It’s funny, if you go to the top podcasts on Spotify, most days, it’s, like, mixture of, like, Joe Rogan and his friends. But then it’s like sleep podcasts. Have you have seen these ones?
You’re right, we are now below relaxing white noise. [LAUGHS]
They’ve had some really good guests recently.
They’ve had some great guests.
[LAUGHS]:: Should we do some white noise to open the show today, just for anyone who’s having trouble falling asleep and may use “Hard Fork” as a sleep aid?
[MIMICS WHITE NOISE]
And then can you just loop that for 40 minutes? [LAUGHS]
Perfect. Podcast done.
I’m Kevin Roose. I’m a tech columnist at “The New York Times.”
I’m Casey Newton from Platformer.
And you’re listening to “Hard Fork.”
This week on the show, Sam Bankman-Fried goes to jail. We’ll tell you why and what’s next. Then, we go back to school with Wharton professor, Ethan Malek, who tells us what teachers and students need to know about this year in AI. And finally, another wild week in the world of robotaxis, what happened, and what you told us about our autonomous vehicle episode last week.
Casey, you know on this show, we love to talk about Sam Bankman-Fried.
And you know what he’s having this week?
I mean, look, I’ve had a bad month.
Guy’s been through a bit of a rough patch.
So, Sam Bankman-Fried is having one of the worst weeks of a string of very bad weeks. Because this week, he went to jail. And here to talk with us about how that happened, what is going on in the ongoing saga of FTX is my colleague and friend of the pod, David Jaffe Bellini. David, welcome to “Hard Fork.”
Thanks for having me.
So it has been a very active few weeks in the case of Sam Bankman-Fried. Sam Bankman-Fried, of course, is the former CEO of FTX, the crypto exchange that collapsed late last year after allegedly misusing a bunch of customer funds. You reported this week that Sam Bankman-Fried went to jail because a federal judge in New York had revoked his bail. So just catch us up on why Sam Bankman-Fried is sitting in a jail cell in New York now and not at his parents’ home in California, where he’s been.
So, yeah, the important context here is that, basically, from the moment that SBF was released into home confinement, he’s been pushing the boundaries of what you’re allowed to do when you’re out on bail. So first, in January, he sends an email and a message to a former FTX employee, basically saying, hey, let’s talk. Let’s, you know, see if we can get on the same page about a few things.
The prosecutors were really unhappy about that. They said this kind of reeked of potential witness tampering, that this was somebody who might testify in the case against Sam Bankman-Fried, and that, therefore, this was totally improper. Then while the negotiations over whether to tighten his bail terms as a result of that were going on, he was caught using a VPN to access the internet, which the prosecutor said was a sign that he was trying to kind of evade detection in his online activities. So that was sort of the context of what led up to the last couple of weeks.
And can I just do a sort of a clarifying aside here? When you are arrested and you get out on bail, whether you are a white collar, very wealthy defendant, like Sam Bankman-Fried, or someone who is not wealthy, or powerful, or the former CEO of a company, you have some conditions, right? The judge says, I will let you out on bail, but you have to, in some cases, pay some money or put up some collateral. And you can’t commit any more crimes. And there are certain conditions for you remaining free on bail.
And in this case, my assumption is that because Sam Bankman-Fried was so online, for lack of a better word, he was signaling people and playing video games, the one of the things that the judge had said was that in order to remain free on bail, you actually can’t do any of that stuff. Is that correct?
That’s essentially what happened. I mean, it came from this sort of interesting contradiction, which is that his original bail terms said you have to stay in your parents’ house, and you have to wear an ankle monitor. So physically, he was confined. But in the world of cyberspace, he could kind of roam free and do whatever he wanted. And most criminal defendants would just stay quiet, try not to upset anybody while they’re awaiting trial. But Sam’s not a normal criminal defendant. And he was signaling people. He was Tweeting. He was writing Substack posts. And this was clearly really ticking off the prosecutors and ticking off the judge too.
And so what ended up happening is that a whole new set of bail terms were imposed on him that limited which websites he could access. So there’s actually — there was a list of maybe 25 or so websites that he was allowed to access, including nytimes.com, of course. And that was what he was confined to doing. And he was also prevented from reaching out to people who were involved in the case, like former employees who might be involved in the trial. And so those were the limitations on him starting around last spring.
Now, when I hear that I would have to live in my parents’ house and could only visit 25 websites, that sounds like a cruel and unusual punishment to me. But that’s apparently not the case here?
Well, it’s. a better alternative than sitting in jail. I think most people would agree. Though, maybe you don’t, Casey. I don’t know what your relationship —
Here’s what I’ll say. I either want to have all of the internet or none of the internet. If you give me, like, 1 percent of the internet, that’s going to give me an aneurysm.
I’m also not sure if Platformer was on the list, no offense.
And by the way, my lawyers are looking into this.
My favorite detail from your reporting on this bail violation is that he was apparently using a VPN to watch a football game. Is that correct?
That is true, or at least that’s what his defense has claimed. I mean, the prosecution sort of cited the fact that he’d used VPNs on certain dates as evidence of potentially nefarious activity. And the defense came back and said, no, that was the date of the Conference Championships in the NFL. and then the Super Bowl. And he was just trying to watch football. The reason he needed a VPN is because as he’d gotten an international NFL streaming account when he lived in the Bahamas. And he needed to access it from his home in the US.
If I was out on bail and one of my conditions of my bail was that I not use a VPN, maybe that’s one where you just skip the game and catch it on SportsCenter, THAT’S an option too,
Maybe you just read the post-game report at nytimes.com, one of your approved websites.
[LAUGHS]: Right. So one of the most interesting and controversial wrinkles in this latest twist in the SBF case involves a story that you published actually in late July, that was about, basically, the diary of Caroline Ellison, who ran the Alameda hedge fund and was also SBF’s ex-girlfriend.
And this was a story that reported on the existence of these Google Docs that Caroline Ellison had written about her stress and anxiety running this hedge fund and some details of the relationship between her and SBF. This story came out and then was subsequently cited by prosecutors as evidence that Sam Bankman-Fried had violated the terms of his bail in talking with the media. So, David, what can you tell us about this wrinkle in the case and this diary of Caroline Ellison’s?
We did a story a few months ago noting that people involved in the case had a handwritten diary that Caroline had kept and that she had also kind of recorded her feelings and thoughts about various things on Google Documents. So we’d known that for a while. And then this more recent story that we did actually had detailed excerpts from the Google Documents that she had written.
And this included accounts of her kind of insecurity about her position running Alameda. Was she a good enough leader? Was she really suited to doing this type of job, sort of reflected a lot of the stress that she was feeling throughout the year. And it also got into some sort of intimate details of her romantic relationship with Sam Bankman-Fried. They had a kind of on and off relationship. And so reflections on what it was like to be around him after they broke up and that sort of thing.
And all of this is potentially relevant to the case because their relationship is at the heart of the relationship between these two companies. She’s agreed to testify against him at trial. So any kind of insight into what she’s thinking and feeling is helpful, and interesting, and sort of sheds new light on the case. So that’s the sort of background on her writings and what was in them.
And prosecutors have said that Sam Bankman-Fried leaked these documents to the “New York Times.” And that was apparently part of the judge’s decision to revoke his bail and send him to jail. So what can you tell us about that?
