The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future

by Vivek Wadhwa, Alex Salkever


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626569713
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 04/03/2017
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 537,218
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering and a director of research at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. He is a globally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post; author of The Immigrant Exodus, which the Economist named a Book of the Year of 2012; and coauthor of Innovating Women, which documents the struggles and triumphs of women in technology. Wadhwa has held appointments at Stanford Law School, Harvard Law School, UC Berkeley, and Emory University and is an adjunct faculty member at Singularity University.

Alex Salkever is vice president of marketing communications at Mozilla. He was a technology editor of BusinessWeek, a regular science contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, and a contributor to The Immigrant Exodus.

Read an Excerpt

The Driver in the Driverless Car

How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future

By Vivek Wadhwa, Alex Salkever

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-973-7


A Bitter Taste of Dystopia

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.

The roots of the rage are, in my opinion, traceable to the feelings of powerlessness that have been building since the incursion into our lives of the microprocessor and the computer. At first, we greeted computers with a sense of wonder. Simple things such as spreadsheets, word processors, and arcade-quality video games could be run on tiny boxes in our living rooms!

The technology wove deeper into our lives. E-mail replaced paper mail. Generations of Americans will never write a full letter by hand. Social networks reinstated lost connections and spread good tidings. Discussions flourished. Maps went from the glovebox to the smart phone, and then replaced our own sense of navigation with computer-generated GPS turn-by-turn guidance so prescient that neither I nor most of my friends can remember the last time we printed out directions to a party or a restaurant.

As the new electronics systems grew smarter, they steadily began to replace many human activities. Mind-numbing phone menu trees replaced customer-service reps. In factories, robots marched steadily inward, thinning the ranks of unskilled and semi-skilled human workers even as efficiency soared and prices of the goods produced plummeted. This happened not only in the United States but also in China and other cheap-labor locales; a robot costs the same in Shanghai or Stuttgart or Chicago.

And, around the time when computers first arrived, we began to experience a stubborn stagnation. Wages for the middle class seemed to remain depressed. The optimism of the baby-boomer era gave way to pessimism as the industrial heartlands hollowed out. Even the inevitable economic cycles seemed less forgiving. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States began to experience so-called jobless recoveries. In these frustrating episodes, though economic growth registered a strong bump, the number of jobs and wages remained flaccid in comparison with historical norms.

In the United States, a creeping fear grew with each generation that the promise of a life better than their parents' would go unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the computers and systems starting advancing at an exponential pace — getting faster, smaller, and cheaper. Algorithms began to replace even lawyers, and we began to fear that the computer was going to come for our job, someday, somehow — just wait.

As income inequality grew, the yawning gap pushed the vast majority of the benefits of economic growth in wages and wealth to the top 5 percent of the world's society. The top 1 percent reaped the biggest rewards, far out of proportion to their number.

None of this is to say that Americans are materially worse off than they were forty years ago. Today, we own more cars, our houses are larger, our food is fancier and cheaper. A supercomputer — the iPhone or latest Android model — fits in our back pocket. But human beings tune out these sorts of absolute gains and focus on changes in relative position. With that focus, a dystopian worldview is logical and perhaps inevitable. The ghost in the machine becomes a handful of culprits. Politicians fail us because they cannot turn back the clock to better times (which, in real terms, were actually poorer, more dangerous, and shorter-lived). The banks and other big businesses treat humans as pawns.

So it is the soulless technology that is taking away our jobs and our dignity. But we as individuals can help control and influence it. The public outcry and e-mail deluge directed at the U.S. Congress over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act are examples. Those laws sought to make it harder to share music and movies on line. A campaign mounted by millions of normal citizens to deluge Washington, D.C., with e-mails and phone calls overnight flipped politicians from pro to con, overcoming many millions of lobbying dollars by the entertainment industry.

Technology taken too far in the other direction, however, can bring out our worst Luddite impulses. The protesters flinging feces at the Google-buses in downtown San Francisco gave voice to frustration that rich techies are taking over the City by the Bay; but the protest was based on scant logic. The private buses were taking cars off the roads, reducing pollution, minimizing traffic, and fighting global warming. Could flinging feces at a Google-bus turn back the clock and reduce prices of housing to affordable levels?

The 2016 presidential campaign was the national equivalent of the Google-bus protests. The supporters of Donald Trump, largely white and older, wanted to turn back the clock to a pre-smartphone era when they could be confident that their lives would be more stable and their incomes steadily rising. The Bernie Sanders supporters, more liberal but also mostly white (albeit with great age diversity), wanted to turn back the clock to an era when the people, not the big corporations, controlled the government. We have seen violent protests in Paris and elsewhere against Uber drivers. What sorts of protests will we see when the Uber cars no longer have drivers and the rage is directed only at the machine itself?

