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This top scientist offers a solution for the havoc driverless cars may wreak on workers

We sat down with Andrew Ng, chief scientist of Baidu, who is one of the most prominent minds on artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
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Proponents of autonomous vehicles are in a sticky situation. Self-driving technology is expected to have a tremendous impact on public health and reduce the 1.25 million deaths every year on global roads. At the same time, this emerging technology is a threat to the employment of the millions who are paid to sit behind the wheel — from truck drivers to cab drivers and delivery workers.

Baidu chief scientist Andrew Ng, an expert in the world of artificial intelligence, acknowledges the unemployment concerns, but he sees a way forward that offers society the benefits of autonomous vehicles and blunts the negative impact of job losses.

“I feel a strong moral responsibility or obligation to try to make self-driving cars a reality as quickly as possible,” Ng said in a visit to The Washington Post. At Baidu, a Chinese tech company where Ng is developing self-driving technology, the number 3,000 has become a rallying call, representing the number of humans killed every day on roads. For Ng self-driving cars are a prime example of the benefits of what he calls the golden age of artificial intelligence.

But for humans who could lose their jobs in this golden age, governments could offer a solution, Ng says. He is an advocate for basic income, in which governments pay citizens a nominal amount to guarantee a basic standard of living. Several Northern European countries are planning basic income experiments.

“We as a society have an ethical responsibility to help those whose jobs are displaced by this value-creating artificial intelligence,” Ng said. “I think everyone in this country has a right to a livelihood. Everyone has a right to the chance at having a great life.”

Ng suggests a tweak to basic income — paying the unemployed to study online and prepare for a new career.

“We ask you to invest in yourself so as to increase the chance that you can re-enter the workforce if you’re unemployed, and contribute back to the tax base and contribute back more to society in the future,” Ng said.

Ng, who is also the chairman of the online education platform Coursera, believes such digital learning programs are a natural fit for retraining workers because of their low costs. Coursera, which Ng co-founded before joining Baidu, is independent of the tech company.

Such education options could become especially valuable as early as 2018, when Baidu plans to have commercial self-driving cars on the road. Ng envisions launching them in limited areas, such as bus routes, rather than having the cars drive everywhere at once.

In the meantime, Ng believes cities and corporations should team up to make infrastructure changes to prepare for the vehicles. Some intersections may need duplicate traffic lights to aid self-driving cars. And Ng wants construction workers to be given devices that would allow them to easily communicate with self-driving vehicles. (Construction sites are difficult for driverless vehicles to navigate because of their fluid nature.)

Ng wants more standardized environments, which will make it easier for the self-driving vehicles to function across the globe.

“It’s just confusing that some cars [around the world] drive on the left and some on the right,” Ng said. “I prefer driving on the right side.”