Technology should be more human September 24, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
At a TEDx event in Berlin, graduate student Fabian Hemmert presents a brief synopsis on how cell phones can be made better by dynamically changing their physical characteristics. For example, a cell phone could change its center of mass in order to indicate which way you should go while providing you with navigation directions. Also, a cell phone could change shape or become more animate, that is, a phone could have a “heart beat” that speeds up when an important call comes in.
These ideas are intriguing and worth exploration. And they raise interesting questions. When, I wonder, is it a good idea to make a device more animate, more like an animal than an inert blob? People do seem to like human voices emanating from their GPS navigation programs, provided that the right kind of voice is produced. However, people I’ve asked say that would dislike a GPS navigation system in the form of a robotic teddy bear that turns its head and gestures while giving directions (among other things).
So, what degree and kind of animation or humanness is appropriate in a given design? Are there any general principles? I would suggest, for starters, that a design should not give the impression that it is more intelligent than it is. GPS navigation systems, for example, give an exaggerated impression of confidence that their driving directions will work (and so must be followed). As a result, drivers may follow directions that they should not.
Perhaps we could look at the issue in another way: What sort of gear that you own would you like to see more animal or human-like? Why?
Is oil from the Tar Sands ethical? September 16, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I listened to an episode of Q on CBC radio, which featured debate on the ethical acceptability of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. Ezra Levant, author of the new book Ethical Oil argued that it is, while environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk argued that it is not.
The argument was spirited, as you might expect, with Levant dominating the exchange by describing how much less “ethical” oil is that comes from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, the Sudan, and so forth. Nikiforuk argued, if I understood him correctly, that we could do better, a point that Levant conceded.
I got the impression from the debate that Levant and perhaps Nikiforuk were confused about what it means to say that something is “ethical”. Specifically, it seemed to me that Levant’s conclusion simply does not follow from his argument. In other words, even if all his premises or claims about oil are true, his conclusion that Tar Sands oil is “ethical” could still be wrong.
Let me try to clarify: Levant argued that Tar Sands oil is better, ethically speaking, than oil from sources such as Nigeria or Saudi Arabia because, in Alberta, oil extraction is less polluting and gives rise to less corruption and bloodshed than it does in those other places. Yet, even if we grant the point that Tar Sands oil is better than these alternatives, it does not follow that it is the best alternative, which is what Levant seems to conclude. The best alternative, as Levant appeared to concede, might be Tar Sands oil done right with, let’s say, improved oversight, environmental controls, and benefits to Albertans and Canadians.
Perhaps an analogy would help. Suppose that you are asked to identify the most fuel-efficient car design from among a number of alternatives. Design A goes 100km on a liter of gas, design B goes 90km, C and D go 86km, and so on. Which design is the most fuel efficient? Design A, of course. Now, suppose that someone claims that design B is the most fuel-efficient because it is better than C, D, E, and so on. Even if they are right, it does not change the fact that A is better than any of the alternative designs, including B. To choose the most fuel-efficient design, you must choose A.
Likewise, if you are faced with the problem of identifying an “ethical” source of oil, you should identify all the alternatives, weigh them, and then select the one (if any) that dominates the others. Our range of options, Levant concedes, includes Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, …, the Tar Sands, and the Tar-Sands-with-improvements. It seems obvious that, according to his argument, the “ethical” option is the Tar-Sands-with-improvements and not the Tar Sands (as they are now).
Of course, the Tar-Sands-with-improvements does not exist. However, that does not make it ethically inferior to the other alternatives, any more than car design A becomes less fuel efficient then B because no one has yet produced it. Having identified the best alternative, the question we then face is: How do we get there? Unfortunately, when it comes to the Tar Sands, my impression (from a distance) is that government and industry are content with the status quo and so progress is sluggish at best. Perhaps it is here that the real problem lies for us: it is sometimes hard to do the right thing, even where we have decided what that is. So, I would suggest to Levant that, if he wants to advance the cause of ethical oil as he sees it, then he should stop berating people about how awful oil extraction is elsewhere and start berating Canadians for not doing a better job at home when the opportunity is before us.
Are hybrid cars a bad value? September 10, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A study by CarGurus.com concludes that hybrid cars are seldom worth the extra cost, reports Wired. Although the accounting involves some subtlety, the basic reason is clear: The hybrid drivetrain costs more for the owner to purchase than it saves the owner on fuel costs over the life of the car:
“The hybrid premium tends to considerably outweigh any savings you might see in reduced fuel costs,” said Langley Steinert, founder and CEO of CarGurus.com. “In 76 percent of the cars we examined, the cost of ownership was significantly higher than the cost of ownership of the same gasoline-only model.”
In short, the market is telling us that hybrid cars are not worth having and it would be irrational to purchase one.