So easily could the focus of our discontent turn to the technology and systems that hold the promise to take us to a life of unimaginable comfort and freedom. At the same time, as I discussed in the introduction, the very technology that holds this promise could also contribute to our demise. Artificial Intelligence, or A.I., is both the most important breakthrough in modern computing and the most dangerous technology ever created by man. Remarkably, in similar times in the past, humanity has time and again successfully navigated these difficult passages from one era to the next. The transitions have not come without struggle, conflict, and missteps, but in general they were successful once people accepted the future and sought to control it or at least make better-informed decisions about it.

This is the challenge we have ahead: to involve the public in making informed choices so that we can create the best possible future, and to find ways to handle the social upheaval and disruption that inevitably will follow.


Welcome to Moore's World

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.

Another anecdote from London: in 1990, a car service called Addison Lee launched to take a chunk out of the stagnant taxi market. The service allowed users to send an SMS message to call for the cab, and a software-driven, computerized dispatch system ensured that drivers would pick up the fare seeker anywhere in the city within minutes. This is, of course, the business model of Uber. But Addison Lee is available only in London; its management has never sought to expand to new cities.

Addison Lee was most recently sold to private-equity firm Carlyle Group for an estimated £300 million. In late 2016, Uber was valued at around $70 billion, and there were predictions it would soon be worth $100 billion, two or three hundred times the worth of Addison Lee. That's because each of us can use the same Uber application in hundreds of cities around the world to order a cab that will be paid for by the same credit card, and we have a reasonable guarantee that the service will be of high quality. From day one, Uber had global ambition. Addison Lee had the same idea but never pursued the global market.

This ambition of Uber's extends well beyond cars. Uber's employees have already considered the implications of their platform and view Uber not as a car-hailing application but as a marketplace that brings buyers and sellers together. You can see signs of their testing the marketplace all the time, ranging from comical marketing ploys such as using Uber to order an ice-cream truck or a mariachi band, to the really interesting, such as "Ubering" a nurse to offer everyone in the office a flu vaccine. Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick, openly claims that his service will replace car ownership entirely once self-driving car fleets enter the mainstream. What will happen to the humans who drive for Uber today remains an open question.

So what makes conditions ripe for a leap into the future in any specific economic segment or type of service? There are variations across the spectrum, but a few conditions tend to presage such leaps. First, there must be widespread dissatisfaction, either latent or overt, with the status quo. Many of us loathe the taxi industry (even if we often love individual drivers), and most of us hate large parts of the experience of driving a car in and around a city. No one is totally satisfied with the education system. Few of us, though we may love our doctors, believe that the medical system is doing its job properly, and scary stats about deaths caused by medical errors — now understood to be the third-highest cause of fatality in the United States — bear out this view. None of us likes our electric utility or our cell-phone provider or our cable-broadband company in the way we love Apple or enjoy Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Behind all of these unpopular institutions and sectors lies a frustrating combination of onerous regulations, quasi-monopolistic franchises (often government sanctioned) or ownership of scarce real estate (radio spectrum, medallions, permits, etc.), and politically powerful special interests.

That dissatisfaction is the systemic requisite. Then there are the technology requisites. All of the big (and, dare I say, disruptive) changes we now face can trace their onset and inevitability to Moore's Law. This is the oft-quoted maxim that the number of transistors per unit of area on a semiconductor doubles every eighteen months. Moore's Law explains why the iPhone or Android phone you hold in your hand is considerably faster than supercomputers were decades ago and orders of magnitude faster than the computers NASA employed in sending a man to the moon during the Apollo missions.

Disruption of societies and human lives by new technologies is an old story. Agriculture, gunpowder, steel, the car, the steam engine, the internal-combustion engine, and manned flight all forced wholesale shifts in the ways in which humans live, eat, make money, or fight each other for control of resources. This time, though, Moore's Law is leading the pace of change and innovation to increase exponentially.

Across the spectrum of key areas we are discussing — health, transport, energy, food, security and privacy, work, and government — the rapid decrease in the cost of computers is poised to drive amazing changes in every field that is exposed to technology; that is, in every field. The same trend applies to the cost of the already cheap sensors that are becoming the backbone both of the web of connected devices called the Internet of Things (I.o.T.) and of a new network that bridges the physical and virtual worlds. More and more aspects of our world are incorporating the triad of software, data connectivity, and handheld computing — the so-called technology triad — that enables disruptive technological change.

