The robot revolution begins in Sweden December 3, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
From Wired comes a short article about Volvo’s pledge to put 100 autonomous cars on the road in Sweden by the end of 2017. The carmaker has several reasons for this plan, one of which is to compete with other developers of self-driving cars such as Nissan and Google.
Another reason is to enhance road safety. Robot cars, it is hoped, will be better drivers than humans, who are known for their vulnerabilities as drivers:
… Volvo says it believes that “that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020.”
The idea that technological advancement can save us from our foibles is age-old, and the robot car is another manifestation of it. Beyond the technical problems of designing a self-driving car, the prospect raises certain ethical challenges as well:
- The car’s programming must incorporate ways of distributing risk among people present in the roadway. For example, in order to avoid a collision, it may be necessary for a self-driving car to endanger pedestrians or cyclists (or vice-versa). What risk-distribution rules will car designers implement?
- It is not only car design that determines risk on roadways. The design of roads, intersections, sidewalks, housing, parking lots, etc., all influence the dangers faced by drivers in the streets. Volvo’s goal may be unreachable without changes or trade-offs in these other areas.
To elaborate the first point, there is a tension among goals that a self-driving car would have to meet. On the one hand, there is the goal of universal safety, which would probably require a defensive style of driving. On the other hand, there is the desire of drivers to get to their destinations quickly, which sometimes motivates an aggressive driving style. Will drivers get to set the level of aggression they are comfortable with? What will the car do if that setting conflicts with its imperative to keep everyone safe?
On the second point, enhancing safety for drivers may, for example, prompt robot cars to make more trips through residential streets instead of the more congested and dangerous arterial roads. This move may make drivers safer but could increase risk of injury (serious or not) to people on side roads, and also increase their exposure to traffic noise and pollution. Is that a price that people would be willing to pay for enhancing the safety of Volvo owners?
This is not to say that robot cars are a bad idea. It does mean that designers of robot cars face some serious issues which are not technical ones and which, to all appearances, have yet to be addressed. And the deadline appears to be soon!
Smart phones on a plane December 2, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
The New York Times has a little piece on deliberations in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about allowing people to talk on their smart phones while in flight. The prohibition against phone calls in flight dates back to an era when calls on cell phones would cause interference with cockpit control systems. Current technology does not seem to produce the same hazard, and so the need for the prohibition has been called into question.
Although most phone-carrying passengers today would be ecstatic to be allowed to browse the Web or check Facebook continuously in flight, many are not happy with the idea that their fellow passengers should be allowed to enjoy a good old chinwag in the seat next to them. Five technostressing hours next to “Chatty Cathy” might drive them mad. Yet, allowing people to use their data connection would also permit phone calls.
Critical reaction has set in. There is even a petition on whitehouse.gov calling on the FCC and FAA to permit data but ban phone chatter on flights.
Other jurisdictions have faced the same problem. The EU has allowed cell phone usage on planes for years and leaves it up to airlines to regulate phone calls. Different airlines are trying different approaches:
In Europe, Virgin Atlantic allows unlimited data connections, but it lets only six people talk on a cellphone at once. Some Lufthansa flights allow data connections through a cellphone, but no phone calls. Emirates lets an unlimited number of passengers talk on their phones — though few apparently do. How is it working so far? A study by the F.A.A. in 2012 found no reports “of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cellphones on aircraft” in other countries.
This result suggests that a permissive approach might work out.
Technologically, we may be ready for phone calls at 30,000 feet. What remains to be seen is how and to what extent people are willing to adjust the etiquette, or social contract, that governs air travel:
“There is no quiet car at 30,000 feet,” Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote in an email. “Staying connected and entertained by checking email and playing a game on your phone is one thing, but loud, intrusive phone calls would strain the social compact we all enter into when we board a plane.”
Of course the social contract is already changing. Phone calls are becoming a last resort after texting and other means of interpersonal contact. Considered intrusive, it is becoming rude to call someone unless out of dire necessity.
Also, technology may alter the scene yet again. Perhaps it will become de rigueur for people to bring noise-cancelling headphones on to planes. Or, people may choose to wear microphones on their throats to enable them to speak on the phone quietly while in flight. Or, and this is my favourite solution, airlines may provide apps for smart phones that allow passengers to cut off chatterboxes if enough people become annoyed with them.
Smart parking November 28, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
Cars and their requirements (and impacts) are a never-ending stimulus of technological development. And news. Today’s car news comes in the form of a piece from the New York Times about parking apps. Just in time for Black Friday, you can now download an app for your smartphone that will help to you locate a parking in one of North America’s many, many parkings lots and garages.
