Weekly readings – 17th August 2019

The Amazon Publishing Juggernaut. I saw someone mention on Twitter that America’s exceptionalism is about the endless potential. To be honest, I have been quite surprised by the reactions to Amazon’s branching out to other areas in addition to their long-known expertise. They are taking advantage of capitalism and exceptionalism for which America is known for. If you don’t do a job well enough to secure your market share and please your customers, you’re ripe for the taking. Amazon is just so darn good at doing the taking

The dawn of the age of geoengineering. A super interesting blog post on the potential Earth-saving projects.

Amazon offered vendors ‘Amazon’s Choice’ labels in return for ad spending and lower prices. Not a good look for Amazon.

Apple brings contactless student IDs on iPhone and Apple Watch to more universities. I love the way it is going. Apple makes it more sticky for students to own an iPhone

Is Elon Wrong About LiDAR? A very interesting post on Lidar, a popular technology in the world of autonomous vehicles

Are autonomous vehicles the answer to many businesses’ problems?

It’s not uncommon nowadays that businesses mention autonomous vehicles as an opportunity for growth and profitability. Unless their vehicles are self-driven, ride-sharing services such as Lyft or Uber don’t particularly promise a sure path to profitability at the moment. In an article published last week, the CEO of AT&T mentioned self-driving cars as a reason for his optimism

Even Warren Buffett quails at the prospect of competing in such a powerful field of rivals. “Everybody has just got two eyeballs, and they’ve got x hours of discretionary time … maybe four or five hours a day,” he said recently at a charity event, speaking generally about the entertainment industry. “You’ve got some very, very, very big players that are going to fight over those eyeballs. The eyeballs aren’t going to double. You have very smart people with lots of resources trying to figure out how to grab another half-hour of your time.” His assessment: “I would not want to play in that game myself. That’s too tough for me.”

Any business that Buffett wants to avoid sounds unpromising, but Stephenson rejects the legendary investor’s premise. Acknowledging that “there are only 16 waking hours in the day,” he says, “Well, we haven’t filled up the 16 hours yet.” He nods toward his office window over Commerce Street with its busy traffic, which he says will ease when 5G networks enable autonomous cars. “When you have the lion’s share of those cars autonomous, for the average person that’s another two hours of availability of screen time, consuming video.”

AT&T Has Become a New Kind of Media Giant

Are autonomous cars the answer though?

Let’s say, generously speaking, 10 years from now all the cars would be self-driving. What would it look like? If the cars don’t carry passengers, without drivers, where would the cars go? Would all the cars keep driving endlessly till they are called to pick up passengers? Would the cars park on the street and if so, would there be enough space to accommodate all the cars? If the cars park in a garage somewhere, how would the garages be planned and constructed so that the garages are all well spread throughout a decently big area?

There can be many more questions that would result from having mainly autonomous vehicles on the streets. I can’t think of them all, but you get the idea. Right now, we don’t even have many on the streets yet, let alone answering questions and tackling problems that ensue the arrival of self-driving cars. Additionally, I personally don’t believe that we can have all cars or the majority of the cars self-driven on the streets in the next 10 years. I wrote something about it here.

If it takes a long time for self-driving cars to be realized and populated, can the likes of AT&T, Uber or Lyft wait till that time? AT&T’s debt is almost $200 billion and as Warren Buffett said above, and I agreed with his view, that the competition for eyeballs wasn’t going to get any easier. Uber or Lyft keeps losing money operationally and will be expected to continue that path, unless self-driving cars come along. 10-15 years of losing millions, if not billions, of dollars every year doesn’t seem a sort of business that investors like. And before any comparison between Uber and Amazon is raised, the two are far from being similar to each other. Look at their respective operating income.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Obviously, some years from now, it is possible that I may be embarrassed for saying all this and the fine folks in Silicon Valley or that somewhere in the US can deliver the miracle. Until then, I prefer being pragmatic to venturing out too far into fiction and imagination.

