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Equity and safety on the roads March 26, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

In his discussion of risk assessment, risk researcher Sven Ove Hansson discusses how society sometimes tries to distribute risk according to the principle of equity. To make a long story short, this principle means that no group is made to face an undue or inordinate risk within some risk-taking activity. His main example is driving: All users of the roadway should be subject to roughly the same amount or risk in view of the risk they impose on others in so doing.

This principle is one justification for laws against drunk driving. Drunk driving is not objectionable in its own right. What makes it problematic is the increased risk of injury and death it imposes on users of the roadway. I imagine that in the future of self-driving cars, no one will mind if the occupants are inebriated.

One clear problem for this view is that there are groups of roadway users who suffer heightened risk, namely cyclists and motorcyclists. Let’s focus on cycling for the present. By various measurements, cycling is more dangerous than driving as a way of using the public roadways. In particular, in an encounter between a car and a bicycle, car passengers are better protected and at less risk than cyclists. Since both motorists and cyclists are legitimate users of the roadway, this situation is not equitable.

One approach to improve equity is through designing safety features into cars. Recently, there has been a move to design the hoods and windshields of cars so that they are less likely to injure pedestrians during collisions. I suppose that these features are also helpful for cyclists.

The European Union Parliament has also recently approved new standards for the design of large trucks. Among the revisions are rules to allow the rounding off of truck cabins, which should improve the sight-lines of drivers, allowing them to better see and avoid others on the roadways.

Google has recently patented designs for external airbags and special bumpers that might be applied to its self-driving car design. During a collision, pedestrians and cyclists are often bounced from cars and onto the roadway, resulting in nasty injuries. High-tech airbags and “visco-elastic” bumpers would absorb some of the energy of collision and thus mitigate the force of the subsequent trip to the tarmac.

Jaguar has recently announced the introduction of “early warning systems” to make drivers aware of cyclists and others when there is danger of a collision. The Bike Sense system would note the nearby presence of cyclists and warn the driver by sounding an appropriate alarm that sounds like a bicycle bell, for example. Unfortunately, it is not clear when this system might actually be introduced.

Ford has announced that its European S-Max car will be equipped with an Intelligent Speed Limiter. When activated by the driver, the system acts as a kind of super cruise control, reading the speed limit from roadside signs and reducing the car’s speed to match. Has the speed governor arrived at last?

Ford has pitched the idea as a means of avoiding speeding tickets, a looming threat for drivers considering the many traffic cameras set up along European roads. It may be useful to help drivers avoid fines but I think it may also help reduce road risk. Speed is one of the chief determinants of severity in roadway collisions. I wonder if motorists would be less accepting of the technology if it were sold as a safety feature for others rather than a means for drivers to avoid tickets.

The increasing incorporation of sensors and computers in cars raises many interesting technology-society issues. Among them is the possibility of increasing equity of risk among users of the roads.

Life-cycles and electric cars March 24, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV202 , add a comment

In my last post, I pointed out that technological life-cycle analysis can produce surprising results (or, in that case, unpalatable ones… instant coffee is better for the environment than drip. Ugh.)

On the CBC’s The Current radio show this morning, the host interviewed Chris Kennedy, a professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto, who recently published a interesting commentary in Nature Climate Change. His work relates electrification and climate change, and explores what he calls the “threshold for electricity emissions” when it comes to replacing fossil-fuel burning engines with electric motors, as with electric or hybrid cars, trucks and buses. That is:

The threshold below which electrification becomes carbon competitive; that is, when markets for electric vehicles and other electrified assets can grow without increasing life-cycle emissions

The challenge is to know if electrificiation will increase or decrease intensity of carbon emissions after you do an entire life-cycle analysis. If you switch to an electric car in a part of the world that generates most of its electricity with coal-burning power stations is sits above the threshold, then you might actually increase your carbon emissions. And vice versa: if you switch in an area that relies on nuclear or renewables like solar or wind is is below the threshold, then you can rest a bit easier. Of course, there are other challenges associated with “environmental impacts of battery disposal; resilience of electricity grids” and so on, but at least your car’s carbon emissions might not make matters worse.