The information that the app can provide depends upon what is available. In the case of very dumb lots, the app may be able only to show you a good route to take to get to a particular area. In lots that track occupation levels, you may learn before you head out how full the lot is. This information can make a big difference in shopping decisions:
She [Phoebe Scott of Orange County, Cal.] checks the parking lots on her ParkMe smartphone app “so that I can see what I’m up against, or if I need to change my plans.” If a lot is below 90 percent full, the trip is on.
If the lot is particularly well equipped, that is, it has sensors that tell it exactly which spots are empty or occupied, then the app can guide the driver right to an open space. Sometimes, a customer can even reserve a space, with a payment.
In addition, some services help customers to find their cars when they want to leave:
Users can take a picture of where their car is parked, drop a pin on a map or send a text message reminding themselves where they parked.
Plus, users can construct a list of favourite spots that the app will try to guide them to.
One matter left untouched is what the services do with all this user information. I presume that the stores in the mall would like to have access to it, for starters. In any case, these apps are an attempt by malls and clients to get people physically out to the stores, instead of sitting comfortably behind their computers, shopping on Amazon. Car companies are also interested in integrating these apps with their own in-car offerings, presumably for the same reason: to get people out of their living rooms and into their cars.
The appearance of these apps provides a good illustration of some technology-society concepts. For example, one of the main aims of a parking app is to make the parking experience less technostressing. People describe the job of parking in terms of a conflict:
“It’s a daily battle,” said Ms. Scott, 29, the founder of Laudville, a social technology start-up. “Anything to make it easier makes a really big difference.”
“What happens when there’s no spots? People drive around and become frustrated,” said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. “Who wants to start their shopping experience frustrated?”
Probably, anyone who has driven to the mall can relate to this problem.
In addition, parking services should make the usage of parking lots more efficient. When a lot is full, people will be steered to another one, or they will postpone the trip to another time. In principle, this gain in efficiency might mean that malls would need smaller lots and garages. Wouldn’t that be nice for the environment?!
However, it may also increase the volume of shopping trips. As noted in an earlier post, Jevons’ Paradox suggests that gains in efficiency can stimulate increases in consumption. That is, people will react to more efficient access to existing parking lots as if the lots had become larger, thus allowing increased usage. One outcome would be increased economic activity at the malls–surely what the developers have in mind–and perhaps more satisfaction for shoppers. Also increased would be pollution, accidents, traffic congestion near the stores, decreased interest in public transit, and so on.
So, smart parking provides an interesting illustration of dilemmas of technological progress.
Car brains November 27, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Wanderer Paul Salopek has posted some thoughts about his cross-world trek in the New York Times. (See also this commentary in The Atlantic Cities.) Salopek is engaged on a re-creation of the original migration of human beings out of Africa, across the Middle East and Asia, with Tierra del Fuego as his final destination. Moreover, he is undertaking the entire trip on foot!
In his article, Salopek draws attention to the impact that cars have had on human consciousness. In the Horn of Africa, he says, there are very few cars and people are universally accustomed to getting around bipedally:
The Rift Valley desert and people’s relationship to it are still shaped by the human foot. Trails unspool everywhere. Everyone functions as a competent walking guide — even small children.
That is, everyone is able to give competent walking directions, and finds Salopek’s pace unremarkable.
The situation changed when Salopek crossed into Arabia and encountered the world of the highway and the automobile:
In Saudi Arabia, I had trouble simply communicating with motorists who have lost the ability to imagine unconstrained movement to any point on the horizon. Asking directions is often pointless. Like drivers everywhere, their frame of reference is rectilinear and limited to narrow ribbons of space, axle-wide, that rocket blindly across the land.
Salopek calls the resulting frame of mind “Car brain”. This condition is also manifested by the curiosity that drivers take in Salopek’s mode of transportation, and how they express it:
Cocooned inside a bubble of loud noise and a tonnage of steel, members of the internal combustion tribe tend to adopt ownership of all consumable space. They roar too close. They squint with curiosity out of the privacy of their cars as if they themselves were invisible. In Saudi Arabia, this sometimes meant a total loss of privacy as Bedouins in pickups, soldiers in S.U.V.’s and curiosity seekers in sedans circled my desert camps as if visiting an open-air zoo, gaping at the novelty of a man on foot with two cargo camels. Other motorists steered next to my elbow for hundreds of yards, interrogating me through a rolled-down car window. (Not to pick on Saudi Arabia, which is no worse than any other Car Brain society, but exactly one driver in 700 miles of walking in the kingdom bothered to park and stroll along for a while.)
