Posts Tagged 'Google Driverless Cars'

Syd Mead Future Vehicle

Just before the heady fumes of the hi-octane, yet smart, Mad Max: Fury Road wafted through the auditorium, two car adverts beamed out from the 3D screen. First was for the Audi RS3. The second for the BMW i8. As you can see, both were produced to a level of quality characteristic with the subject matter. However, both also led to a level of incredulity not experienced since the early 2000s when vehicles repeatedly masqueraded as wild animals.

The visual birthing of the RS3 from the inside the workings of Audi’s R8 immediately brought to mind the satirical – possibly prophetic – car ad in the otherwise broken Southland Tales. The i8 advert, while at least promoting BMW’s new electric car, seems to have been conceived by one of the creative agencies that usually devise unhinged Christmas perfume commercials. All of which left the lingering feeling of video commercial and car manufacturing industries equally out of touch with the real world.

Meanwhile, at the other extreme of our proposed vehicular future, we have the rise of the autonomous car. Not something overly surprising for SciFi fans – Isaac Asimov first wrote about the notion in his 1953 short story Sally. But the idea of a vehicle controlled by a ‘positronic’ brain/computer program remains complex. Is this burgeoning technology as appealing as it’s made out to be? While Google’s ‘toy cars’ seem to offer a relaxed, non-polluting vision of the future, they are yet another example of the individual being forcibly tied into a computerised system that they have no control over. Maybe it’s a fair price to pay when levied against carbon emissions and the sheer tedium of current traffic flow. Then again, it’s hard to shake the dictatorial unease triggered by Minority Report’s unique car chase.

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Scanner Darkly

Precogs don’t have an easy time of it in Philip K Dick novels. Their awareness of the future is inevitably bound with the tragic realisation that they can’t do a thing to change it. Take the protagonist in The World That Jones Made. He has the miraculous ability to see one year into the future, but this ultimately leads to the bleak reality of living the last year of life with his own assassination sprinting down the timeline towards him. Thankfully, precognition isn’t something that has come to pass in the real world, but a disturbing level of PKDickian premonitions are still manifesting.

Previously, here on Drozbot, we’ve touched upon the burgeoning Internet of Things, and how this is analogous to many of the computerised devices in PKD’s universes. Admittedly, the semi-sentient status of his machines is a far reach from your fridge reordering milk, but there’s an ambivalence to them that highlights a healthy distrust. Giving too much control, or too much data, to the machines, the marketers and the government, is unwise.

Another device that appears repeatedly across many of the author’s stories is the Johnny Cab. Self-driving vehicles that, once again, tend to exhibit more humanity than some of their human passengers. Google’s driverless vehicles seem a far shout from this proposed future, but the convenience they offer remains part of a larger data system over which the end user will have little or no control. Again, technological advancement tempered by nervous unease.

Perhaps our machine overlords will be benevolent, much like the sentient, military killing machines in The Defenders who keep humans locked in their own bunkers for the benefit of the planet. Again, look to the fighter drones on any contemporary battlefield and PKD’s foresight seems even more incredible, formulating his ideas as he was in 1953. In this short story, as in The Simulacrua and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, another repeated trope appears, that of the robot being indistinguishable from its human counterparts. It’s an obsession that seems to have hooked Japan more than any other nation and, as a result, hardly a month goes by without another uncanny android being revealed.

Finally we come to A Scanner Darkly and the state sanctioned surveillance culture it presents. Of all PKD’s Sci-Fi futures, I find this one the most chilling. While scatter suits are the preserve of the military attempting to cloak large vehicles, the idea of our reality being obscured or even falsified by those in power (state, god or even reality itself) is a powerful one. Look into the black lenses of omnipresent CCTV cameras, especially those that resemble the prior civic forms of street lamps, and Dick’s informant culture seems just one sleepwalking step away.

Collectively, all this tech adds up to a predictive chicken and egg scenario. Is the future being mapped out as the influence of PKD’s ideas resonates with us, or was Phil simply a procog who could literally see the shape of things to come. There is evidence for the latter in that he wrote of foreseeing his own demise, slumped face down between a sofa and a coffee table. The stroke that led to his hospitalisation and subsequent death did indeed floor him in just such a position. A tragic procog then perhaps, but one reminding us to always be mindful of the futures we imagine for ourselves.

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