“The Holy Driver,” chapter six from the book AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan, tells the story of Chamal, a talented and cocky young gamer from Sri Lanka who is recruited to take part in a mysterious Chinese project. At first, the game he’s been tasked with playing is like other driving simulations he’s mastered, but soon it begins to dawn on Chamal that something is very different—very real—about the game’s increasingly more difficult scenarios. Set roughly two decades in the future, “The Holy Driver” examines the various ethical and moral issues around artificial intelligence and autonomy that are sure to arise as the world and technology move forward. The following is an excerpt from the chapter.
Just as he had at the VR Café, Chamal made it to the top of the training center’s ranking list in no time.
He was no longer the beginner who panicked at the sight of traffic and pedestrians. And it wasn’t just driving for driving’s sake. Chamal began receiving missions, with instructions from the technicians in the training center. The missions were always similar in terms of structure, but with variations in story line. Sometimes they were outlandish, like an alien invasion. Sometimes they were chillingly realistic, like a terrorist attack that caused roads to crumble and cars to crash into one another.
Complex landscapes, erratic drivers ... nothing could ruffle Chamal. He quickly tallied the most points among the group of gamers that Yang Juan had recruited from all over Sri Lanka. The young drivers became fast friends during their daily training. Still, his cohorts watched Chamal with jealous eyes as he swaggered out of the room each day—everyone knew that more points meant more money.
Other drivers tried to pry tips and tactics out of him. Chamal tossed his hair. “I was born to drive,” he said, a little too cockily.
Chamal had discovered that the game did not give him infinite routes. The landscapes that came up the most frequently were primarily replicas of real-life cities, spanning the Middle East to East Asia: Abu Dhabi Satellite City, Hyderabad, Bangkok, the Singaporean man-made island, the Greater Bay Area of Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao, Shanghai Lingang, Xiong’an New Area, Chiba of Japan—places that, until now, Chamal had only read about online.
One day Chamal received instructions to complete a mission on the Singaporean man-made island. A disturbance on the ocean floor in North Java had triggered a tsunami and the infrasound completely paralyzed the island’s automated smart transportation system. A ten-meter tsunami would hit the island in exactly six minutes. Over a hundred dysfunctional autonomous cars and their passengers were careening down the roadway, likely to crash or, like sitting ducks, be washed away.
Chamal and the other racers were instructed to seize the wheels of these vehicles, turn on manual control before more accidents could happen, and help connect the cars to the emergency network infrastructure. The network would then take over, directing the cars to the nearest evacuation zone, saving the passengers’ lives.
It was the most difficult and thrilling game Chamal had ever played.
His virtual avatar hopped from one driver’s seat to another, taking control of the wheel in mere seconds, evading fallen debris as he sped to safer ground. Jump. The procedure was simple and natural, as if it was a part of his nerve reflex. Jump again. As the blood-red countdown was rapidly approaching zero, a shimmering white line emerged in the gray-blue horizon on the periphery of Chamal’s view, and it advanced toward the shore, thickening and rising every second.
Chamal had no time to appreciate the sublime violence of nature, nor feel any fear. He was like a ghost that possessed those massive, sturdy bodies of steel and iron, connecting them to the network, and sending them on a path to safety. The delightful sound of coins clinking against one another rang on incessantly as his score rocketed at the top edge of the screen. The corners of his mouth twitched. He could feel the flow returning to his body.
The fatal Java tsunami was closer now. Faster. Chamal wanted to earn as many points as possible before the game ended. Every millisecond that slipped through his fingers meant less tuition money for his younger siblings and less living budget for his entire family. The world—and his family—depended on the speed of his mental and physical reactions.
As Chamal was about to leap into an SUV, the roaring wall of water and foam finally caught up to him. The graphics of the game were not the best; he could even see the jaggies and pixelation as the tide swallowed him whole. Before the screen went dark, he caught a last glimpse of a few cars in the near distance that were washed away instantaneously by the merciless wave. He let out a heavy, regretful sigh. Every car he didn’t save meant fewer points. Game over. Chamal, now back to reality, found himself drenched in sweat. He was so exhausted that he couldn’t even climb out from the cockpit. Two staff members had to carry him.
Alice told him to take some time off. In the days that followed, even tasks as simple as eating with a spoon gave Chamal trouble. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking. The great, ferocious tide haunted him in his dreams. That mission seemed to have deprived him of all of his energy, creating a void in his mind and body.
Chamal normally had little interest in the news, but as he lay in his bedroom recovering, he overheard a report coming from the television in the kitchen, where his parents were sitting with Uncle Junius. The newscaster was talking about a tsunami that had occurred in Kanto, Japan.
Slowly, Chamal got up from the bed and staggered to the kitchen. On the TV screen, he watched surveillance footage recorded during the final moments before the tsunami hit the coastal highway. Cars, as light and powerless as toy figures made from paper and clay, were overturned and devoured by the waves, disappearing into the dark water.
Chamal’s heart raced. The scene before his eyes was uncannily familiar. The status of the roads, the position of the cars, the scattered debris ... it was an exact replica of the final scene in the game, which had been imprinted into his mind that day.
No! That’s impossible! I only played a game!
“Uncle, that was only a game, wasn’t it?”
Junius was silent a moment. “Chamal, I want you to meet someone.”
Back at the training facility in the ReelX Center, Uncle Junius led Chamal through a door and down a corridor that Chamal had never seen before. At the end of the hallway, they entered an office decorated lavishly with local folk art and ornaments, resembling an absurdly large collection of holiday souvenirs.
“Dear Chamal, we meet at last.”
A woman dressed in all white stood from the sofa, bent down, and reached for Chamal’s hand. Shyly, Chamal offered his own. The woman’s grip was sturdy and her palm warm.
She motioned for them to sit.
“My name is Yang Juan. You can call me Yang, or Jade. I understand they call you ‘the ghost,’ Chamal.”
Chamal blushed as Yang Juan continued speaking.
“I am in charge of ReelX’s Sri Lanka branch. I’ve seen all of your game data. Without doubt, you’re born to be a driver.”
By now Chamal’s cheeks were burning.
“Well, your uncle told me you might have some questions. I’ll do my best to answer them.”
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