Urban Studies

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McDonald’s food is junk that will harm your health, but it’s the lesser of two evils for those dealing with low income, homelessness, poverty, lonely senior years and other tears in the fabric of American society. In an excellent Guardian article, Chris Arnade writes of struggling citizens drawn to these fast food places by the cheap coffee, free wi-fi and a generous policy that allows them to sit for hours. They find kindred souls, hold Bible studies, check headlines, etc. To many, McDonald’s arches represent an unsavory, low-rent remnant of the last century, but to these people left behind in a transitioning country, it looks like brick-and-mortar salvation in an increasingly virtual world. It’s not mentioned in the article, but public libraries have become the same kind of haven in our Digital Age, a place to gather for those who have nowhere else to go.

The opening:

In the morning of their wedding, Omar and Betty shared a breakfast of egg McMuffins at a small McDonald’s table, dressed in their finest clothes. Before driving to a Houston courthouse to be married, they walked into the attached child’s play area and joked about one day bringing their kids there.

Few understand celebrating at a McDonald’s, but for Omar and Betty it made sense. They don’t have a lot of money, and McDonald’s is part of their life. It is that way in many poor and middle-income neighborhoods, where McDonald’s have become de-facto community centers and reflections of the surrounding neighborhood.

When many lower-income Americans are feeling isolated by the deadening uniformity of things, by the emptiness of many jobs, by the media, they still yearn for physical social networks. They are not doing this by going to government-run community service centers. They are not always doing this by utilizing the endless array of well-intentioned not-for-profit outreach programs. They are doing this on their own, organically across the country, in McDonald’s.•

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From the June 20, 1942 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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There’s no easy answer if it’s different this time than during the Industrial Revolution and the tens of millions of jobs that are automated into oblivion aren’t replaced by equal or better positions. Most often the best possible solution offered is that we need an education system that enables adult Americans to transition into higher-skilled positions and instills children with greater critical thinking that will allow for a more flexible mindset as industries rapidly rise and fall. That would be wonderful, but I think it ignores reality to some extent. If the new normal is abnormal by the standards we’ve come to expect, then, regardless of schooling, some–perhaps many, too many–will be left behind. What becomes of them? What becomes of us? 

In a New York Times piece, Eduardo Porter, who doesn’t support Universal Basic Income, tries to think through this potentially scary scenario in which scarcity isn’t a problem but distribution is a big one. The opening:

They replaced horses, didn’t they? That’s how the late, great economist Wassily Leontief responded 35 years ago to those who argued technology would never really replace people’s work.

Horses hung around in the labor force for quite some time after they were first challenged by “modern” communications technologies like the telegraph and the railroad, hauling stuff and people around farms and cities. But when the internal combustion engine came along, horses — as a critical component of the world economy — were history.

Cutting horses’ oat rations might have delayed their replacement by tractors, but it wouldn’t have stopped it. All that was left to do, for those who cared for 20 million newly unemployed horses, was to put them out to pasture.

“Had horses had an opportunity to vote and join the Republican or Democratic Party,” Leontief wrote, they might have been able to get “the necessary appropriation from Congress.”

Most economists still reject Professor Leontief’s analogy, but the conventional economic consensus is starting to fray. The productivity figures may not reflect it yet but new technology does seem more fundamentally disruptive than technologies of the past. Robots are learning on their own. Self-driving cars seem just a few regulations away from our city streets.

As the idea sinks in that humans as workhorses might also be on the way out, what happens if the job market stops doing the job of providing a living wage for hundreds of millions of people? How will the economy spread money around, so people can afford to pay the rent?•

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May Otis Blackburn may not have been the first Los Angeles cult leader, but she did do her voodoo several decades before Krishna Venta, L. Ron Hubbard or Charles Manson. Unsurprisingly, it did not end well.

“The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven” (aka “The Blackburn Cult”) was established in 1922, after the “Queen and High Priestess” claimed the angels Gabriel and Michael were communicating divine messages to her and her daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio. They were assigned to write a book dictated to them by the angels, the publication of which somehow leading to the apocalypse.

Before the decade was through, the group was linked to animal sacrifices, sex scandals, an attempted resurrection of a deceased teen girl, poisonings and a follower being baked to death in a brick oven. When Blackburn was found guilty of grand larceny in 1930, the cult lost its agency. An article in the October 11, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the grisly undertakings.

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Despite the fears of really brilliant people like Stephen Hawking, superintelligent machines aren’t likely to enslave or eradicate humans anytime soon. It’s not impossible that eventually brains can be put into machines (and vice versa), but none of us will be alive to see that day. Hopefully our descendants will make good decisions.

