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The futurist: Can a driverless car win the Indy 500?

Thomas Frey //September 24, 2013//

The futurist: Can a driverless car win the Indy 500?

Thomas Frey //September 24, 2013//

In 1997, IBM staged a history-making competition between World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov and their own chess-playing computer, Deep Blue.

Fourteen years later, IBM staged a similar competition pitting their more human-like computer, Watson, against the two top Jeopardy players of all times, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

The tally for these two major competitions stands at Computers–2, Humans-0.

To my way of thinking, the next logical competition should be to pit a self-driving computer against the world’s best race car drivers. It may not be the actual Indianapolis 500, but rather a staged competition, maybe Google or Tesla Vs. some top Nascar car drivers.

Is this a contest that will happen in the next five years?

The answer has many moving parts and far more at stake than simply winning or losing. So open the door and climb in. Let’s take a journey into our driverless future and see what really makes sense.

The Value of Competitions

Prizes have been used throughout history to spur innovation, with one of the more notable examples being the 1714 prize offered by the British Parliament for reducing shipwrecks by creating a precise method for determining a ship’s longitude. This resulted in John Harrison’s invention of the chronometer.

Much later, in 1919, Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, announced a $25,000 prize for the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. Eight years later, Charles Lindbergh won that prize, opening the door to transoceanic air travel.

However, competitions like these seemed resigned to the history books until Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize Foundation, revived the concept in 1996 by launching the Ansari X Prize, a space competition with a $10 million prize for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The prize was won on Oct. 4, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch, by Tier One. The spacecraft, dubbed SpaceShipOne, was designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

With the X-Prize Foundation’s headline-making success story, prizes were reborn as a powerful new tool for science and industry, and tens of thousands of new competitions came out of the woodwork vying for the public’s attention.

Wealthy philanthropists began to consider competitions as a more effective way of leveraging their donations, which has given rise to a new branch of the contest space, “prize philanthropy.”

An example of this is the recent “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences” established by tech giants Yuri Milner, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojciciki and Mark Zuckerburg. This newly created philanthropic prize was been awarded to 11 scientists doing innovative research. At $3 million for each scientist, the award is more than twice the amount of each Nobel Prize.

Polling the Experts

As a way of researching this topic, I posed the question to four of my fellow futurists and got some insightful perspectives on what effect a competition like this would have both on the sport of auto racing as well as the changing state of the human condition.

1.) Kenneth W. Harris is the Chairman of The Consilience Group and Managing Editor–

According to Ken, “an automatic car race against a car driven by a NASCAR driver could happen in the next 5 years. I think the technology is already available or soon will be.

I see three issues:

  • Will there be sufficient logistical and financial support to make it happen?
  • Will NASCAR or Formula One want it to happen? It could be so upsetting to their sport that they will try to discourage it?
  • Will the auto manufacturers support it as a promotion to show that their street-legal, self-driving cars are safe and fully capable?

Sports TV is a huge moneymaker and the TV networks are always in the market for new sports content that one or more of them might promote such an event or series of events.”

2.) Paul Graham Raven is a freelance writer and academic researcher with the University of Sheffield’s Pennine Water Group. Paul has a fascinating way of getting to the heart of the matter:

“It says a lot about the changing state of certain technologies, but as regards the changing state of humanity, it tells us everything and nothing at once.

First things first: this is not a harbinger of imminent techno-transcendence. Driving a car, much like piloting a plane — which computers have been doing almost flawlessly for decades, now, to the extent that most pilots are paid very generously to act as a back-up should the automatic pilot malfunction — is not a suitable yardstick for the successful modeling of human-like cognition; on the contrary, the interesting thing about both tasks is how much better suited they are to a bespoke control system than to the easily-distracted emergent system that is human consciousness. Ditto Deep Blue and Watson.

… human attention being automated out of a commonplace machine-operation task by the deployment of networked IT — is so paradigmatic to be banal. So it says nothing new about the techno-economic dimension of the state of humanity… but in doing so it underscores our inability to see the diminishing forest for the neatly-sawn logs we’ve made of the trees.

An all-robot race would, I imagine, rapidly become even more over-optimized than the human contests already are, to the extent that circumstance and “luck” would be the only determining factors of victory. Few would bother watching those races.”