Sure. So within 24 hours of our story coming out, the prosecutors submitted a filing that basically said, we’ve confirmed with Sam’s lawyers, they’ve admitted to us that Sam was a source for documents that were used in this story. And therefore, we want to put a gag order on him. We want to stop him from talking. He’s already limited in what websites he can access. But we want to prevent him from talking to the media because this is a sort of improper intervention in the case that could sort of interfere with a fair trial, intimidate witnesses, that sort of thing. So that was kind of their first salvo.
So help me understand this because I’m a little confused here. Because on one hand, you have prosecutors who are saying that Sam Bankman-Fried leaked these documents from Caroline Ellison to the media in order to engage in kind of character assassination, or witness tampering, or make her look bad ahead of her potential testimony at this trial this fall.
And I read the story that you wrote. I read the excerpts from these writings. They were kind of embarrassing, in the same way that many of our private writings would be embarrassing if they were leaked to “The New York Times.” But they didn’t strike me as particularly damning. She wasn’t saying, actually, Sam’s innocent and I did all the crimes. So if prosecutors are correct in alleging that he did leak these diaries, why do you think he did that. Was there more to it than just trying to make her look bad?
Yeah. So obviously I’m a little limited in what I can say because this involves confidential sourcing. But I can tell you what the prosecutors are claiming that he did and their rationale for why he did it. And what they’re saying is that these were very kind of sensitive writings, very personal, not the sort of thing that anybody would want to come out publicly and that the sort of prospect of similar material coming out regarding other witnesses could have this sort of effect of intimidation or cause people to back off. It could also have that effect on Caroline, they’re claiming, because she might think, oh maybe, Sam’s got other stuff, and I better be careful what I say at trial.
That actually makes a lot of sense to me. It’s like, nice diary you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it. So Sam Bankman-Fried had his bail revoked and was subsequently put in jail. What do we know about the hearing where this was announced? Were you there in the room with us? Can you tell us a little bit more about what that was like?
So unfortunately, I was not at either of the hearings that have happened on this issue because I’m stuck out here on the west coast. But I had colleagues at both hearings. So there was an initial hearing, which everyone thought was just about this gag order that the prosecutors were asking for.
But the prosecution comes into the room and immediately changes tact. Seconds before the hearing starts, they tell the defense, we’re going to be asking for his bail to be revoked and for him to be sent to jail immediately. So there’s an initial hearing on that, where Sam’s lawyers basically say, we haven’t had any time to prepare. You need to give us some more time.
And so the judge calls a second hearing a couple of weeks later. That was this past Friday. And at that hearing, there’s about an hour of argument, both sides kind making their case. The judge says, all things considered, I’m revoking bail. It’s not just because of this recent story. It’s because of the initial outreach to FTX employee. It’s partly this VPN thing, which the judge said kind of showed a mindset of trying to evade limitations. And basically, it was the last straw for the judge.
All right, so that’s why SBF is in jail. You’ve also reported that there’s been a new filing by prosecutors in this case, detailing a bunch of new evidence against him. So tell us about what was in this filing and what that might mean for the trial.
Yeah. So one of the things that was surprising about Sam’s bail getting revoked is we’re really in the home stretch before the trial. There’s not a lot of time left. Trial starts October 2nd. And we’re kind of in the final stage of pretrial wrangling in court, where both sides say, this is the evidence we’ve got and here’s why we think it should be admissible in court. And so there’s going to be arguments back and forth about that.
And on Monday, the prosecution filed a long document, basically detailing, with way more color than we’ve ever seen before, what they’ve got and how they plan to use it. So they said, we’ve got these three close associates of SBF, including Caroline, who all pleaded guilty already. And we expect them to testify. And we’ve got contemporaneous notes that they kept after conversations with Sam. That includes some of Caroline’s writings, including a document titled things Sam is freaking out about.
So I’ll look forward to learning more about that.
So you haven’t seen it? We don’t know what Sam was freaking out about?
I have not seen the thing Sam is freaking out about document. However, it did say in the filing on Monday that the list included things like the bad press around the connections between FTX and Alameda. So we have sort of a vague sense. But —
By By the way, if it were me, something I would be freaking out about, using customer funds to fund my crypto empire.
But that would be things Casey was freaking out about. But go on.
[LAUGHS]: Well, maybe that’s why you’re not the one in MDC right now.
Not yet. Yeah, stay tuned.
Anyway, so, yeah. So there are a bunch of other interesting things too. I mean, there’s text messages that another high-ranking FTX employee, named Ryan Salem, sent. He was the guy who donated tens of millions to Republican politicians. And prosecutors have kind of been circling him for a while. He hasn’t been charged. But he’s clearly going to come up, to some extent.
There’s also an audio recording of a meeting that Caroline held with Alameda employees, right as the companies were collapsing last November, where she essentially confessed and said, I worked with Gary and Nishad, the two other executives that pleaded guilty, and with Sam and. Sam decided that we were going to take customer funds.
She said that pretty explicitly. The fact that meeting happened, we’ve known for a long time. I reported it back then, as did others. But the prosecution has a full recording of it, with a transcript that was included in this filing.
Who recorded it?
I would’ve recorded it,
Was someone wearing a wire? I mean, just —
Even you would’ve recorded — any of us would have recorded this — you want to have that for the historical record.
It seems like everything at this firm was being recorded and put into Google Documents, and voice memos, and whatnot.
Well that’s the funny thing is that they actually didn’t do any record keeping for many, many of the important things that they should. But when it came down to writing down the crimes, they were all over it.
Yeah, it was an Alameda employee who recorded it, apparently. I mean, this was a staff meeting. The staff was pretty small, but there were enough people in the room that someone got the voice memos out, presumably. And so, yeah, I mean, that was a — it was a pretty damning bit of evidence when it kind of first emerged that she said these things at the meeting back in November when we were all writing about it. And now that they’re planning to play that recording in court, it doesn’t look great for Sam.
So in one of your stories, there was a line that said that, so far, there have been millions of pages of evidence produced. . I don’t think you were being figurative. Are there literally millions of pages of documents? And if so, what is in those millions of pages? And how can one man’s lawyers go through all of that?
And please describe all million. Yeah.
[LAUGHS]: There literally are millions of pages. But it’s, like, at some point, the prosecution subpoenaed the whole contents of SBF’s personal Google Drive from Google. So that’s however many hundreds of thousands of pages. And all the documentation that any of the key people in this case ever had on their computers is in play, their financial documents, spreadsheets, text message histories, Slack histories. They’ve got some Signal chats, I think. Though, the fact that SBF was on autodelete and advised employees to go on autodelete has been a factor in the case as well. So there could’ve been even more, potentially. And, yeah, it’s just a ton of stuff.
Look, I know it is in the nature of federal prosecutors to just drown people in charges in hopes that they will reach a plea agreement and just end the whole thing without forcing a trial. And yet, that, in combination with all of the evidence that you’ve been describing for us, David, makes me wonder, why hasn’t Sam Bankman-Fried pled guilty? Any thoughts on that?
I mean, look, it’s hard to read his mind on this. And of course, I think probably — and this is all speculation — but one thing the prosecutors might be hoping is that by forcing him to spend a little time in jail, they might change his thinking about this. But all the evidence suggests that he’s convinced that he has a chance of winning at trial and of waiting any prison time. And if you believe that, then our system allows you to fight the charges, as it should. And so we’ll see what comes of it.