The more pressing problem is that Weak AI has a good chance over the next few decades to eliminate millions of solid jobs, and then what do all the truckers, cabbies, delivery drivers, front-desk people, bellhops, fast-food workers and others do? It’s been said that we should retrain them for positions that are more analytical and cerebral, but that’s easier said than done. Some will be left behind by the sweep of history. How many?

In Brian Fung’s smart Washington Post piece “Everything You Think You Know About AI Is Wrong,” the writer tries to identify the challenges ahead and the course we can take to meet them. An excerpt:

So who is going to lose their job?

Partly because we’re better at designing these limited AI systems, some experts predict that high-skilled workers will adapt to the technology as a tool, while lower-skill jobs are the ones that will see the most disruption. When the Obama administration studied the issue, it found that as many as 80 percent of jobs currently paying less than $20 an hour might someday be replaced by AI.

“That’s over a long period of time, and it’s not like you’re going to lose 80 percent of jobs and not reemploy those people,” Jason Furman, a senior economic advisor to President Obama, said in an interview. “But [even] if you lose 80 percent of jobs and reemploy 90 percent or 95 percent of those people, it’s still a big jump up in the structural number not working. So I think it poses a real distributional challenge.”

Policymakers will need to come up with inventive ways to meet this looming jobs problem. But the same estimates also hint at a way out: Higher-earning jobs stand to be less negatively affected by automation. Compared to the low-wage jobs, roughly a third of those who earn between $20 and $40 an hour are expected to fall out of work due to robots, according to Furman. And only a sliver of high-paying jobs, about 5 percent, may be subject to robot replacement.

Those numbers might look very different if researchers were truly on the brink of creating sentient AI that can really do all the same things a human can. In this hypothetical scenario, even high-skilled workers might have more reason to fear. But the fact that so much of our AI research right now appears to favor narrow forms of artificial intelligence at least suggests we could be doing a lot worse.•

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From the May 28, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Currently marching to the end of everything else I’m reading so I can start Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, which sounds like remarkable science fiction, though the author insists it’s science–or will be soon enough. 

“Em” refers to brain emulations, computer reproductions of top-notch human brains which will provide gray matter for robots. These ems will then grow that intelligence far beyond our abilities. It’s will be something like Moore’s Law for intellect. We can use this method to produce inexpensive armies of ems to handle all the work, with Hanson predicting the world economy could continually increase at a heretofore impossible pace. Or maybe the ems will grow resentful and harm us. Perhaps a little of both.

Here’s a fuller description from the book’s website:

Many think the first truly smart robots will be brain emulations or ems. Scan a human brain, then run a model with the same connections on a fast computer, and you have a robot brain, but recognizably human.

Train an em to do some job and copy it a million times: an army of workers is at your disposal. When they can be made cheaply, within perhaps a century, ems will displace humans in most jobs. In this new economic era, the world economy may double in size every few weeks.•

The writer has a timeframe of roughly a century for when his outré vision can be realized. You know me: I always bet the way, way over when it comes to such dizzying visions. 

Hanson just conducted an AMA at Reddit on this topic and others. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

I understand how brain emulations could make things cheaper by flooding labour markets, but they will still only be as smart as the brains they were emulated from. Won’t scientific progress still be constrained by the upper limits of human intellect? Is there any way for brain emulations to get smarter than humans? I am aware that they could think faster than humans because they run on computers.

In your talks about brain emulations, you say that biological humans will have to buy assets to make money. Since the economy will grow very quickly with lots of emulated workers, it won’t take very many assets to generate a decent income. You also say that brain emulations will not earn very much money because there will be so many of them that wages will fall to the cost of utilities. Why don’t brain emulations buy assets like humans are supposed to in this future economy, and where are humans supposed to get the wealth to buy assets from since they won’t be able to work?

Robin Hanson:

Eventually, ems will find ways to make their brains smarter. But I’m not sure that will make much difference.

Humans need to buy assets before they lose their ability to earn wages. After is too late.


Question:

If and when Em like entities come into existence do you think society will embrace them be against them and actively try to stop them or will it be a case of “ready or not here I come” and they will force themselves upon us as their emergence will be like evolution?

Robin Hanson:

Most places will probably try to go slow, with commissions, reports, small trials, etc. A few places will let ems go wild, perhaps just due to neglect. Those few places can quickly grow to dominate the world economy. This may induce conflict, but eventually places allowing ems will win. Ems may resent and even retaliate against the places that tried to prevent them or hold them back.


