In the spring of 2011, a small group of engineers working on a secretive project at Google received an e-mail from a colleague. Anthony is going to get fired. Several of the recipients gathered in one of the self-serve espresso bars that dot the company's headquarters, and traded rumors suggesting that Anthony Levandowski--one of the company's most talented and best-known employees--had finally gone too far. Levandowski was a gifted engineer who frequently spoke to newspapers and magazines, including this one, about the future of robotics. On the Google campus, he was easy to pick out: he was six feet seven and wore the same drab clothes every day--jeans and a gray T-shirt--which, in Silicon Valley, signalled that he preferred to conserve his cognitive energies for loftier pursuits.
On January 22nd, two days after President Trump was inaugurated, he received a memo from his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, recommending that the United States launch a military strike in Yemen. In a forty-year career, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had cultivated a reputation for being both deeply thoughtful and extremely aggressive. By law and by custom, the position of Defense Secretary is reserved for civilians, but Mattis was still a marine at heart. He had been out of the military for only three years (the rule is seven), and his appointment required Congress to pass a waiver. For the first time in his professional life, he was going to the Pentagon in a suit and tie. Mattis urged Trump to launch the raid swiftly: the operation, which was aimed at one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen, required a moonless night, and the window for action was approaching. Under previous Administrations, such attacks entailed ...
A futuristic novel, "2084" centers on a self-driving car named Winston that lives in a world where humans have reversed global warming. His owner is a math teacher named Julia. Children from every state are invited to participate in a national art competition as a result of the incredibly well-endowed federal arts budget. The winners travel to Washington, D.C., and meet the President of the United States, who is a very kind woman and also a doctor. Written in Seussian rhyme, this children's book is filled with many cute animals that live wherever they like, not necessarily on a farm!
On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda suicide bombers struck two U.S. embassies in East Africa, killing two hundred and twenty-four people, most of them Africans. Two weeks later, President Bill Clinton launched Operation Infinite Reach, a fusillade of cruise missiles aimed at a reported Al Qaeda meeting in Afghanistan, and at a factory in Sudan, which was suspected of involvement with chemical weapons. "There will be no sanctuary for terrorists," Clinton declared. The retaliation produced few tangible benefits. And yet, since then, from Kosovo to Waziristan to Libya, the United States has repeatedly threatened or carried out missile and drone attacks and air strikes for limited and sometimes imprecise purposes.
Thirty-five years ago, while Martin Amis was writing "Money," one of the novels that defined the nineteen-eighties, he admitted to a distracting dalliance with another contemporary icon. "I have spent weeks in a PacMan-fed stupor, unwilling and unable to think about anything else," he wrote in "Invasion of the Space Invaders," his "addict's guide" to the nascent arcade. Amis was not alone in his obsession. The Japanese-made game, in which players guide an auto-munching yellow head through a Daedalian maze, consuming a trail of pellets while fleeing four candy-tone ghosts, earned more than a billion dollars in quarters in its first year, surpassing the highest-grossing "Star Wars" film at the time. Pac-Man towered, Amis wrote, over "a vast garbage dump of rocky romances and wrecked careers."
At the Detroit Auto Show last week, Volkswagen hoped to escape the present with a nod to the past, introducing a revamped version of its iconic flat-faced, boxy Microbus, the vehicle that shepherded the counterculture across the interstates some five decades ago. The bus's reincarnation is a battery-propelled, self-driving vehicle called ID Buzz. But nostalgic wing-vent windows and chrome trim could not distract from the company's current predicament. Barely had the auto show kicked off when the Justice Department announced that VW had pleaded guilty to criminal and civil charges related to its efforts to cheat on U.S. emissions standards. The company agreed to pay $4.3 billion in penalties, the largest fine ever levied by the U.S. government on an auto company, dwarfing both Toyota's $1.2-billion settlement for vehicle-safety problems involving unintended acceleration and GM's nine-hundred-million-dollar settlement for ignition-switch defects.
Last Monday, the Obama Administration released a hundred-and-twelve-page policy tome, "Federal Automated Vehicles Policy," which, despite its sleep-inducing title, found an eager readership. The document contained long-awaited regulatory guidance on self-driving cars--a concept that has gone from sci-fi fantasy to legitimate industry in just a few short years. The official reaction from manufacturers has been muted. Nonetheless, the internal reaction was likely relief. Without federal recognition and regulatory authority, the autonomous-vehicle industry exists in legal limbo.
One day they just appeared--Ford Fusions, some black, some white, with UBER stamped on the side. With their twenty cameras, seven lasers, and rooftop-mounted G.P.S., the self-driving cars stood out. People stopped and stared as they took trial journeys around Pittsburgh. That was in the spring. Now, in the waning days of summer, passengers hailing an Uber X may be picked up by one of the city's many human drivers, or by one of a tiny fleet of autonomous vehicles.
The ethics of driverless car technology is . . . A report [in June] in the journal Science found that most people surveyed think that it would be more moral for a driverless car to be programmed to crash into a wall and sacrifice its passengers rather than hit a larger number of pedestrians, if it only had those two choices. If you don't brake, you will kill the squirrel. However, you happen to know that the squirrel is on his way to kill two other squirrels. What if the two other squirrels are known arsonists?
On a clear morning in early May, Brian Lathrop, a senior engineer for Volkswagen's Electronics Research Laboratory, was in the driver's seat of a Tesla Model S as it travelled along a stretch of road near Blacksburg, Virginia, when the car began to drift from its lane. Lathrop had his hands on the wheel but was not in control of the vehicle. The Tesla was in Autopilot mode, a highly evolved version of cruise control that, via an array of sensors, allows the car to change lanes, steer through corners, and match the lurching of traffic unaided. As the vehicle--one of a fleet belonging to Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, which Lathrop was visiting that day--lost track of the road markings, he shook the wheel to disengage Autopilot. "If I hadn't been aware of what was happening, it could have been a completely different outcome," Lathrop told me recently.