I mean, at various points throughout this process, people have pointed out that he seemed deluded about things. He thought that he could save the company in the days before he was arrested, that he could just raise new money and make the hole disappear. And it could be that some of that optimism is playing into his thinking now.
Yeah, sometimes when you have these very high-profile trials, the defendant becomes a kind of cause celeb. And perhaps they have a fan base that rallies to their side and sort of lobbies in the court of public opinion, in the hopes that might change the outcome. Is there an SBF Fandom or constituency left? Are there folks out there saying, this guy’s getting a raw deal?
Not really. A lot of people have made up their mind about him. This is something that has sort of come up a little bit in the back and forth over the story we did on Caroline, where SBF’s lawyers have argued that one of the reasons that he wanted to provide these documents was because he felt like he’s been unfairly maligned and that he should have a right to defend his reputation. And that’s partly because, yeah, like, there really isn’t a pro-SBF contingent out there arguing for his innocence.
I mean, Crypto Twitter has certainly made up its mind that he’s the worst villain in the history of the world and that he should be drawn and quartered, essentially. And I think most mainstream legal analysts are pretty convinced that he’s guilty as well.
So this is shaping up to be quite a trial in October. I imagine that you will be there, as will some of our other colleagues. What are you —
This is shaping up to be quite a trial in the way that the Harlem Globetrotters’ next match is shaping up to be quite a basketball game.
It’s not looking good for the Washington Generals this time.
I didn’t say it was going to be a close trial. I just said it was going to be quite a trial. So what are you looking for or what are you most interested to see in the lead up to this trial?
Well, one thing I would say, just to caution you on the Harlem Globetrotters comparison, you never know. I mean, this is why we have the system that we do. It only takes one juror to swing the outcome. And the prosecution has made a lot of claims about Sam. But they’ve been sort of claims that haven’t been fully, kind of, out and tested. And so that’s what we’ll see in court in October. And it should be incredibly interesting. But what am I watching for? I mean, look, it’s —
I mean, there’s just the inherent drama of seeing three People as top advisors at his company, who were not just as top advisors. One was his girlfriend. The two others were two of his closest friends, who lived with him, who had been by his side for years. And that group testifying against him, there’s a certain — there’s a drama in that that’s pretty undeniable and that will be kind of fascinating to see play out.
I mean, also, for someone like me who’s been obsessed with this case for almost a year and following every twist and turn, any new revelation of some new detail and some document that Caroline had that we didn’t know about is kind of thrilling as well. But it’s also a test of can this crackdown that the US government is doing on the crypto industry actually yield results? So that’s probably the more kind of important thing.
Yeah, I am looking forward to that moment when they all testify against him, though. Because I think a very relatable feeling is wanting to see your boss go to prison. And those three are actually going to get to live that out.
Well, Casey, would you flip on Kevin if it turned out that he was embezzling money from Hard Fork or something?
I would. I’ve told Kevin, buddy, you better be walking the straight and narrow. Because when the cops come knocking at my door, let’s just say, I have a few Google Docs of my own, OK?
Yeah, David, last question, if I were in possession of a recording of a secret meeting at which a podcast host and newsletter writer confessed to certain federal crimes, do you know any reporters I could send that to?
Yeah, hit me up on Signal and we can discuss it.
OK. We’ll just autodelete our conversation afterward.
David Jaffe Bellini, thanks so much for coming back.
Thank you, David.
Thanks for having me, anytime.
When we come back, we’re going back to school with AI.
Casey, it’s mid-August. And you know what that means.
What does it mean, Kevin?
It’s back to school time, baby.
Oh my God, Kevin, I haven’t done the assigned reading.
What happens at the end of “Old Yeller“?
So this year, one of the biggest questions facing schools as they reopen for the fall semester is what the heck do we do about generative AI? I think this is one of the biggest questions that schools have been wrestling with over the past year.
ChatGPT, it came out, like, the semester was already underway. It sort of landed as kind of an asteroid out of the sky. And schools really just sort of scrambled to get through the year. And I really thought that this summer was going to be when schools and universities kind of regrouped and put their heads together and figured out, how do we actually educate people in a world where this generative AI stuff exists?
What does homework look like? What does admissions look like? What is the role of the faculty member anymore? And that just seems not to have happened in any big, organized way. A lot of schools are still having meetings and organizing committees and task forces to try to figure out what to do about generative AI. And it just seems like there’s an area where there are a lot more questions than answers.
Sure. And at the same time, I think that that might be OK. The technology is new. We don’t totally know what we ought to do about it. And so I think a world where different teachers are taking different approaches and schools are being a little slow in how they craft policies might be to everyone’s ultimate benefit.
Right. But I do think this is an urgent issue for schools, especially going into this new school year. And so I wanted to kind of spend some time talking about that. And I wanted to talk to someone who actually does have a clear vision of how AI can and should transform education. And one person who stood out to me was Ethan Mollick
Ethan is an associate professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches innovation and entrepreneurship and also writes and thinks a lot about generative AI in the classroom. And he’s been sort of documenting his experiments with AI. He has a Substack called One Useful Thing. And he has actually come up with a strategy that he thinks could help other schools adapt to the post-ChatGPT world. And so I wanted to bring him on today to talk about how schools should be thinking about generative AI and what they should be doing about it.
All right, let’s hear what he has to say.
Ethan Mollick, welcome to “Hard Fork.”
Thanks for having me.
So I first came across your work last year when you and I were both writing a lot about generative AI. And you have sort of become, like, I would say, an AI guru inside the world of higher education. I know you’ve been talking with a lot of faculty members and administrators at schools across the country, who, it’s fair to say, I think are confused and disoriented about what to do about all of this new technology. So I want to just start with kind of a vibe check. Can you just paint a picture for us of what is going on with generative AI at schools right now as we head into the fall semester?
I think the word I would probably use would be chaos or apocalypse.
I think that people are just starting to dawn on them what this means. And I think when we talk about what this means, I think level one of what this means is what’s dawning on them right now, which is, oh God, all my homework assignments don’t work anymore. And people haven’t started to think about the other implications fully yet. There’s a lot of exceptions out there. But generally, that’s the vibe I’m getting.
Now, this technology has been available since last November. So what has happened between November and now where some other folks in higher ed or maybe secondary ed still aren’t thinking about this?
So I think, for one thing, I think ChatGPT, the free version, GPT 3.5, still made enough kind of mistakes that it made it a little bit easier to ignore. I think the second set of things was that people are used to ignoring technology hype. So usually, hype happens five years before a technology comes out. So everyone talks about Web3, and you could just safely sit back and be a late adopter. I don’t think people realized this was hype for a technology that already hit, which is a little bit unusual. And people have had to catch up to that. And then I think the third thing is enough alarm at the institutional level inside organizations that people who’ve ignored this have had to pay attention. So between all of those things, I think it’s kind of created this bubble of anxiety and expectation.
Right. Now, one thing we should say is that if you’re a teacher, something you can relax about is Web3. You can actually continue to ignore that one. But the AI stuff, you should probably pay attention to.