Question:

So in this new economy humans wont actually be getting anymore “stuff” as all the growth will come from demand created by these Em?

Robin Hanson:

Humans will own a big % of the em economy, and use it to buy lots of “stuff” from ems.


Question:

Will we live in a utopia in 100 years?

Robin Hanson:

I don’t think humans are capable of seeing any world, no matter how nice, as “utopia”. We raise our standards and compete for relative status.•

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From the April 13, 1883 New York Times:

Denver, Col.–The trial of Alfred G. Packer, charged with having murdered his five companions in San Juan County in 1872, in progress at Lake City for the last few days, was concluded to-night, and the case was given to the jury. The evidence shows that a party of six was organized in Southern Utah in 1872 to prospect in Southern Colorado. While in the vicinity of the present site of Lake City a blinding storm came on and the party lost their way. Their food gave out and for days they lived on rose buds. The men became desperate, and some of them went crazy. While his companions were in this condition Packer deliberately fell upon and butchered the whole party, and for several weeks lived on flesh cut from their bodies. During the trial yesterday Packer calmly made a statement taking two hours for its delivery. He related the experience of the party from their setting out from Utah, closing with the most sickening details of the murder and his subsequent feasting on human flesh. He claims that the killing was done in self-defense. The evidence showed that each member of the party, except Packer, possessed quite a large amount of money, upon which Packer has since been living. After nine years wandering he was captured a few weeks ago near Fort Fetterman, Wyoming. While the evidence is entirely circumstantial, yet it is deemed conclusive. A verdict of guilty is confidently expected.•

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Cities are pretty much cities throughout history, and tomorrow’s urban centers won’t differ so greatly physically from today’s in the more obvious ways. There will probably be some new infrastructure to try to deal with rising sea levels and occasionally something like phone booths will come and go, but the buildings will still look like buildings. 

The real changes will be more subtle, so quiet you won’t even hear a hum. In the same way driverless cars will carry on “conversations” with one another and all types of gadgets in the cloud, the Internet of Things will allow a city’s skyscrapers and furniture to communicate with its inhabitants and collect endless information about them. Much of that new reality will be beneficial, helping to ease traffic and lower crime, but it will also place all of us inside of a machine with no opt-out button. 

In a Curbed interview conducted by Patrick Sissons, MIT’s Carlo Ratti, author of The City of Tomorrow, discusses smart buildings, among other topics. An excerpt:

Question:

One of the topics you discuss in your book is this idea of buildings being more reactive and smart. How interactive will architecture get, and how will it change the look of our cities?

Carlo Ratti:

I think it’ll be very interactive. But overall, the interaction will happen through people;  our lives will change a lot, but public space won’t. A city from Roman times doesn’t look terribly different from a city today. The shift is more about how our human life and interactions in the city will change, not the shapes of buildings. That’s where we’ll see a lot of transformation.

Question:

It’s not really as much about infrastructure changes, but how we interact with the infrastructure.

Carlo Ratti:

Yes. The city will talk to us more. We’ll have new buildings, new materials, and more interactive facades, but overall, the key components will remain the same. Buildings are about horizontal floors for living, vertical walls for partitions, facades that protect us from the outside, and windows that give us a view of the outside. They were like that a hundred years ago, and they’ll be there tomorrow and in the future.

Question:

What are some great examples of these new types of buildings and architecture?

Carlo Ratti:

The project we did at the World Expo in Zaragoza, Spain, the Digital Water Pavilion, offered a vision of digital, fluid architecture. Think about a park; there are so many things you can do, between interactive lights and more responsive technology. This coming technological change is like the internet. That transformed so many parts of our lives, and the upcoming Internet of Things will do the same to our environment and cities. For instance, the city of Melbourne successfully developed an “internet of trees,” which allows residents to visualize and map urban forests.. It’s a platform, like an open street map for trees, that will help them grow, monitor, and measure, and help people take care of their parks, and compare them against those of other cities.•

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In our time, the wrong-minded and dangerous anti-vaccination movement has frustrated efforts to control and eradicate a variety of devastating diseases. Historically there have been numerous flies in the ointment that have similarly inhibited efforts to control contagions, from the rise and fall of religions to global exploration to government malfeasance to economic shifts. An interesting passage on the topic from Annie Sparrow’s New York Review of Book‘s piece on Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond:

Shah describes those conditions in “Filth,” a chapter devoted to human excrement. She attributes the decline in sanitation in the Middle Ages to the rise of Christianity. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews all have built hygiene into their daily rituals, but Christianity is remarkable for its lack of prescribed sanitary practices. Jesus didn’t wash his hands before sitting down to the Last Supper, setting a bad example for centuries of followers. Christians wrongly blamed plague on water, leading to bans on bathhouses and steam-rooms. Sharing homes with livestock was normal and dung disposal a low priority. Toilets took the form of buckets or open defecation. The perfume industry, covering the stink, thrived.

