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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May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "