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Jalen fired up the gaming console, grabbed the controller off the dresser, adjusted his VR headset, and stared at the giant flat-screen. The reflection of a thin, somewhat serious African American teen looked back. Jalen felt disconnected from the image reflecting back at him, as if his own eyes were saying, “That’s all you got?” He looked away.
From the console, Jalen launched Twitch, a free software tool that allowed him to stream his gameplay live. Checking the sound to make sure the tiny webcam mounted on the TV was recording him, he now saw a different Jalen sitting on the bed—tall, confident, and athletic, despite his apathy for sports.
“Damn waste of my good genes,” his dad had said more than once. Jalen’s father, Ronnie Rose, had been the one to buy Jalen’s first gaming console. And sometimes when Jalen visited his father and the awkward silence was just too much, he played games on the living room floor, his dad sprawled out on the couch behind him, talking like Jalen wasn’t there.
“I bred a boy who could play in the NFL or NBA,” his dad said, “but all he does is stare at those screens.” Jalen wanted to point out that his dad was a hypocrite. Not only did he devote his life to a game—football—Ronnie was also a huge videogamer, and until he moved out, he would hog the TV with endless rounds of Halo, Madden, and NBA Live. He even got addicted to Candy Crush. Jalen wanted to tell his father to focus on himself and stop shaming him, but that would only set him off. “Waste of time, money, and DNA!”
“You think you’re responsible for those good genes?” Jalen’s mom laughed. Tyra Rose immigrated to Florida from Brazil as a child, and with a little help from her dedicated father, she became one of the best women tennis players in the world, at one time holding a number-one rank. She’d won seven majors—Wimbledon twice—before having Jalen and his sisters. “Tell me, Ronnie, how many championships did you have with the Lions?”
“Don’t you give me that,” Ronnie groaned. He’d been a five-time, all-pro wide receiver for Detroit. “You know the team sucked. Can’t expect me to carry the world on these shoulders.” Ronnie grinned down his right and left side. “Broad as they are.”
“Okayyyy, blame it on the team.” Tyra turned to her son. “Baby, I want you to take note: your father’s attitude is the reason he hasn’t worked a day since he left the league thirteen years ago.”
“Goddamn.” Ronnie stood up. “This is exactly why I got outta this house. Jalen, you take a note. Pick a woman who pulls you up, not pushes you down.”
Tyra followed Ronnie to the door. “There’s a difference between pushing someone down and challenging them to be their best. I challenged you. You gave up!”
“How ’bout you challenge our son to get off his damn ass.” Ronnie slammed the door.
* * *
Sanjeet Rao, the CEO of GoTech, the leading developer of autonomous vehicles in the United States, strode confidently toward the modified Peterbilt semitrailer truck with CBS Nightly News anchor Chris Moriarty, and his cameraman, in tow.
“The strategy behind GoTech’s business model,” Sanjeet said to the illustrious reporter, “is to provide the autonomous operating system—the brains of the car—to vehicles.” Sanjeet motioned to the GoTech technology mounted over the truck’s cab. “We don’t want to make cars or trucks, we want to make the technology that drives the future.” Sanjeet smiled, letting the line—the bit of branding he’d paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for—sink in. “Think of it like an open operating system in a cell phone. Samsung, Google Pixel, and LG all have different housings, different features, but the thing that makes the phones work—the brains, if you will—is the Android operating system running on the phone, the open system any phone can use. We are like the Android operating system for vehicles. We’re the brains and you can put us in any brand, any body type, pretty much anything with four wheels. We just want to make the driving experience more efficient, more productive, more enjoyable, and much, much safer. Doesn’t matter if it’s a car, truck, or even a golf cart.”
Chris nodded and his cameraman panned the cab of the truck. “I can tell you that everyone at my dad’s country club would be a lot safer if he had a self-driving golf cart.”
“Good.” Sanjeet laughed a little too hard. “We’re up for the job. But in all seriousness,” he said, clearing his throat. “We exist so you can do the things you want to do in your vehicle and let us do the driving. Our GoTech Model One is outfitted with LiDAR VR voice recognition software. We have thirteen mounted cameras, 750 sensors in the exterior and interior of the vehicle, including the most advanced telematics reporting system available. But the secret sauce, if you will, is our local computing power within the vehicle, supported by a cloud-based computing power and the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset within the GoTech module, which leverages 5G and 4G plus LTE connectivity with the cloud.”
“Quite a mouthful.” Chris Moriarty flashed a smile, his veneers fitting for a nightly news anchor.
“Yes,” Sanjeet chuckled. “Simply put, there’s no faster, safer, or more tested solution in the market, whether driving a sedan or an eighteen-wheeler like this one.”
“Yes, I know,” Moriarty said. “I’ve seen your tech riding on top of cars and cabs in my neighborhood in New York and when I travel to Silicon Valley. Very distinctive.”
