Medium 9781626569737

The Driver in the Driverless Car

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A computer beats the reigning human champion of Go, a game harder than chess. Another is composing classical music. Labs are creating life-forms from synthetic DNA. A doctor designs an artificial trachea, uses a 3D printer to produce it, and implants it and saves a child's life.

Astonishing technological advances like these are arriving in increasing numbers. Scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa uses this book to alert us to dozens of them and raise important questions about what they may mean for us.

Breakthroughs such as personalized genomics, self-driving vehicles, drones, and artificial intelligence could make our lives healthier, safer, and easier. But the same technologies raise the specter of a frightening, alienating future: eugenics, a jobless economy, complete loss of privacy, and ever-worsening economic inequality. As Wadhwa puts it, our choices will determine if our future is Star Trek or Mad Max.

Wadhwa offers us three questions to ask about every emerging technology: Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally? What are its risks and rewards? And does it promote autonomy or dependence? Looking at a broad array of advances in this light, he emphasizes that the future is up to us to create—that even if our hands are not on the wheel, we will decide the driverless car's destination.

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15 Chapters

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1 A Bitter Taste of Dystopia

ePub

The 2016 presidential campaign made everybody angry. Liberal Bernie Sanders supporters were angry at allegedly racist Republicans and a political system they perceived as being for sale, a big beneficiary being Hillary Clinton. Conservative Donald Trump supporters were furious at the decay and decline of America, and at how politicians on both sides of the aisle had abandoned them and left a trail of broken promises. Hillary Clinton supporters fumed at how the mainstream media had failed to hold Trump accountable for lewd behavior verging on sexual assault—and worse.

The same rage against the system showed up in Britain, where a majority of citizens primarily living outside of prosperous London voted to take England out of the European Union. In Germany, a right-wing party espousing a virulent brand of xenophobia gained critical seats in the Bundestag. And around the world in prosperous countries, anger simmered, stoked by a sense of loss and by raging income inequality. In the United States, real incomes have been falling for decades. Yet in the shining towers of finance and on kombucha-decked tech campuses for glittering growth engines such as Google and Apple, the gilded class of technology employees and Wall Street types continue to enjoy tremendous economic gains.

 

2 Welcome to Moore’s World

ePub

Parked on the tarmac of Heathrow Airport, in London, is a sleek airliner that aviation buffs love. The Concorde was the first passenger airliner capable of flying at supersonic speed. Investment bankers and powerful businessmen raved about the nearly magical experience of going from New York to London in less than three hours. The Concorde was and, ironically, remains the future of aviation.

Unfortunately, all the Concordes are grounded. Airlines found the service too expensive to run and unprofitable to maintain. The sonic boom angered communities. The plane was exotic and beautiful but finicky. Perhaps most important of all, it was too expensive for the majority, and there was no obvious way to make its benefits available more broadly. This is part of the genius of Elon Musk as he develops Tesla: that his luxury company is rapidly moving downstream to become a mass-market player. Clearly, though, in the case of the Concorde, the conditions necessary for a futuristic disruption were not in place. They still are not, although some people are trying, including Musk himself, with his Hyperloop transportation project.

 

3 How Change Will Affect Us Personally and Why Our Choices Matter

ePub

Imagine a future in which we are able to live healthy, productive lives though jobs no longer exist. We have comfortable homes, in which we can “print” all of the food we need as well as our electronics and household amenities. When we need to go anywhere, we click on a phone application, and a driverless car shows up to take us to our destination. I am talking about an era of almost unlimited energy, food, education, and health care in which we have all of the material things we need.

Another way of looking at this is as a future of massive unemployment, in which the jobs of doctors, lawyers, waiter, accountants, construction workers, and practically every other kind of worker you can think of are done by machines. Instead of having the freedom to drive anywhere you want, you are dependent on robots to take you where you want to go. Gone are the thrill of driving and the satisfaction of working for a living.

Some of us will see these potential changes as a positive, and others will be terrified. Regardless, this is a glimpse into the near future.

 

4 If Change Is Always the Answer, What Are the Questions?

ePub

A key difference between today’s and past transformations is that technological evolution has become much faster than the existing regulatory, legal, and political framework’s ability to assimilate and respond to it. To rephrase an earlier point, it’s a Moore’s Law world; we just live in it.

Disruptive technology isn’t entirely new. Back in the days of the robber barons, the ruthless capitalists of the early United States built railroads without seeking political permission. And, more recently, in the personal-computer revolution, company employees brought their own computers to work without telling their I.T. departments. What is new is the degree of regulatory and systemic disruption that the savviest companies in this technology revolution are causing by taking advantage of the technology triad of data connectivity, cheap handheld computers, and powerful software to grab customers and build momentum before anyone can tell them to stop what they are doing.

In 2010, Uber had no market share in providing rides to the U.S. Congress and their staffs. By 2014, despite the service’s continuing illegality in many of the constituencies of these political leaders, Uber’s market share among Congress was a stunning 60 percent.1 Talk about regulatory capture. Companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and Skype play a bottom-up game to make it nearly impossible for legacy-entrenched interests and players to dislodge or outlaw newer ways of doing things.

 

5 The Amazing and Scary Rise of Artificial Intelligence

ePub

Many of us with iPhones talk to Siri, the iPhone’s artificially intelligent assistant. Siri can answer many basic questions asked verbally in plain English. She (or, optionally, he) can, for example, tell you today’s date; when the next San Francisco Giant’s baseball game will take place; and where the nearest pizza restaurant is located. But, though Siri appears clever, she has obvious weaknesses. Unless you tell her the name of your mother or indicate the relationship specifically in Apple’s contact app, Siri will have no idea who your mother is, and so can’t respond to your request to call your mother. That’s hardly intelligent for someone who reads, and could potentially comprehend, every e-mail I send, every phone call I make, and every text I send. Siri also cannot tell you the best route to take in order to arrive home faster and avoid traffic.

That’s OK. Siri is undeniably useful despite her limitations. No longer do I need to tap into a keyboard to find the nearest service station or to recall what date Mother’s Day falls on. And Siri can remember all the pizza restaurants in Oakland, recall the winning and losing pitcher in any of last night’s baseball games, and tell me when the next episode of my favorite TV show will air.

 

6 Remaking Education with Avatars and A.I.

ePub

Let’s imagine that I am a fourteen-year-old boy. (Some of us never really grow up!) I am sitting in class, feeling sleepy (as always). My eyes droop. It’s after lunch, and I would dearly like to take a nap, but naps are not in the curriculum. The teacher rambles on. Or the video rambles on. Or the pages of the book I am trying to read float together. I am fighting to retain the information, drifting in and out. What did I just learn? I don’t entirely remember. This lesson is boring. Or it’s too hard to comprehend. Or it’s taught in a way that seems strange to me. I want to learn, but I know that I won’t remember half of this information. Worst of all, I can’t hit the replay button. Now the bell rings, and my time has gone. The information has gone. I’m going to flunk the class, or I’ll have to spend a lot of time catching up on my own.

This isn’t purely imaginary; it is the reality that students in schools everywhere around the world live daily. There are few institutions as inefficient and broken as the traditional education systems of the world, because we treat education as an industrial good, a unit of knowledge served up to the masses in a one-size-fits-all box. We have made some attempts at personalization, but they have remained marginal at best.

 

7 We Are Becoming Data; Our Doctors, Software

ePub

There is nothing like a near-death experience to make you acutely aware of how much we rely on medicine and the healthcare system. I suffered a massive heart attack in March 2012 and nearly died. The doctors saved me. Since that terrifying event, I have tracked developments in technology, medicine, and wellness carefully. All along, I wondered why so much health care aimed at saving us after we fell ill rather than at keeping us healthy and spotting the problems well in advance. People in the healthcare sector call such an approach wellness care, or preventive medicine.

In researching the advances in healthcare technology, I saw an amazing future emerging. Applications for iPhones began to appear that could monitor heart rates and perform other basic medical monitoring. Then came applications of greater complexity, ones that harnessed the power of the smartphone’s camera to scan images in search of anomalies such as moles or to gauge skin color as a proxy for other health issues. Next came attached devices such as the ECG cradle I discussed earlier in this book. I began talking with geneticists, who told me about powerful advances in our ability to decode the genome and even write entirely new DNA that have resulted from the acceleration of computing. (Recently those advances have made editing DNA nearly as easy as running a high school science laboratory).

