Apr 29th 2017

Self-driving cars should leave us all unsettled. Here’s why.

It is a warm autumn morning, and I am walking through downtown Mountain View, Calif., when I see it. A small vehicle that looks like a cross between a golf cart and a Jetson-esque, bubble-topped spaceship glides to a stop at an intersection. Someone is sitting in the passenger seat, but no one seems to be sitting in the driver seat. How odd, I think. And then I realize I am looking at a Google car. The technology giant is headquartered in Mountain View, and the company is road-testing its diminutive autonomous cars there.

This is my first encounter with a fully autonomous vehicle on a public road in an unstructured setting.

The Google car waits patiently as a pedestrian passes in front of it.  Another car across the intersection signals a left-hand turn, but the Google car has the right of way. The automated vehicle takes the initiative and smoothly accelerates through the intersection. The passenger, I notice, appears preternaturally calm.

I am both amazed and unsettled. I have heard from friends and colleagues that my reaction is not uncommon. A driverless car can challenge many assumptions about human superiority to machines.

Though I live in Silicon Valley, the reality of a driverless car is one of the most startling manifestations of the future unknowns we all face in this age of rapid technology development. Learning to drive is a rite of passage for people in materially rich nations (and becoming so in the rest of the world): a symbol of freedom, of power, and of the agency of adulthood, a parable of how brains can overcome physical limitations to expand the boundaries of what is physically possible. The act of driving a car is one that, until very recently, seemed a problem only the human brain could solve.

Driving is a combination of continuous mental risk assessment, sensory awareness, and judgment, all adapting to extremely variable surrounding conditions. Not long ago, the task seemed too complicated for robots to handle. Now, robots can drive with greater skill than humans — at least on the highways. Soon the public conversation will be about whether humans should be allowed to take control of the wheel at all.

This paradigm shift will not be without costs or controversies. For sure, widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles will eliminate the jobs of the millions of Americans whose living comes of driving cars, trucks, and buses (and eventually all those who pilot planes and ships). We will begin sharing our cars, in a logical extension of Uber and Lyft. But how will we handle the inevitable software faults that result in human casualties? And how will we program the machines to make the right decisions when faced with impossible choices — such as whether an autonomous car should drive off a cliff to spare a busload of children at the cost of killing the car’s human passenger?

I was surprised, upon my first sight of a Google car on the street, at how mixed my emotions were. I’ve come to realize that this emotional admixture reflects the countercurrents that the bow waves of these technologies are rocking all of us with: trends toward efficiency, instantaneity, networking, accessibility, and multiple simultaneous media streams, with consequences that include unemployment, cognitive and social inadequacy, isolation, distraction, and cognitive and emotional overload.

Once, technology was a discrete business dominated by business systems and some cool gadgets. Slowly but surely, though, it crept into more corners of our lives. Today, that creep has become a headlong rush. Technology is taking over everything: every part of our lives, every part of society, every waking moment of every day. Increasingly pervasive data networks and connected devices are enabling rapid communication and processing of information, ushering in unprecedented shifts — in everything from biology, energy and media to politics, food and transportation — that are redefining our future. Naturally we’re uneasy; we should be. The majority of us, and our environment, may receive only the backlash of technologies chiefly designed to benefit a few. We need to feel a sense of control over our own lives; and that necessitates actually having some.

The perfect metaphor for this uneasy feeling is the Google car. We welcome a better future, but we worry about the loss of control, of pieces of our identity, and most importantly of freedom. What are we yielding to technology? How can we decide whether technological innovation that alters our lives is worth the sacrifice?

The noted science-fiction writer William Gibson, a favorite of hackers and techies, said in a 1999 radio interview (though apparently not for the first time): “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Nearly two decades later — though the potential now exists for most of us, including the very poor, to participate in informed decision-making as to its distribution and even as to bans on use of certain technologies — Gibson’s observation remains valid.

I make my living thinking about the future and discussing it with others, and am privileged to live in what to most is the future. I drive an amazing Tesla Model S electric vehicle. My house, in Menlo Park, close to Stanford University, is a “passive” home that extracts virtually no electricity from the grid and expends minimal energy on heating or cooling. My iPhone is cradled with electronic sensors that I can place against my chest to generate a detailed electrocardiogram to send to my doctors, from anywhere on Earth.

Many of the entrepreneurs and researchers I talk with about breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology are building a better future at a breakneck pace. One team built a fully functional surgical-glove prototype to deliver tactile guidance for doctors during examinations — in three weeks. Another team’s visualization software, which can tell farmers the health of their crops using images from off-the-shelf drone-flying video cameras, took four weeks to build.

The distant future, then, is no longer distant. Rather, the institutions we expect to gauge and perhaps forestall new technologies’ hazards, to distribute their benefits, and to help us understand and incorporate them are drowning in a sea of change as the pace of technological change outstrips them.

The shifts and the resulting massive ripple effects will, if we choose to let them, change the way in which we live, how long we live for, and the very nature of being human. Even if my futuristic life sounds unreal, its current state is something we may laugh at within a decade as a primitive existence — because our technologists now have the tools to enable the greatest alteration of our experience of life since the dawn of humankind. As in all other manifest shifts — from the use of fire to the rise of agriculture and the development of sailing vessels, internal-combustion engines, and computing — this one will arise from breathtaking advances in technology. It is far larger, though, is happening far faster, and may be far more stressful to those living through this new epoch. Inability to understand it will make our lives and the world seem even more out of control.

A broad range of technologies are now advancing at an exponential pace, everything from artificial intelligence to genomics to robotics and synthetic biology. They are making amazing and scary things possible — at the same time. Broadly speaking, we will, jointly, choose one of two possible futures.  The first is a utopian “Star Trek” future in which our wants and needs are met, in which we focus our lives on the attainment of knowledge and betterment of mankind. The other is a “Mad Max” dystopia: a frightening and alienating future, in which civilization destroys itself.

These are both worlds of science fiction created by Hollywood, but either could come true. We are already capable of creating a world of tricorders, replicators, remarkable transportation technologies, general wellness and an abundance of food, water and energy. On the other hand, we are capable too now of ushering in a jobless economy; the end of all privacy; invasive medical-record keeping; eugenics; and an ever worsening spiral of economic inequality: conditions that could create an unstable, Orwellian or violent future that might undermine the very technology-driven progress that we so eagerly anticipate. And we know that it is possible to inadvertently unwind civilization’s progress. It is precisely what Europe did when, after the Roman Empire, humanity slid into the Dark Ages, a period during which significant chunks of knowledge and technology that the Romans had hard won through trial and error disappeared from the face of the Earth. To unwind our own civilization’s amazing progress will require merely cataclysmic instability.

It is the choices we all make which will determine the outcome. Technology will surely create upheaval and destroy industries and jobs. It will change our lives for better and for worse simultaneously. But we can reach “Star Trek” if we can share the prosperity we are creating and soften its negative impacts; ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks; and gain greater autonomy rather than becoming dependent on technology.

The oldest technology of all is probably fire, even older than the stone tools that our ancestors invented. It could cook meat and provide warmth; and it could burn down forests. Every technology since this has had the same bright and dark sides. Technology is a tool; it is how we use it that makes it good or bad. There is a continuum limited only by the choices we make jointly. And all of us have a role in deciding where the lines should be drawn.

This is an excerpt from my new book, “The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.”

The post Self-driving cars should leave us all unsettled. Here’s why. appeared first on Vivek Wadhwa.




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More Essays

Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."