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.”
The future according to John Markoff
“Machines of Loving Grace: The quest for common ground between humans and robots” (2015)
“What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties counterculture shaped the personal computer industry” (2005)
“Takedown: The pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick, America’s most notorious cybercriminal,” with Tsutomu Shimomura (1996)
“Cyberpunk: Outlaws and hackers on the computer frontier,” with Katie Hafner (1995)
“The High Cost of High Tech: The dark side of the cusp,” with Lenny Siegel (1985)