Just how "green" is your electric car? (Image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

Just how "green" is your electric car? (Image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

So, where should you live if you want an electric car and want to do good? Without getting into the threshold, in Canada, hydro-electric powered provinces like Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador are great, whereas coal-burners like Alberta and Saskatchewan are not, although as a whole Canada is well below the threshold. Around the world, there are some very good European and African countries to live in if you want to pursue an electrificiation strategy to reducing your carbon footprint (Kennedy notes Albania, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, as well as Congo, Ethiopia Mozambique and Zambia. I won’t shame the not-so-good places that he names).

So, remember your life-cycles when shopping for a new place to live, or at least, your next car.

A new capital for Egypt? March 24, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV 201, STV202 , add a comment

From Gizmag comes the interesting news that the Egyptian government of President al-Sisi is planning to build a new capital city. The Capital Cairo Project involves architects & planners Skidmore, Owings & Merril and aims to construct the new abode somewhat to the east of Cairo, between that city and the Red Sea.

The scale of the new plan must be described as Pharaonic:

The recently-proposed city, seven times the size of Paris, and twelve times bigger than Manhattan, would measure approximately 700 sq km (270 sq miles) and be home to 7 million residents.

The project would create 1.5 million jobs, not an inconsiderable boost in employment for a country whose economy has struggled recently.

Building a giant city from scratch may seem like a crazy idea on the face of it. However, many countries have engaged in it. Brazil built itself a new capital, Brasilia, in 1960, planned by architects like Oscar Niemeyer who decided to make it look like an airplane when viewed from above. More recently, the government of Myanmar moved its capital to the new city of Naypyidaw, upriver from Yangon. Also, the Chinese government has been busy building dozens of new cities, sometimes centered on massive new airports, a scheme known as an Aerotropolis. Proposed by John Kasarda, the idea is that air travel, rather than road or rail transport, is the wave of the future for inter-city traffic.

The scheme is reminiscent of the Toshka Project of former president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak planned to build a huge tract of farmland in the desert of southern Egypt, irrigated with water taken from Lake Nasser. The plan included the construction of cities that would house perhaps 20% of the country’s population. But New Toshka City proved to be an expensive white elephant.

Al-Sisi’s new plan is certainly ambitious:

The slated infrastructure really brings home the scale of the challenge. For example, the city would include a 20,000 km (12,427 mile)-long water and sewage network, a 10,000 km (6,213 mile) road network, 100 km (62 miles) of bridges and tunnels, and a 16 sq km (6 sq mile) international airport. It would also require a mind-boggling 20 million cubic meters (706 cubic ft) of water every day.

The water requirements are especially problematic. Ethiopia and Sudan, upriver along the Nile from Egypt, are taking increasing amounts of water from the river for irrigation. Also, construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam may well curtail the flow of the Nile in Egypt even further. Building a thirsty new city next to the leaky old one will not improve matters.

Building a new capital city is not an inherently crazy undertaking. However, a massive building project is not necessarily a good solution to Egypt’s admittedly sizable economic and political challenges.

DNN: 23 March 2015 March 23, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , add a comment

The consumer drone business has already proven highly profitable. Da-Jian Innovations (DJI), maker of the popular Phantom quadcopter, took in around $500 in revenue last year. Here is some more drone business to ponder:

It seems that Amazon is not the only delivery service with some kinks to work out.

It will be interesting to see what pressures the drone industry responds to over the coming years. Telephones and computers were firstly viewed largely as business tools but were, arguably, more profoundly shaped by consumer applications in the end. Early commercial drone development has been shaped, it seems, largely by the drive to make smaller and cheaper drones for consumer use. Will the development of delivery drones overtake this trajectory?

Are selfie sticks a monumental problem? March 20, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

The selfie stick sensation has crossed the globe. Now, some jurisdictions are responding by banning them. I have noted already that the Smithsonian banned them, considering them a menace to exhibits and visitors alike. They have also been banned at Old Trafford, because too many fans were spending the game with the backs to the action.

Now, the list of banned locations continues to grow. Many of the sites seem to involve famous monuments.

Some visitors applaud the moves for safety reasons and because the use of selfie sticks complicates viewing for the crowds that tend to gather around the most famous works:

Visitors to the National Gallery backed the ban today, including, Morny Davison, who was waiting for the Inventing Impressionism exhibition to open.
She said: ‘It is an interference in what one hopes is a reasonably calm experience looking at great pictures.’
Another woman, who did not wish to be named, said art lovers would be ‘thrilled’ by the ban.
‘It’s becoming impossible to see pictures,’ she said. ‘First there’s people with cameras then there’s cameras with sticks. They should have been banned some time ago.’

I should probably ban them from my classroom, although the demand for “Prof. selfies” has not yet reached a fever pitch.

In view of the continuing opprobrium attached to the selfie stick, fans may want to consider a more discrete alternative. Someone has designed the Pop Stick, a selfie stick that doubles as a bracelet. When you want to take a selfie, simply unroll the bracelet and place your smart phone on the other end. Of course, the Pop Stick extends to only about 50cm, but it should help to address the technostress involved in carrying an item that many people consider somewhat shameful or even dangerous.

Virtual reality in the courtroom March 18, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

An item in Atlantic Cities discusses prospects for the use of virtual reality in courtroom proceedings. In particular, the article reviews work on the use of VR to present crime reconstructions to juries.

As the article points out, this use of VR can be understood as an extension of existing practices, such as the use of charts, graphs, or drawings. What is different, of course, is that the use of VR would place jury members in an immersive, 3D view of the crime scene reconstruction.

Here is a short example from the researchers:

One of the signal advantages of this technological aid, say the researchers, is the ability to present visual and spatial information in a way that jurors are best equipped to appreciate:

“Usually, [when you're trying to determine what happened], the questions are 3D questions: Could this person really have seen this other person? Where did this bullet fly from? What was impact angle of the car?” says Lars Ebert, the lead Swiss researcher. “These are 3D questions, but the evidence and reconstruction of the evidence is usually presented in 2D, on paper or screens. It always comes with loss of information, which makes it difficult to assess what actually happened.”

That argument is quite a reasonable one.

However, as the article notes, the persuasive power of 3D presentations might open the door for abuses, such as reconstructions biased in one way or another. It presents two reasons to view these particular reconstructions as unbiased. First, the information for the reconstruction is based solely on security camera footage and laser scans of rooms. It thus excludes notoriously biased sources for information such as eyewitness accounts. Of course, this argument is a non sequitur: The fact that some measurement is quantitative does not necessarily mean it is unbiased. Any reconstruction will have to “fill in” many details not captured by cameras and will have to make assumptions about how the space has changed, or not, between the time of the events depicted and their virtual reconstruction.

Second, Switzerland, where the research has been done, uses a legal system in which fact-finding is done by the court and not by either plaintiff or defendant. Since the court is neutral with respect to the case, it has no reasons to bias its reconstructions. Although it may be true that Swiss courts are officially neutral, this point does not rule out unintended biases. Certainly, the technology itself has a kind of bias, that is, towards visual and spatial information. In some cases, other information may be more telling, e.g., voices and sounds, but may appear less compelling because of the impressiveness of the computer graphics involved in VR reconstructions.

As the article notes, this second point would not apply in many jurisdictions, e.g., the United States or Canada, where VR reconstructions would be commissioned by either (or both) the defence and prosecution.

None of these points imply that VR reconstructions should be banned from courtrooms. Instead, courts will have to think hard about the rules for admission of such reconstructions. As the article notes, courts tend to be conservative on such matters, relying on expert opinion about the qualities of these tools. The next step, then, is for researchers to scrutinize these systems and come to some consensus about them.