I suspect that Salopek’s case is an extreme. He would likely attract extra attention as an obvious foreigner, which might also make people more reticent to interact directly with him. That they choose to gawk at him through their car windows is still a symptom of the “car brain” though.
Neil Postman wrote that technologies all come with “philosophies”, that is, assumptions about how people should behave. These, he argued, could change the way people think, how they “use their minds”. Salopek’s “car brain” would be a good illustration of this condition. Cars make demands on our physical bodies: we travel in them while seated and thus miss the opportunity to walk. They also make demands on our physical space: they require an all-encompassing road system, gasoline refining and distribution, car manufacturing and repair facilities, etc. In addition, they demand a particular kind of conduct: we plan our lives around the affordances that cars provide, which affects how we think about our goals, values, and our interactions with others. There are many benefits to using cars, but also some trade-offs as well. These become more evident when you adopt an unusual perspective, as Salopek has found himself doing.
The FDA reproaches 23andMe November 26, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
On November 22, the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) issued a public warning to genomics company 23andMe to stop offering personal genetic tests to customers.
(National Institutes of Health/Wikimedia commons)
Starting in 2007, the company 23andMe began to offer personal genetic test kits to customers. People could send in a cheek swab, pay $99, and have significant segments of their genome analyzed by the company. The company would provide the results, along with a synopsis of medical risk factors they deemed to follow from those results. Also, the company runs a social network for people with similar genetic conditions who can share and discuss their experiences.
23andMe has proven controversial in a number of respects. For example, in 2012, the company patented a method for determining predisposition to Parkinson’s disease, based on research conducted on its database of customer data, somewhat to the surprise of some customers. More recently, the company opened its API to developers, which would allow integration with customers’ electronic health records but would also increase their risk of breaches of personal genetic information, as well as exposing them to more medical advertising.
The FDA’s beef, however, is with the diagnostic information provided with the test results. The Agency views the service as medical, in which case the advice it dispenses should be validated through research. 23andMe, it says, has not complied with this requirement:
“Even after these many interactions with 23andMe, we still do not have any assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated the P.G.S. [Personal Genome Service] for its intended uses, which have expanded from the uses that the firm identified in its submissions.”
The company’s immediate response is rather generic:
“We recognize that we have not met the FDA’s expectations regarding timeline and communication regarding our submission. Our relationship with the FDA is extremely important to us and we are committed to fully engaging with them to address their concerns.”
Presumably, they will have more to say shortly.
The FDA’s concern is not merely formal. It claims that unvalidated medical information can contribute to misguided actions on the part of consumers:
The agency said that if the company’s risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo preventative surgery, intensive screening or other potentially risky procedures. A false negative, on the other hand, could result in a failure to recognize actual risk.
The possibility that people might have themselves mutilated erroneously is certainly worrisome.
Critics of the decision argue that the FDA is standing in the way of progress:
“Is the only pathway for me to get access to the contents of my cells via some guy in a white coat?” he [Misha Angrist, an assistant professor at the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University] said. “F.D.A. clearly thinks the answer is yes. I find that disappointing and shortsighted and naïve.”
This criticism appears to fall a little wide of the mark: The FDA’s objection is not to the genetic information but to the risk assessments that 23andMe provides with it.
In any event, the situation illustrates an important dilemma of progress: Should regulators impose a cautious approach on risk assessment, allowing advice only when it has stood the test of time? Or, should it permit companys to offer their services on the open market and allow the invisible hand to sort things out?
From bottles to roofs November 25, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From FastCompany comes a piece on a design for emergency shelter roofing made of plastic water bottles. The design, featured on the Kickstarter page for Home2O, was motivated by the observation that disaster zones, like that left by Hurricane Sandy, often feature a lack of housing and a surfeit of plastic water bottles and shipping palates. It occurred to the project leaders, Farzana Ghandi and Jason van Nest of NYIT, that the latter might assist with the lack of the former. That is, it might be a good idea to construct emergency shelter with plastic water bottles.
Actually, the system comprises two components. First, it involves the adoption of a special plastic shipping palette. The palette has a network of threaded holes where plastic water bottles can be screwed in. Second, the water bottles themselves are crushed in a particular way so that they can act like roofing tiles. Then, racks of bottles are detached from the palette and attached to an existing structure in order to provide shelter from the elements. Check out this explanatory graphic!