Why I don’t think we will have autonomous vehicles anytime soon

If you follow the news a little bit, it will be highly difficult not to see coverage on autonomous cars. As one of the most hyped technology concepts in recent times, self-driving cars attract the imagination of hundreds of people and great investments from some of the biggest companies in the world. Great as they are, at least in theory, they won’t be widely used on the streets in the foreseeable future, in my opinion. In this piece, I’ll explain the two chief reasons for my pessimism on the technology’s outlook. As I am not a developer, it won’t be credible of me to talk about its feasibility from a technical standpoint. I’ll leave it to others who are more knowledgeable. My pessimism is largely based on logical deductions and what I have read on the topic.


This is what I think will be the biggest hindrance to the ubiquitous adoption of self-driving cars. Let’s first talk about a classic ethical problem called “The trolley problem”. Imagine you were the driver of a train that, on the current course, would kill five unfortunate track workers who were not aware that the train was coming. To avoid the collision, you could  make the train go off track, but you would kill one person nearby. What would you do?

Let’s add a little twist to the scenario. Imagine while you were strolling, you spotted the training coming and going to kill 5 workers on the track. In front of you was there a stranger. If you pushed the person onto the track, the train would kill the person and go off track, sparing the five workers. What would you do?

As self-driving cars are expected to replace us human-beings in managing the cars and behaving in every situation, they would have to deal with highly controversial and tough situations such as the two above. To do so, the cars would have to be programmed in advance by developers. The question now is whether the developers can turn ethics into code. The task is monumentally challenging as there are countless scenarios that could happen in our life. Each scenario has so many moving parts, each of which, if changed, could warrant a new solution or different approach. I don’t see how developers can deal with such a gigantic number of scenarios that could happen.

Even if such a capability is feasible, the question now turns to what standards will be applied to the ethics translated into code. We differ from one to another in how we view an ethical situation and how to deal with it. Some would say that the collective good matters more and hence killing one person would be, for the lack of a better word, a better outcome than killing five people. Others would disagree with that judgement, citing the indisputable value of human lives and refusing to kill any on purpose. What standards would developers use to translate ethics into code?

Imagine some ethically challenging scenarios in your head. Like a family member is badly injured and you are driving him/her to the hospital. Would you run the light? Would you illegally change lanes to go faster? If the car was autonomous, how would the computer know when it would be appropriate to break the rules? When would the ends justify the means?

To make matters worse, what if an accident was caused by an autonomous car with a human in it, who would be liable? Would it be the car producers or the car owners? If such a clarification is not clear cut, it would be inconceivable that insurance issuers would agree to insure the cars.

Infrastructure overhaul

If autonomous cars are successfully conceived, would it benefit the society as a whole to just simply switch from human-driving to self-driving mode? If 100 car owners switch from ordinary vehicles to their autonomous counterparts, would such a transition cure the traffic issue and as a result, save time for us? Or we would still be stuck in traffic jam and the difference would only be that we would be hand-free and checking our phones?

The only scenario that could benefit the society is when most of us would use autonomous public transportation. That way, there will be many fewer cars on the streets. Almost nobody would need to own a car, have trouble finding a parking slot or pay for fuel. Imagine a world in which you step out of office and the public transportation system is smart enough to have a metro or bus that will take you home by itself in the most optimized route possible. Imagine a world in which so much of public space would be saved from being parking slots for cars.

However, an autonomous public transportation would require a complete overhaul of our current infrastructure; which seems highly unlikely for me. Implementation in a small area may happen, but it would take a lot more effort and time to see it scaled.

Of course, the technology empowering autonomous vehicles can well be used in other industries or applications. The same phenomenon has happened with space technology for years. However, regarding autonomous vehicles alone, I don’t see a mass implementation, as expected by many, happen any time soon. While I remain excited to see what unfolds in the future, unless any major breakthrough is unveiled, I am not really convinced. Yet.