Seasons’s greetings! December 23, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Announcements , comments closed
Before shutting down for the holidays, I thought it might be fun to direct your attention to a couple of amusing, technology-related Christmas videos.
The first is a Christmas greeting from our soon-to-be robot overlords:
The second is a ‘trailer’ for a chilling tale of an app gone wrong, very, very wrong:
Enjoy the holidays and see you in 2012?
Is phoning/texting while driving addictive? December 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Here is an interesting piece from the New York Times on how to understand why drivers use their phones while driving, even when they understand the issues attached to that behavior. The debate over driving while distracted by networked gizmos is not new (see here, for example). As distracted driving continues to contribute to accidents, calls for action increase. The NTSB recently called for a ban on talking or texting on phones while driving throughout the US. Ontario recently enacted a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving.
However, such laws seem to be honored more often in the breech than in the observance. Drivers in BC, for example, seem to be largely ignoring the ban in their province. Furthermore, it is not clear how well such a ban could be enforced.
So, why do people engage in behavior they know to be risky and that has, in some places, been made illegal? Driving while texting has often been compared with driving while drunk, which poses a similar risk of injury. Yet, the analogy does not help to explain the behavior, as Dr. Greenfield of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine notes:
… people who drive drunk do not find any satisfaction in doing so. In contrast, checking e-mail or chatting while driving might relieve the tedium of being behind the wheel.
Instead, Greenfield and others compare driving while distracted with smoking, an addictive activity that some people also enjoy in the car.
Although cell phones are clearly not narcotics, they do have qualities that could make them addictive or, at least, habit-forming:
Part of the lure of smartphones, he said, is that they randomly dispense valuable information. People do not know when an urgent or interesting e-mail or text will come in, so they feel compelled to check all the time.
“The unpredictability makes it incredibly irresistible,” Dr. Greenfield said. “It’s the most extinction-resistant form of habit.”
In other words, cell phones provide a randomly scheduled operant conditioning regime to the user, a well-known and powerful way of creating behaviors that become ingrained and are difficult to undo (“extinguish”).
Dr. Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas argues that addiction is not the right notion, instead preferring an economic analysis. In his view, people respond quickly to cell phone beeps and burps because the information they provide rapidly loses value. A text that has just arrived may contain “hot news” that is most informative if read right away. The same text becomes less informative or valuable if the user puts off reading it for a while. It gets stale, and newer items pop up in the meantime, which tends to devalue the old ones.
Along the same lines, Clifford Nass of Stanford University points out that texts contain not just any old information but often convey information from friends. Because people are social animals, such information is important to them and, thus, they are responsive to it:
Drivers are typically isolated and alone, he said, and humans are fundamentally social animals.
The ring of a phone or the ping of a text becomes a promise of human connection, which is “like catnip for humans,” Dr. Nass said.
“When you tap into a totally fundamental, universal human impulse,” he added, “it’s very hard to stop.”
Each of these explanations suggests various approaches to address the problem. Perhaps cell phones could have a “driver mode”, like airplane mode, that disables or re-schedules the behavior of the cell phone. If the cell phone provided messages on a regular schedule, say every 5 minutes, then the compulsive reinforcement could be reduced or avoided. The phone could even generate boring auto-messages (spam) for the purpose. After a while, perhaps drivers would no longer care so much about that last beep and leave the phone on the “hook”.
Outgoing texts or calls could also be diverted to a temporary storage queue, for delivery after the driving mode is turned off. In that way, there would be less motivation for sending the message during driving itself instead of simply waiting for a break in the trip.
Of course, measures like these would work only so long as drivers honored the “drive mode”. They could cheat just by turning drive mode off and returning to normal operating mode. Dr. Atchley’s work suggests that there might be a way of dealing with this problem also. He tested teens to see if they would accept some sort of reward in lieu of receiving a text right away. He found that they would. Perhaps turning on “driving mode” could be associated with a reward which would be diminished or lost if it is turned off before the trip is over. We might, in effect, gamify driving without texting.
I note that this approach is taken by the TextNoMore Android app. It will be interesting to see if it works.
There is one more factor that may contribute to texting/phoning while driving. We have all seen other people doing so while driving virtuously ourselves. Next time you are on the road, glance at the drivers of other cars around you and you will soon note some who seem to be looking down at their flies quite a bit, or who have a phone nailed to their ear. Being social animals, people will always feel the sting of seeing scofflaws getting away with something. A natural response is to feel that this situation is unfair: Why do they get the benefit of texting while driving without suffering any penalty, while I do not? One way in which people seek redress is to engage in the illicit behavior themselves.
