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There’s an old parable of a person leaving the pub at night and searching in vain for his keys under a streetlamp. A bystander asks where he might have left them. “I dropped them over there,” he says, pointing into the darkness. “But this is the only place where there’s light.”
That, in a nutshell, has been Silicon Valley’s self-driving car strategy over the past five years. Faced with the task of designing an autonomous vehicle, Waymo, Uber, Tesla, and others decided to go where the light was. That meant pouring on the miles because that’s what was easily tested.
Last year, Silicon Valley companies logged a combined 2 million autonomous miles in California, one of their biggest testbeds. In the end? Miles alone aren’t worth that much. What matters is quality. Because outliers—low-probability but potentially lethal events—are so rare, accounting for them by chance is virtually impossible. Jack Weast, who oversees automated vehicle standards at Mobileye, cites research suggesting that it would require roughly 30 billion miles of real-world testing (pdf). “With a fleet of 100 cars, that would take you about 1,000 years,” he says. “And you better not update the software. If you do, you have to start over.”
But there’s a different approach. Rather than flood the streets with sensor-laden cars, major automakers (and Mobileye, acquired by Intel in 2017) are attempting to design safety in from the start. In the “safety case” technique borrowed from the aviation and nuclear industries, safety is broken down into component parts, from technical specifications to human psychology. After a “safe” system has been designed, it’s validated through a tight testing loop with software simulation and hardware validation, and (only) then real-world testing.
Now even Uber is adopting the method, announcing its first “safety case” this week at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in Orlando, Florida. It was a tacit acknowledgment that Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” approach wasn’t working—for the company or the public. Now, it appears, the industry will standardize on safety and compete on everything else. “One bad actor,” says Weast, “could shut down the whole market for us.” —Michael J. Coren
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Antitrust regulators are looking at big tech in the wrong way. This week, the US Congress grilled Amazon and Google over their seemingly monopolistic power. But the focus was on the end price for consumers, whereas it should have been on the illusion of choice, argues Tim O’Reilly. Using algorithms and design elements, these companies shape the economic behavior on their platforms, ultimately controlling competition. Monopoly much?
Boris Johnson is set to become the next UK prime minister. I’m sorry. Seven years ago, Quartz reporter Cassie Werber cast what felt like a low-stakes vote in the London mayoral election. In 2019—the age of Trump and rampant populism—that vote for Johnson feels very different. So why do we vote for leaders who are good enough, rather than good?
State-approved craziness. On Monday, China will launch a Nasdaq-style stock board that grants companies and investors greater freedom on IPO pricing and in the listing process. As Jane Li reports, the “STAR Market” is about spurring economic growth and persuading the next tech giant to list at home rather than abroad. But with regulators letting markets do their thing, it will also be, inevitably, about speculators and volatility.
The philanthropic movement targeting hostile AI. “Effective altruism,” now more than a decade old, has changed the way many people think about giving back to society—particularly in Silicon Valley. But as Natasha Frost explains (Quartz member exclusive) in her field guide to philanthropy, its founders are now focusing less on global poverty and more on an even greater threat to humanity: artificial intelligence gone wrong.
Progress on Alzheimer’s depends on diversity. The most common form of dementia affects people of different backgrounds differently—yet in the US, most clinical research on the disease continues to be done on affluent, white subjects. As Katherine Ellen Foley reports, this disparity sets cure seekers up for failure, which is why some initiatives are working to bring underrepresented populations into the fold.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Apple rollout extraordinaire. This fall, an unprecedented launch from a West Coast powerhouse will, if all goes well, lead to Americans happily paying higher-than-usual prices for an exquisitely designed product. The patent-protected WA 38, which will be presented to consumers as the Cosmic Crisp, is the result of years of painstaking research and cultivation. For California Sunday Magazine, Brooke Jarvis looks at the apple industry’s biggest-ever gamble.
It all went downhill after “laser.” That now-common word came from “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” as many nerds in the 1960s could have told you. But these days, researchers increasingly construct scientific acronyms in clunky, confusing ways. In the Wall Street Journal, Daniela Hernandez highlights some of the doozies. Suffice it to say you’ll never guess what “Flopsy” stands for.
Bending over backwards for convenience. Cashier-less Amazon Go stores are a technological marvel. Thanks to computer vision and machine learning, customers, having “scanned in” via smartphone, simply exit with the products they want, trusting they’ll be charged accurately. But there are only 14 of the stores so far, and, in the end, it’s cheaper to run a 7-Eleven. For Bloomberg Businessweek, Brad Stone and Matt Day ponder the real significance of Amazon’s “most ambitious research project.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. North Korea is under severe international sanctions, yet its leader Kim Jong Un rides around in new armored limos from Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce. What gives? To find out, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies and the New York Times traced the journey of two Mercedes Maybach S600 sedans shipped from the Netherlands in June 2018. Their convoluted path shows why sanctions—whether targeting luxury goods or military parts—don’t always work.
The ethical challenge posed by the “world’s worst superhero.” For many Americans, the “Florida man” meme is a chance to giggle at bewildering idiocy (“Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping Into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm”). But at its worst, there’s a troubling insensitivity behind it—a lack of empathy toward the homeless, drug-addicted, or mentally ill. In the Washington Post Magazine, Logan Hill contemplates whether it’s OK to keep laughing.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, guilt-free memes, and insights into either apples or Apple to email@example.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Holly Ojalvo.