This system has a number of interesting features. For one, the designers argue, it is culturally neutral in the sense that it produces roofing that is compatible with a variety of building traditions:
As someone starts building the roof, it can be lashed to any type of structure. “Disasters happen all over the world and local craftsmen all have different building traditions,” Van Nest says. “We’re trying to develop a relief system that delivers critically needed water, but turns into another resource to plug into local knowledge and local expertise. The pallet could be broken apart and lashed to bamboo structures, earth structures, or even lumber structures made from disaster materials like 2×4s that have been strewn to the side.” The roof can be attached without any nails, screws, or tools.
Also, it should be acceptable to makers of bottled water. Although the special plastic palettes are more expensive than the usual wooden ones, they are about 7.5 times more durable, lasting for 60 trips on average instead of 8. The designers hope that makers of plastic water bottles would be willing to donate them when the bottles are sent to disaster relief situations.
In addition, the design also shows that plastic water bottles can be adapted to new uses, at least under special circumstances. More examples of the re-use of plastic water bottles in architecture can be found at Inhabitat.
Cleanup after re-use remains an issue. In developed nations such as the US, some effort might be made to recycle the bottles. In developing nations, they seem more likely to live on as a form of pollution.
“Morph”, the adjustable airplane seat November 18, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A piece from Wired describes a new kind of airplane seat that features adjustable seat widths. Designed by London firm Seymourpowell, the seat is based on two sheets of fabric, one for the seat and another for seatback, that stretch across the standard 3-seat span. In effect, the seat is like a bench instead of a settee with fixed-width cushions. Because of this feature, seat widths can be adjusted by moving the armrests left or right.
Certainly, the possibility of adjusting seats to non-standard widths suits the era of personalization. Moreover, the result could be technotonic in the sense that a seat of the right width would help to take some of stress usually associated with being trapped in a metal tube for long periods. Also, it would help to solve a beef that sometimes arises with airplane seats, which is when plus-size passengers take up more space than their neighbours think is their due.
However, as the Wired piece points out, this potential comes with the possibility of technostressing negotiations:
While the Morph seat might make it easier for the airline to simply adjust the width of the seat [for larger passengers], it might be awkward trying to find a smaller passenger to sit in the now shrunken seat next door.
In brief, we lack a widely accepted etiquette for negotiating seat width adjustments on planes (or other shared vehicles). Currently, seat assignments usually take place before the plane is boarded. The new seats leave open the possibility that some seat assignments will have to be revisited after passengers are aboard their plane. In order to reap the benefits of adjustable seats, someone will have to come up with a way to manage the adjustments in a way that is largely agreeable to anxious travellers.
Google Books project is legal, judge Chin rules November 15, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Back in 2004, Google announced an ambitious plan to scan and make searchable a huge trove of books. This plan, since known as Google Books, has seen millions of books digitized and ready for datamining.
In 2005, Google was taken to court in two lawsuits by the American Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. Their beef was that the Google Books project is a violation of their copyright. In brief, copyright is a legal institution that gives authors (in the first instance) a right to prevent others from making copies of their works. The point of granting such a right is to provide authors protection from free riders, who would sell knock-off copies at the authors’ expense, and thus encourage authors to make public their ideas. A progressive society needs a constant input of new ideas.
On the face of it, Google Books is indeed a violation of this right, as Google never sought the permission of authors to scan their books. Scanning a book, after all, means making a copy of it, even if only in the memory of a computer.
Google’s defense was that their copying was allowed under the “fair use” provision of copyright law (in Canada, it is “fair dealing“), which allows people to make limited use of copyrighted works for the purposes of criticism, education, etc. The exception is granted because, otherwise, copyright would allow copyright holders to unduly censor the speech of critics and impede cultural progress.
Yesterday, Judge Denny Chin of the US Circuit court, accepted Google’s fair use defense of Google Books. Although Google Books does involving making unauthorized copies of books, it does not undermine the authors’ ability to market those books, and it otherwise satisfies the criteria for fair use:
In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers,librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books. It has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.
Libraries have bowels? Eww!
In other words, Google Books is consistent with the need of society to promote progress by protecting authors but without oppressing critics and scholars.
Google is “absolutely delighted” with the verdict, whereas the Authors Guild vows to appeal. (The Association of American Publishers settled with Google out of court last year.)
