Inside the Artificial Intelligence Revolution: A Special Report, Pt. 2

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Media Outlet: Rolling Stone

It's a weird feeling, cruising around Silicon Valley in a car driven by no one. I am in the back seat of one of Google's self-driving cars – a converted Lexus SUV with lasers, radar and low-res cameras strapped to the roof and fenders – as it maneuvers the streets of Mountain View, California, not far from Google's headquarters. I grew up about five miles from here and remember riding around on these same streets on a Schwinn Sting-Ray. Now, I am riding an algorithm, you might say – a mathematical equation, which, written as computer code, controls the Lexus. The car does not feel dangerous, nor does it feel like it is being driven by a human. It rolls to a full stop at stop signs (something no Californian ever does), veers too far away from a delivery van, taps the brakes for no apparent reason as we pass a line of parked cars.

I wonder if the flaw is in me, not the car: Is it reacting to something I can't see? The car is capable of detecting the motion of a cat, or a car crossing the street hundreds of yards away in any direction, day or night (snow and fog can be another matter). "It sees much better than a human being," Dmitri Dolgov, the lead software engineer for Google's self-driving-car project, says proudly. He is sitting behind the wheel, his hands on his lap. Just in case.

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Jeff Goodell was a Class of 2016 & 2017 New America Fellow, working on a book about the impact of sea level rise on Miami, and other cities around the world. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of five books.