Maya Kosoff

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Forgetting is, to some extent, necessary. Letting go and moving on makes life manageable. In a 2012 Five Books interview, Joshua Foer described Solomon Shereshevsky (or “S”), the subject of neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria’s The Mind of Mnemonist, this way:

S seemed to remember too well. He was ineffectual as a journalist and ultimately couldn’t make a living as anything other than a stage performer — a memory freak. I think that points to something profound. Forgetting is an important part of learning, it teaches us to abstract. Because S remembered too much, he couldn’t process what he witnessed, and as a result he couldn’t make his way in the world.•

Many new technologies, however, want us to remember. 

It can be small things like Facebook enabling us to attend a high-school reunion (if a virtual one) every day, or those writ large like “telepathy startups” that aim to use implants to make thoughts uploadable and downloadable, so that everything can be recorded and recalled. Everything.

There will be a time (probably this century) when “visiting the cemetery” will come to mean conversing with a VR version of late loved ones. Maybe some will be repelled by this development and employ companies that routinely “wash” memories, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perhaps these are some of the exciting new fields that will emerge to provide jobs for those squeezed from manufacturing.

In a Maya Kosoff Vanity Fair piece, Siri cofounder Tom Gruber believes “personal memory enhancement” inevitable. He acknowledges there will be danger. “It’s absolutely essential that this be kept very secure,” he says, which almost certainly won’t happen. We will be hacked.

An excerpt:

Speaking onstage at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Canada, Gruber illustrated his vision for a world in which technology records and remembers every event in our lives—the names of every person we meet, all the places we have been, and all of our life events. “I believe A.I. will make personal memory enhancement a reality. I think it’s inevitable,” he said onstage this week, arguing that smart computers could be used to reinforce existing human capacity for memory.

Gruber’s not the first tech entrepreneur to suggest that some kind of brain-computer interface is the next frontier for Silicon Valley: Elon Musk’s new “telepathy” start-up, Neuralink, is developing a “neural lace” technology that would involve “implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts.” Facebook has also hinted that it is working on similar sorts of technology that could help people with disabilities. (“What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan, who leads Facebook’s secretive hardware development initiative, mused at the company’s developers conference last week.)

Still, there’s a long way to go when it comes to such technologies: the surgical procedures involved are dangerous, and the privacy implications are incredibly serious. “We get to choose what is and is not recalled and retained,” Gruber said onstage. “It’s absolutely essential that this be kept very secure.”•

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Brute efficiency is more closely associated with fascism than democracy, and there are reasons for that. Main one: Humans aren’t machines, not yet at least.

While Mussolini and Bilbao dreamed of workers emulating robots, incredibly cheap and powerful microchips have made it possible for today’s technologists to eliminate the middle man and woman. Not that everyone in Silicon Valley is as heinous as Peter Thiel, who has a moral blind spot reminiscent Hitler’s secretary. Many want a brighter tomorrow for all, but their disruptions run counter to that goal, exacerbating wealth inequality, suppressing wages and potentially eliminating millions of jobs–entire industries, even–without creating suitable replacements. That may not, strictly speaking, be their responsibility, but their futures, as surely as ours, depend on it or the emergence of some other suitable solution. 

Two excerpts follow from new pieces on our technologically enhanced Gilded Age.

From Alexandra Suich of the Economist “1843”:

San Francisco is having its Manhattan moment. Buildings are stretching skyward, and people are moving here in swarms to seek their fortunes. [Ken] Fulk is helping reimagine the city’s interiors. He came to prominence in 2013 with the opening of The Battery, a private club, which quickly became an after-hours destination for techies, who linger in banquettes beneath the main lounge’s exposed-brick walls.

But most of Fulk’s business is designing private houses for the city’s wealthy technorati. His clients include Mark Pincus of the gaming company Zynga; Kevin Systrom of the photo-sharing app Instagram; Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp, the online review site; and Michael and Xochi Birch, who sold their social network, Bebo, for $850m in 2008 and now own The Battery. While minimalist interiors are in vogue, Fulk’s signature style is bold, eclectic and gleefully maximalist. “With contemporary design, you feel like you walked into a hotel room,” says Systrom. “With Ken, you feel like you’ve walked into another world.”

Fulk uses loud colours, lush materials and found objects that infuse spaces with playfulness and whimsy. He loves taxidermy and furniture with a backstory. His own office in San Francisco’s SoMa neighbourhood, called the Magic Factory, has doors salvaged from a mental institution and an aeroplane. On the main floor is a shop where clients can peruse some of Fulk’s discoveries. He has two cabinets that were used to archive specimens at the British Museum, and a stuffed musk ox that he bought from a museum in Kansas City when it closed its dioramas. San Francisco is pulled between extreme wealth, poverty and counter-culture, and there are competing elements within Fulk’s own work too. “Like the city itself, there’s a tension between high and low,” he says.•

From Maya Kosoff at Vanity Fair “Hive”:

While Amazon has already supplemented many of its warehouse employees with machines, Amazon Go stores will almost certainly require the presence of some number of human staff. Still, Amazon appears to be moving decisively toward replacing workers with automation wherever possible. Since 2014, The Los Angeles Times reports, Amazon has added 50,000 warehouse workers but also more than 30,000 robots, causing hiring to slow at its warehouses. Nor is Amazon the only tech company with plans to eventually automate as many jobs as possible. Earlier this year, Uber bought an automated trucking start-up called Otto, which recently completed its first delivery—a beer runlargely without the assistance of its human driver. Although Otto has described its self-driving technology as a way to help truckers on long cross-country trips, Uber C.E.O. Travis Kalanick hasn’t been shy in the past about his vision to eliminate commercial drivers in the future. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car—you’re paying for the other dude in the car,” he said in 2014. “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.”

