Today in Slate

Robots Helping People … Supposedly

The cars are for real; the “ouija board” tools are not.

The driverless Audi Q5 sport-utility vehicle at the Waldorf Astoria following the car’s return from a cross-country trip, a first for a driverless vehicle, on April 2, 2015 in New York City.  

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Self-driving cars seem like science fiction, but they’re shockingly close to reality. Facilitated communication is “implemented” in the real world, even though it is fiction.

Human drivers are more dangerous than self-driving cars.

In the future, we won’t drive cars—the cars will drive us. It sounds like a bad movie tagline, but it’s true. And there’s a twist: The cars will be better drivers than we are. They’re already pretty good. Will Oremus bravely took a Tesla Autopilot for a spin, and the car nearly careened into a concrete barrier. (The Tesla spokeswoman riding shotgun insisted the car would not have crashed.) But this kind of, um, excitement is the exception for now, not the norm. More worrisome than robot malfunction is that the cars can be so safe and require such little human intervention that they can be unexpectedly boring to ride. Tesla’s self-driving car, for instance, requires its drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and stay attentive in case the car, you know, approaches a concrete wall. But if you’re just watching the car do its thing without steering, your mind becomes more likely to wander than if you’re actively controlling it. This machine-person partnership might also give drunk drivers a false sense of security about getting behind a wheel. And this gets at self-driving cars’ biggest danger: us. For this reason, some prototypes disallow the possibility of human interference entirely. Down the proverbial road, how Tesla, Google, and other self-driving–carmakers respond to the human threat will determine how we all get around.

Self-driving car science is for real; facilitated communication technology is not.

For a breakdown on what FC is, David Auerbach explains it better than I ever could hope to:

Facilitated communication claims to give a voice to noncommunicative disabled people. A facilitator physically supports a disabled person to assist him in communicating through a keyboard or other device. FC has been repeatedly documented to produce the ideomotor effect, or “ouija board” effect, in which a person unconsciously influences his or her own motor behavior, in this case guiding a disabled person’s hand as a consequence … In these cases, the facilitator speaks “through” the FC user, believing or pretending that the disabled person is communicating, while in fact presenting the facilitator’s own words.

The problem, Auerbach explains, is that FC is a pseudoscience that has been thoroughly debunked, and worse, exploited by some practitioners to sexually abuse the disabled. This is particularly scary because FC’s faithful are starting to implement it in public schools, universities, and even the Department of Education. It’s an important, dangerous trend that deserves more attention and deserves to be stopped.

Things that have already stopped and others that might never end.

Robo boogie,
Seth Maxon
Home page editor for nights and weekends