During the seventeenth century, these medieval practices were exported to Manhattan, where wells for drinking water were only thirty feet deep, easily contaminated by the nightly dump of human waste. Nineteenth-century New Yorkers tried to make their water palatable by boiling it into tea and coffee, which killed cholera. But the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants overwhelmed these weak defenses, and the city succumbed to two devastating cholera epidemics.

Corrupt economic gain, a recurrent theme in the history of cholera, is illustrated by the story of how a powerful Manhattan company—the future JPMorgan again—was established by diverting money from public waterworks to 40 Wall Street. This resulted in half a century of unsafe drinking water as the city abandoned plans to pump clean water from the Bronx and substituted well water from lower Manhattan slums. In a more recent case, the 2008 subprime mortgage collapse fostered by JPMorgan Chase and others in the banking industry left thousands of homes abandoned in South Florida. Their swimming pools of stagnant water provided ideal breeding grounds when Aedes mosquitoes arrived in 2009 carrying dengue fever. In part as a result, this tropical disease is now reestablished in Florida and Texas, transmitted by the same mosquito that carries yellow fever, West Nile, and Zika virus.•

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From the February 3, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Anyone who lived through the horrors of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy may have glimpsed the future.

Pre-airplane urban centers were traditionally placed on coastlines to be convenient trade-route stops for ships and boats. That was before climate change made living near the water very inconvenient. Moving forward, we’ll have to reinvent our cities to survive what we’ve wrought, especially the ones that might drown. That reality has become even more pressing over the last couple of decades as China’s radically urbanized its population, placing it in the mouth of the whale.

In a wonderfully written Guardian piece, Darran Anderson addresses the challenges ahead, including rising sea levels and other modern problems. Floating cities? Walking cities? Everything should be on the table. The opening:

Amid the much-mythologised graffiti that appeared around Sorbonne University during the French civil unrest in May 1968, one line still stands out as intriguing and ambiguous: “The future will only contain what we put into it now.”

What appears at first utopian has more than a hint of the ominous. While augmented reality creates a city individualised for every occupant, and developments in modular architecture and nanotechnology might result in rooms that change form and function at a whim, the problem lies in the unforeseen. The smart city will also be the surveillance city.

For the moment, we remain largely wedded to superficial visual futures. The likelihood is that the prevailing chrome and chlorophyll vision of architects and urbanists will become as much an enticing, but outdated, fashion as the Raygun Gothic of The Jetsons or the cyberpunk of Blade Runner. Rather than a sudden leap into dazzling space age-style cityscapes, innovations will unfold in real-time – and so too will catastrophes. The very enormity of what cities face seems beyond the realms of believability, and encourages postponement and denial.

“Survivability” should be added to urban buzzwords like connectivity and sustainability. Three quarters of all major metropolises lie on the coastline.•

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Wernher von Braun, center, with Willy Ley, right, in 1954.

Ley with daughter Xenia at the Hayden Planetarium, 1957.

Ley with daughter Xenia at the Hayden Planetarium, 1957.

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The top photograph offers an odd juxtaposition: That’s Wernher von Braun, a rocketeer who was a hands-on part of Hitler’s mad plan, whose horrid past was whitewashed by the U.S. government (here and here) because he could help America get a man on the moon; and Willy Ley, a German science writer and space-travel visionary who fled the Third Reich in 1935.

A cosmopolitan in an age before globalization, Ley only wanted to share science around the world and encourage humans into space and onto the moon. He knew early on Nazism was madness leading to mass graves, not space stations. When Ley arrived in America for a supposed seven-month visit by using falsified documents to escape Germany, he worked a bit on an odd rocket-related program: Ley led an effort to use missiles to deliver mail. It was a long way to go to get postcards from point A to point B, and an early attempt failed much to the chagrin of Ley, who donned a spiffy asbestos suit for the blast-off. An article on the plan’s genesis ran in the February 21, 1935 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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My near-term concerns about Labor have nothing to do with jobs being handed over to robots powered by brain scans of the greatest geniuses among our species. It may seem thin gruel by comparison, but Weak AI (driverless cars, delivery drones, robot bellhops, etc.) can do plenty to destabilize society. Not only are jobs traditionally filled by humans to disappear but entire industries will rise and fall with dizzying speed. In the aggregate, this transition could be a good thing, with the resulting challenge being we need to find an answer not for scarcity but distribution. 

