The Driver in the Driverless Car

How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future

Vivek Wadhwa (Author) | Alex Salkever (Author)

Publication date: 04/03/2017

The Driver in the Driverless Car
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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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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Meet the Authors

Visit Author Page - Vivek Wadhwa
Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering; he previously held positions at at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Stanford University School of Law, and Singularity University.  . Wadhwa is a globally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a contributor to the the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, LinkedIn “Influencers” blog, and the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE)’s Prism magazine.  Prior to joining academia in 2005, he founded two software companies. He lives in Silicon Valley.

Visit Author Page - Alex Salkever
Alex Salkever has been writing about technology for major publications for more than 20 years. He is a former technology editor of and a former science contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii
Introduction ix

PART ONE: The Here and Now
Chapter 1: A Bitter Taste of Dystopia 3

Chapter 2: Welcome to Moore's World 8

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

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

PART TWO: Does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally?
Chapter 5: The Amazing and Scary Rise of Artificial Intelligence 37

Chapter 6: Remaking Education with Avatars and A.I. 50

Chapter 7: We are becoming data; our doctors, software 64

PART THREE: What are the risks and the rewards?
Chapter 8: Robotics and Biology—The Inevitable Merging of Man and Machine 85

Chapter 9: Security and Privacy in an Era of Ubiquitous Connectivity 101

Chapter 10: The Drones Are Coming 113

Chapter 11: Designer Genes, the bacteria in our guts, and Precision Medicine 123

PART FOUR: Does the technology foster autonomy, or dependency?
Chapter 12: Your Own Private Driver: Self-Driving Cars, Trucks, and Planes 141

Chapter 13: When Your Scales Talk to Your Refrigerator: the Internet of Things 156

Chapter 14: The Future of Your Body Is Electric 167

Chapter 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 Author 215

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The Driver in the Driverless Car


Not long ago, I was very pessimistic about the future. I was worried about hunger and poverty, disease, overpopulation. I believed that the world would run out of clean water and energy and that we would be fighting world wars over scarce resources.

Today, I talk about this being the greatest period in history, when we will solve the grand challenges of humanity and enter an era of enlightenment and exploration such as we saw in my favorite TV series, Star Trek. Yes, I grew up dreaming of tricorders, replicators, and androids and wanting to be an astronaut so that I could join Starfleet Academy. Didn’t all the people from my generation, of the ’60s?

At Stanford, Duke, and Singularity universities, and now at Carnegie Mellon, I have spent the past six years researching the advances in technology that are finally making science fiction a reality. It truly is amazing what is possible, as I will explain in this book. But I have come to realize that reaching Utopia will take vigilance and effort: like the course of a game of snakes and ladders, our path is strewn with hazards.

My research has made me acutely aware of the dangers in advanced technologies. These are moving faster than people can absorb change—and offer both unprecedented rewards and unpredictable hazards.

As a society, we can make amazing things happen; and the more we understand, the better our decision making will be—and the greater the odds that we head toward Star Trek. Today’s technology changes are happening so quickly and are so overwhelming that all of us— including technologists—can benefit from access to new tools for considering and managing them. I wrote this book with the help of my good friend and writing guru, Alex Salkever, in order to provide such tools, because I believe in the power of choice and the greater judgment of involved citizens. We hope that it will help you deal with the challenges that new technologies raise now and in the future.

The Driver in the Driverless Car


It is a warm autumn morning, and I am walking through downtown Mountain View, California, when I see it. A small vehicle that looks like a cross between a golf cart and a Jetsonesque 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 in 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.” 1 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 House, extracting virtually no electricity from the grid and expending 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.

*I have a history of heart trouble, including a life-threatening heart attack; my ability to communicate with my doctors in seconds instead of hours makes my life both safer and easier, and gives me the confidence to go hiking up mountains and to travel the world giving talks.

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 we live, how long we live, 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 that we will have seen 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.

In the next few chapters, I will take you into this future, discussing some of the technologies that are advancing at an exponential pace and illustrating what they make possible. You will see how excited I am about their potential—and how worried, at the same time, about the risks that they create.

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 humankind. 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 that 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.

You will see that there is no black and white; the same technologies that can be used for good can be used for evil in a continuum limited only by the choices we make jointly. All of us have a role in deciding where the lines should be drawn.

At the end of the day, you will realize that I am an optimistic at heart. I sincerely believe that we will all learn, evolve, and come together as a species and do amazing things.

With that, let the journey begin.

The Driver in the Driverless Car


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 1 and e-mail deluge directed at the U.S. Congress over the Stop Online Piracy Act 2 and the Protect IP Act 3 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.

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“....a succinct and provocative examination of the social and ethical implications of breakthroughs.”
- 2017 Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year - Long List

"Writing with Alex Salkever, Wadhwa ranges over applications from genome editing and the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence, weighing up their potential for risk and the universality of any benefits. Readers may not all share his enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles, but his pointed analyses of the coming transformations add nuance to the debate."

—Barbara Kiser, Books in Brief, Nature Magazine

"I strongly recommend this well-written book. You would be hard put to find another review of technological advance that covers so much ground so succinctly — and at times so provocatively."

—Clive Cookson, Financial Times Summer Books of 2017: Science

"Of all the books I have read so far this year, 'The Driver in the Driverless Car – How our technology choices will create the future' by American technology guru Vivek Wadhwa and tech journalist Alex Salkever impressed me the most."

—Kofi Annan Foundation, Summer Book Club 2017

“Vivek raises one of the most important issues of our time -- the use of technology to uplift rather than displace humans. His book provides an invaluable guide for assessing the benefits and risks of future technologies.”
—Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

“Exponential technologies are about to transform every aspect of our lives. Understanding the potential and implications of these technologies is crucial to every person and every company. In this book, Vivek provides you a clear and authoritative blueprint for assessing their benefits and risks.”
—Peter H. Diamandis, MD, cofounder and Executive Chairman, Singularity University, and author of New York Times bestsellers Abundance and Bold

“Realizing the promise of the accelerating returns in front of us while avoiding the peril is arguably the most important issue for humankind's future. Vivek's new book articulately and insightfully examines the contours of both.”
—Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist, and author of The Singularity Is Near and How to Create a Mind

“Brilliant book! Our constantly-in-change world is now running on ‘exponential time,' and this disruption has huge consequences. Vivek gives us the prism to make sense of it all.”
—John Sculley, former CEO, Apple

“Vivek possesses the brilliance and vision to foretell the technological path that will define our future. More important, he has the heart and compassion to trumpet the clarion call so that , as business leaders, we know how to take our employees with us on this journey of innovative enlightenment.”
—Lynn Tilton, CEO, Patriarch Partners, LLC

“The questions this book raises are too important to be ignored by our political leaders or by the general public. Vivek Wadhwa compellingly explains the awesome opportunities technological advances hold for us. He also demonstrates the urgent need to establish a new system of governance to ensure that we can reap the rewards while containing the risks awaiting us.”
—Kofi Annan, seventh United Nations Secretary General; corecipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; and founder and Chairman, Kofi Annan Foundation

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