Another effect of this shift will be that any discrete analog task that can be converted into a networked digital one will be, including many tasks that we have long assumed a robot or a computer would never be able to tackle. Robots will seem human-like and will do human-like things.

A good proportion of experts in artificial intelligence believe that such a degree of intelligent behavior in machines is several decades away. Others refer often to a book by the most sanguine of all the technologists, noted inventor Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil, in his book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, posits: "[F]undamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories." He calls this hypothesis the "law of accelerating returns." We've discussed the best-recognized of these trajectories, Moore's Law. But we are less familiar with the other critical exponential growth curve to emerge in our lifetime: the volume of digital information available on the Internet and, now, through the Internet of Things. Kurzweil measures this curve in "bits per second transmitted on the Internet." By his measure (and that of others, such as Cisco Systems), the amount of information buzzing over the Internet is doubling roughly every 1.25 years. As humans, we can't keep track of all this information or even know where to start. We are now creating more information content in a single day than we created in decades or even centuries in the pre-digital era.

The key corollary that everyone needs to understand is that as any technology becomes addressable by information technology (i.e., computers), it becomes subject to the law of accelerating returns. For example, now that the human genome has been translated into bits that computers process, genomics becomes de facto an information technology, and the law of accelerating returns applies. When the team headed by biochemist and geneticist J. Craig Venter announced that it had effectively decoded 1 percent of the human genome, many doubters decried the slow progress. Kurzweil declared that Venter's team was actually halfway there, because, on an exponential curve, the time required to get from 0.01 percent to 1 percent is equal to the time required to get from 1 percent to 100 percent.

Applying this law to real-world problems and tasks is often far more straightforward than it would seem. Many people said that a computer would never beat the world's best chess grandmaster. Kurzweil calculated that a computer would need to calculate all possible combinations of the 100,000 possible board layouts in a game and do that rapidly and repeatedly in a matter of seconds. Once this threshold was crossed, then a computer would beat a human. Kurzweil mapped that threshold to Moore's Law and bet that the curves would cross in 1998, more or less. He was right.

To be clear, a leap in artificial intelligence that would make computers smarter than humans in so-called general intelligence is a task far different from and more complicated than a deterministic exercise such as beating a human at chess. So how long it will be until computers leap to superhuman intelligence remains uncertain.

There is little doubt, though, about the newly accelerating shifts in technology. The industrial revolution unfolded over nearly one hundred years. The rise of the personal computer spanned forty-five years and still has not attained full penetration on a global scale. Smartphones are approaching full penetration in half that period. (For what it's worth, I note that tablet computers attained widespread usage in the developed world even faster than smartphones had.)


Excerpted from The Driver in the Driverless Car by Vivek Wadhwa, Alex Salkever. Copyright © 2017 Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction ix

Part 1 The Here and Now

1 A Bitter Taste of Dystopia 3

2 Welcome to Moore's World 8

3 How Change Will Affect Us Personally and Why Our Choices Matter 19

4 If Change Is Always the Answer, What Are the Questions? 27

Part 2 Does the Technology Have the Potential to Benefit Everyone Equally?

5 The Amazing and Scary Rise of Artificial Intelligence 37

6 Remaking Education with Avatars and A.I. 47

7 We Are Becoming Data; Our Doctors, Software 64

Part 3 What Are the Risks and the Rewards?

8 Robotics and Biology: The Inevitable Merging of Man and Machine 85

9 Security and Privacy in an Era of Ubiquitous Connectivity 101

10 The Drones Are Coming 113

11 Designer Genes, the Bacteria in Our Guts, and Precision Medicine 123

Part 4 Does the Technology Foster Autonomy or Dependency?

12 Your Own Private Driver: Self-Driving Cars, Trucks, and Planes 141

13 When Your Scale Talks to Your Refrigerator: The Internet of Things 156

14 The Future of Your Body Is Electric 167

15 Almost Free Energy and Food 179

Conclusion: So Will It Be Star Trek or Mad Max? 191

Notes 193

Acknowledgments 207

Index 209

About the Authors 215

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The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An incredibly well-written and understandable assessment on the opportunities and risks that future/exponential technologies will bring to humanity. Wadhwa raises the important questions that are ignored by the political leaders of today and demonstrates the urgency of creating a new system of governance that can balance the risks and rewards that come with emerging technologies. A truly eye-opening and fascinating book, I highly recommended this to readers of all ages and backgrounds.