[LAUGHS]: Right. Well, and I think there’s also this additional layer in education of, like, well, these tech companies have been showing up for decades now and telling us that their tools are going to transform the way we teach in the classroom, and these Chromebooks, and personalized learning software. And a lot of that has just been sort of empty hype. And so I think there was a reluctance on a lot of administrators’ parts to just take this stuff seriously.
But you are in conversations pretty regularly, I think, with people at universities who are trying to figure out what to do beyond that first level, beyond the, like, how do we stop students from cheating on their homework level? And I want to talk about that. But first I want to talk about the level one concern, which is can schools actually stop students from cheating with a generative AI software?
No. I mean, that’s sort of nuance. So the short answer is no. The long answer is AI uses undetectable, and it detects people who don’t speak English very well. It’s terrible. So you can’t use detectors. You can’t ask AI to detect AI. It’s just going to lie to you. Every instinct we have about how to stop plagiarism doesn’t work.
So you can change how you teach. You could do Blue Book assignments. You could have people do oral exams. There are other ways of checking. But the old homework assignment is basically cracked by AI.
I wonder if you could just take us inside one of these faculty meetings, where professors and school administrators are trying to figure out how to adapt to the post-ChatGPT world. What are some of the common things that you hear brought up in this world? And what are some of the common objections to why shouldn’t we be changing our policies and procedures?
So the first thing is the same problem everybody is suffering from with generative AI, which is there’s no instruction manual. We’re all figuring it out as we go. There’s literally papers coming out regularly about what kind of questions should you ask AI to get the best answers? We don’t know whether it’s really good at these tests or whether it’s faking being good at these tests. So you come to a faculty meeting, and the first 20 minutes are debunking rumors and then supporting others about how it learns, and what it knows, and is it stealing information, and what’s ethical? So there’s a lot of that kind of discussion you’d expect among academics.
Then, there is sort of a discussion about, how do you — usually a punitive discussion about stopping plagiarism. And then there is the sort of more advanced discussion about what do we do now? What do we tell our students? What is good instructional design look like? And I think that’s the more profitable part of the conversation. But you have to get through the fact that nobody knows anything, including, I would hate to say all of us in the room. We’re still kind of making it up and learning by experience and trying to tell other people based on that experience, which is quite challenging.
So, OK, let’s talk about not just why schools are tying themselves up in knots about this, but what they should actually do. So you, me, and Casey are starting a university tomorrow, Hard Fork University. It’s a great school.
Not accredited, but a great school.
[LAUGHS]: And we get to craft the policy about generative AI and how it should be used. And we not only get to craft the policy, but we get to tell every instructor how to teach their class using this stuff in the best way possible. How would you run a school if you could make all the decisions about generative AI?
So the cool thing about education is we’re in for a couple rough years, but actually kind of have a sense of what the future looks like. Because we actually have a lot of research on how to teach. And it happens to align really well with AI. And the secret is pretty simple. It’s two concepts, called The Flipped Classroom and Active Learning.
So the idea of a flipped classroom is rather than learning the material inside of class and practice it outside of class, you learn the material outside of class and practice it inside. So the basic version that you might have seen is people watching videos of a math lecture or Caud Academy outside of class. And then in class, you work on problem sets together. When you have trouble, the teacher comes around and helps. Some people present to the class about that. It’s all about putting knowledge to use. It’s all about the challenging yourself, pushing yourself into an active learning environment. So it flips the classroom experience, where, instead of focusing on lecturing inside a class and doing assignments outside, you do the reverse. We’ve known this is a really great way to teach for a long time. But the two problems have been, what do we do in a flipped classroom setting? Do we just give people textbooks to read? Do they watch videos? That’s never worked particularly well.
Now we have AI tutors that will be able to fill in some of that basic instructional piece. And then in class, how do we design enough engaging experiences for people? Well, it turns out AI is really good at helping us to create engaging experiences. So I actually think the classroom of the future looks remarkably like the classroom today, but you reverse what you’re doing in it. And I think we could get a lot of the way there.
Tell us what an engaging experience designed by an AI looks like. Because I don’t know that I would say I’ve had a lot of engaging experiences interacting with the bot so far.
So I don’t think it’s about engaging experience with the bot. I think that it is about putting knowledge to use. The AI is remarkably good about taking theory and giving you practice from it. So if you say I want to have an in-class activity for fifth graders to teach about entropy — and I’ve actually done this — it came up with a really cool idea of an in-class entropy activity involving balls and people standing still and running around. And it actually tied really nicely into entropy. And then it suggested a good classroom discussion. And then it actually built a game and coded the whole game for me that students could play with that activity.
Now, I would want teachers to have input into that. But that’s an active way of learning about a material that you learned outside of class and putting it to use in class and checking whether people understand the behavior, having people discuss it, having people act on it. So it’s not about engaging with the AI. It’s about having the AI help you figure out ways as an instructor to engage with the students.
Yeah. Now, you have been using generative AI in your classrooms at Wharton since ChatGPT came out last year. What are some findings from that experience that might help other professors who are thinking about how to use this stuff in their classes?
And I was actually using it a little bit before. So I was impressed enough by GPT 3, which sort of wrote like a fifth grader, to have an assignment to sort of show them a future where they had to cheat with AI. And it was very funny because halfway through the cheating assignment, when half the students had turned it in, GPT 3.5 came out and it definitely changed the game there. So I have all kinds of things that I have people do. I make AI mandatory. I teach an entrepreneurship class. So it’s a little easier for me. If I was teaching English Composition, I would probably be thinking a lot more about how do I do more in-class work, where people are writing in Blue Books because you still need to learn to write and practice. And I can’t flip the classroom. that way.
But in terms of my classes, it’s been great. I actually literally require people to do at least one impossible assignment, that’s in the syllabus now. So if you can’t code —
What does that mean?
— so if you can’t code, you have to write working software. If you’ve never done design work, I expect a fully built-out graphic design product. It is literally you have to do something that you think you cannot do. Every assignment has to be critiqued by at least three famous entrepreneurs through history. And that might sound like fun because it teaches them how the AI works. But it also is important because one of the defining characteristics of entrepreneurship is hubris. And it is actually one of the number one predictors of entrepreneurial entry.
And so things that break your hubris are actually quite useful. And the easiest way to do that is to have strong perspectives that do that. So it’s let me increase the amount of work people do. It’s let me push the kind of assignments they do. It’s let me help you adjust in a lot of ways. So AI mandatory works very well for the kind of classes I teach.
And we should say, that when you say that you’re having your students talk with great entrepreneurs through history, they are not actually speaking with the dead. They are going to the chat bot and say, sort of critique this in the voice of Steve Jobs or something like that, right?
Exactly. And it’s one of several kinds of prompts that I give them. So I give them tutor prompts. Because otherwise, they ask the AI to explain something to them like they’re 10. And that’s fine, but that’s not actually how good teaching works. The way good teaching works is you solicit explanations from people and you critique the explanations. You don’t explain things to them and ask if they get it.
So I give them prompts that we’ve created that actually do that kind of interaction. And I give them prompts that act as a mentor, and help them with classroom problems, and give them prompts that they can use for their teams to help do actual good team activity. So there is this kind of interesting role where I’m designing material that then interacts with them like a TA or a really good research assistant.
In your experience, has the introduction of generative AI into your classroom kind of changed the culture of your classroom at all? I mean, I was recalling an episode that my colleagues at The daily did earlier this year about basically, ChatGPT in education. And they interviewed a professor who said that, basically, since ChatGPT came out, his whole attitude toward his students had changed.
Where it used to be that when he saw a surprising and skilled piece of student writing, he was delighted. It was like a cause for celebration. And now, when he sees something that feels maybe a little too good for the student’s ability level, he gets suspicious, and defensive, and starts sort of saying, well, did they cheat on this using ChatGPT?
It just seems to have changed the teacher-student relationship, in that case. Are you finding that at all? Or maybe are students participating less in class because they know they can go ask a chat bot for clarification on something after they get back to their room? Or how has the culture of your classroom changed?
I mean, it broke the old-style culture, right? So I’m on the edge of a new technology. So I’m excited about that. I can understand why that’s worrying. People don’t raise their hands as much. Because one of the things we trust people to do in the classroom was show ignorance so we can explain things to them. Now it’s much better to not show ignorance in front of 80 people. You’ll ask the chatbot later about how to answer the question.
It means that people always cheat. It’s not a new thing. There’s 20,000 people, at least prior to November, in Kenya whose job was writing essays for people. This is not a new phenomenon. But now it’s much more obvious.
Wait, what is this? Is this, like, a comp — what is this company?
Oh, no, it’s not a single company. There’s a paper that shows that estimates the number of people who are getting jobs writing essays, mostly for college students.
Yeah. It’s pretty incredible. And so cheating was pretty ubiquitous. It actually has been fascinating. Since the birth of the internet, the value of homework has dropped precipitously. I think cheating was already happening. We could ignore it. So this, again, another forcing issue, It forces us to grapple with actual changes that have already been happening in classroom environments and that we didn’t have to worry about before.
So it has changed the attitude. I would say that that suspicion of writing is probably right. But I also no longer accept badly written stuff in my classes. Why would I? And for every student that was a brilliant writer before, I had 18 students who were not brilliant writers. And some of them, English was their seventh language. Why should I expect them to write a beautiful essay and punish them or not based on their prose? So it does change things. We haven’t figured it all out yet. But it is some positive is along with the negative.
Well, and I sort of want to pause on that because that’s a very interesting point. What you’re saying is that you used to get essays from kids that weren’t particularly well written. And you kind of give them a pass, based on their individual circumstances. But now there is a tool that will instantly improve the quality of their prose. And so you just expect that they will use it. And to not do that is bad form.
Well, not just that. I expect them to use it well. And so it turns out, a little bit of prompting knowledge goes a long way. And I require at least five prompts for everything they turn in. And they have to give me a paragraph reflection on the prompt. And if they want to use the AI for the paragraph reflection, they can. Then they have to tell me the prompts and reflect on that paragraph. But it’s hard to cheat on that piece.
So the result is I want the writing to be different. It has to reflect their own writing. If it has that ChatGPT style, where it says, and then in conclusion, I’m like, oh, come on you didn’t even cheat well.
Now, you mentioned earlier that part of the reason you’ve been able to run all these experiments in your classes is because you teach entrepreneurship, which is sort of adjacent to AI, in many ways. And you also have a very personal interest and affinity for this technology. What do you say to 20-year English professor, or the organic chemistry professor, or the anthropologist who says I actually don’t want to make my class all about AI. I want to teach. And I want my students to learn. And I want them to show me their work, even if it’s imperfect and know that that reflects what’s actually going on in their head and not some chat bot somewhere? What do you say to the professor who just says, you know, I don’t really want to turn my classroom into an AI lab?
And I think that’s a huge number of people. And it makes complete sense. I think that stage one is recognizing that your homework broke. And that means that you may have to flip classrooms. You may have to hold people accountable with in-class exams, with having the Wi-Fi turned off, your Chromebook in demo mode. There are ways of solving this problem in the short term.
I think the bigger, longer-term problem is what does this all mean? What does this change about education? Now, I would actually argue, in some ways, I think the only thing that carries us forward is expertise. And building expertise actually requires a lot of tedious fact learning and other material to get started.
So I think that we’re going to be able to justify some of these returns. But I think in the short term, it’s acknowledging this thing is real and then providing subguidance that, hey, I’ve been running all of our assignments through AI. Here’s the things it gets right and wrong. So just as you start to do it, you should recognize that it will give you wrong answers on these kind of chemistry problems. And then you flip the classroom a little bit. And I think you could be OK in the short term.
Right. We’ve talked a lot about how teachers and professors should be thinking and feeling about generative AI in the classroom. What about students? I mean, students, millions of them, are going back to school right now for the fall semester. I’m sure many of them have already been playing around with this stuff. But now they’re confronting policies and restrictions. How should students be treating generative AI.
I would demand clarity. I would demand clarity for what this means that AI is banned or acknowledged. Does this mean that I’m allowed to use AI to generate ideas? Could AI come with an outline that I work on? Can I ask for feedback from AI in my work. Because getting feedback’s incredibly useful. And it’s very good at providing feedback along the way.
Am I allowed to use AI as a teammate? Can I ask the AI advice for something? Can I ask to explain why I got a question right or wrong? I think there is a request for clarity that’s useful. And I also think that the future AI that our students are going to graduate into is going to look very different than AI today.
So I think the idea that we’re teaching kids how to use AI is actually not that useful in and of itself. It’s going to be much more self-prompting. It’s going to take away parts of work that we used to do before. So I think you are allowed as a student to ask for what does this mean, while being patient with your teachers that they haven’t figured it out either. Nobody knows the answer.
I’m curious, Ethan, one thing I hear a lot from educators when it comes to generative AI is this worry that it kind of flattens student creativity, and output, and effort, that when everyone is a B-plus writer and it’s sort of producing kind of generic prose, that it kind of sounds a little bit like Wikipedia, almost. It’s like you sort of sand down some of the edges of one student having a very different writing style or another student communicating in a very different way.
So I think there are a lot of worries not just about what this is going to do to the classroom experience, but actually what it’s going to do to the minds of students who are relying on this technology to help them think, and write, and work. Do you share any of that worry? Or what are some of your worries about the long-term effects of generative AI on students?
I think we’re going to lose a lot. And I think we’re going to need to figure out how to reconstruct that. I certainly think in the short term, flattening is real. Another phenomenon that falling asleep at the wheel is real. We have papers showing that people will tend to — when they use AI that’s very good, they tend to not pay enough attention anymore and kind disengage from the work itself. That’s a real phenomenon.
I mean, essays were useful. It’s a shame to lose them as a homework assignment. Things are going to be lost. And I think some of this flattening effect is very true. So we need to teach people how to write with their own voice, while still being able to use AI. And I think that you’ve probably found is users, you can make AI do much more interesting things if you don’t just do a generic prompt.
The first prompt is always Wikipedia-style perfect English. But you can get it to do some kind of neat things with some time. But I think it’s part of that bigger issue. By the time we have students in high school today, we have six or seven years before they’re in the workforce, for those who are going to college. And so what does that mean for a moving target for the future is a bigger question. It does outsource some of our thinking and some of our abilities, in a way that people were worried about with Google also and other phenomenon.