“We have a lot of cars out there learning how to be better, and we’ve logged billions of miles with AI technology in virtual simulations.” Sanjeet strode around to the driver’s side of the vehicle. “For today’s demonstration, we’re going to sit here.” He opened the back door with a grin. “Your cameraman can take the jump seat behind the driver’s seat.” He stepped inside the cab of the truck, which had been outfitted ahead of time by Moriarty’s film crew with mounted mics and cameras. The CEO took a seat behind the wheel of the big rig and motioned for the other two to follow, saying in a pandering Southern drawl, “Hop on up in here, y’all.”
With the cameraman sitting behind them, toggling between the two men, the GoTech-outfitted semi pulled away from the curb and into the streets of Austin, Texas.
“And safety?” Moriarty asked as the unmanned steering wheel gently oscillated right and left.
“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there are some bad drivers out on the road. Our vehicles, however, are not among them. It’s estimated that it takes three billion miles for AI technologies to become as proficient as a very good human driver.” He gave a snake-oil grin. “We’ve clocked 150 billion miles on roads and simulators.”
“Wow,” Moriarty said.
“Yeah, that’s a lot of time behind the wheel. Our AI driver—the technology that’s guiding this vehicle right now—is a far safer driver than any human. Layer on top of that the sensor and computer-viewing technologies, and this car has the ability to see and sense vastly farther ahead than any human eye could. You, and the people around us—the cars we are passing—are all exponentially safer with GoTech autonomously driving this vehicle.”
“Okay,” said Chris. “That makes sense. And what about cybersecurity?”
Sanjeet laughed. “Everyone worries about cybersecurity when they think about autonomous, because it’s the most obvious breach. But the fact of the matter is, the first moment companies like GoTech conceived of autonomous vehicles, we began to execute on that vision. We anticipated that problem and have designed security precautions to make a breach absolutely impossible.”
“Absolutely impossible?” Moriarty raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“As impossible as possible,” the CEO corrected. “The universe is infinitely complex and there are conceivably eventualities we haven’t considered, but I can tell you that there is no safer device, no safer visual environment, than the vehicle you’re in right now. For someone to compromise this technology would require more effort than developing a nuclear weapon. Trust me, this technology is unbelievably safe.”
* * *
Jalen put his laptop and homework assignments in the center of the dresser in his bedroom. He stared at the sixty-inch flat-screen and game console underneath. Of course he had work to do, but the compulsion to sneak in one more game before studying Mandarin was just too compelling. Plus, he’d recently been playing his favorite—a throwback, pixelated, world-building game called Kill Bloxx. He’d been playing online with a guy named Pro_F_er, who was incredibly fun to game with.
With the camera working, Jalen launched Kill Bloxx and stepped from his broken, boring life into a digital wonderland where he was known to gamers on the platform and in videos online as the all-masterful gamer Javelin.
The game Jalen had chosen that day was Jaylbreak, in which an avatar escapes from prison. As with any massively multiplayer video game, Jalen knew there could be tens of thousands of people playing at the same time, in the same world. He was familiar with many of them, and some he even considered friends, though he only knew them as their digital avatars. This was the case with Pro_F_er, who’d first chatted with Jalen while livestreaming through Twitch. The text came on the screen in red letters, Pro_F_er using Jalen’s Kill Bloxx handle.
Pro_F_er: Yo, Javelin. I’ve been developing a new world. Wanna meet me?
On the Kill Bloxx’s platform, participants and developers could create their own games using software made available by the original developers. Jalen wanted to develop those skills himself one day, but for now, he was content to explore the worlds created by other people.
Javelin: Sure man. How do I get there?
Pro_F_er: Turn around.
Jalen turned and saw Pro_F_er’s avatar.
Pro_F_er: All right. Follow me.
The two avatars ran down the long hallway of the jail, the digital alarm blaring as it would in real life. Jalen followed Pro_F_er to a set of stairs and then stopped.
Pro_F_er: I put a door here.
Somewhere, in some room across cyberspace, Pro_F_er entered a code that caused a door to appear onscreen. He opened the door and went through, and Jalen’s avatar followed, entering a world that was similar to most Kill Bloxx games, except they’d crossed from night to day, and instead of being inside a jail, they were on a sun-kissed city street.
Pro_F_er: The object of this game is to steal a car … hit as many pedestrians as possible. It’s a point system. One point for men, two for women, three for teenagers and kids, and half a point for anyone with a walker.
Javelin: Dude this is sick. Where do I find a car?
Pro_F_er: Gotta go hunting.
Jalen followed Pro_F_er down a series of suburban streets. In the world he had designed, there were wide lawns and split-level houses. It did not take them long to find the first car to steal—a futuristic semitruck.
Pro_F_er: You drive. Wanna see what you think about this game.
Pro_F_er opened the passenger door of the digital vehicle.
Javelin: On it.
Javelin’s avatar opened the driver’s side door and climbed in.
Javelin: Where do we find people?
Pro_F_er: Just gotta start driving, my brother, and let the bodies pile up.
Jalen peeled out.
Copyright © 2020 by Scott McEwen and Tod H. Williams