Not everyone in Silicon Valley is sanguine about a future where millions of retail or trucking jobs have been replaced by machines. A growing number of tech leaders, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman among them, have begun advocating for a universal basic income: a guaranteed minimum stipend that the government would pay to everyone, ensuring some cushion as technological change roils the labor market, and allowing workers to develop new skills. Altman might want to start by focusing on the 3.5 million cashiers in America, who could soon join the 3.5 million truck drivers in having to worry about a robot taking their job. That economic anxiety is part of the reason why Donald Trump, who promised to bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas, won the presidential election last month. But outsourcing is only part of the picture. In the end, it won’t be globalization, but automation, that will transform the U.S. economic landscape. Look no further than your friendly local Amazon Go store, coming soon to a neighborhood near you, to see that future in action.•

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Either there’s a collective delusion among those racing to successfully complete driverless capability (not impossible), or we’re going to have autonomous vehicles on roads and streets in the next decade.

If that time frame proves correct, these self-directing autos will hastily make redundant taxi, rideshare, bus, truck and delivery drivers and wreak havoc on the already struggling middle class. That doesn’t mean progress should be unduly restrained, but it does mean we’re going to have to develop sound policy answers. 

Not everyone is going to be able to transition into coding or receive a Machine Learning Engineer nanodegree from Udacity. That’s just not realistic. Because of Washington gridlock, we’ve bypassed a golden opportunity to rebuild our infrastructure at near zero interest over the last eight years. It may soon be imperative to push forward not only to save fraying bridges but also faltering Labor.

Excerpts follow from: Maya Kosoff’s Vanity Fair “Hive” piece about Ford’s ambitious plans for wheel-less cars by 2021, and 2) Max Chafkin’s Bloomberg Businessweek article on Uber’s driverless fleet launching this year in Pittsburgh.

From Kosoff:

The world of autonomous vehicles is riddled with hypotheticals. It’s not immediately clear when Uber and Lyft will have self-driving cars (or what will happen to their drivers when they do), but both companies have made it clear that at some point, they see autonomous ride-hailing fleets as the future of their business. The same can be said about Tesla, Google’s self-driving cars, Apple’s top-secret car project, and automakers like General Motors, which haspartnered with Lyft. All these companies must first face novel regulatory hurdles, and few have given the public a hard deadline for when they can expect to see self-driving cars on the road.

Ford, however, is breaking from the pack and marking a date on its calendar: 2021, the carmakerannouncedTuesday. Ford’s self-driving cars won’t have gas or brake pedals or a steering wheel, the company says. And the car is being made specifically for ride-hailing services—it seems Ford is trying to out-Uber Uber. (Uber, for its part,unveiled a self-driving Ford Fusionearlier this year, andreportedlyapproached a number of automakers about partnerships, before taking astrategic investmentfrom Toyota.)

Five years isn’t much time to get a fully-functioning, fully-autonomous vehicle to market, but Ford is moving quickly.•

From Chafkin:

Near the end of 2014, Uber co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick flew to Pittsburgh on a mission: to hire dozens of the world’s experts in autonomous vehicles. The city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has produced many of the biggest names in the newly hot field. Sebastian Thrun, the creator of Google’s self-driving car project, spent seven years researching autonomous robots at CMU, and the project’s former director, Chris Urmson, was a CMU grad student.

“Travis had an idea that he wanted to do self-driving,” says John Bares, who had run CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years before founding Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes components for self-driving industrial robots used in mining, farming, and the military. “I turned him down three times. But the case was pretty compelling.” Bares joined Uber in January 2015 and by early 2016 had recruited hundreds of engineers, robotics experts, and even a few car mechanics to join the venture. The goal: to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers—as quickly as possible.

The plan seemed audacious, even reckless. And according to most analysts, true self-driving cars are years or decades away. Kalanick begs to differ. “We are going commercial,” he says in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “This can’t just be about science.”

Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved.•

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When it comes to electric cars–and solar power and colonizing space–Elon Musk can win and lose at the same time.

The technologist’s stated micro goal in founding Tesla was to create an EV not just as good but better than any traditional auto, so that consumers would prefer his offerings to Big Auto gas guzzlers. The macro goal, of course, was to make the world a far more eco-friendly place, to not only have cleaner cars but to tie their development to that of alternative energies that could be repurposed to private and commericial buildings via batteries. It may not please Tesla stockholders, but Musk could spur these world-altering goals without his company winning significant market share.

In order for EVs to become the choice, lots of players, including Detroit stalwarts, needed to enter the race–and that’s exactly what’s happened. Competition in solar and space exploration have likewise been spurred by Musk’s aspirations. So, Musk’s companies could ultimately be also-rans, even if his aims are achieved, whether we’re talking about reducing our carbon footprint or putting boots to the ground on Mars.

From Maya Kosoff at Vanity Fair “Hive”:

Tesla isn’t the only company producing electric cars anymore. Traditional automakers are starting to infiltrate the space, and the very thing that made Tesla a unique company might be less of a selling point for some customers moving forward.

The latest competitor to take on Tesla is Mercedes, which will offer a four-car all-electric lineup with two S.U.V.s and two sedans, Bloomberg reports. Previously, Mercedes C.E.O. Dieter Zetsche said his company had planned to premiere an electric car this fall at the Paris motor show. Besides the four electric consumer vehicles, Bloomberg reports, Mercedes’s parent company, Daimler AG, is also working on an “all-electric heavy-duty delivery truck,” though it won’t be ready until the beginning of the next decade. Mercedes’s cars, by contrast, are expected to hit the streets within the next few years.

Mercedes and Tesla will have plenty of rivals, besides one another.•


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