It’s true, and yet, I do want to say, as somebody who wrote essays in college at one point, a good number of those essays were written between the hours of, let’s say, 3:00 and 9:00 AM the morning they were due, while I was hopped up on No Doze pills. And I’m not sure how much I learned during the — now, on the whole, yes, essay writing was a huge part of my education. But not every student puts everything they have into every writing assignment.
Absolutely. And I also want to apologize, the TA in my English Literature course in college, they took pass/fail and never revealed to them it was pass/fail. So I could get solid C’s. And every time, they’d write these elaborate notes and apologize to me for giving me a bad grade. I’d be like, I wrote that in 25 minutes. So I totally get that.
And I think that’s another piece, is we have to not be delusional about what has actually happened in education. And to go back to the issue, that’s what I hope the gift of the AI piece is, less the AI itself than this act of being deliberate at what we reconstruct at Hard Fork University of what parts of education matter? And we actually a lot about that. And we to figure out how to reconstruct those pieces.
So back to Hard Fork. University, our University that the three of us are starting.
Which, by the way, was recently voted to have the worst football team in the entire country country.
But the parties are amazing. Should we have an admissions essay? I mean, is that also one of the things that is on its way out?
Oh, absolutely. That’s done for. I have been enjoying having it — if you have not had the experience of asking it to write admissions essays, justification, it’s amazing at. So one of my recent favorites was, explain how stubbing my toe in the fourth grade taught me about adversity and why I want to be a neurosurgeon. And it was just amazing. It filled the details about how I realized about — that something as small as nerves could make such a difference in my life and that — and it was just, like, wow, this is great.
I mean, a lot of stuff’s going to break. And so we have to decide what we’re doing, rather than fighting a fighting retreat against the AI, that as it takes thing after thing. We have to really rethink what we want to do with admissions and other policies.
Well, I mean, what I would say is that have to have at least one TikTok go viral, if you want to compete in today’s economy.
So that’s what I would be looking for.
It’s time to dance.
OK, so we won’t have take-home essays and we won’t have assignments that students can easily plagiarize using ChatGPT. Are all of our assignments going to be in-class Blue Book essays? What other types of work will we assign at Hard Fork University?
So I think we need to divide the kind of work that we want to do. Learning English composition for our English 101 on one course, that’s going to be a lot of maybe reading stuff, getting critical feedback outside of class, with a combination of AI help and human help. And then in class, you’ll be doing a lot of writing. It’s going to be writing workshops. That’s our intro courses. I’m hoping that as our classes get more advanced, you’re taking your two one levels, you’re taking more applied classes, that the in-class activities start to become very interesting.
So the ability of students to get things done, to push past the frontiers that used to be a 101 frontier is fascinating. So we’re going to push the power of AI to get people to do more than before. They’re not just going to do basic stuff. They’re going to do advanced stuff. They’re going to be 10 times more productive by the time they get out of the program.
Sounds compelling, sign me up. Last question, Ethan, what would it take to get you to leave your job at Wharton and join the faculty of Hard Fork University?
So do you offer tenure?
[LAUGHS]: We’re working on it.
Unaccredited, untenured university, I feel like these are my colleagues who joined start up companies here. I’ve done that already.
So I’m willing to be visiting faculty, though, if the location’s nice.
It’s a dingy podcast studio for now, but we are going to be expanding to a beautiful campus soon.
Not too late for the metaverse for this one.
All right, Ethan Mollick, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you, Ethan.
Thanks for having me.
After the break, another wild week in the world of self-driving cars, and some thoughts from you, our listeners, on our interview from last week.
Well, Kevin, if I learned one thing from last week’s episode, it is that people have strong opinions about autonomous vehicles.
They really do.
I would say that not before in the history of the show have we gotten as strong a reaction to an interview that we have done.
It’s been really wild. I mean, we’ve gotten, like, so many emails, and DMs, and replies on social media about this episode.
Thread, Skeets Instagram stories —
— we got it all, baby.
I did not realize that this is the most polarizing issue in America. It really feels like we accidentally stumbled into a K-pop fan army. [LAUGHS]
Yeah. And, look, I think we found our way into this story because there is this group, Safe Street Rebel, that is going around and they’re putting traffic cones on the hoods of autonomous vehicles, which has the effect of disabling them. And they’re trying to do that to draw attention to concerns they have around autonomous vehicles and cars in general. And we thought, well, that’s interesting. Let’s have a conversation with them about that.
I think what we heard back from listeners, though, is that the issues here run deeper. And our listeners really wanted to get into it into much more detail on a bunch of subjects related to AVs.
Yeah, it was a very polarizing segment. We got a lot of people saying, like, they loved the segment. We got a lot of people saying they hated the segment. We got people saying your guests were correct, and you guys are wrong, and you’re too pro AV and anti-transit. We also got people saying your guests did not make their points clearly and you should’ve picked someone better to make the case. So it was just kind of all over the map, but very, very strong feelings on all sides.
So we want to talk about listener’s opinions about the segment because a lot of listeners raise some really great points. But first, a really extraordinary amount of news happened in the AV realm, including in San Francisco, just over the past seven days. And so we thought, let’s take a quick beat and just talk about what’s been going on.
So the first thing that happened was we did manage to get it into last week’s episode. It happened just before we published the episode, which is that the CPUC, the agency in San Francisco that was voting on the fate of these pilot projects for driverless cars, voted to allow Cruise and Waymo to expand in San Francisco. They can now run these AVs 24/7 and charge money for them.
And that’s a big deal, right?
Because in order to hail one of these taxis before, you sort of had to have special access. You could only access it at night, primarily. But now, these are about to become just a fact of daily life in San Francisco in a way they were not before.
Right, and these companies are now going to start expanding into many more cities. Cruise just announced it is starting to offer driverless rides in Charlotte, North Carolina. They’re also expanding to cities in Texas. So this is going to be coming to, if not a city near you, then at least a city within driving distance of you very soon.
That’s right, but there’s another story we should talk about, which is that over the weekend, a group of 10 Cruise cars essentially came to a halt, blocking traffic in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco.
Yeah, this was an amazing story. So right after this big vote by the CPUC, this pile up sort of happens in North Beach. And at first, it sounds like maybe it was related to this music festival, Outside Lands. That’s one of the big festivals in San Francisco. And at first, Cruise said, well, this was due to wireless connectivity issues. But then, as the week went on, it looks more and more like this was a case of pedestrian interference. And in fact, that’s the new explanation that Cruise has for why all these cars stopped in the middle of the street.
What I love about these explanations is that neither one of them makes any sense to me. OK?
When it comes to wireless connectivity, these Cruise cars are miles away from the Outside Lands music festival. So I’m sure a lot of people were posting their Skeets and their Threads at Outside Lands. But I don’t understand how they were doing it in large enough volume to stop a car miles away. OK? Cruise eventually comes to the same conclusion. It says, oh, yeah, I guess it wasn’t wireless connectivity, which doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence. But then they come up with explanation number two, which is pedestrian interference. And, Kevin, I would just like to ask you, what do you think pedestrian interference is? [LAUGHS] And but —
Well, the company —
How does it stop 10 cars from moving?
Well, we don’t know, because Cruise has not said a ton more. And we don’t have the footage from the cars themselves. They have said, they told us that it was not a cone-related stoppage. This was not the fault of our organizer friends from last week —
Let me tell you something.
— that we know of.
As a pedestrian, I have interfered with traffic. And here’s how I’ve done it. I’ve stepped in front of a car because I wanted to cross the street. And at most, this has affected one car. OK? I mean, maybe the car behind it has to slow down too. But when I interfere as a pedestrian, I’m stopping one car for five seconds. So I would just like to a lot more from Cruise about how this alleged pedestrian managed to stop 10 cars from moving for many minutes on end.
Right. But whatever the reason for the traffic jam, I think it’s fair to say this was not one of the worst things that could happen in an autonomous vehicle. And it was actually cleared pretty quickly. In fact, it lasted only about 15 minutes.
Well, I do think this is one of the worst things that could happen to our argument that autonomous vehicles are good. We’ve been trying to make the case. And then 10 of these things come to a dead standstill. And I found the whole thing very inconvenient.
Yeah. I think if we thought we had road rage problems before this, we have not seen — if you’re angry at someone for driving too slowly, you’re going to be 10 times angrier if it’s a robot driving too slowly or coming to a stop in front of you.
But, to my mind, the biggest story that has been published since we came out with our last episode was a story that ran in the “San Francisco Standard,” with the title, San Franciscans are having sex in robotaxis and nobody is talking about it. So this is a thing that I have been waiting to hear more about since these AVs launched, which was, you knew as soon as this happened that people are going to start having sex inside the robotaxis.
And “The San Francisco Standard” interviewed four people who claim to have had sex inside cruise AVs, including one source who they called Alex, which is not his real name —
— who say claims to have performed at least six separate sex acts in robotaxis, ranging from impromptu makeout sessions to full-on sex, no boundaries activities —
— a total of three times in a Cruise car.
First of all, are we considering a makeout session a sex act?
That seems a bit of a stretch to me.
So I have questions about this.
Also, wait, an impromptu makeout, as opposed to one that’s been scheduled and put on a Google Calendar?
Oh, you don’t put all your makeout sessions on your Google Calendar.
Hey, I like to keep it loose, baby. Anyways —
So I have questions about this.
So we know that these cars have cameras inside them.
Is some poor soul at Cruise headquarters just having to sift through hours of footage of horny people just climbing into these AVs and getting it on in the back seat?
When we had the CEO of Cruise here, Kyle Vogt, we sort of asked him, isn’t there a high potential for bad behavior inside these cars?
Shenanigans, hijinks, antics, if you will, inside these cars. Because people — because there’s no Uber driver to sort of modulate people’s behavior. And he said, essentially just that, we have cameras in these cars. If anything gets out of control, we can look and see the cars. And it is amazing to me that San Franciscans are already saying, we don’t care, go ahead, look all you want. There’s a free show in the Cruise tonight.
Yeah. I mean, there are lots of exhibitionists for whom the cameras are a feature, not a bug. I want to say —
But I —
— here’s my other logistical question about this. So when we rode in a Cruise car, as you’ll remember, it would not move unless both of us had our seatbelts on.
It was very firm on this point.
So presumably, these people who are having sex inside the robotaxis are doing it with their seatbelts on. And I just want to get your opinion on the logistics of that. How does that work?
We have a saying in this community, safety first. OK?
If you want to have an impromptu makeout session in a car, you need to take care of your partner. And that means that you do need to keep your seat belt on. And, look, those seatbelts have a lot of give. OK? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in a seat belt. I’ve reached all the way over to the other side of the car to grab something from THE driver’s side. So, yes, it’s absolutely possible, and it’s the way to do it.
So that is the big news from the last week when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Now, let’s talk about some of the things our listeners are feeling in response to last week’s segment.
Yeah. So i want to make some room to get some of the criticisms in here that we got. And, look, I’ll be the first to say, I’m not an expert on transit issues or autonomous vehicles issue. And part of what we do on this show is we just lead with our curiosity. We bring in people, we ask them questions. And, yeah, we express our opinions, but we’re open to other ideas. And so right now, we want to be open to our listeners’ ideas.
Right. This is something that people care a lot about. And I want to respond to some of the notes we got about last week’s segment. And I think we should kind of sort it into a few flavors of criticism. The first one that we got a lot of responses on was basically listeners who were anti-self-driving car who were on the side of the organizers we interviewed, but who didn’t feel like they were the best ambassadors for that position or that we fully explored their point of view.
And I think there was an element that I saw in a lot of the messages, both in email and social media. And it was basically that we didn’t engage with the real thrust of the activist argument, which is that we need fewer cars on the road, period. And of course, there’s a big tie-in between that idea and climate change, which I also think that readers think we were not taking that seriously enough. And if we were serious about climate change, we would want to be saying, yes, absolutely, get all these cars off the road. So, Kevin, what is your take on this idea that we need fewer cars on the road, period?
Well, I think I share that view. I think car congestion and pollution are huge problems. And as anyone who has ever tried to drive around San Francisco can tell you, it would be a lot more pleasant here if there were, let’s say, 50 percent fewer cars on the roads.
Now, I think there are some issues with that. Namely, there are just some people for whom cars are a sort of a necessary fact of life. We got a lot of notes from parents who said, I support transit, but there is no way that I could lug my kids and all of their stuff around on an e-bike or on the bus. Or what if you don’t live on a transit route?
I got a note from somebody who said that cars are important if you have a disability. And they make life much easier for folks who may struggle to use transit if they have a disability.
Totally. So I think there are a lot of people who just need cars or are attached to cars as their daily mode of transportation, for whom switching those people over to mass transit is just not going to be very practical.
Yep. Now, that said, could I spend more time imagining a car-free future? Yeah, like I should. I grew up in America in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’m extremely car pilled, and not by choice. It’s just kind of the oxygen that I’ve been breathing. But I can tell you, the reason I live in San Francisco and the reason I love it so much is because I can walk almost anywhere. And I walk basically wherever I can.
I love taking transit. I got rid of my car. So in part, I really am trying to build this future. But we have a long way to go.
Right. And the self-driving car companies would say that, actually, self-driving cars help to get cars off the road because we know from a study that was done about 10 years ago, that the typical car utilization is something, like, 5 percent. Which means that if you own a car, it sits there in your driveway or in a parking spot roughly 95 percent of the time. That is a horrible utilization rate.
But with a driverless car system, that car can go pick up other people and take them where they need to go. You can get to much closer to 100 percent utilization, which means that you theoretically would need fewer cars to do the same number of trips in a city.
Which would also mean that you need fewer parking garages and parking lots. And maybe we could use that to build more housing. So these are at least some ideas that are out there that I think are worth mentioning.
Right. And the organizers we talked to last week, their point in response to that was, well, that’s the same thing people said about Uber and Lyft. That if you have these ridesharing services, people won’t need to own cars. And anecdotally, I do know some people who have gotten rid of their cars because of Uber and Lyft.
I am one of those people.
So it does happen, but their point that Uber and Lyft have not actually decreased the amount of traffic congestion in cities is a good one.
Is also true. And it’s also true. And I agree, it’s a good point.
All right, what else did people tell us, Kevin?
The other thing that people asked about was how good the data is on the safety of autonomous vehicles compared to human-driven cars.
Yeah. And this is a nerdy point, but I do think it’s worth getting into it.
