Tech journalist John Markoff at Sonoma Speakers Series Feb. 6
Over 10 years ago journalist John Markoff was riding in a Volkswagen Touareg through the dusty Arizona desert with several others when the car – festooned with cameras and antennas and sporting “a postapocalyptic vibe reminiscent of a Mad Max movie” – spun out of control as it crested a rise, crashing into the bush. Perhaps that was to be expected: after all, no one was steering.
It was an early driverless car, taking part in a Pentagon-sponsored challenge to design and build such cars for the military. Today, driverless cars have become almost mainstream, in concept at least, even if they are not as universal as Google and Uber would like to see. In fact, they missed the Pentagon’s goal of putting a third of its vehicles on the road without drivers by 2015.
The incident kicks off Markoff’s latest book, “Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots,” which will form the centerpiece of his appearance at the Sonoma Speakers Series on Monday, Feb. 6.
“As a reporter, we have the luxury of not being visionaries,” said Markoff this week, when the Index-Tribune spoke to him about his upcoming reading. “You don’t have to predict the future, you just have to record what other people predict. Then you can point out when they’re demonstrably wrong, 10 years later.”
Markoff’s career as a journalist is intimately tied to his deep interest in technology, and has led to books such as 2005’s “What the Dormouse Said” about the origin of personal computers in Silicon Valley, among others. While the Bay Area native is the first to admit he is not a visionary, his work has become intertwined with the industry he covers, and “Machines of Loving Grace” is doubtless being consulted by others studying the impact of artificial intelligence research and innovation on the society at large.
“In the field, artificial intelligence has for a long time been overpromised and under-delivered,” said Markoff. “Now they’re actually doing things that are pretty remarkable – but I still think they tend to overpromise.” He points to Elon Musk’s grandiose schemes, among others, and the still-born effort of Uber to deploy a fleet of driverless cars on San Francisco’s streets.
The hurdles are more than just technical – though those are considerable, and unforeseen factors can easily send a project off the rails, or a car off the road. “I think the regulatory challenge in some ways will be as difficult as the technology challenge. Look at what it cost General Motors when they had a failed key mechanism, or what it cost Toyota when they had a failed braking mechanism,” he said. “So think about the first time there’s a failure in an AI system and it leads to loss of life, and what the consequences are going to be. Society still has to sort this out.”
Much of Markoff’s narrative in “Machines of Loving Grace” – which derives its title from an optimistic Richard Brautigan poem from 1967 – follows the people working in technology on the cutting edge of computer research, mechanical design and social engineering, fields that are already forming the building blocks of the future. And there is a lot more activity in these fields than we are aware.
“In Silicon Valley alone, when I counted about six months ago, there were 18 research and development efforts in self-driving cars,” said Markoff. “That’s not to count the two public flying car projects, and at least four others I’ve heard of that are not public.”
But it won’t be all driverless cars to worry about. Ethical considerations are at play, too, as well as political concerns – some of which will doubtless be explored when Markoff takes the stage for former NPR reporters John McChesney and Alex Chadwick at Hanna Boys Center on Feb. 6.
The Sonoma Speakers Series, which McChesney and Chadwick co-funded, along with Kathy Witkowicki and Wendy von Wiederhold, held its first event a month before the recent election, and the results of that election may infiltrate the Markoff conversation. “Every day there’s something different that you just thought would never happen,” said Markoff. “There’s a whole series of things they could do that would really run things off the rails, and would affect Silicon Valley in a dramatic way.” He points to trade wars, and curtailing immigration, as two such unknowns.
“If you grow up in Silicon Valley, you realize that part of the chemistry of this area is that for three decades, four decades, it has been a magnet for the world’s best and brightest. So if they don’t come here, they’ll go other places.”
Though a San Francisco resident whose beat has long been Silicon Valley, Markoff is no stranger to Sonoma. A lifelong cyclist, he is familiar with the biking roads of the county through his long friendship with Santa Rosa resident Scot Nicol, who founded the mountain bike company Ibis. He’s also been up here for various food and wine events. “It’s always a treat,” he said.
Markoff shared a 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his work at the New York Times, from where he retired in December. He is currently working on the authorized biography of Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, the Well, the Trips Festival and other harbingers of the future we live today.
“To me his life is the spine of a set of events that define what I think of as the California Sensibility,” said Markoff, “which has kind of infected the entire world. But it goes back to the late ’50s with him, in California. I want to capture that.” That sounds like a job computer-designed for John Markoff.”
“In Conversation with John Markoff” will be held on Monday, Feb. 6, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Hanna Boys Center Auditorium, 17000 Arnold Drive. Tickets $35, $75 VIP, available from sonomaspeakerseries.com.
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