Book Review: The Driver in the Driverless Car

driver in the driverless car
Vivek Wadhwa’s book provides a lens to examine the impact of new technologies.

Right at the outset the author, Vivek Wadhwa, takes a hard look at the present-day world and explores the ongoing impact of technological advances on our daily lives. He says technological change and its breakneck pace could lead us to a utopian future like in Star Trek or a dystopian one like in Mad Max.

The author says the future could be one of unlimited energy and food, but also jobless. Tinkering with DNA could help wipe out diseases but open the door to eugenics. A big shift is upon us whether we like it or not and the onus is on us to decide which technologies we want to accept or reject.

Unfortunately, public policy is slow and could never keep up with the pace of technology. Therefore, it is imperative for ordinary people like you and me should take an interest in how these technologies are developed and delivered to the general public.

But, how can a layperson in New York or New Delhi with no exposure to cutting-edge research get their head around something extraordinarily complicated as gene editing or artificial intelligence?

For that purpose, Wadhwa devises a set of three questions as a lens to allow the reader to critically examine the technologies that have the potential to transform the world as we know it—for better or worse.

The questions are—Does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally? What are the risks and the rewards? Does the technology more strongly promote autonomy or dependence? Wadhwa provides his readers this handy toolkit to decide for themselves which particular technologies they want to welcome into their lives and to what extent.

Over the course of the book, Wadhwa picks technologies with the potential to make the biggest difference and examines them through this lens.

Wadhwa says artificial intelligence and advances in computing will transform the world we live in. Within the next 10 to 15 years, a typical day could look like this, even in India. You would order a self-driving cab to get to work in the morning shouting out a voice command to your personal robot assistant. You would drop off your kid at a school where he would learn through AI-powered avatars on their computer complimented by a human coach who will mostly act as a guide and step in when required.

You get an email from your doctor in San Francisco who remotely monitors your health and prescribes personalized medicine that factors in your DNA, the environment you live in and the microbiome in your gut. You get back home and the Internet-of-Things enabled thermostat knows when you will arrive and will adjust the temperature to your preference all on its own.

This may sound like a fairytale and Wadhwa says it will come true, but not without any downsides. The thermostat you use will be watching you all day every day. The self-driving car company knows your favorite place to hang out at on a Friday evening. All this data will allow profit-driven corporate companies monitor your every move. Marketers bombarding you with ads would be the least of your worries.

Hacking will be a bigger concern. The internet-enabled pacemaker you use to let your doctor remotely monitor your heart health could be hacked into. The AI driving your car could be hacked into to cause an accident.

The book gives you a glimpse into a broad range of technologies and calls on you to ask yourself if they hold value to society and mankind. Wadhwa assesses the risks and rewards of the technology and examines if it benefits everyone and promotes independence. He calls on the readers to use his lens to decide if a technology deserves a place in society or not. Ultimately, Wadhwa firmly believes it is in the hands of the people—and not technologists or policy makers— to steer humanity either towards utopia or dystopia.

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