The futuristic scenario I presented at the opening comes from the pages of The Age of Ems: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, a speculative book by Robin Hanson, who often seems to be mid-chug on a sci-fi bender at Chalmun’s Cantina. The author feels AI is evolving too slowly in its march toward intelligent machines but his scanning scheme is close to reality. Whatever scenario is realized to bring about superintelligence, however, Hanson believes the sea change is coming very soon and everyone will be caught in its waves. In the very long run, anything is possible, but I’m not too anxious over his theory, though I plan on reading the title.

Pivoting off Hanson’s new volume, Zoe Williams has written a thoughtful Guardian piece about fashioning a stable and fair society if work is offloaded to Ems, AIs or WTFs. An excerpt:

Robin Hanson thinks the robot takeover, when it comes, will be in the form of emulations. In his new book, The Age of Em, the economist explains: you take the best and brightest 200 human beings on the planet, you scan their brains and you get robots that to all intents and purposes are indivisible from the humans on which they are based, except a thousand times faster and better.

For some reason, conversationally, Hanson repeatedly calls these 200 human prototypes “the billionaires”, even though having a billion in any currency would be strong evidence against your being the brightest, since you have no sense of how much is enough. But that’s just a natural difference of opinion between an economist and a mediocre person who is now afraid of the future.

These Ems, being superior at everything and having no material needs that couldn’t be satisfied virtually, will undercut humans in the labour market, and render us totally unnecessary. We will all effectively be retired. Whether or not we are put out to a pleasant pasture or brutally exterminated will depend upon how we behave towards the Ems at their incipience.

When Hanson presents his forecast in public, one question always comes up: what’s to stop the Ems killing us off? “Well, why don’t we exterminate retirees at the moment?” he asks, rhetorically, before answering: some combination of gratitude, empathy and affection between individuals, which the Ems, being modelled on us precisely, will share (unless we use real billionaires for the model).•

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From the August 20, 1850 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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China’s authoritarianism is an existential risk politically, though it does have some short-term benefits. Case in point: A top-down plan being overseen by Baidu is insinuating autonomous technology in Wuhu, aiming over a five-year stretch to turn it into the world’s first driverless city. More accurately, at the end of that term, robocars and human-driven ones are to share the road, the way horse-drawn and machine cars did for a spell more than a century ago. If it can work in Wahu, it will be possible anywhere.

From BBC Technology:

Chinese hi-tech firm Baidu has unveiled a plan to let driverless vehicles range freely around an entire city.

The five-year plan will see the autonomous cars, vans and buses slowly introduced to the eastern city of Wuhu.

Initially no passengers will be carried by the vehicles as the technology to control them is refined via journeys along designated test zones.

Eventually the test areas will be expanded and passengers will be able to use the vehicles.

“They want to be the first city in the world to embrace autonomous driving,” said Wang Jing, Baidu’s head of driverless cars, in an interview with the BBC’s Click programme.

“This is the first city that is brave enough, daring enough and innovative enough to test autonomous driving,” he said.•

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Car accidents are almost never accidents in the truest sense of the word, with the culpability overwhelmingly residing with drivers who are distracted, drunk, pilled up, sleepy, agitated or simply incompetent. It’s been especially bad recently with traffic-related deaths rising at an alarming rate. These are exactly the kind of facts technologists cite when touting the lifesaving powers of driverless, which will happen at some point even if it’s not quite as soon as Musks and Googlers hope. Until that day, some in the traffic-safety world think we’d be better served by a change in vernacular that would stop referring to these crashes and collisions as “accidents.”

From Matt Richtel at the New York Times:

Roadway fatalities are soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years, resulting from crashes, collisions and other incidents caused by drivers.

Just don’t call them accidents anymore.

That is the position of a growing number of safety advocates, including grass-roots groups, federal officials and state and local leaders across the country. They are campaigning to change a 100-year-old mentality that they say trivializes the single most common cause of traffic incidents: human error.

“When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,’ ” Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a driver safety conference this month at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“In our society,” he added, “language can be everything.”

Almost all crashes stem from driver behavior like drinking, distracted driving and other risky activity. About 6 percent are caused by vehicle malfunctions, weather and other factors.•

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Leon Theremin, who died in 1993 at age 97, was most famously the creator of an electronic instrument in the 1920s that seemingly stole music from the air. Considered the Russian counterpart to Thomas Edison for his innovations in sound and video, he also created ingenious spying devices for the Soviet Union when he returned to his homeland–perhaps he was kidnapped by KGB agents but probably not–after a decade in the U.S. Two January 25, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles (here and here) reported on the inventor’s Manhattan demonstration of his namesake instrument in front of a star-studded audience.

