An interesting law suit has developed of late between the electric car maker Tesla and a Korean man who bought one. That’s because Tesla offers a self-driving mode where the car is supposed to recognize walls and park itself. The plaintiff was inside his car when it drove through the garage wall, destroyed several structural posts and ended up partway into his living room. The car did a lot of damage and the owner wants Tesla to pay. It seems like an obvious case the judge shouldn’t even have to think about much.
It will be a simple case. But Tesla won’t be paying any money because there’s a wrinkle. Every Tesla has an internal log, kind of like a black box. When Tesla looked at the car’s log, the accident had nothing to do with fancy, self-driving technology at all. The owner apparently floored the accelerator and the powerful car dutifully responded. In terms of technology, it was no different than flooring a ’95 Honda Accord at the wrong time. The owner argues (implausibly) that the self-driving feature should have intervened. Such a fancy car, he thinks, should recognize his mistake and stop it from happening. Tesla’s answer is that the driver is always ultimately in charge.
All kinds of quasi-philosophical questions follow. In the age of intelligent machines, we might have to be more honest.* It’s easy to look at a destroyed car, a demolished house, a traumatized family and blame the machine. After all, it can’t give its viewpoint or make its case in court. Except now it can. The black box tells you what buttons you pressed and what you did. Machines are more honest than people. End of lawsuit.
Or since they seem more honest, should the machines start covering for our mistakes? As we increasingly interact with intelligent machines, will they be responsible to make up for our failures? Or will we still want to be in charge? To whatever extent they are responsible, we cede our control. We can’t both be the ones determining what happens and point to the machines when things go wrong.
But the basic human realities go back to our very earliest mistakes. It wasn’t Adam’s fault; it was the woman. Except it wasn’t her fault; it was the snake. We’ve progressed since then. Now it’s the machines we made.
What if this is a metaphor for our autonomy in general? We humans like to talk about human ingenuity as our own greatest hope. We’re confident that if we work together we can solve society’s worst problems. We’ll even pretend that we can deliver the planet. But we’d also like to keep the argument in our back pocket that when things go badly wrong God should have done something. If it turns out well, we’ll take the credit; if something gets destroyed, it’s His fault. But we can’t have it both ways. You can’t be the master of your own fate and blame God when you don’t like the results.
Especially since He hasn’t kept us in the dark about any of it. He has told us what is good. Wisdom cries in the streets. The word is not far from us. Anyone who thirsts can come to the waters. In short, God has told us how life works. He has given us guidelines, rules, and directions. If we chose to go our own way, life will get messy and for most people it does. A society that together agrees to “break His bands asunder” will reap the fruits of that choice and every society so far has. A wrecked car, wrecked house and traumatized family are insufficient symbols for the destructive forces unleashed by our autonomous choices.
There’s a positive side to all of this. The machine that did such incredible damage is a powerful and beautiful machine when used correctly. In fact, it is even capable of acting on its own and making decisions. Again, the analogies call out. Sinners that we are, God made us in His image. Humans that humbly turn to Him and live according to His intentions experience a taste of how life is supposed to work. More importantly, He has promised to restore all things, abolishing sin and the curse so that all who are in Jesus will fully experience life as it was always supposed to be.
As for the owner of the wrecked Tesla, the truth is fairly obvious and the outcome probably will be also. So will be the outcome at the end of time. There will be no excuses. But for all who openly confess their failures and turn in faith, there will be great joy. Pure, unalloyed joy.
“Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
* Yes, Alexa has already been subpoenaed in a course case. If she could give transcripts of all past conversations, husbands around the world might finally be able to keep up with their wives’ incredible memories for past discussions. In which case, of course, the wives would always be proven right.