DNN: 17 March 2015 March 17, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

What do you think of when you hear the term “drone”? Probably, you imagine a flying robot with a camera. That image is not inaccurate, but drones are being equipped with other sensors too.

Until these new sensors become common, we will have to make do with the usual, visual cameras that drones often carry. Consider the video recently shot (partly) by drone in the Hang Son Doong cave in Vietnam. The cave is said to be the largest in the world and even has its own, unusual ecosystem.

Hang Son Doong from Ryan Deboodt on Vimeo.

As drones acquire more and diverse sensors, the issue of what they should be looking at—and how—will become more pressing.

Big glasses are not just for hipsters March 16, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

FastCompany has an interesting little piece on some “invisibility” glasses being developed AVG Technologies. The glasses do not actually make you invisible. However, they incorporate infra-red lights around the eyes that are designed to stymie facial recognition software.

The development is an example of what we sometimes call guerrilla design on this blog. In this case, the design is meant to disrupt or, at least, protest, the increasing application of facial recognition software online and in public spaces:

If Facebook’s Deep Face tech looks at two pictures, it can tell if they’re the same person with 97% accuracy—basically as well as a real person. The FBI has a new database of millions of photos. And facial recognition may also show up soon in places like retail stores.

The issue is not new, and neither is the solution. In this previous post, I noted that Japanese researchers have been working on a similar idea. Also, I noted that Canadian law makes it illegal to wear a mask or other identity-concealing gear during riots or unlicensed protests. Given the expansion of security threats and police profiling countenanced under Bill C-51, it is fair to wonder under what circumstances wearing a pair of these glasses might be considered a criminal offence.

The article also notes that criminal organizations are making use of facial recognition software:

While the FBI is trying to use facial recognition, so are criminals. [Developer Tony] Anscombe points to an example of Australian criminals who visited police graduation ceremonies, took photos, and then used facial recognition software to create their own database of undercover cops. “That’s a good use case for this technology, isn’t it—police graduates,” he says.

Perhaps police departments will be the first in line for the new spectacles.

Does Oklahoma need another tornado? March 13, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Dezeen reports that Oklahoma architects Kinslow, Keith & Todd have designed a building for Tulsa that resembles a cartoonish tornado. The building is to be located on top of a parking garage and would contain a weather museum, weather research center, and a revolving restaurant on top. Furthermore, the building would be lit up in a way that makes it appear to be turning on its axis. (Visit their website here for pictures.)

Known as “Tornado Alley,” the sight of twisters is sometimes all too common in the region and is, of course, what inspired the design:

“The concept started as a way to get a revolving restaurant up high enough to have great sight lines of downtown, the Arkansas River, and the Osage hills,” explained studio co-founder Andrew Kinslow.

“As we worked on ways to make it more interesting than just a stick with a round restaurant on top, the swirling of a tornado concept was born.”

The concept is a good example of post-modernist design, on which the shape of architecture is determined by symbolic as much as strictly functional requirements.

The concept also illustrates the notion of cultural fit in design. That is, it illustrates how designers may try to craft solutions to problems in ways that accommodate local culture. Whether or not residents of Tulsa feel that an architectural twister in their midst is a fitting tribute to local conditions or just in poor taste remains to be seen.

DNN: 12 March 2015 March 12, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

This Saturday is International Drone Day. If you are in Clinton, Ontario that day, why don’t you head on down to the REACH Centre for demonstrations, information, drone races, hands-on drone-flying?

The event is being organized by some Ontario drone enthusiasts. Their slogan is, “Drones are good”, although they admit that there is some difference of opinion on the matter:

Organizer Nigel Tilley said the most common misconception is that drones are used mostly for spying. Most, though, are used for aerial photography and videography, crop analysis, real estate, search and rescue, architectural assessments and fun.

“There are bad things about drones, we all admit, but there are a lot of good uses too,” Tilley said.

Drones are often viewed as essentially eyes in the sky.

Happily, a foretaste of the sound track of our new, drone overlords is already available:

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