Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 2, 2016

What the Tesla autopilot casualty tells us about our ruling class

Filed under: capitalist pig,computers,technology — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

On May 7th a man named Joshua Brown died when his Tesla smacked into a trailer truck that the autopilot system mistook for the sky. Brown was a Navy Seal veteran who had worked in the Special Warfare Development Group, the elite unit that killed Osama Bin-Laden. His specialty was dismantling bombs in Iraq. Little did he realize that he was killed by a bomb that was set to go off the first time its onboard computer system malfunctioned.

Apparently Brown was obsessed with his car and its supposedly miraculous ability to forestall highway accidents. He made many Youtube videos about his passion, including the most recent one that illustrated its uncanny ability to avoid accidents.

The Guardian reported that Brown was watching a Harry Potter video when his Tesla careened into the trailer-truck so we can conclude that magic did not come to his rescue. It described the circumstances of the collision:

According to Tesla’s account of the crash, the car’s sensor system, against a bright spring sky, failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway. In a blogpost, Tesla said the self-driving car attempted to drive full speed under the trailer “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”.

One imagines that Brown must have invested so much in the car and his invincibility because he ran a technology consulting company called Nexu Innovations that was for “Making a Difference in Our Flattening World”. Of course, the concept of a “flattening” world is straight out of the Thomas Friedman playbook. Friedman has been churning out columns on how outsourced tech support help desks in Ghana, etc. would be the answer to the world’s woes and wherever it failed, the Navy Seals could step in and straighten things out.

My immediate reaction to the news of his death was to tell my wife that we should be grateful that Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars, was never implemented. Back in 1983 when I was getting re-politicized around the Central America guerrilla struggles, I also decided to join Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a group that made blocking the implementation of SDI a high priority.

The technology of SDI and the Tesla autopilot system are both based on artificial intelligence, in effect to give computer systems the same capability of a human eye matched to a functioning brain that follows certain pre-established rules. With Tesla, the goal is to avoid collisions. With SDI, the goal was to make them—specifically to smack into and blow to smithereens Soviet missiles that encroached upon American airspace. Reagan’s goal was to provide a nuclear shield that would give the USA a big advantage in a Cold War that might turn hot. Many people, including someone like me who used to take part in “duck and cover” drills in elementary school in the 1950s, were terrified by the notions being put forward by Reagan and his cohorts.

Reagan believed that missiles could be “recalled” as if they were like remote controlled model airplanes. Even more ghastly was the reassurances of Thomas K. Jones, Reagan’s Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, that the USA could recover from a nuclear war with Russia in 2 to 4 years. Jones once said, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”  We were supposed to use the shovels to dig a hole in the ground (can you imagine New Yorkers running to Central Park with the H-Bomb on the way?) that would be covered with a couple of doors and three feet of dirt on top of them. Jones said, “It’s the dirt that does it.”

As it happens, there is a morbid connection between this doomsday scenario and the capitalist who started Tesla. Elon Musk is not the only the manufacturer who is pioneering such cars but he is the only one who pushes the idea that an autopilot system capable of changing lanes now exists in his automobile. For others working in the field such as Volvo, Mercedes and Toyota, they never saw it more than only a technology good for parking assistance.

Mary “Missy” Cummings, a Duke University robotics professor and former military pilot, told the Guardian that Tesla should disable its autopilot system for navigating multilane expressways. “Either fix it or turn it off … The car was in a place where the computer was blind. The computer couldn’t see the environment for what it was.”

In addition to Tesla, Musk is investing in space travel. He is interviewed by Werner Herzog in “Lo and Behold”, a documentary on computers, the Internet and robotics that opens on August 19th. Herzog, who is much more interested in the “gee whiz” personalities of the men he interviews than their political or social ambitions (a point that A.O. Scott made to me that I had not even gathered), was goggle-eyed as Musk spelled out the need for colonizing Mars if “something goes wrong” on Earth.

The company is called SpaceX and it hopes to have its first launch in 2022. In a 2013 interview with the Guardian, the man who made his billions from Paypal stated that he was inspired to shoot for colonizing Mars after reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series whose main character Hari Seldon anticipates the collapse of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way. To save humanity, he creates a think-tank that develops the technology to launch a new galactic empire.

Musk told the Guardian, “It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?”

The answer for Musk is technology.

“The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We’re obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”

In James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, Stephen Dedalus says “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

This is our nightmare, comrades. We have a capitalist class that is planning to colonize Mars in order to escape from the disaster it is now creating on Earth. Musk says he expects his business to be profitable since there will certainly be 80,000 people willing to pay the big bucks to flee a planet that has been consumed by nuclear war, catastrophic Noah’s Ark type flooding because of climate change, epidemics caused by viruses unleashed by the penetration of rain forests, or some other unforeseen disaster.

Musk is not the only capitalist who has “escape” plans. Jeff Bezos, the filthy predator who runs Amazon, is investing in Blue Origin, a space travel company that will not aim at colonizing Mars—a place that Bezos writes off as inhabitable—but instead hopes to launch huge satellites that will orbit around a post-apocalyptic planet Earth. In an interview with the Miami Herald conducted shortly after his high school graduation (he was class valedictorian), he said he wanted to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit. We have no idea what Bezos’s plans are today but one suspected that they are much more in line with Musk’s, to create a sanctuary for 80,000 or so people who share his bourgeois values.

One thing we can be certain about: if people like Bezos inhabited a space station, they’d probably kill each other before the year is up given what they are doing to the planet today.

4 Comments »

  1. “90 CEOs in the driver’s seat
    Erecting rockets on their ranches
    Coding launch velocities …”
    For the full Climate Action Performance poem, “90 CEOs” — http://youtu.be/wMTrz3t8F4Q

    Comment by emmryss — July 2, 2016 @ 10:17 pm

  2. Thought it was interesting how the blame for ‘self-driving’ car accidents is being placed on non self-driving vehicles who are spoiling all the fun. One reporter noted it was reminiscent of how early car manufacturers, in response to pedestrians being run over, waged a massive PR campaign to blame pedestrians and invented the term ‘jay walker’ to smear them.

    Comment by Stepan Petrichenko (@pyotr_kropotkin) — July 3, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

  3. You need to be more familiar with artificial intelligence to understand how problematic the idea of self-driving cars is. With news every day about glitches that cost the lives of thousands of people in American and Japanese cars, the idea of an industry so indifferent to casualties in general can be trusted to build safe self-driving cars is delusional.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 3, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

  4. We have a capitalist class that is planning to colonize Mars ….

    I vividly recall from my four-and-a-half-year stint at NASA HQ back in the ’90s how you would run across people who religiously believed in “terra-forming Mars” as it was (and probably still is) called. How they planned to restore the Martian atmosphere in the absence of a functioning magnetosphere was somehow never discussed, but among the devoted the “terra-forming” premise was never seriously questioned.

    I have recently begun to suspect that major technical breakthroughs–including some, like a feasible Thorium LFTR that might help with global warming–simply can’t happen any more under capitalism. The over-excited voices of money talking–that is, in large part, of investors lying–are simply not adequate to the kind of discussion required to assess and implement the necessary changes.

    Apart from the mystical mumbo-jumbo surrounding figures like the vastly overrated Steve Jobs, the flightiness of such presumed technical “best minds” as Elon Musk is a case in point.

    Scratch any New Democrat and you will find a believer in the power of the creative entrepreneur. “Creative” + “entrepreneur”–two words that send cold chills down my spine. But what is the way out of this?

    Comment by Pete Glosser — July 5, 2016 @ 2:04 pm


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