 

8 Robotics and Biology: The Inevitable Merging of Man and Machine

ePub

As a child, I believed that by the time I grew up, we would all have robots like Rosie, from The Jetsons, cleaning up after us. In this 1970s cartoon show, Rosie is the domestically adroit robot maid of a family, the Jetsons, in the year 2062. The on-demand economy appealed to my juvenile sensibilities: why should anyone waste time doing dishes or folding clothes? And I wasn’t very popular in school; I didn’t have many friends. So I longed for a droid friend like C-3PO, Luke Skywalker’s robot buddy from Star Wars.

Rosie never arrived. Just after the turn of the century, I got a Roomba, an automated vacuum cleaner that goes round and round and gets stuck on rug fringes and wedges itself into corners. Even now, the nearest things to C-3PO on the mass market are A.I. assistants such as Siri, Google Home, and Amazon Alexa.

In fact, scientists and technologists have found that some of the hardest things to teach a robot to do are the very things that we learn soonest, and even skills that seem to be innate to us. In 2008, UC Berkeley roboticist Pieter Abbeel started building a robot, BRETT (an acronym for Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks). The first tedious task Abbeel started BRETT on was folding laundry; but he and his team quickly realized that teaching a robot to fold laundry was going to be harder than they had envisaged.

 

9 Security and Privacy in an Era of Ubiquitous Connectivity

ePub

In an episode of the popular TV series Homeland, Vice President William Walden is killed by a terrorist who hacked into Walden’s heart pacemaker. The hacker raises Walden’s heart rate, pushing him into a serious, inevitable cardiac arrest. Walden’s pacemaker had been connected to the Internet so that his doctors could monitor his health. That was the fatal mistake. Viewers watched in shock and disbelief, but this assassination plot seemingly out of science fiction was actually not that far-fetched.

These days, many complicated, critically important medical devices include onboard computers and wireless connectivity. Insulin pumps, glucose monitors, and defibrillators have all joined the Internet of Things. Every year at security conferences, hackers are demonstrating new ways to compromise the devices we rely on to keep us alive. Former Vice President Dick Cheney famously asked his doctors to disable the wireless connectivity of the pacemaker embedded in his chest. “It seemed to me to be a bad idea for the vice president to have a device that maybe somebody on a rope line or in the next hotel room or downstairs might be able to get into—hack into,” Cheney’s cardiologist, Jonathan Reiner of George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., told 60 Minutes in an interview in October 2013.1

 

10 The Drones Are Coming

ePub

You have probably had to pop out to the grocery store to pick up something you needed for a dinner party. Or maybe you’ve dashed to the pharmacy to get a prescription refill before you took a long trip. By the early 2020s, small drones will do that, and a whole lot more, for you.

Companies such as Amazon and Google have long been planning drone-delivery services, but the first authorized commercial delivery in the United States happened in July 2016, when a 7-Eleven delivered Slurpees, a chicken sandwich, donuts, hot coffee, and candy to a customer in Reno, Nevada.1 In the United Kingdom, an enterprising Domino’s franchisee had made headlines by using a drone copter for deliveries in June 2013. Hundreds of companies delivering by drone are starting up all over the world. Venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins estimates that there were 4.3 million shipments of drones in 2015 and that the market is growing by 167 percent per year.2

Not since the automobile has a transportation technology spurred such enthusiastic entrepreneurial activity. The barrier to entry into the business of building drones is exceptionally low. Commodity kits compete with commercial models, and Arduino circuit boards and open-source software make it easy for motivated coders and hackers to tailor drones to exacting functions in arcane and lucrative fields. Just a decade after the military began using drones in earnest as remote-controlled killing machines, the same technology is available to everyone (but not to hunt down terrorists).

 

11 Designer Genes, the Bacteria in Our Guts, and Precision Medicine

ePub

In the near future, we will routinely have our genetic material analyzed; late in the next decade, we will be able to download and “print” at home medicines, tissues, and bacteria custom designed to suit our DNA and keep us healthy. In short, we will all be biohackers and amateur geneticists, able to understand how our genes work and how to fix them. That’s because these technologies are moving along the exponential technology curve.

