Drive

“Who’s gonna drive you home?” sang the Detroit band ‘The Cars‘, back in 1984. The song was a smash hit, and catapulted into the hall of fame  that revolves around the quintessential American icon, the automobile.

In the car music pantheon that song lies with gems such as Fun Fun Fun by the Beach Boys, Drive My Car (Beatles), or Chuck Berry’s Maybellene.

Thing is, over the next decades the car will lose one of its passengers, the one at the wheel. In fact it’ll probably lose the wheel, as well―the inside one, that is. Your driver will no longer be a boyfriend intent on divesting you of your virtue in some lonely copse, it’ll be a robot.

And the gearshift will no longer get in the way. All the trappings of an automobile, except the seats, are superfluous with a robotic driver.

Run with me a minute on this. Much like an airplane flying ‘by wire’, there is increasingly little you do when you drive that doesn’t communicate with a sensor. Sure, older cars have accelerator cables, brake pedals pushing into master cylinders, and even puppet-like strings opening the air intakes.

But now, the whole thing is just chips. If that sounds fishy, that’s because it is. Just like your friendly cellphone, your automobile will collect immense amounts of data about you. Where you drive. When you drive. How you drive. Another nail in your digital coffin: your habits, haunts, times, and mood.

The car GPS already holds that record. Although right now we still have the choice of switching it off. But just like the cellphone, how many people do? Your GPS knows where you’re headed―better than you do, that’s why you have it. What your gadget finds hard is getting you to follow orders, even if it uses a melifluous tone. Particularly if you’re a guy, since real men never ask for directions. They just become real lost men.

The US military is vey keen on unmanned vehicles, but it’s an irony of such things that despite the complexity of flight, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV, appeared much quicker on the scene. And once they appeared, it didn’t take long to arm them. You can buy them and build them, and I’m giving it serious thought. I like building stuff. And the autopilot side of it is pretty cool. I think that’s what fascinates me most.

A bizarre homegrown drone takes to the skies. Our lives will be increasingly populated with such beasties, on land, sea, and air.

But autopilot (aka robotic) land vehicles are more difficult. All those pesky details like roads, buildings, junctions, and traffic lights. So DARPA, the people who invented the internet (they called it ARPANET)  came up with a grand challenge a few years ago, a race to drive a land vehicle (let’s call it a ULV) across the Nevada desert.

The two million dollar prize was won by a professor from Stanford University called Sebastian Thrun. The fact that his personal website is called robots is pretty telling.  More recently, Google has ‘driven’ ULVs for hundreds of thousands of miles with limited human intervention, and is now lobbying some US states to change the law to allow driverless cars.

All this stuff is much closer than we think. Some time back, I used to think that software engineering was no longer a good choice for a university course in Western nations, since much of the work was headed east, so driving a taxi was a pretty good job. After all, you couldn’t outsource it. Well, you can now.

No longer will a London cabbie require ‘the knowledge’, neither will the cab require a cabbie. Maybe a voice synthesizer with a cockney accent and a bit of artificial intelligence will do the trick. And there’s an extra seat, too.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we have to run as fast as we can just to stay in the same place. Not a rat race, a racetrack. As the years go by, it gets increasingly tougher, and I think at some point people who are barely hanging on to the tailcoats of technology just let go. After that, things just pass you by, in much the same way as the Greek soccer team watched itself get steamrolled by Germany in the last thirty minutes of yesterday’s quarter final.

In remote parts of the world, people exposed to some of these technologies will be as stunned as Atahuallpa, the Inca king, when he  first came up against Pizarro. New technologies such as guns and bombards allowed 168 Spaniards to defeat a four thousand strong army almost without a fight. In India, Vasco da Gama did the same on his return to Calicut.

Thrun is now setting his sights on the broadening of high quality education. A recent course at Stanford had an enrollment of ten thousand students worldwide, and the website that emerges from that, called Udacity, now has over one hundred thousand students and professors. The key point is that there is an extremely high ratio of students to instructors. This provides enormous economies of scale.

Students in UK and US universities pay fees that can range from 10,000 to 30,000 dollars annually. If your choice of major enrolls 100 students per year, let’s say that’s a net annual income of two million bucks. If those students take five courses each semester, then each course costs $200,000. That number needs to cover the salary not only of teaching staff for the course, but labs, administration, capital costs, and so on.

Scaling up the number of students leads to a whole range of consequences. A poor youth in Sudan or Lesotho can suddenly find herself (virtually) attending Stanford, rather than an uninteresting local academic alternative. The whole business model of colleges shifts. In the UK, the Open University did this fifty years ago―it just didn’t have the digital tools available then.

I guess teaching will also be outsourced, at least at some levels. Although it’s a hard sell, because personal connection is so important. But how personal can you be in a lecture hall with one hundred students? Homework often already is outsourced. Maybe marking will too, like mammogram analysis.

Does all this add up to a brave new world?

The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said the problem is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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