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Here’s a 1962 demonstration of the Theremin on I’ve Got A Secret. The mysterious machine still needed explaining more than three decades after its invention. Musician Paul Lipman does the honors.

Theremin making music himself.

0521160210-00Three months before we reached the moon, a moment when machines eclipsed, in a meaningful way, the primacy of humanity, National Geographic published the 1969 feature “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” penned by Frederic C. Appel and Dean Conger. The article prognosticated some wildly fantastical misses as any such futuristic article would, but it broadly envisioned the next stage of travel as autonomous and, perhaps, electric.

The two excerpts I’ve included below argue that tomorrow’s transportation would in, one fashion or another, remove human hands from the wheel. The second passage particularly relates to the driverless sector of today. Interesting that we’re skipping the top-down step of building “computer-controlled” or “automated” highways, something suggested as necessary in this piece, as an intensive infrastructure overhaul never materialized. We’re attempting instead to rely on visual-recognition systems and an informal swarm of gadgets linked to the cloud to circumvent what was once considered foundational.


“People Capsule”: Dial Your Destination

Everywhere I found signs that a revolution in transportation is on the way. 

The automobile you drive today could probably move at 100 miles an hour. But you average closer to 10 as you travel our clogged city streets.

Someday, perhaps in your lifetime, it could be like this….

You ride toward the city at 90 miles an hour, glancing through the morning newspaper while your electrically powered car follows its route on the automated “guideway.”

You leave your car at the city’s edge–a parklike city without streets–and enter on the small plastic “people capsules” waiting nearby. Inside, you dial your destination on a sequence of numbered buttons. Then you settle back to reading your paper. 

Smoothly, silently, your capsule accelerates to 80 miles an hour. Guided by a distant master computer, it slips down into the network of tunnels under the city–or into tubes suspended above it–and takes precisely the fastest route to your destination.

Far-fetched? Not at all. Every element of that fantastic people-moving system is already within range of our scientists’ skills.•


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Consider automated cars–and when you do, look at the modern automobile. Think of the rapid increase, in the past decade, of electric servomechanisms on automobiles. Power steering, antiskid power brakes, adjustable seats, automatic door locks, automatic headlight dimmers, electronic speed governors, self-regulated air conditioning.

Detroit designers, already preparing for the day your vehicle will drive itself, are getting practical experience with the automatic devices on today’s cars. When more electric devices are added and the first computer-controlled highways are built, the era of the automated car will be here.

At the General Motors Technical Center near Detroit, I drove a remarkable vehicle. It was the Unicontrol Car, one step along the way to the automated family sedan.

In the car a small knob next to the seat (some models have dual knobs) replaced steering wheel, gearshift lever, accelerator and brake pedal.

Moving that knob, I learned, sends electronic impulses back to a sort of “baby computer” in the car’s trunk. The computer translates those signals into action by activating the proper servomechanism–steering motor, power brakes, or accelerator.

Highways May Take Over the Driving

Simple and ingenious, I thought, as I slid into the driver’s seat. Gingerly I pushed the knob forward. Somewhere, unseen little robots released the brake and stepped on the gas.

So far, so good. Now I twitched the knob to the left–and very nearly made a 35-mile-an-hour U-turn!

But after a few minutes of practice, I found that the strange control method really did feel comfortably logical. I ended my half-hour test drive with a smooth stop in front of a Tech Center office building and headed upstairs to call on Dr. Lawrence R. Hafstad, GM’s Vice President in Charge of Research Laboratories. 

The Unicontrol Car–a research vehicle built to test new servomechanisms–is easy to drive. Still, it does have to be driven. I asked Dr. Hafstad about the proposed automated highways that would relieve the driver of all responsibilities except that of choosing a destination.

“Automated highways–engineers call them guideways–are technically feasible today,’ Dr. Hafstad answered. “In fact, General Motors successfully demonstrated an electronically controlled guidance system about ten years ago. A wire was embedded in the road, and two pickup coils were installed at the front of the car to sense its position in relation to that wire. The coils sent electrical signals to the steering system, to keep the vehicle automatically on course.

“More recently, we tested a system that also controlled spacing and detected obstacles. It could slow down an overtaking vehicle–even stop it, until the road was clear!”