Scientists published the first draft analysis of the human genome in 2001. The effort to sequence a human genome was a long and costly one. Started by the government-funded Human Genome Project and later augmented by Celera Genomics and its noted scientist CEO, Craig Venter, the sequencing spanned more than a decade and cost nearly $3 billion. Today, numerous companies are able to completely sequence your DNA for around $1,000, in less than three days. There are even venture-backed companies, such as 23andMe, that sequence parts of human DNA for consumers, without any doctor participation or prescription, for as little as $199.

 

12 Your Own Private Driver: Self-Driving Cars, Trucks, and Planes

ePub

In a popular children’s book called If I Built a Car, a fanciful fledgling engineer (who is probably about ten) waxes enthusiastically about designing a car that houses an onboard swimming pool, makes milk shakes, and can both fly and dive under water.1 Of course, the car has a robot driver that can take over if the humans need a snooze.

We aren’t getting cars that can make milk shakes or are big enough to house a decent sized swimming pool, and flying cars remain a couple of decades away. But our robot drivers are here.

There are debates in mainstream media over whether driverless cars will ever be adopted and whether we can trust our lives to a machine. A survey by the American Automobile Association in March 2016 revealed that three out of four U.S. drivers would feel “afraid” to ride in self-driving cars, and that just one in five would entrust his or her life to a driverless vehicle.2

When I first encountered the Google car in Mountain View, back in 2014, I had the same doubts. If I had taken the survey, I would have been in the three out of four who are afraid. And then, in July 2016, I took delivery of a new Tesla that had some of these self-driving capabilities.

 

13 When Your Scale Talks to Your Refrigerator: The Internet of Things

ePub

Your refrigerator will talk to your toothbrush, your gym shoes, your car, and your bathroom scale. They will all have a direct line to your smartphone and tell your digital doctor whether you have been eating right, exercising, brushing your teeth, or driving too fast. I have no idea what they will think of us or gossip about; but I know that many more of our electronic devices will soon be sharing information about us—with each other and with the companies that make or support them.

The Internet of Things (I.o.T.) is a fancy name for the increasing array of sensors embedded in our commonly used appliances and electronic devices, our vehicles, our homes, our offices, and our public places. Those sensors will be connected to each other via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or mobile-phone technology.

Using wireless chips that are getting smaller and cheaper, the sensors and tiny co-located computers will upload collected data via the Internet to central storage facilities managed by technology companies. Their software will warn you if your front door is open, if you haven’t eaten enough vegetables this week, or if you have been brushing your teeth too hard on the left side of your mouth.

 

14 The Future of Your Body Is Electric

ePub

In the television series Star Trek, the blind Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge wore futuristic goggles called a VISOR (for Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement). With the VISOR, La Forge enjoyed vision better than humans do with normal eyes.

Today, in the real world, a company called Second Sight is selling an FDA-approved artificial retinal prosthetic, the Argus II. The Argus II provides very limited but functional vision to people who have lost their sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal ailment that presently afflicts about 1.5 million people world wide. The Argus II captures images in real time with a video camera and processor mounted on eyeglasses. A wireless chip in the eyeglass rim beams the images to an ocular implant that uses sixty electrodes to stimulate remaining healthy retinal cells, and those cells then send visual information to the optic nerve. The Argus II lets people detect light and motion but not much more; users cannot recognize faces or detect colors, for example. And its cost is prohibitive, at U.S. $100,000.

 

15 Almost Free Energy and Food

ePub

Ever since the oil crisis of October 1973, when the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an embargo and caused the price of oil to increase from $3 to $12 per barrel, the world has been in a constant state of fear of impending shortages of energy and consequent price hikes. We have begun to believe that the planet will soon run out of oil and will therefore be out of energy. Governments have been jockeying to secure oil shipments. In order to preserve the Earth’s dwindling energy supplies, the United States has mandated increases in the fuel efficiency of cars.

Certainly the Earth’s stock of burnable fossil fuels is limited. But we have come to apply the same scarcity thinking to water; even experts believe that large parts of the planet will run out of water and that wars will break out over access to the limited supplies. Despite a wet 2015 El Niño year, the California drought is causing a fear that agriculture will have to be permanently curtailed, leading to long-term shortages of fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

 

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