said that for a lower income family, where their range of options is more narrow, speed will certainly remain relevant in terms of public transport and mobility. However, for middle class or wealthy income families, where one’s range of options may be more broad, speed may not be seen as a significant value. Above all, however, for Knie, flying – a choice clearly made out of a desire for speed – should be considered in terms of sustainability, rather than an alternative transportation option favoring speed. He stated that we need to “change the expectation of using airplanes: using flight is to forget anything about climate change. If you want to rescue the climate you can’t fly anymore.” Therefore, for Knie, speed and the use of different technologies has roots in both climate change, (sustainability) and socioeconomic class (those with a smaller range of options may indeed want to go faster).
Policy is deeply affected by values we hold or the lens through which we see the problem and the solution. Is it possible to achieve all goals at once or must we refine our values to understand better where to place our attention? With the self-driving car which rights are we trading? Human autonomy over safety? Individual liberty versus the good of the whole?
In our discussion with Knie, it became clear that policy is deeply affected by values we hold or the lens through which we see the problem and the solution. For example, what is the most important issue to tackle? Perhaps the idea is not, re-imagine the car, but rather get rid of it completely? Sustainability, social equality, economic prosperity, physical health, or safety? How can these different problems be solved without interfering with the other? For example, how can we create a sustainable city that also caters to the poor and allows for economic growth? Is it possible to achieve all goals at once or must we refine our values to understand better where to place our attention? If our main goal is safety and reducing climate change, the autonomous car should be implemented immediately and nobody should fly a plane again.Trading certain rights for others: as we saw during the pandemic, safety and public health was placed above personal mobility and the economy. With the self-driving car which rights are we trading? Human autonomy over safety? Individual liberty versus the good of the whole?
Cited at the beginning of the conversation was BMW’s tagline, “Do you like driving?”, to show that driving is not just something we do out of utility but it also has meaning in and of itself: driving means self-control, driving means freedom, driving means a high degree of personal mobility. If freedom and individual choice is what we value, perhaps cars are here to stay. As we continue interviewing experts across a variety of disciplines we hope to have a clearer picture of what are the core values of today.
At the end of the talk an important question was raised. We were invited to ask ourselves, amongst all of the innovative technologies that are being created and introduced into our daily lives, do we have a fundamental human right to “opt-out?”
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Prof. Dr. Andreas Knie is a political scientist at the Science Center Berlin for Social Research, and professor at the Technical University Berlin. Head of the Research Group: Digital Mobility and Social Differentiation Research fields: Transport Research, Technology Policy, Science Policy & Innovation Research