Remembering those who could see into the future

Now for something completely different.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up on the big three — Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke.

I devoured Robert A. Heinlein from “Rocket Ship Galileo” through “Stranger in a Strange Land” and beyond. I perused Isaac Asimov from this robot books throughout the “Foundation” trilogy and beyond. I read Arthur C. Clarke’s books about entering the space age and, of course, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

All of them anticipated events and technology decades before they became reality. Prophets are only truly appreciated in hindsight.

The other day I picked up  Clarke’s “3001: The Final Odyssey,” which had inexplicably been gathering dust on a shelf. “2001,” the book and the movie, took off in 1968 with the assist of Stanley Kubrik, while the millennium-later sequel splashed down in 1997.

It might be helpful to rewatch the movie or scan a synopsis of the book before tackling “3001.”

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say three of the characters from “2001” put in an “appearance.” But the ending is one that I doubt many truly appreciated back in 1997, but actual events have made it startlingly plausible — the ancient in modern form, a Trojan Horse.

After putting the book down, I headed to the book store and grabbed Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” from 1953. Back to the future. See you there.

 

 

 

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This is the way democracy will end, not with a bang …

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul with a wholsome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. this is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Thomas Jefferson

We had better get started, because it is a steep hill to climb.

A report out this month called “A Crisis in Education” reveals an appalling lack of knowledge of civics by Americans in general and even college graduates.

A multiple-choice survey found Americans don’t know much about history or civics. Merely should have resulted in at least 25 percent correct answers since only four choices were given, but ignorance beats the odds

For example, only 20.6 percent could identify James Madison as the primary author of the Constitution, while 60.5 percent answered Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who was serving as ambassador to France when the Constitution was written. Only 28.4 percent of college grads correctly named Madison, while 59.2 percent named Jefferson.

 

The survey found that a college education was less of a factor in civic knowledge than age. Older college grads answered more questions correctly than younger ones.

The study authors offer this explanation for the state of ignorance:

Given all the interest expressed in civic education, how has this happened? The simple answer: a proliferation of programs that do not address the problem. Too many colleges and universities confuse community service and student activism with civic education. Service learning and political engagement form a wholesome part of the development of character and, when judiciously chosen, lead to civic virtue. But without coursework in American history and government, such activities achieve little of substance. Too often, proposals for civic renewal have been overly broad and vague. While they have called for more civic education, they have generally failed to define civic knowledge or require objective assessment. Contemporary discussions of civic education also suffer from what might be called the “universalist fallacy,” which dismisses special concentration on the U.S. Constitution and the founding principles of the nation because such an emphasis makes a “normative” judgment about the priority of certain issues over others in the education of young Americans.

Survey Q1

Survey Q2

 

How can people ignorant of the lessons of history and the how their own government works make informed decisions at the polls?

“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

     — H.L. Mencken

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

    — Isaac Asimov

Who is liable when a driverless car wrecks?

The Nevada Legislature in 2011 approved the testing of driverless cars. Google has equipped eight test cars that sport special license plates, ones with a red background and an infinity symbol on the left side, according to a Las Vegas Sun story.

Gov. Brian Sandoval “test drives” a driverless car. (AP photo)

But the Arizona Legislature is now grappling with the burning question that makes the hearts of lawyers everywhere go pitter patter: Who is liable if a driverless car is to blame for a wreck?

A Wall Street Journal article addresses this by asking: “Is it the company that designed the technology? The car’s owner, or a passenger who should have assumed control? The auto maker who built the car?”

The WSJ article says Nevada bureaucrats at the Department of Motor Vehicles have come up with 22 pages of rules for the robotic test cars, including that the tester must post a liability bond of $1 million.

I think this is an area Isaac Asimov may have overlooked when he came up with his Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Perhaps we need a codicil that addresses whether a robot has a right against self-incrimination.