My word: Keep your eyes on the road

What the country needs now from its leaders is responsible hands on the steering wheel.

Dizengoff St. traffic (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Dizengoff St. traffic
I’ve been thinking a lot about artificial intelligence lately. It’s not because the non-artificial type seems to be sorely lacking – or at least not only because of that. The trigger was an article reprinted in The Jerusalem Post this week courtesy of San Jose Mercury News/TNS under the headline: “For Google’s self-driving cars, learning to deal with the bizarre is essential.”
Writing about the testing stage, Steve Johnson notes: “One of the most surprising lessons: While hoping to make cars that are safer than those driven by people, Google has discovered its smart machines need to act a little human, especially when dealing with pushy motorists.
“‘We found that we actually need to be – not aggressive – but assertive’ with the vehicles, said Nathaniel Fairfield, technical leader of a team that writes software fixes for problems uncovered during the driving tests.
‘If you’re always yielding and conservative, basically everybody will just stomp on you all day.’” There seems to be a message in there. Welcome to the real world.
The self-driving vehicles are apparently perplexed by the hazards that pop up on the road and tend to err on the side of caution and come to a complete halt.
Perhaps it was my mood, influenced by the sections of the paper that I had read before reaching the foreign features, but Google’s artificially passive cars seemed to prove a philosophical point, however uncomfortable: Being slightly pushy is not a failing but a necessity.
The car tests show that artificial intelligence is just that: artificial. The cars lack street smarts.
Johnson notes a study which concludes that it will be hard to create software “smart enough to know that a ball bouncing into the street might mean a child could come chasing after it.”
Another lesson in life, if you like. It brought to mind the slogan of one of the cleverest road safety campaigns that ever ran in Israel: “On the road, don’t be right, be smart.” It is a favorite motto of mine along with “Pick your battles.”
I get the feeling that too many of the country’s politicians – both Left and Right – are being driven by their fears and failing to do the smart thing.
Like the self-driving car, they either fail to see the broader picture of what could happen next – that the kid will probably bounce out into the road after the escaping ball – or are so paralyzed by the perceived threats that they come to a bumpy halt, getting nowhere and creating a new hazard for the cars behind. They seem to act automatically, eyes closed, without thinking.
The result has been a series of self-defeating political gestures, some more worrying than others.
The government, for example, is resending the Israeli ambassador back to Sweden, after a break protesting the Swedish move to recognize a Palestinian state. To make a point, the envoy is being sent back on November 29. It’s unlikely the Swedish Foreign Ministry and government will get it. The date, marking the 1947 UN Partition Plan, might be ripe with symbolism in this particular part of the Middle East, but it lacks the same significance in Scandinavia.
Still, if it makes someone feel better (and the envoy avoids creating another local crisis by traveling on Shabbat), it’s a fairly harmless gesture.
I wish I could say the same for the other topics in the news. The so-called “Jewish state” bill is driving me mad.
I’m among those who wonders “who needs it?” and even more “who needs it now?” Not everything has to be anchored in law. As many have noted before me, the surest way to get secular Jewish Israelis to drive on Yom Kippur would be to legislate against it. As long as the ban on driving is by custom rather than law, it is respected.
A country which comes to a halt on Yom Kippur does not need another law marking its peculiarly Jewish characteristics. And the one Jewish state – the only country in the world to suffer from anti-Semitism – does not need to hand ammunition to its enemies. The bill is a gift for those who love to portray Israel as an apartheid state, facts be damned.
Incidentally, I was told this week by someone who counts these things that the UN Partition Plan mentions the phrase “Jewish state” 29 times.
The date itself is known locally by the extraordinary combination of Hebrew and English as “Kaf tet be’november.”
This bill is the equivalent of a road safety hazard, creating a new issue to argue over. If Benjamin Netanyahu did not insist on Yasser Arafat recognizing Israel as the Jewish state before the withdrawal from Hebron during his first term as prime minister, it seems strange that he should turn it into a central stumbling block with Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas.
And if you can’t trust your supposed “peace partners” then it doesn’t really matter what you call each other in public.
Jerusalem Post diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon this week wrote an interesting analysis on the self-perpetuating story of the crisis in US-Israel relations, putting the State Department’s spokesman’s comments on the “Jewish state” bill in context (as answers to a series of questions). Keinon concludes, correctly in my opinion, that the context goes to show that this is not another stage in a diplomatic crisis.
My concern, however, is that Netanyahu’s insistence on the bill has turned it into a new controversy. Why was the topic considered interesting enough to raise in the first place? That the reporter persists in asking “That means that every person should have a vote, not just Jewish people?” shows not only a lack of knowledge of what the bill is proposing but also the dangerous trend to believe anything bad of Israel.
But spare me the chorus of the self-righteous Left: I don’t think any legislation has so threatened the country’s democratic nature in recent years as the “Israel Hayom” bill, tailor-made by the prime minister’s political enemies to ban the free distribution of the daily paper most supportive of Netanyahu.
The news this week was not all gloomy, however. Just as I was wondering if the government didn’t have anything better to worry about, I came across an intelligent decision that is good news for nighttime drivers.
Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely, no stranger to controversy, unveiled an initiative which would allow drivers on interurban routes to buy a cup of coffee for just NIS 1 at the convenience stores of several gas station chains between midnight and 6 a.m. The program, in conjunction with the National Road Safety Authority, is aimed at keeping oh-so-human drivers awake and alert while they’re on the road.
I was also cheered by the news of the release of Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick from hospital following his survival of an assassination attempt. Although the road to full recovery is still long, the return home less than a month after being left for dead verges on the miraculous.
While you can argue whether it is wise or not (or even acceptable under Jewish law) for Glick to insist on the right to ascend the Temple Mount, only extremists (on any side) would argue that it should cost him his life.
Glick’s insistence that it is the right of all – Jews, Christians and Muslims – to pray at the site where the First and Second Temples once stood is hard to contradict in the name of democracy.
In a press conference before his release from Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Glick, always more moderate than his media image, said: “Anybody who shoots and kills someone in the name of his religion is the first person disgracing his religion.
Those who are giving respect to Islam are those Muslim doctors and nurses who work at this hospital [by] helping people after they have signed the Hippocratic Oath.”
What the country needs now from its leaders is responsible hands on the steering wheel. Someone who cares for the kids in the back chorusing “Are we there yet?” but doesn’t speed up just to satisfy them. Someone who is prepared to be smart and yield when necessary, even if they technically have right of way, but is assertive enough not to get stuck at the traffic circle. We don’t need anyone on auto-pilot, whose pre-programmed route is constantly being recalculated for them. No one drunk with power is safe behind the wheel. We need a leader who can think independently and drive intelligently.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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