Posted: Monday, August 7th, 2062
Three pedestrians were killed Sunday when a self-driving car’s operating system was compromised outside a weekend farmers’ market in Weston, a wealthy suburb of Boston. Two local teens in the car were also treated and released with non-life-threatening injuries. Witnesses said the vehicle did not slow as it mounted the sidewalk and struck the victims, stopping only when it struck a line of heavy hedge at the end of the block. The names of the deceased are held pending notification of next of kin, and a Boston Metro press officer declined to identify the teens.
The officer did confirm that the teens were “on the younger side of teenage” and are the subjects of an investigation. No charges have been filed at the time of this report.
The teens’ attorney released a short press statement suggesting the car driving the teens had been hacked by an unknown party.
“It’s entirely possible the vehicle was hacked,” Boston Metro Chief of Police Esmerelda McLeod said in a press conference this afternoon. “On the other hand, there have been incidents of individuals deliberately using “spoofing” programs to subvert self-driving software and enable manual driving from a pocket tablet or phone. We have a very capable data forensics team working on the car’s systems to discover the truth.”
The three deaths bring the count of vehicle-related deaths in Massachusetts to 25, slightly above the generally accepted 1/8 standard as compared to vehicular deaths in the bloody pre-mandatory-autodrive era.
The self-driving car is coming. As quickly as the automobile replaced the horse in busy city centers where a spooked horse would present a public danger, the self-driving car will replace the manually driven car in those same places and for the same reason.
It has already been discussed for some time that a computer-operated vehicle is vulnerable to hacking, malware, viruses, what have you in the realm of scary things that make your computer go AIIIIIIIEEEE and stop working the way it’s supposed to. Even now, with vehicles not driven by software but many of their systems controlled by it, it has already been demonstrated that a WiFi equipped vehicle is vulnerable to hacking.
And of course, like any computerized device, vehicles are already vulnerable to the knowledgeable subverting their programs.
People worry over this sort of stuff. And it’s worthwhile to worry about. A vehicle out of control, self-driving or not, is dangerous. Deadly.
And yet, over a million people yearly die in automobile accidents. Thirty thousand-ish of those are in the United States. Most of those deaths are caused by driver error or driver misuse. I went over the subject not too long ago in a post about a worker having to take a sick day because his/her car had come down with a virus.
So before I retread that same ground too heavily, I’ll just say that I bet self-driving cars will still kill people. I bet the first few times it happens there will be a public outcry and great consternation. And I bet that in the end, self-driving cars will still kill WAY FEWER PEOPLE. And once the last people who remember how often people died in manually-driven-car accidents, I bet there will be a cohort of “manual driving truthers” who will protest that history is misrepresented and lobby for “safer” human-controlled driving.
Stick around for a century or so, you’ll see.
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This story speaks to one of my most and least favorite things, tradition. Tradition perpetuates all sorts of things in societies, some as innocent as making snowmen, some nonsensical, some neutral, others negative or positive or even more likely all of the above wrapped up in a big Gordian knot built over centuries. Tradition can lift up or destroy, build community or disrupt it. Like it or not, it’s a product of human beings being social creatures — attempts to break the old patterns wholesale and build new ones anew have been disasters: think French Revolution, Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution, Khmer Rouge. Like bending wood or bamboo to fashion the crook of a walking cane, human society in the large traditions that govern and define us must be reshaped slowly and with care lest they crack and shatter.
Small traditions, like the snowman, can become security blankets when the pace of change becomes rapid, as it has been these last two or three centuries. I have a feeling that within my lifetime (if I should make it into my 80s or 90s, fingers crossed) elementary education will become something accessed online rather than by gathering together in a municipal building, and printing breakfast cereal in your kitchen is likely to become common. For oldsters as I would be when that time comes, watching children play in the snow will be a comforting traditional blanket to wrap around my shoulders as I watch from a padded chair in the comfort of a heated porch. And maybe, who knows, I’ll go out and help roll some snowman body segments, something I remember fondly from my early childhood. Maybe despite the availability of conveniently printed food I’ll break out some primitive chicken eggs and vanilla and condensed milk and make a bowl of snow cream. Or make hot chocolate on a pan on the stove. All minor, comforting traditions — no doubt with the advent of the convenient powdered hot chocolate packet making it from bars of real bar chocolate on the stove is a small way for those born before their debut to relive a piece of the old world, the world they were born in before all these changes like internets came to be.
More than tradition, “Continuity” also speaks to the basic human condition that technology cannot touch — at least, not yet and not without radically redefining the human condition.
Even if humanity were to become, say, a population of consciousnesses loaded into android brains, there would still be snow (assuming we don’t really overdo it with this climate change thing). And still the potential to play by creating snow…er…droids. And if there are no children in such a strange new world, perhaps still some oldsters who remember what it was like to be raised in a world of meat humans will still go out and build snowmen, if only to take comfort for a little while by indulging in a little of what the world was before it changed.
