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Review: The Driver in the Driverless Car by Vivek Wadhwa with Alex Salkever

The Driver in The Driverless Car is all about the power of new technologies to change the world for the better provided we make the right decisions about them

books Updated: Dec 15, 2017 16:44 IST
R Sukumar
R Sukumar
Hindustan Times
technology,Star Trek,genetic engineering
An illustration from 1957 of a family of four playing a board game, while their futuristic electric car automatically drives itself.(Getty Images)

Like Vivek Wadhwa, author, technologist, academic, entrepreneur, thinker, futurist, and also a columnist for the editorial pages of Hindustan Times, I believe that we are in the midst of an age of discovery.

It might not feel like it, but as I have said several times in print, and in public platforms, history will probably recognize the decade of the 2010s as a period of unrivalled discovery. I can imagine what a future historian may write, say in the 2100s, of this period: “It was an age of the driverless car; it was the birth of real artificial intelligence (although it may sound primitive by today’s standards); it was the real beginning of Earthkind’s journey into space and the colonization of neighbouring planets in the same solar system; and it was the first time people started talking about the 100-year life”. There’s more, including accessibly priced solar power and efficient (and not very expensive) batteries, even those that could power entire neighbourhoods.

I thought it particularly apt that Wadhwa, and his co-author Alex Salkever titled their book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How our Technology Choices will Create the Future. By the 2000s, most of us had gotten used to interacting with automatons, even conversing with them, but the concept of a driverless car still throws most of us. There’s something intellectually and emotionally disruptive about a car – itself a complex piece of engineering involving several thousand parts and a few hundred sub-assemblies – driving itself.

Read more: The amazing possibilities of a technology-enabled future for India

As readers of dystopian science fiction know, thinking machines and futuristic technologies don’t usually mean happy endings. As Wadhwa puts it right at the beginning of his book: “… we will jointly choose one of two possible futures. The first is a utopian Star Trek future in which our wants and needs are met and we focus our lives on activities that Indian history and tradition commend: the attainment of knowledge and betterment of humankind. The other is a Mad Max dystopia: a frightening and alienating future, in which civilization destroys itself.”

To answer this question, Wadhwa sets out to view the radical new technologies of the day through the prism of three questions: “1. Does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally? 2. What are the risks and rewards? 3. Does the technology more strongly promote autonomy or dependence?”

These are good questions to ask, and Wadhwa sets out to ask them of several new technologies: artificial intelligence (AI), education and medicine powered by AI, robotics, drones, genetic engineering (and precision medicine), autonomous vehicles including self-driving planes, the Internet of things, and technology augmented (or corrected) bodies.

Read more: Vivek Wadhwa: Going beyond quotas

Wadhwa is an objective and merciless analyst who isn’t afraid to look at the negative side of some of the technologies he is writing about. Still, he is an optimist at heart, and the belief that technology could help solve many of the world’s problems – it’s a common belief among engineers – comes through in all areas but one. The “benefits” he enumerates outweigh the “risks” in most cases, except when he is writing about privacy and data protection. This is especially relevant at a time when all of us think nothing of sharing a huge amount of information with social media and messaging platforms; it is also especially relevant to India, which has built a huge central database of identities and is in the process of drafting a privacy law and a data protection code. It’s clear to see which side of the argument Wadhwa leans towards: “We all make choices about what we put online, but much of what is collected about us is out of our control. The actual value of privacy is up to citizens and governments of the world to decide.” But here too, Wadhwa is critical of existing regulations (and rightly so) that do such an inadequate job of protecting our privacy and data, and cautiously optimistic about the technology itself. “…the worst problems of the last generation of technology are often easily solved by the first generations of the next wave of technology – until they create their own issues that need solving.”

Author Vivek Wadhwa at the Ambrosetti international economic forum at Cernobbio, Italy on September 4, 2015. (Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

He is far more sanguine when dealing with what currently appear to be far bigger problems, especially in the developing world that includes India – energy and food. Technology can help provide cheap, almost free water, solar power, and food, he says. This may seem like a leap, and Wadhwa admits as much. “But when I look at how… India and Africa are being transformed by cellphones, Internet access, solar energy, and education, I see the possibilities.”

Possibilities are what The Driver in The Driverless Car is all about – the potential and power of new technologies to change the world for the better provided we make the right decisions about them. More than technologists then, this book is a must-read for policy makers who will eventually take the call on the use and adoption of such technologies.

First Published: Dec 15, 2017 16:43 IST