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Interview: Robert Grossbach on “Driverless”

Bob GrossbachTell us a bit about “Driverless.”

“Driverless” refers, naturally, to driverless cars and, in this case, somewhat obliquely, to the driven central character.  Many people have pointed out the societal disruptions that loom in the near future from these vehicles, but this particular story focusses on a more chilling technological possibility.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

For most of what I write, I can’t identify a particular stimulus or moment of creation.  But this story was unusual in that it had a very specific origin: an email exchange with Gordon Van Gelder sometime after the publication of a previous story (“myPhone20,” F&SF, September/October 2013).  He mentioned that one of the things he liked about that effort was its skepticism regarding technology.  He then added, “In fact, you might want to apply your talents to the driverless car.  I’m amazed no one has published a story yet about how dangerous these suckers are going to be.”

Now at the time I was struggling through the sixth draft of a sequel to a previous story, and the sudden idea of all the things that could go wrong with driverless vehicles just set my head spinning.  I imagined vast fleets of semi-autonomous, communicating, internet-connected, competing swarms of these things careening through city streets, and thought: what a wonderful recipe for disaster!  Now add to that the fact that the editor-publisher of a major SF magazine had actually suggested the topic … and I somehow managed to overcome my angst at capitulating to crass commercialism, thrust aside draft seven, and whipped out “Driverless.”

 

What kind of research, if any, did you do for “Driverless?”

As a still-sort-of-practicing electrical engineer, with a specialty in RF/microwaves and a background in electronic countermeasures components, I see various techie publications, e.g. IEEE Spectrum, Microwave Journal, IEEE Microwave Magazine, with articles on driverless vehicle technology.  All I had to do was find a few operating frequencies, a few pieces on the lidars, radars, and processors, and I was pretty much set.  Of course, like many techies, I’m caught up in Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near and How to Create a Mind, from which I also gleaned data processing information.

 

As an engineer, what do you think of the push for driverless cars, and the growing trend of automation in general?

I think it’s unstoppable, will make many people’s lives easier, and will make many others’ lives much worse.  While my story’s concentration was on the emergent properties (the techie phrase for “shit happens”) possible with multiple, widespread, communicating new devices, I do think the major disruptions will be societal.

Large numbers of jobs will be permanently lost, and many people will no longer have the skills valued by employers and will not have the wherewithal or intellect to acquire them.  So either we find a way to provide those people with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and access to higher education – or, eventually, desperate, they’ll just take what they need by any means.  Yes, revolution, a grim picture indeed.

And even if, somehow, technology can make us sufficiently productive to fill everyone’s basic necessities, what then?  I keep thinking of Jack Williamson’s story, “With Folded Hands,” (later becoming the novel, The Humanoids), about a race of intelligent robots who came to Earth and did everything for everyone, so that no one needed to work.  Is that, then, the alternative to revolution for the permanently unemployable, to sit by with folded hands?

 

What are you working on now?

Oh, I don’t like to say what I’m working on; I subscribe to the Norman Mailer theory that when you discuss that subject (picture the cocktail-party writer, trying to impress you by talking about his novel-in-progress), it somehow drains power from the work.

 

“Driverless” appears in the March/April 2017 issue of F&SF.

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