This analysis is true as far as it goes but it may be misleading as it omits some important considerations. Not factored into the calculation are several externalities, or costs that are borne not by the purchaser or vendor but by others. For example, compared to a hybrid car, a conventional car emits more CO2 and pollutants over its lifetime operation. The increased levels of CO2 contribute to climate change, which imposes costs on people worldwide. The increased levels of pollutants emitted impose health costs on other people as well. These costs are very real but are difficult to account for, as the Wired article points out:
“Most hybrids are still a good investment,” Anair [a senior analyst in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ vehicles program] said. “Most consumers aren’t looking at just the immediate cost savings of hybrid technology. They also want to use less oil, have a car that pollutes less and they like new technology. These are real benefits, but harder to put price tag on.”
This example illustrates a common problem with risk analyses like that by CarGurus.com. When a cost or benefit is hard to quantify, then it is left out. Even so, the final evaluation is presented (or reported) with great assurance and without qualification.
In cases like this, where a risk analysis is significantly incomplete, we have to consider the possibility that the marketplace is simply unable to evaluate a design appropriately. In such a case, we may look to government subsidies, or to individuals taking responsibility for others onto themselves, to address the problem. Perhaps that is what the moderate popularity of hybrid cars illustrates, instead of irrationality.
Flight simulators can contribute to accidents September 9, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A study recently done for USA Today indicates that flight simulator training can, in rare instances, contribute to accidents. Their report claims that 522 fatalities in US Airline accidents can be attributed to problems stemming from simulator training.
(Image courtesy of US Navy, via Wiki Commons.)
The basic idea is that the picture of reality painted in a simulation can be at odds with reality itself, thus creating expectations about plane handling in pilots that do not pan out in practice. For example:
Last month, the NTSB blamed deficient simulator training in part for the Dec. 20, 2008, crash of a Continental Airlines jet in Denver.
The Boeing 737-500 skidded off a runway at high speed and burst into flames because of the pilot’s inability to steer while trying to take off in gusty cross-winds, the NTSB ruled. Six people suffered severe injuries.
Of course, simulator training generally works well and, indeed, can be credited with saving many casualties since its introduction in the 1970s. But its record of success may produce a sense of complacency about its upgrading and revisions.
This case presents an interesting illustration of one of the recurring themes of this blog, namely people’s relationships with their tools. Is technology “just a tool”, as is often said? This example shows that the answer is “no” and “yes”, depending on how you interpret the expression itself:
- In one sense, a tool is something that facilitates some activity, e.g., a hammer facilitates driving nails. A hammer is “just a tool”, then, if it effects no other significant changes in people’s lives. Marshall McLuhan argued that media, like TV, are not merely tools because, in addition to conveying data, they present a particular way of perceiving the world that users feel compelled to adopt. Computer flight simulators seem to provide a good example of this point: They present a picture of reality that is so convincing to pilot trainees that they perceive the real world as the simulator has it.
- Sometimes, when people say that technology is “just a tool”, they mean that merely applying new technology does not necessarily solve all our old problems. The use of e-voting machines, for example, does not somehow mean the end of electoral fraud or even vote counting issues. In this sense, flight simulators are “just a tool”, meaning that their application does not justify complacency about the quality of pilot training.
Probably, few people would want technology to be “just a tool” in the first sense: Imagine if technology never significantly changed people’s lives! Would you care to return to a stone-age lifestyle? The price of accepting technologies that have the power to transform our lives and perceptions of things is sometimes being blind to or unprepared for the downside of our new tools. Sticking to certain values, such as the dignity of human life, helps to ensure that technology remains “just a tool” in the second sense, that is, something that makes life better as time goes on.
History! The board game! September 1, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
Many STV courses are grounded in a good understanding of the history of technology, although I’m not out to convert students into historians. But it’s good to know our own history. It gives us context. How can you know who you are or where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been? It helps us avoid mistakes. Aesop warned us in “The Lion, the Fox and the Beasts” that we should not blindly follow the paths of those before us. Most people know this lesson from George Santayana’s oft-quoted line “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Or, as Mark Twain might have said: “History might not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot.”
Thus when I learned of the 1970’s era boardgame BP Offshore Oil Strike, “An exciting board game for all the family”, which claims to reproduce the thrills and hazards of drilling, I couldn’t resist posting it here.
What an ominous cover. According to one report, the rules of Oil Strike stipulate that:
BP Offshore Oil Strike players must also avoid the dreaded ‘hazard cards’, which state: ‘Blow-out! Rig damaged. Oil slick clean-up costs. Pay $1million.’
BP is currently on the hook for billions of dollars for this past summer’s oil spill, far less than the $120 million that players must acquire to win the game. But what about containment domes, “top kills”, relief wells and chemical dispersants? Do players have to watch out for “Election Year! Political theatre errupts. Pay media consultants” hazard cards?
And what would Mark Twain say? Who can know for sure, but as we argue about deep water oil drilling, peak oil, and renewable resources, there are words of his that may offer some comfort: