Where Robot Cars Are Driving Us: Interview with Brad Templeton

During the recent Web Summit held in Dublin, Ireland, we were honored to speak with Internet pioneer Brad Templeton on topics like robot cars (self-driving cars), Internet of Things and on-line surveillance.

Canadian-born software architect Brad Templeton is active in the network community since late 70’s. He is considered to have been the first to suggest that Internet addresses should be in the form site “dot” top-level-domain. He also founded the first-ever dot-company back in 1989.

Currently, living in San Francisco, Templeton is a noted advocate of robot cars, having even advised Google on its driverless car project. This multifaceted entrepreneur is also a Board Member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a well-known non-profit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world, Director for the Singularity University, and Board Member of the nanotechnology think tank Foresight Institute.

He made two appearances at the Web Summit, the first one on Day 1 to talk to a crowded audience on the Machine Stage, and the second one on Day 2 in a round-table format meeting. After that we met for this interview.

Brad Templeton at Dublin Web Summit 2014
Brad Templeton at Dublin Web Summit 2014

P.N. Robocars are one of the most expected technologies nowadays. Can they, in its current state of development, provide solutions for the car industry of today ?

B.T. I don’t want to say that the cars are good today as something you can sell to people. Although, there are some people building products, what you call advanced cruise control, but you still have to pay attention, you can take your hands off the steering wheel but still you have to be watching, so that is just a way of relaxing. Some of these technologies sprung out of researches on this, or some of the robocars researches sprung out of researches on building a system called ADAS. The interesting thing happening is a push for cheaper sensor technology, lighter technology, radar technology. All these technologies are getting more people interested in working on manufacturing high-end cars cheaper, which gonna help every kind of car.

P.N. How come you got involved with robocars ?

B.T. Cars are incredible huge. They really have reshaped our lives, they reshape cities, how we live, where we live. They count for, in the United States, 25 % of the energy consumption, 25 % of the greenhouse gas emissions, they use half of the land in many cities, parking garages, parking lots, and roads, this sort of things. They are just huge. They also kill a lot of us, in the United States and around the world, that is unparalleled with a lot of major diseases, they are one of the world’s biggest problems. For example, in the United States, more people are dying in car crashes than in all its wars, going back to the American Revolution. That means that amazing things we will be able to rewrite.

P.N. Maybe in Europe this issue is not regarded as so important. I live in Barcelona, I don’t have a car and actually …

B.T. But that’s not true of most people in Barcelona. In the United States, about 93 % of passenger-kilometers is done in cars, the rest in transit, and Europeans do about 82 %. So, the cars almost dominate in Europe as well. I may think, if I live in downtown Barcelona, or other European old city like London, I can live without a car… although, don’t you ever get a taxi ? So you use a car too.

P.N. Do robocars depend on an ubiquitous Internet ?

B.T. Not really. Well, that depends on the car design, you rely on maps of the territories, and you like to get updated maps, so you need the Internet. But, certainly you can drive without it next to you.

P.N. Which is your vision of the Internet of Things ?

B.T. Internet of Things is a marketing thing. There’s no such a thing like the Internet of Things. There’s no overriding theme, there’s no one master protocol, there’s no even one technology. It’s a marketing thought describing a whole.  What I’m waiting is to find someone that tells me which are the Internet of Thing’s real achievements, someone to say what the killer app is. There are thousand of interesting apps but if I go back in time –I was there so I know it is the truth– when in the 70’s we were all building the Internet, everyone there could have told you something which was to be world-changing, we didn’t know exactly how it worked, but we were working on this. We all knew that it would change our lives … For the Internet of Things, I see too many people who tell me that your fridge is going to know if your milk is on the net, your house is going to manage the temperature a little bit better. In medicine, I see real application to change people’s lives, maybe. The fact that it’s tweeting if I have walked more than yesterday … actually, to know that, I don’t even need that it tells me. So, it’s nice, it’s cool, but it’s not changing my life.

P.N. You have a strong commitment in the defense of freedom and civil liberties on Internet. During the last Maker Faire in Rome, another activist on these issues, Cory Doctorow, warned about the risks of allowing companies and governments to control the Internet. How is that affecting our online civil rights as we understand them now ?

B.T. It’s an issue. We have to worry in particular of just how much the governments of the world have taken the Internet that we built to be a tool to communicate with each other, and shop and make a lot of other things we do with it, and they turned it to be the biggest surveillance apparatus ever to grind us. We just pretend that it’s not happening anymore. And not just the governments. Other people say that it’s not scaring: frankly, I’m scared of both. Businesses are actually in more stuff, but the motives are far from obscure and easier to stand up. They want simply that we buy their shit. Governments are not there to do that, mainly they are there to have the means to start punishing innocents and building the tools of a police state which is scarier than being convinced to buy things, to me.

P.N. Just to finish, what are your next challenges ?

B.T. I will continue to work in cars, and I think there are 13 people building cars start-ups in the States. So we are starting to see cars as something as a start-ups theme, but I’d like to see more activity on that space, maybe get involved in it.  I’m also excited about Bitcoin right now: I’ve called it a marketing thing, but the trends that are underneath they are real, so I’m interested in what’s going on there.

You will find more on robocars and further Templeton’s ideas on his home page. Also, here you can read our recap of his great talk at the Web Summit.

PostDigital Node

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