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Search Engine Meets Internal Combustion Engine

Stanford's entry in the 2005 DARPA Grand challenge.Photo: Steve Jurvetson Stanford’s entry in the 2005 DARPA Grand challenge.

Ahh, Google. Has there ever been a company that has done me such terrific good, while asking for so little except the ability to do me terrific harm?
Between my web searches, emails, appointments, places I have visited and online videos I have watched, Google basically knows me better than I do. Even Big Brother had to make do with just the two-way telescreens.
I’m used to Google reading my email and creating customized messages for me about cheap airfares and advanced degree programs. However, I never realized that Google reads this blog and then produces news articles in the national media for my enjoyment.
No sooner did I write about the terrific potential of driverless cars (here and here) than an article, apparently generated by Google for my benefit, appeared in the Times. It announced that Google has been conducting a top-secret driverless vehicle program.
Right under our noses, Google has been operating a fleet of robocars – equipped with video cameras, radar and lasers – which have been driving themselves on city streets virtually without incident. See the article here.
A blog post from Google engineer Sebastian Thrun (the man in charge of the project) notes that “Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus [in Northern California] to our Santa Monica office [in the LA area] and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles.” All with practically nobody noticing.
The brains behind the project are many of the engineers responsible for successful entries in past DARPA Challenges.
I find it amusing that the cars can be programmed to assume different driving styles with different levels of aggression. Hopefully they won’t offer “trucker high on cheap speed” or “Al Cowlings” settings.
The company doesn’t quite know how it’s going to monetize the technology. And if and when it does figure that out, it will take years for any money to start rolling in. Apparently, Larry Page and Sergey Brin simply see the power of driverless car technology to reshape our society for the better, and are willing to put up their money to hasten its arrival – even with a very uncertain prospect of reward. Guys, you can snoop on my stock portfolio and peruse my trash talk with my fantasy basketball competitors any day.
And no, it won’t dismay me if you somehow figure out a way to keep a record of my travel in exchange for giving me the ability to do email on the drive to work. At this point, I guess it’s in for the penny, in for the pound.
There’s just one thing that troubles me about all of this. Okay, Google generated the driverless cars idea from scanning my posts, but how did it retroactively create an elaborate program which has already been in existence for several years? Has Google secretly developed time travel, so that it can read our emails (and this column) before they are written? From the minds of Page and Brin, nothing would surprise me.