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Who is better at the job: Man or machine?

By Jean-Claude Elias - Sep 26,2019 - Last updated at Sep 26,2019

Are self-driving cars safer than manned ones?

The invasion of the cloud and networks, combined with the extraordinary breakthroughs in high-tech, are constantly increasing the number of automated operations of all kinds. This is causing a relaunch of the old debate about whether man or machine are better at the job. There will probably never be a clear cut answer to this question. Moreover, it greatly depends on which job, which exact task are we talking about.

It may possible to classify the tasks in two categories, in a general, rough manner. The first concerns tasks where a failure would cause human casualties or injuries, like driverless cars for example. The second is about all the rest: online computing, payments, banking, shopping, smart-home management, and so forth, where damage because of a system failure would only harm your pocket, cause delays or inconvenience, and where it is always possible to go back and to fix things.

Recent reviews found online about driverless cars are emphasising the fact that they are not only more convenient but and before all safer. In other words the risk that an unmanned car would be in an accident is much, much lower than if a human was driving it. When you analyse all the potential “weaknesses” that would make a person to cause a car accident you cannot but agree.

Some even consider that “driving a car is much too dangerous a task to be left to a person”. In a way it sounds a little bit like the famous line by French statesman Georges Clémenceau who once said: “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.” Both statements sound like blatant contradictions at first sight, but not at second thought!

An impressive and deeply moving medical documentary was broadcast last week on CBC — Radio Canada TV channel. It showed a pioneering technology that uses laser and heat to kill and remove a cancerous brain tumour in a child. It involved no chemical product of any kind, and the cured young boy was able to get up and go home on the very next day following the surgery!

The surgeon explained that it was made possible only thanks to high-tech. First there was the precision of the laser beam, of course, and then the software especially developed for the operation and that would do most of the work by itself by guiding the laser beam, setting the heat point, etc.

He added that the software programme was so complex and difficult to use that the company that designed it would always keep three software engineers with the surgical team, to help them use it properly. This is a typical case where the machine, a system of computers and programming in this very case, are beyond any possible doubt better than man at the job.

Whether in vital or in non-vital cases, there will always be machine failures. We have all seen the tragic consequence of air crashes caused by technical issues. These will sometimes be impossible to predict or even to address, and unfortunately there will also be times when machine or system failures would happen because of human errors, a job poorly done or bad software programming, not to mention extreme cases of intentional hacking or criminal attacks, made by man but through the machines and the systems.

Despite the above, I would trust the machine much more than people, if only in the example of the upcoming driverless cars. At least a self-driving vehicle would never be talking on the phone or texting, would not be particularly nervous and unstable because of a domestic fight at home in the morning, certainly would not be drunk, would be focusing on driving and on driving only, and would perfectly comply with traffic regulations, speed limits and road signs. As for the possible technical failures, they will be fewer, much fewer than human failures.

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