Totally. Because I said on the show last week that the research that we have suggests that autonomous vehicles are substantially safer than human-driven cars. And that is true. We do have research that shows that that is the case. But there’s a big asterisk there that I maybe should’ve spent more time talking about last week, which is that this data is not very good and it’s not very complete.
So one of the issues with collecting data about autonomous vehicle safety is that there just aren’t that many self-driving cars. In San Francisco, there have been several hundred of them between Cruise and Waymo, compared to hundreds of thousands of human-driven cars. And so if you’re comparing the data between how often these various types of cars get into collisions, or cause pedestrian injuries, or something like that, you’re going to just be comparing from two very different bases.
And so we just don’t have the kind of large-scale data on autonomous vehicles that you would need to be able to make really good, really reliable comparisons. Yeah.
So that’s just something that we’re going to have to keep an eye on.
Totally. But there is a report that compares human drivers to AVs. Cruise put out a report this year that said that in their first 1 million miles of self-driving car data, they found that their autonomous vehicles had 54 percent fewer collisions than human rideshare drivers, 92 percent fewer collisions, where the autonomous vehicle was the primary contributor to the collision, and 73 percent fewer collisions with a meaningful risk of injury.
It also said that of the collisions that it did encounter in its first million miles of autonomous driving, 94 percent of them were caused by the other party.
All right. And do we trust this data? Is this just being reported by the companies themselves? Or is this of using something that we can check against, like, I don’t the Department of Motor Vehicles records or something?
So it’s a good question because this is obviously self-reported data from these companies, which have an interest in making their vehicles look very safe. But in Cruise’s case, they partnered with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the Virginia Tech Transportation institute, which are independent academic settings that are studying this data too. So I give that a little more credibility.
So I think we should say up front that these studies, they are conducted with the blessing and the data from these companies. And it’s also very hard to compare, say, data about self-driving cars in San Francisco to national data because it’s so different. It’s driving in San Francisco in a crowded city with lots of other cars, versus —
Driving on the highway across the country.
— driving on the highway, or driving in a small town in rural America somewhere.
You could write a great song about that.
[LAUGHS]: Yeah. So it’s not quite apples to apples. And we just don’t have enough good data about autonomous vehicles. But I would say the early indications in San Francisco are that these cars are getting into collisions pretty infrequently. And when they do, that it is often the result of the human in the other car, not the autonomous vehicle.
Right. What I am taking away from this is that the early data looks good. But let’s just be careful with what sorts of safety claims we’re making around AVs as we continue to collect this kind of data.
All right. Let me read another piece of feedback that we got. This is from a listener named Dirk in Rhode Island. And he writes to us, quote, I don’t think you realize that Casey and Kevin came off as Luddites, not the guests. Car-frees cities really are the future as seen by the younger generation. The next generation doesn’t want the SF of today. They want Zurich, Paris, Madrid to shape the future of the Bay.
The AV itself is an afterthought, and you may be inside of an industry bubble. It’s not how will AVs change our lives? It’s how can I live in a way that I would rarely slash never need to use an AV. So what do you think, Kevin? Are we just sort of not dreaming big enough when we talk about AVs as playing a major role in the city of the future?
I think there’s some truth to that. I mean, I have been to cities outside the US where there is much more transit.
Well, la de da, Kevin. Kevin
Tell us more about your international travels.
Can I tell you, the Swiss trains and the tram system there is unbelievable, so good, very efficient —
— very nice.
I will also say, I’ve never seen a more expensive country in my entire life than Switzerland.
These people are charging 40 Euros for a cocktail? Come on.
So I’m torn here. Because on one hand, I do believe that getting rid of many cars on our streets would make them safer, would make city life more pleasant, and would ultimately be a better future. At the same time, people are very wedded to their cars. We see this all the time. People, even in cities with good mass transit, want cars, for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t want to wait around for the bus. Maybe they need to take their kids. Maybe they work a job where they have to transport large things. And they can’t really do that on mass transit.
People are just really, really connected to cars and car culture. It is sort of a fundamentally American trope. But I think it is probably true. And so I’m of two minds here. Because I think there’s an argument to be made that, yes, we should have many fewer cars. And in order to green light autonomous vehicles, we should make sure first that they actually are going to reduce the number of cars on the road.
But I don’t think people are going to easily give up cars. So in the meantime, shouldn’t we try to make them safer and greener by making them electric and autonomous? To me, it feels a little bit like the debate over eating meat, where you have people who say, we need to eat a lot less meat in America. And the way to accomplish that is by convincing millions of Americans to switch to a plant-based diet.
And then you have the technology-driven approach, which is, well, let’s assume that people are not going to give up meat easily. And let’s try to make meat that has less of an impact on animals and on the environment. Let’s try to grow it in a lab so that people can still have their hamburgers, but it just doesn’t involve factory farm —
You know, what I think all of these, sort of, similar issues come down to is that if you are an activist who’s rallying around this issue or you’re just a citizen who believes in one of these ideas, I think a skill that you want to develop is the ability to show people a path from how to get from here to there. And sometimes, just talking about this radical vision that seem so different from what we live in today can be very effective, It sort of bumps that Overton window a little bit closer to your side. And that’s a good thing.
But the risk of it is that you do sometimes make people — and I think this happened to me on our last episode — kind of throw up our hands and say, this feels kind of unrealistic to me. If you’re going to tell me that we’re going to live in this sort of Jetsons future, I nee you to sketch out a few things first that are going to get us from today to there. So at the same time, what I’ll say is I am just going to take the note to be more open-minded about this.
Yeah, I’ll take that note too. But I will say that I think there’s an issue here of making the perfect the enemy of the good. I think if we could get to a place where, say, percent of the vehicles in San Francisco on a daily basis were self-driving, they were safe, they were electric, and they were not getting stuck in intersections in North Beach, I think that actually would be a substantial safety improvement over the status quo.
And so I think the people who are the hardliners on this issue should maybe allow for the possibility that transitioning everyone off cars is not going to be a realistic goal, at least in the short term, and should look for some sort of incremental wins along the way.
Because, if nothing else, these AVs can be a really fun place to have sex.
[LAUGHS]: So that is, I would say, a fitting follow up to last week’s episode. Thank you to everyone who wrote in —
— even the guy who told us to go suck a tailpipe or lick an EV battery if you love cars so much.
And now, is that considered a sex act inside one of these AVs? Because —
No, but, seriously, look, I love hearing from our listeners, even when we make them mad. And one of the things I like about our show is that it actually can be a dialogue. If we say something and you hate it, tell us and maybe we’ll talk about it more, and maybe you’ll shift our views.
Yeah. Please don’t put cones on our head.
Don’t put cones on our heads.
Hey, before we go, “Hard Fork” is hiring. We’re looking for a video producer to help us bring this show to YouTube. So if you or someone you know does that kind of thing, let us know. We’re email@example.com.
“Hard Fork” is produced by Rachel Cohn and Davis Land. We’re edited by Jen Poyant. This episode was fact checked by Caitlin Love. Today’s show was engineered by Sophia Lanman. Original music by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano, and Rowan Niemisto. Special thanks to Paula Shoeman, Pui-Wing Tam, David McCraw, Nell Gallogly, Kate LoPresti, and Jeffrey Miranda.
You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know what Kevin said this week that you think was really stupid and needs a whole segment about the show to talk about.
Please, no more.