Perhaps a way to address this issue is to publicly shame those who text and drive. I do not mean they should be put in the stocks in the town square. Think instead of those radar speed signs that measure and display your speed as you pass them by. These signs seem to be somewhat effective in getting people to slow down. I suggest that similar signs be developed that can detect the presence of phone/text signals emanating from cars in traffic and display this fact for all to see. In that way, transgressors can be reminded to use “drive mode” and everyone else can see this occur. Then the appearance of unfairness is also addressed. Of course, the coverage of such signs must be limited, so it is not a perfect solution.
Talking musical instruments December 13, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
As I have only recently found out, Austrian Composer Peter Ablinger has produced a speaking piano. He basically used a filter to sample the voice of a young man reading a text, the Proclamation of the European Environmental Criminal Court at World Venice Forum 2009, and turned the result into a MIDI file. He also has a mechanism that sits above a piano keyboard and strikes the keys when dictated by the MIDI file. The result is hard to decipher on its own. However, with subtitles, the speech can be followed without much difficulty. Nevertheless, it is uncanny.
Digital technology allows artists and others to do remarkable things while playing with the human voice. Perhaps the premiere example today is Auto-Tune, which is used by many singers to correct their pitch but also as a digital effect. Of course, it can be overused, as in Rebecca Black’s notorious Friday, and some musicians dislike it, like Jay-Z. Or, for other electronic vocal embellishments, consider the Auto-trache from This hour has 22 minutes.
It is interesting to find that digital technology has brought renewed interest to the human voice. I wonder when the circle will be completed. That is, at what point will people want to use digital technology to modify their own voice as they speak it? For the moment, we have an iPhone app by T-Pain that makes your recorded voice sound like his. Soon, it will be possible to have an implant to do something similar. Then, people can download their voices from iTunes. Will that be a good thing?
Floodwater control December 7, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Recent flooding in Thailand has confirmed, again, that the handling of stormwater is a major issue for any urban center. A large rainfall can overwhelm the available infrastructure, causing anything from wet basements to full-scale floods.
(Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons)
There are a variety of reasons why stormwater systems fail. The problem may go back to how their function is conceived. Historically, we have thought of cities as essentially dry places. Streets, buildings, and other infrastructure are designed to function when they are dry. In that case, rain water is viewed simply as a threat to be parried with storm sewers, dams, and sluices. These measures are effective up to a point, beyond which they tend to fail catastrophically.
Some engineers are starting to re-think the mission of water control systems. The basic idea is to imitate natural systems which tend to respond actively to increases in rainfall. Think of the plants and animals that emerge during the rainy season in dry areas of the world, or of how wetlands absorb and filter water collected from large rainfalls. Marcus Quigley suggests that wireless technology can be used to design civic infrastructure that handles large water “events” in a similar manner:
Green infrastructure tries to control runoff on-site, rather than sending it below, through the use of “bioretention cells” and rain gardens, which absorb and filter the water into collections of plants and artificial wetlands.
In fact, water handling systems can be made more proactive by utilizing weather predictions:
High-performance green infrastructure takes things a step further, by anticipating demand for water storage and preparing a system accordingly. For example, in seven projects deployed in St. Louis and one in New Bern, North Carolina, Geosyntec integrated a building’s rainwater catchment system with software that uses weather predictions from the Internet to know when a basin should be partly emptied to accommodate incoming stormwater.
Natural systems can anticipate seasonal weather patterns because the plants and animals in them have evolved to ‘expect’ future weather patterns that resemble past ones. Information from weather predictions can amplify this process for the benefit of cities.
Furthermore, the catchment and filtration areas could be regarded as amenities. People like water when it does not pose a threat, so surface areas that comprise part of a water control system could be built to be enjoyed like parks. Indeed, parks are sometimes incorporated into a city’s flood control infrastructure. Many cities, I suspect, could benefit from using greenspace as part of their flood management systems, thus reducing the need for underground sewers reservoirs.
These new flood management ideas suggest two things: First, that advances in technology bring about new opportunities to better solve old problems and, second, that how we design solutions to problems depends heavily on how we conceive of what those problems are. Advancement, in this case, is made possible by the “Internet of things” and also a willingness to think of cities as not being inherently dry.
