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

Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.