Should Robots Get Driver’s Licenses?


Marc van der Chijs | Flickr

Rules for the driverless road. Federal regulators have finally issued long-awaited guidelines for self-driving cars, including a 15-point safety standard (The New York Times). The manufacturers and services kickstarting this industry have advocated a set of national rules to pre-empt a state-by-state patch quilt. Safety advocates have been eager to keep the government a step ahead of companies that are rushing to test-drive new systems without waiting for regulations. The new guidelines are work-in-progress vague, but they do provide guidance for how autonomous driving systems should handle failures and protect passengers in a crash — and they ask the states to agree on one set of rules rather than 50. Is this approach tough or lax? Dueling headlines suggest the jury’s out: The Times has “Self-driving cars gain powerful ally: the government,” but in The Washington Post, it’s “Federal officials plan aggressive approach to driverless cars.” Of course, any regulation is only as strong as the intent of the people responsible for enforcing it. Right now, the Obama administration sounds pretty fired up about the self-driven future. Next year? Stay tuned to the polls. Whatever happens, the rise of autonomous vehicles will mean we need to rethink the whole notion of a DMV (The Atlantic) — as we figure out how, exactly, a piece of software gets its driver’s license.

Liberalism is so last century. Britain may be a lap or two ahead of the U.S. in crossing the threshold of what a commentator in The Guardian calls “the post-liberal age.” In approving its massive new Hinkley Point nuclear plant, the U.K. government insisted that it would retain a share in the project and apply a national security test to ownership of the plant (and similar assets). These conditions aren’t unusual or outrageous — but they do run counter to the strain of laissez-faire neoliberalism that has dominated Western governments since the 1980s. Meanwhile, social liberalism’s credos of tolerance and inclusion are being tested, if not broken, under the pressure of terrorist attacks and fear of radical Islamism. It’s hardly time to write an obituary for liberalism — the term means too many different things and has deep roots in so many policies and institutions. But we are clearly beginning to leave one era behind without knowing just what we’ll find in the next one.

The algorithm that warns you might die soon. Healthcare is an industry widely viewed as needing to play catchup in applying digital smarts and data-driven techniques to its work. But the path to that end is a lot more winding than it looks, as demonstrated by the tale of an algorithm that identifies patients at high risk of infection (Buzzfeed). When Banner Health in Phoenix rolled out its system for flagging patients who were likely to get sepsis — a deadly overreaction to infection — hospital staffers found themselves overloaded with false-alarm alerts. Only 1/4 of the patients the algorithm flagged during a trial from 2011–13 actually had sepsis. When doctors reviewed the results, though, they found that the system did a great job of identifying patients who were severely ill: those it flagged were four times more likely to die over the next day. The algorithm didn’t do what it was supposed to do, but it seemed to do something else extremely useful. Expect to hear a lot of similar stories as we push algorithms into every corner of our businesses and lives.

Netflix is an “existential threat” to the old Hollywood. Netflix’s recent success as a producer of original TV series only capped the company’s march of disruption in the entertainment industry. Its new model is forcing competitors in cable, broadcast TV and the movie industry to rethink their futures (The Hollywood Reporter). Entertainment-industry players have welcomed the influx of Netflix’s billions over the past few years. The fear now: Netflix could emerge as a dominant player on the scale of Google, Apple, or Amazon — and if it does, the cash flowing from the company into the pockets of creators and agents will evaporate. In this scenario, Hollywood is just the next domino to fall, joining the music and news industries on the pile of flattened business models. Other observers discount the idea that any one company will dominate the future and instead see a changing of the guard, as Netflix and other competitors gradually displace today’s top studios.

A subtler picture of Millennial underemployment. The stereotype of the barista with a BA ought to come with an asterisk (The Atlantic): It turns out you’ll have little trouble finding a job if you’re a recent college grad with a degree in hard science or engineering. Those espresso machines are being tended by humanities majors. Anyway, both groups of grads ultimately earn more and produce more than their coevals who only earned high school degrees; over time, even the English majors do all right. And we shouldn’t forget the hidden value of trying out different jobs in your twenties: You’re more likely to end up with a career that’s right for you.

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