Run that red light! December 2, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Traffic lights are a common way to establish control over how people share intersections. Of course, not everyone obeys traffic lights (although Monty Python likes them), especially when they are red. One solution has been the red light camera, an automatic camera that identifies cars that run the red lights and then issues tickets to the owners. Of course, those cameras are themselves somewhat controversial, with people complaining that they are abused by local authorities looking to make money on traffic violations.
A new idea being pursued by researchers at MIT is software that predicts who is likely to run a red light:
Using data collected from DOT-sponsored surveillance of a busy intersection in Christianburg, Virginia to track vehicle speed and location, the researchers could determine, within two seconds of a car approaching an intersection, with 85 percent accuracy whether it would run a red light.
Eventually, the researchers propose, this software could be incorporated into inter-vehicle communications systems, so that cars on the road can predict the behavior of other cars and react accordingly. For example:
“Even though your light might be green, it may recommend you not go because there are people behaving badly that you may not be aware of,” said Jonathan How, an aeronautics and astronautics professor who co-created the algorithm.
The system is obviously far from production, but it does sound like something that might appear on the road someday.
Although the system is envisioned as an aid to drivers, giving them recommendations about how to proceed at an intersection, it is really an advance in driving automation. That is, cars will, in effect, see around corners and thus be in a better position to control the car than the driver is in. A recommendation such “Stop! A car may be about to run the red light ahead!” about two seconds before the event will be of little use to a driver and, indeed, could just cause alarm and panic. It would be better for the car simply to slow itself down while informing the driver of what is happening.
Of course, the situation in which a car is constantly intervening in the control of the car will be very frustrating for drivers. Think of the recent Eco-Pedal by Nissan, a gas pedal that pushes back if the driver pushes too hard on it. The idea is to save fuel, but many drivers will likely find this sort of negative feedback too interfering and just turn it off.
As ever, there is also the possibility that such a safety system will create an incentive for drivers to behave badly. In this case, if someone thinks that most other cars on the road have this system installed, they may think it less risky to run a red light. After all, the safety gear in other cars will take care of the problem. Risk compensation strikes again.
In addition, we have to consider what sorts of bias might be present in how the system operates. Although it seems to be highly accurate, it will make mistakes. As a safety system, I assume that drivers who have the system installed in their cars will want to minimize false negatives, that is, instances where the system falsely concludes that another driver intends to obey the red light when, in fact, he will run it. This bias will help to reduce t-bone collisions in intersections. However, this bias will allow relatively more false positives, that is, instances where the system falsely concludes that another driver intends to run the red light when, in fact, he will obey it. In those cases, cars with the safety system will slow or stop needlessly when faced with a green light. This will reduce traffic flow and could result in rear-end collisions as drivers further back fail to anticipate this outcome. How shall we program the cars to deal with these conflicting interests?
Finally, when we have cars programmed to do all the driving for drivers, they may start to wonder why we have traffic lights at all.
Danger! Texting! December 1, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
From Technology Review comes this brief article about a smartphone app that warns its users of approaching cars. The app is called WalkSafe and is being developed by researchers at Dartmouth College.
This device brings to mind to a trope about how people distracted by their gadgets do dumb things, and how they may be protected from their folly. In 2006, there was Rick Mercer’s Blackberry helmet to protect the addled craniums of Blackberry addicts. In 2008, there was a story about padding lampposts in London to soften the blow as Blackberry addicts walked heedlessly into them. Earlier this year, there was the actual story of a woman who fell into a fountain in a shopping mall while texting, which was captured by CCTV cameras and posted to YouTube. More recently, Rick Mercer ranted about the people he almost ran over while they crossed the street, texting without looking:
The WalkSafe app will help to alleviate this problem. Maybe?
As ever, one first worries about the miracle of risk compensation. Recall this earlier discussion of the aware car, a system that monitors drivers for symptoms of exactly the same sort of distraction. A potential problem is that that such a system could actually encourage drivers to indulge in distractions, under the impression that the system will save them. Similarly, pedestrians busily texting may assume that WalkSafe will let them know if a car is approaching, at least on the camera side of their phone. In that event, having outsourced their situational awareness to their gear, pedestrians may walk and text even more obliviously than before. Such behavior could negate any safety gains provided by the app.
Here is my suggestion: Create an app that temporarily locks out the texting function of the smartphone when the carrier is in a crosswalk. Many crosswalks in Canada are equipped with speakers that beep or chirp in order to alert blind pedestrians. Perhaps the smartphone mike could pick up the noise, lock out texting, and snap texters into a heightened state of situational awareness, allowing them to save themselves from collisions.