Other companies are also experimenting with guideways. In some systems, the car’s power comes from an electronic transmission line built into the road. In others, vehicles would simply be carried on a high-speed conveyor, or perhaps in a container. Computerized guidance systems vary, too. 

“Before the first mile of automated highway is installed,” Dr. Hafstad pointed out, “everyone will have to agree on just which system is to be used.”• 

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Even in Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian state there are haves and have-nots who experience wildly different lifestyles. In the midst of the politically driven arrests and murders, military parades and nuclear threats, there exists a class of super rich kids familiar with squash courts, high-end shopping and fine dining. “Pyonghattan,” it’s called, this sphere of Western-ish consumerist living, which is, of course, just a drop in the bucket when compared to the irresponsible splurges of the Rodman-wrangling “Outstanding Leader.” Still weird, though. 

From Anna Fifield at the Washington Post:

PYONGYANG, North Korea — They like fast fashion from Zara and H&M. They work out to be seen as much as to exercise. They drink cappuccinos to show how cosmopolitan they are. Some have had their eyelids done to make them look more Western.

North Korea now has a 1 percent. And you’ll find them in“Pyonghattan,” the parallel ­universe inhabited by the rich kids of the Democratic People’s Republic.

“We’re supposed to dress conservatively in North Korea, so people like going to the gym so they can show off their bodies, show some skin,” said Lee Seo-hyeon, a 24-year-old who was, until 18 months ago, part of Pyongyang’s brat pack.

Women like to wear leggings and tight tops — Elle is the most popular brand among women, while men prefer Adidas and Nike — she said. When young people go to China, they travel armed with shopping lists from their friends for workout gear.

At a leisure complex next to the bowling alley in the middle of Pyongyang, they run on the treadmills, which show Disney cartoons on the monitors, or do yoga.•

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Founder and Chairman of Microsoft Bill Gates holding a copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks.

It’s funny Bill Gates is such a big fan of The Great Gatsby since F. Scott Fitzgerald was responsible for the line, “There are no second acts in America,” a very quotable and completely ludicrous uttering, silly especially in the case of the Microsoft founder, who it could be argued has had the best second act of any notable U.S. citizen.

In his earlier incarnation as a cutthroat software mogul, Gates was an a-hole. No way around it. His business practices were dicey from the start and his personal behavior detestable. You can’t take from him all he accomplished with Microsoft, but it was definitely done with poor form, for all the riches.

The sweater-clad, avuncular 2.0 Gates, the one who is eradicating disease and building the future along with his wife, Melinda, is a revelation, however, a wonder. He could have collected cars and sports franchises, rested on his laurels. Instead he chose to direct his analytical abilities to directly reduce the suffering of so many.

Gatsby is among his selections for Gates’ “My 10 Favorite Books” entry at T Magazine, which also includes my favorite title of 2015, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Excerpts of the four books I’ve also read:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

This look at the entire history of the human race sparked lots of great conversations at our family’s dinner table. Harari also writes about our species today and how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and other technologies will change us in the future.

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street, John Brooks

Warren Buffett gave me this fantastic collection of articles that Brooks wrote for The New Yorker. Although Brooks was writing in the 1960s, his insights are timeless and a reminder that the rules for running a great company don’t change. I read it more than two decades ago, and it’s still my pick for the best business book ever.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: “His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Proof that the world is becoming more peaceful. It’s not just a question for historians, but a profound statement about human nature and the possibility for a better future. This book may have shaped my outlook more than any other.•

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Came across a Vanity Fair article yesterday about Olivia de Havilland, who is still alive at 99 and living in Paris, where she’s resided for the past 61 years. Funny that, according to the piece, she grew disenchanted with Hollywood in particular and America in general in the 1950s because television’s emergence was making people stay home and ruining social life. The explosion of TV (and near-TV) content today and the many ways to watch it seems to me to have done even worse damage to NYC. People binge-watch programs here the same way as everywhere else and the landscape seems flatter. It’s like Disneyland for tourists, but many of the best characters stay inside their homes.

In a slightly related vein: While I was shocked to read that the Gone with the Wind actress is still alive, to become a centenarian if she makes it just another six weeks, Simon Kuper of the Financial Times writes that some researchers believe 105 is a conservative estimate for the average lifespan for those born in the West today. A lot can happen between now and then–pandemic, asteroid, climate disaster–but it’s worth considering, if conditions hold relatively steady, how life will change when ten decades becomes routine. Certainly career and education will be altered dramatically, even more so since technology is currently destabilizing both sectors.

