Around AD 150, the Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy compiled a model of the universe that accurately predicted the movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. It was a remarkable achievement, diminished only by the fact that it happened to be entirely wrong. Rather than a relatively simple heliocentric model where planets revolved around a stationary sun, Ptolemy appealed to convoluted constructs to design a celestial Rube Goldberg Machine that kept the earth at the center of the cosmos where everyone felt it belonged. And yet, it worked. In fact, it worked so well that it remained the predominant cosmological model for roughly 1,500 years. Even now, projectors in planetariums are essentially inverted mechanical implementations of the Ptolemaic System. Ptolemy’s geocentric model was indeed a brilliant achievement, though in retrospect, its brilliance obviously had nothing to do with its veracity. Its real genius lay in its ability to satisfy two seemingly incompatible requirements: the accurate prediction of the position and movement of celestial bodies, and the need for humans to feel that they were at the center of everything they could see. In other words, while the Ptolemaic System was objectively incorrect, it was very much right for its time. All of this unexpectedly came to mind while discussing self-driving cars. The virtues of autonomous cars, I was told, were that they increased productivity because they allowed passengers to engage in tasks other than driving; they were safer than manually operated vehicles; and with properly optimized algorithms, they were certain to reduce traffic congestion. Admittedly, they weren’t practical today, but in ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, tops — once the technology was ready, the necessary laws established, and our cultural biases overcome — driverless cars would not only be commonplace, they might even be mandated by law. The future, my conversation partner concluded, would finally be here. While I didn’t disagree with any of these hypotheses, just for fun, I pointed out that all of these advantages could easily be achieved right now. In fact, they could have been achieved several decades ago with nothing more than a well designed and executed public transportation system. Read more via TechCrunch.
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