Two more science fiction technologies became real this week

Sometimes the twenty-first century feels like science fiction. Let me share two stories from this week that show previously speculative technologies entering everyday life.

First, the United States Department of Transportation issued regulatory guidelines for autonomous cars. That means the US government is supporting the deployment of self-driving vehicles. The White House described it thusly:

the Administration is announcing a new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy to help facilitate the responsible introduction of automated vehicles to make transportation safer, cleaner, more accessible, and more efficient.

The president even published an op-ed about this in a Pittsburgh newspaper.

As one article put it, “The DOT is not neutral toward AVs. It wants to get them on the road soon. That’s a big deal.” Same article summarizes a chunk of the regulations with this infographic, showing the extensive and practical details realized by the new document:

Regulations aren’t very sexy, and that’s precisely the point. Once a technology has entered the deeply nerdy world of overlapping governmental regulations, you can take that as a sign the thing has become very real indeed.

Second, in hunting the New York/New Jersey bomber(s), the New York City police department sent out an alert… to nearly everyone in the city with a smartphone, at the same time. A Facebook friend describes being on a subway when the message arrived, and everyone in the car’s phones going off simultaneously, emitting the same tone.

As the Times observed,

The “wanted” message sent Monday appeared to be the first widespread attempt to transform the citizens of a major American city into a vigilant and nearly omnipresent eye for the authorities. It added new meaning to the notion of “see something, say something,” even as it raised some concern that innocent people could be mistakenly targeted.

While this sounds like something from cyberpunk fiction (I’m reminded of that great creepy pay phone scene in Neuromancer (1984)), it might already be out of date, like some of cyberpunk fiction. 538 points out that the alert lacks an image, and hence could lead to witch hunting. It was also a broadcast without the ability to track readership, and lacked both non-English versions and identifying marks.

Self-driving cars and crowdsourcing surveillance through nearly ubiquitous handheld computers — some days the twenty-first century actually feels like the future.

(thanks to Lloyd Walker for nearly all of the DOT information; thanks to Greg Diment for the 538 link)

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