Kuper’s opening:

baby born in the west today will more likely than not live to be 105, write Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott of London Business School in their crucial new book, The 100-Year Life. That may sound like science fiction. In fact, it’s only cautiously optimistic. It’s what will happen if life expectancy continues to rise by two to three years a decade, its rate of the past two centuries. Some scientific optimists project steeper rises to come.

If turning 100 becomes normal, then the authors predict “a fundamental redesign of life.” This book shows what that might look like.

We currently live what Gratton and Scott call “the three-stage life”: education, career, then retirement. That will change. The book calculates that if today’s children want to retire on liveable pensions, they will need to work until about age 80. That would be a return to the past: in 1880, nearly half of 80-year-old Americans did some kind of work.

But few people will be able to bear the exhaustion and tedium of a 55-year career in a single sector. Anyway, technological changes would make their education obsolete long before they reached 80. The new life-path will therefore have more than three stages. Many people today are already shuffling in that direction.•

 

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From the March 20, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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It’s not that Uber shouldn’t switch to driverless vehicles when that technology is perfected, but the company shouldn’t simultaneously be selling themselves as a panacea for a tough employment market, using everyone from military veterans to the murdered Eric Garner to sell such nonsense. When not touting his company as a savior for those squeezed from a shifting job market, Travis Kalanick has spoken out fo the other side of his mouth about wanting to replace every Uber driver. He’s welcome to speak about how autonomous cars will be good for the environment and safety and costs–they likely will be–but he shouldn’t be trying to soft-pedal the effect it will have on Labor.

From Uber’s latest release on its driverless initiative:

If you’re driving around Pittsburgh in the coming weeks you might see a strange sight: a car that looks like it should be driven by a superhero. But this is no movie prop — it’s a test car from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh.

The car, a hybrid Ford Fusion, will be collecting mapping data as well as testing its self-driving capabilities. When it’s in self-driving mode, a trained driver will be in the driver’s seat monitoring operations. The Uber ATC car comes outfitted with a variety of sensors including radars, laser scanners, and high resolution cameras to map details of the environment.

Real-world testing is critical to our efforts to develop self-driving technology. Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world.  1.3 million people die every year in car accidents — 94% of those accidents involve human error. In the future we believe this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents. These goals are at the heart of Uber’s mission to make transportation as reliable as running water — everywhere and for everyone.

While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements. Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road — pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. We’ve informed local officials and law enforcement about our testing in Pittsburgh, and our work would not be possible without the support we’ve received from the region’s leaders.•

 

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Even a non-Trekkie, non-TV-watching person like myself has fully absorbed the program’s ideas, so fully have they immersed themselves in the culture. Beyond the sheer entertainment of the Enterprise lies, of course, a colorblind society that during the days of Gene Roddenberry could only seem realistic in space. Imperfect though we still are, we’ve moved closer to realizing this world ever since the original Star Trek iteration debuted in 1966.

Another less talked about aspect of the sci-fi show is that it exists in a post-scarcity world. There are still challenges and obstacles, but basic needs are universally met. Manu Saadia, author of the soon-to-be-published Trekonomics, argues in a Money article that for all the very real concerns about wealth inequality, we may be closer than we think to achieving such a system.

An excerpt:

In Star Trek’s hypothetical society — the Federation — poverty, greed and want no longer exist. Most goods are made for free by robots known as replicators. The obligation to work has been abolished. Work has become an exploration of one’s abilities. The people of Star Trek have solved what British economist John Maynard Keynes pithily called “the economic problem,” that is, the necessity for individuals and societies to allocate scarce goods and resources. They live secure in the knowledge that all needs will be fulfilled and free from the tyranny of base economic pursuits.

The replicator is the keystone of Star Trek’s cornucopia. It’s a Santa Claus machine that can produce anything upon request: foods, beverages, knick-knacks, and tools. Like Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you merely have to ask for “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” and the machine will make your beverage appear out of thin air with a satisfying, tingling visual effect.

The replicator is the perfect, and therefore last, machine. You cannot improve upon it. You ask and it makes. This signals that Star Trek speaks to us from the other side of the industrial revolution. The historical process by which machines enhance and replace human labor has reached its conclusion. …

The replicator is a public good, available to all for free. In the show’s universe, the decision was made to distribute the fruits of progress among all members of society. Abundance is a political choice as much as the end result of technological innovation. And to underscore that point, Star Trek goes so far as to feature alien societies where replicators’ services aren’t free.

To a 21st century audience, beset by growing inequality and a sense of dread in the face of coming automation, such a world seems entirely out of reach. We will probably never go where no one has gone before, nor will we ever meet alien Vulcans.

But some of Star Trek’s blissful vision of society has already come to pass.•

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