Something Wetter than Pixels

Picture me upstairs in a dark and quiet house. It’s 11:15 p.m. I’ve just returned from three very full days at a conference in Chicago. The animals are asleep on the couch in the den, one curled up on the seat, and the other perched above on the back cushion. I don’t even have to check to be sure. They are creatures of habit. So am I, which means I should be sleeping, too. Instead, let’s think about the future: 9 hours from now, when these packets reconvene in your inbox…

Self-driving cars already exist. Kind of. I mean, all the individual technologies that would equip a car to safely drive itself exist, and many of them are already in use. Like…

In Michigan, there are several thousand connected cars on the road. They can wirelessly ping other connected cars and centralized traffic systems in order to avoid bumping in to each other, hitting people and things, or even to find available parking. In Europe, newly passed legislation requires new cars to use wireless technology to automatically alert emergency responders if they are involved in an accident. In Singapore, cars are connected to a centralized system that varies tolls as a way of controlling traffic density. Britain is experimenting with a similar system that analyzes traffic patterns and alters speed limits for the same purpose. The Tesla has its own system called Autopilot, which uses 360-degree sonic radar and a pretty extensive array of sensors and cameras distributed throughout the vehicle in order to cover blind spots, detect speed limits, and sense road and lane position. It’s the kind of thing that should, in theory, prevent your reckless driving from causing an accident. Volvo has a similar system that was designed specifically to protect cyclists.

Each of these is a relatively small step on a much longer, incremental path toward a truly autonomous” vehicle. They address the many facets of the big question: How a car can be aware enough of itself and the changing conditions around it to safely carry us from place to place, hands-free, feet-free, attention-free? But that’s a long long-term path. Or, is expected to be. The prevailing ETA right now seems to be about twenty-years at least. I wonder, though — could it be sooner than that? I remember there was a time not so long ago when the desire for hybrid vehicles and generally better fuel economy had significantly outpaced the automobile industry’s production and supply-chain, and all the car companies were pretty much pulling a Scotty and saying, I cannae do it! (and really, how can there be no supercut of all the times Scotty says that for linking opps such as these??? If it’s out there, hit me up). But just like Scotty always did, they somehow managed to get it done pretty quickly. Good thing all the Kirks work in marketing, amirite? But in this case — where we’re talking about a car-wide paradigm shift, not just an update to the engine — auto manufacturers have a lot more to contend with. They’ve got to get these high tech vehicles built differently. They’ve got to test them differently. They’ve got to make them affordable (huge challenge right now, as the Tesla, for example, is hella bones). And they’ve got to do the PR to get us to feel safe in them and on the road with them. I’m sure Google’s self-driving car will play a big role in that. It goes all the way. As in, no steering wheel. Right now. Many people find that quite scary. The question is, how will we be able to truly measure their safety without allowing them on the road? And how long will that transitional phase — with robots and people driving on the same roads — last? How many accidents and lawsuits will need to happen before people either say, let’s go” or no more”? How much federal regulation? How many changes to code for roads and bridges and tunnels and parking lots and rental car companies and on and on? On the one hand, twenty years seems like a long time. But on the other — the one deep in the honeypot of bureaucracy — it seems a bit pie-in-the-sky. And from an even more cynical perspective, throttling the transition could be quite the profitable planned-obsolescence scheme.

Of course, there are other threads already projected over the course of the next two decades that may dramatically impact the progress of self-driving cars. Phones are definitely one. Back in the bright-eyed, optimistic days of leisurely futurism, we imagined that when robots chauffeured us to work, we’d use that time to play board games (must be an incredible Dean Kamen-made stabilizer in that bubble car to keep those game pieces from flying everywhere) or a nice hand of cards. But today? Let’s be honest. At least one of the big pitches for this sort of thing is going to be, hey, now its totally safe to text! Which is really just myopia-speak for, hey, not even a commute can put an end to your work day now! The many streams of that conversation — the plague of texting-and-driving fatalities, the push for greater productivity, the eventual demonstration that robots” are all-around better drivers than people, texting or not — will probably push this forward, while the phone industry continues on its already inexorable path toward greater distraction from the un-screened world. Perhaps a similar conversation will emerge from the alcohol industry — hey, why drink and drive when you can drink and ride? Drinkers gonna drink, and drinkers gonna want to go home. So many problems solved. Maybe.

The other, I think, is the entertainment industry. Forget quaint board games in the back seat. Self-driving cars are going to do wonders for entertainment. And in the process, they’ll probably strike the final death-blow to theaters. If we don’t need to keep our eyes on the road, we’ll probably go nuts on the internet. Texting. Googling. Facebooking. WoW-ing. Porning (with the tinted window upgrade, obv). Words with Friendsing. Minecrafting. Whatever. Oh, and, duh. Tons of TV. Autonomous vehicles are going to take much longer time to change roads and city planning (but they definitely will, eventually), so the average commute length isn’t likely to immediately change. Which means we’ll suddenly have a lot more time for binge-watching. Demand for programming is going to skyrocket. So, production will grow. This is likely to benefit TV more easily than cinema”, as shorter, serial programming fits nicely into routine commutes, while stand-alone, longer-form stories might not. Based upon what’s already happening now (did you know that Netflix is producing the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?), the new big internet programming networks will definitely be making movies, but I’m guessing they’ll be far less plentiful than ~1hr programming (the stuff we call TV today) simply because of how much more distributed our consumption will be — beyond the living room, and on the road. By then theaters will probably be virtually extinct, or at least niche (like real IMAX, or if people can stand it, these 4D things). But it’s already hard enough for theaters to be financially viable, and with content premiering on internet streaming channels,” it doesn’t leave them much to call their own. They’re going to have a harder and harder time getting us to come and eat their popcorn and candy. Especially if they are raining on us and making us smell the zombies.

Oh, and by the time we are watching season 65 of The Walking Dead at 65 miles per hour, it’s probably not going to be on a screen. Probably not even an Oculus Rift, though the dream of the nineties is alive with that one. Maybe it’ll be a Magic Leap thing, whatever that may be and however it may work. But it will probably be something else. Something after that. The next thing after the next thing. And it definitely won’t be whichever thing we hear about next that is going to change how cites are built,” because that sort of invocation never works out. Even when the Bezos says it. Maybe it will be the last medium” (ref: this), but I dunno. Virtual reality is probably not the final frontier. I’d bet that if Arthur Clarke was still living, he might rethink his third law, and go with Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from biology” instead. The final frontier is probably something wetter than pixels. We’ll see. If you want to be here to find out, stop texting while driving.

Did you know that the Icelandic word for computer” is tölva, which is a combination of tala (“number”) and völva (“prophetess”)? As tweeted by @alcuin and verified elsewhere et al.

Heavy Rotation: Daniel Lanois’ latest album, Flesh and Machine, is available on NPRs First Listen. It will be there for the next week until its official release date of 10/28. I was listening to it before dawn on Monday morning, through headphones, as I watched lightning strike the skyscrapers of Chicago as a thunderstorm passed through. I couldn’t help but imagine that those bursts of light — echoed by a constant twinkling of the waking city — were an intentional accompaniment to the music. As if this was exactly the context Lanois had in mind. Therefore, results may vary.

Recent Tabs: As if you need anything more to read. Ok, fine. Forget humans in cars watching TV. What about humans on Mars?… and sure, they’ll probably be watching TV. The NSA and Me. How to hit the me-spot.

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