This is how Pluto looked when Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in 1930. A bright mote, an apparent star that moved in a way that betrayed its planetary nature — for someone who was looking carefully enough.
Things have gotten a bit better with New Horizons; you can see the latest images on NASA’s NH page. Here’s one that’s new as of this post date:
Edit: new image below, 14 JUL:
Quite the improvement, no?
Well, yes. But it has been a long wait, hasn’t it? 85 years. Granted, we could hardly have dispatched an airplane to take a closer look in 1930. Modern rocketry as in its infancy, as was broadcasting. Even if a 1930s era rocket could have been launched at Pluto, we’d hardly have gotten word back of success reaching it, much less a picture.
I do worry that these are the best images I’ll see in my lifetime, and I’m only 45. But NASA’s funding has been either waning or just holding on against inflation these last three decades, not growing, and the bulk of the current crop of Presidential candidates seem to be mostly unenthused by NASA. ‘What’s the point of spending a whole penny on the federal budget dollar on all this sciency stuff? We’ve got people to feed, bomb, feed bombs to, bomb with food, and so forth, right here on Earth.’
Hostility to and/or disinterest in space, NASA, science, and scholarly investigation in general is nothing new. In the 1970s and 80s, Senator William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin is a ‘fine’ recent example, with his ‘Golden Fleece’ awards that, as often as not, lambasted space and science funding as wasted effort and wasted money. Plenty of commentators, regular folks, and politicians jump on that anti-intellectual, short-view bandwagon from time to time.
Frankly, it’s a nasty and dangerous habit, this idea that exploring the cosmos around us, exploring our own planet further, and learning in general is a waste of money and effort. There’s a lot to be gained by exploration, here and up there. Aren’t you reading this on a computer? Possibly a computer that also telephones people and locates itself by GPS? Thank scientists, scholars, inquisitive types, the space program, all those ‘wastes of money’ that pay off in knowledge and in the things that knowledge makes possible, if you spend the money learning now and have the patience to wait a decade or two for the payoff.
I know, we’re not that great at long-term thinking, most of us. But seriously. Yes, we’re just looking at Pluto, which is hardly going to be useful real estate or mining grounds next week, year, or decade. But every time we do something like this, we don’t just learn more about how our planetary neighbors work. We learn more about communications, propulsion, efficient generation and use of power sources, miniaturization, navigation, and so on, and so forth, and likely things that you and I haven’t thought of yet that will pay off come 2045.
Not to mention, as big as this earth is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the solar system. Planets and asteroids and comets, oh my, swimming in a constant rain of free-to-gather energy that is sunlight (or maybe magnetic if you want to venture to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and do some tinkering). Sometimes people talk about this ‘high frontier’ as if it could be a relief valve for overpopulation, but no, it’s not that. No more than opening California to colonization relieved crowding in New York City. But a wide frontier is a relief valve for people who are gravely dissatisfied with current affairs at home, and we as a planetary society haven’t really had one of those in quite a few decades now. Yes, there’s a certain lack of open air and flowing water up there among the various possible destinations. So what?
The big ‘so what’ is that we’re doing little practicing of how to keep people alive in places like that. There’s a space station, and 40+ years after people walked on the moon it’s still an itty-bitty one with a few people, entirely supplied from earth. It’s useful, and we learn from it, and we’ve no apparent interest in pushing the boundaries meaningfully as a species. Well, China has done a little talking in that direction, Maybe in response to US talk about sending people to Mars, maybe, one day, well maybe not, or maybe we’ll just push back the ‘maybe’ date… you get the idea. We like talking about it a bit, but few are serious about it, especially among those who would have to speak the loudest to fund such a nutty idea as putting a bunch of people on the moon or Mars to live long term, the politicians. They’re not that interested, and the public isn’t that interested. And that’s a shame. We won’t spread off this rock unless there’s an interest in doing so. Maybe the interest will come too late, after climate change gets nasty enough to cause even middle-class folks serious problems at home. Such a wait-till-the-crisis scenario would be a shame, too. Because, like in the ‘reduce population pressure’ scenario, colonizing the moon or Mars of anything else out there would not be a way to evacuate millions or billions of people in troubles.
But it would be a great way to spread the human race out a bit so that it’s not in danger of croaking en masse if a massive disaster of some sort were to loom. And it would, if no disaster comes to call, be a great way to expand the knowledge, both practical and abstract, of the human race as a whole — and that expansion would all be fuel for the next round of life-improving gadgets just as food preservation, improved transportation, construction and maintenance of internets, and so forth have been for us.
Don’t be selfish. Help the people of 2100 surpass us as much as we’ve surpassed the people of 1930.