Monday, January 28, 2013

Automatic Response

The following is a teaser for my next book project, which will be available for the Kindle and on Smashwords in late spring or early summer. The title Automatic Response refers to this teaser only at this point. The book itself may or may not have a completely different title.

The self-driving car had been a realistic goal that many research departments had flirted with for years. Everyone from BMW to Google had their concept designs, and some of them were fully functional and totally reliable. Still, they all lacked that undefinable spark necessary to ignite consumer demand. One by one, projects floundered... like the flying car before it, the auto-driving automobile seemed just out of reach of even the most forward-thinking automotive engineers. Conspiracy theories began to pile up. Some accused the federal government of intentionally blocking self-driving vehicles in order to preserve the revenue that state and local governments generated from traffic tickets. Others, improbably, blamed corruption within the nation's automobile industry, accusing it of attempting to circumvent market forces in favor of all manner of secondary industries, from oil to steel to the AAA club.

Then came the CoPilot. Veritech industries and its CEO, Bill Vargas, managed to create the product that redefined the market. Like OnStar in the late nineties, CoPilot proved to be an efficient, feature-rich synthesis of several existing technologies in a unique and appealing layout. Vargas was honored for creating a system that could help eliminate human error on the road and, it was hoped, bring down America's startlingly high accidental death rate. Industry magazines caught fire, falling over one another to declare him the new Steve Jobs, and the nation waited to see what Veritech would bring to market next.

Government sources were still wary. Several states passed laws to restrict CoPilot use to parking assistance and freeway travel, where variables like pedestrian traffic and stop lights would not be a factor. All told, forty states found themselves restricting CoPilot use in inclement weather, during peak rush hour periods, or on urban streets.

Despite regulatory trepidation, the CoPilot managed to win out in safety test after safety test. When asked how his system could correctly react to so many variables so quickly, Mr. Vargas said only, "It takes input from its senses, and it makes decisions. The same as you or I. The only difference is that it can make those decisions faster."

Things could not have been better for an emerging technology that took so much responsibility for human life. Unfortunately, Mr. Vargas's personal life paid the price for his commercial success when, one night, a car crash claimed the life of his wife Lynn. Speculation flew as to whether this indicated a fatal flaw in Veritech's CoPilot system, but within twenty-four hours it became clear that the flaw was in Vargas's failure to take advantage of his own invention's success. He had been driving manually when his car was struck in the side by another vehicle that had no CoPilot of its own.

Veritech's lawyers were quick to point out that, had Vargas equipped his own car with a CoPilot, it would have been able to detect the trajectory and speed of the offending vehicle, and it would known to stop Vargas's vehicle before it crossed into that fateful intersection. Vargas himself denied his lawyers' representation of the accident before removing himself from public view. As it stands today, more than a dozen suits over the safety and effectiveness of the CoPilot have been filed, although the only three to make it to summary judgment to date were dismissed.

In the months since Vargas buried his wife, industry magazines have repeatedly reached out to him for comment on the state of his company, his upcoming projects, and his evolving views on artificial intelligence. Until yesterday, no one received a response through official channels. Only unsubstantiated rumors from anonymous sources leaked out of the technological giant. Then, Vargas's office issued the following statement:
There is nothing artificial about the intelligence in the CoPilot system. Like all complex decision-making systems, it is a mixture of automatic response to stimuli and conditioned response. The basic CoPilot unit "learned" to navigate the world through hundreds of hours of complex street driving simulations, laboratory testing, and the most sophisticated heuristic programming that current computer hardware can support. In theory, there are no limits to its ability to continue evolving its mental map of the world and its range of proper responses to emergency scenarios. Because of that, we have total confidence in the CoPilot's ability to function in street situations into the foreseeable future.
While there seems to be nothing beyond the surface of this tragedy, this publication has to ask the hard questions: What is Bill Vargas up to these days? Why has Veritech outsourced the security and safety upgrades to the CoPilot system to other tech companies? And what about the rumors that Mr. Vargas's next project will employ an A.I. system so sophisticated that it will make the CoPilot look like a hamster on its wheel?

We do not know how long we'll have to wait for answers to these questions. Mr. Vargas himself is unreachable, and his research associates, so often seen at press conferences and automotive industry events, have avoided the spotlight since his accident. In fact, the only person with even a tangential relationship to Veritech to make herself available for comment on the company's statement was Vargas's daughter Chelsea. Even then, she only said this:
The loss of my mother has changed my father more than any other event in his life, even the invention of the CoPilot. He spends every day contemplating what he could have done differently, and mourning decisions he can not undo. Leave him to his grief. He will come back to the world when he is ready.
It seems on the surface like wise advice, especially from the inexperienced mouth of such a young woman, but this reporter has to ask: What exactly is the relationship between the death of Vargas's wife and the rumors of a new artificial intelligence project on the horizon?