It seems that Google’s permissive approach to its project has paid off. That is, at least in this case, it was better to proceed in the face of legal uncertainty than to wait for some sort of assurance that their project would be considered legal after all. My impression is that many scholars thought that the fair use defense should work, but that the outcome of copyright cases is unpredictable.
It will be interesting to see how, and if, this ruling affects the overall status of copyright in future legal disputes.
New birthing technology November 14, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From the New York Times comes an article about a new device to help ease difficult births. The story is that Jorge Odón, an inventive Argentine car mechanic, had watched a YouTube video about extracting a cork that has fallen inside a wine bottle. Behold!
While sleeping that night, Odón realized that a similar method could be used to extract babies stuck in the womb during birth. It is not clear from the article why Odón was thinking about difficult births, but he pursued the idea with the support of his wife and an obstetrician. Fast forward to today, and a refined version of the design is ready for serious trials.
The so-called Odón device exhibits several interesting characteristics. Among them is the fact that its inspiration was derived by analogy. That is, Odón made a systematic connection between two unrelated circumstances and realized that a solution to one problem could provide a framework to the solution of another. (See Holyoak and Thagard’s Mental leaps for further discussion.)
Also interesting is the social impact of this design. The World Health Organization is interested in the Odón device because it could provide assistance at difficult births where help is otherwise unavailable:
About 10 percent of the 137 million births worldwide each year have potentially serious complications, Dr. Merialdi [W.H.O.’s chief coordinator for improving maternal and perinatal health] said. About 5.6 million babies are stillborn or die quickly, and about 260,000 women die in childbirth. Obstructed labor, which can occur when a baby’s head is too large or an exhausted mother’s contractions stop, is a major factor.
In wealthy countries, fetal distress results in a rush to the operating room. In poor, rural clinics, Dr. Merialdi said, “if the baby doesn’t come out, the woman is on her own.”
The device requires no special expertise or training to operate, apparently. So, it could perhaps save the lives of many infants and mothers in developing countries.
In developed countries, as noted, difficult births often lead to caesarian sections. If the Odón device can demonstrate comparable performance, then it may spare women in these countries from needless surgery.
In other words, the device may assist in the handling of difficult births in some regions but change how they are handled in others.
The device, which is now being readied for production, should make for some interesting scenes in maternity wards and who knows where else.
Surveillance and gender selection November 11, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV203, STV302 , comments closed
Gender selection in India is a tough problem. There is a preference for male children in India because they are better able to look after their parents and because female children traditionally require substantial dowries to marry well. As a result, mothers are more likely to abort female embyros than male ones. Reflecting this tendency, recent census figures show that there are only about 919 girls for 1000 boys in the country in 2011, down from 927/1000 in 2001.
To curb this tendency, the Indian government recently instituted a monitoring program in medical clinics. Known as the SIlent OBserver (SIOB), this software suite collects and monitors ultrasound images from medical clinics for administrative review, and requires doctors who provide abortions to document each service they supply. The intention of this program is to identify and deter the practice of preferential abortions of female embryos.
However, the program does not seem to be having the intended effect. First, it seems that at least some doctors find the new reporting requirements onerous. Rather than fill in the online forms, some doctors simply decline to provide abortion services. The result is that some women who would otherwise have access to abortions for legal reasons are denied the opportunity.
Second, some women are fearful of the privacy implications of having ultrasounds of their pregnancies stored in a central database. It seems that they are simply unwilling to share this information with people who are not their doctors, or they do not trust central authorities to keep such sensitive information both private and secure. The result is that some women shun medical clinics in compliance with the law and instead seek out abortion services from “quacks” or other unsanctioned providers.
The most obvious significance of this situation for this blog is that it represents an unintended consequence. The introduction of the SIOB package was meant simply to automate compliance with existing abortion laws in India. However, the reporting requirements and collection and storage of data have created new issues for the medical system. The reporting issue, in particular, is reminiscent of the effect of a police reporting system introduced in Virginia a few years ago. The interface and reporting requirements for entering a traffic ticket for police proved so onerous that police simply issued many fewer tickets, rather than having to deal with the software. Similarly, issues with SIOB have motivated some doctors to simply forgo provision of legal abortions.
There is also a fairness issue here. The aim of the law is to allow Indian women access to abortions for legal reasons but to deny them access for the purpose of gender selection. Under the old system (with manual reporting), there was an excess of gender selection. With SIOB, there is too little access to legal abortion services. If the Indian government wants to strike a different balance, it will have improve the reporting requirements of the new system and also do something to earn the trust of women who are reluctant to share their medical data with the state.