Monday, September 12, 2011


Looking back, it's pretty amazing how new technologies like Google, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter have changed society in completely unexpected ways. Let's play a game with an up and coming technology that will surely change society but it is not clear yet how.

We already have the technology for autonomous cars, cars that can drive themselves with no needed changes to roads or other cars. By 2020, this technology will be cheap enough to be built into most new cars.

  1. When will society and laws be accepting of autonomous driving? Will we ever be able to get rid of the drivers seat?
  2. What will cars look like when there is no driving seat?
  3. Will there be a major elimination of jobs of taxi and truck drivers? Is this a bad thing?
  4. Will we still need parking right near our destination? Will driveways disappear?
  5. Once most cars are autonomous will they be networked for better coordination? Will we see the elimination of now unneeded street lights and signs? Will there be privacy concerns?
  6. These cars will stop or serve around obstacles. How do we stop pedestrians from just walking out in front of cars knowing they will stop?
  7. Will people mostly own cars or just rent one that happens to be close by?
  8. Suburbia exists because of the automobile. Will an autonomous car change the nature of suburban life?
  9. Most importantly, what is the big societal change that will occur that we can't imagine right now.


  1. Hmmm, autonomous is not as big a deal as what on this earth or the nearby solar system can move these contraptions around. The math does not seem to work out favorably.

  2. We do not yet have this technology. Also, cars like Google's still require hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sensor equipment. Nine or ten years seems very optimistic.

  3. The Government (`Big Brother') and perhaps even other people (`Little Brother') will be able to track your movements even more than they do today.

    1)PRO- Better for the cops to catch BAD criminals.

    2)CON- Better for the cops to catch people who do very minor crimes.

    3)Privacy Problems in general, though as Lance pointed out a few posts ago, its fair to ask if this is
    REALLY a problem.

    4) There is a social stigma against those who do not
    drive (I'm one of them. I know of only one other
    theorist who does not have a drivers license.)
    That will go away.

    5) getting your license used to be a right of passage.
    Not anymore.

  4. Perhaps, before we solve the problem of autonomous cars and better roads, we will be able to send matter at the speed of light as information :)

  5. 1. Not in our lifetime, probably never.
    2. Like cars? (Honestly, why should the need of someone to operate the car change the appearance? Automatically driven subways and trains also look like ordinary ones.)
    3. No. The reason why people use buses is usually not that they have to drive their car themselves.
    4. Yes, people want to be near there car. No.
    5. Yes, there will always be pedestrians, (motor and edal) cycles and people who wants to drive ordinary cars. Yes.
    6. One more reason that it will not happen in this century that these cars become common.
    7. The fact that they do not have to drive themselves will not change the urge of people to own a car.
    8. I do not understand the question.
    9. If I could imagine one, that would not be one we cannot imagine right now.

  6. I think another important point is that autonomous cars might be much more environmental in their driving, being better to calculate acceleration and deceleration.

  7. I think smart traffic lights will come much faster than autonomous cars. Lights that can figure out the traffic, and change their timings so they can coordinate in a way that the maximum amount of people get to their destinations faster.. The algorithms for optimal routing are there :)

  8. A minor bug could easily lead to massive deaths.

    We have the technology to do this with trains and with RARE exceptions (Copenhagen Metro), there is still a "driver's seat" in them.

    I see cars driving on multiple donut tires, cars spewing oil smoke, broken windows and lights, rusted panels, engines and brakes making horrible sounds. What happens when these autonomous vehicles are out there without a team keeping them fresh and accurate?

  9. Will these autonomous cars be able to exceed the speed limits and run red lights when people are in a rush? If not they will be unwanted by both drivers and police departments.

  10. I assume you are aware that Brian Hayes just wrote about this for American Scientist? See here

  11. For GASARCH:

    "3)Privacy Problems in general, though as Lance pointed out a few posts ago, its fair to ask if this is REALLY a problem."

    I suggest you reread Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 (apropos Big Brother) and try to find an
    isomorphism to todays situation: I think
    this problem is solvable and is in P.

  12. Automation by semi-autonomous robots (which don't really need all THAT sophisticated AI) -- including driverless cars -- will have a PROFOUND affect on our lives in the next 10-20 years... but because people don't SEE robots in their daily lives right now, they can't imagine such a thing happening so quickly. Here are a few links:

    1. An article by Douglas Rushkoff:

    2. See the following article by Jaron Lanier:

    3. Read about Foxconn replacing some of its workers with 1 million robots:

    4. A next big future article on ``The Coming Age of Robotics'':

    5. Here's a neat article I came across on a social media site:

    6. Finally, see this:

  13. The main social consequence is that it will finally be possible to drink and drive safely.

  14. To extend Pascal's hilarious-yet-accurate comment, perhaps the *last* thing the world needs is technology that creates more leisure.

    What the world needs more urgently is an era of technologies that create 1x10^9 jobs in which ordinary people can accomplish family-supporting work that is useful, dignified, challenging, diverse, and valued.

    It's been awhile since we had one of those eras.

  15. To extend the previous comment, the latest US census report shows that median incomes for US males have declined over for the last 40 years. As for females, in most jobs they haven't even reached parity with males.

    For everyone who wants a career, a family, or just a satisfying life — young people especially — this is bad news that's no news (because everyone feels this grim reality).

    How much responsibility for this long stagnation should the STEM professions embrace? Or to phrase it more positively, what can/will the STEM professions do better in the next 40 years?

    It seems to me that Lance's "autonomous cars" question has a sensible answer only in the context of this larger question.

  16. John, you are saying that the best thing to do is to make people work even if it isn't necessary?
    Useless work is not dignifying, work in general it's not.
    We should start thinking of changing the resources administration and our economy model that right now it's the worst model i've ever seen. Monetarism doesn't reflect reality, exploiting useless labors are really bad to the people lifestyle.

  17. Anonymous, I'm an old Iowa farm-boy. Meaning, I've witnessed the destruction of the old institutions once called "Family Farms" by new institutions called "Corporate Farms."

    In monetized terms, much was gained in this family-to-corporate conversion. And yet, by Freud's definition of human happiness "to work and to love", much was lost. Because hourly wage-earners on corporate farms no longer love the land or their work.

    In consequence, in accord with free-market economic theory, more-and-more younger Iowans are making the choice that rationally maximizes their happiness: meth addiction.

    All hail market rationality!   :(   :(   :(