High tech cattle farming March 7, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A recent piece in FastCompany describes GPS-enabled collars for cows. Like the “invisible fence” idea for dogs and cats, the collars would allow farmers to specify an area in which to confine their animals without the need for physical fencing:
“It never made sense to me that we use static tools to manage dynamic resources,” says [Dean M.] Anderson, who runs the Jornada Experimental Range in New Mexico. … “With the virtual paddock you can just program the polygon to move spatially and temporally over the landscape. Even the shape of the virtual paddock can be dynamic in time and space as well.”
With the suburban version, you still need to lay out stakes to specify where your dog or cat can go. With this system, you can lay out your paddock from a keyboard.
Besides tracking the animals, the system guides them by administering–you guessed it–electric shocks when they wander too close to the perimeter.
I cannot help but think of the psychologist Jose Delgado’s “stimoceiver”. It was an electrode implanted in the brain of a bull that Delgado used with a remote control to defuse the hostility of a bull that he faced in the bullring like a futuristic toreador.
There are several advantages to this system. First, it removes the necessity of maintaining a system of physical fences. Also, it can specify where and how quickly the cattle eat up the available forage, allowing that to be managed more carefully and sustainably. Also, of course, it would give ranchers (should we still use that label for them?) precise records of where the beasts are at all times.
Although the article does not discuss them, the system could have a few drawbacks. For one thing, physical fences usually work fine during blackouts and solar storms and can be repaired without phoning the call center in Calcutta. Also, physical fences not only keep livestock in but can keep unwanted intruders out. Finally, physical fences do not permit hackers in China to rustle cattle into container trucks bound for Shanghai.
In any event, it is interesting to see our food on the hoof become part of the Internet of things.
GPS navigation fatality? May 12, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The unfortunate saga of Albert and Rita Chretien of Penticton, B.C. continues to take new turns. After recuperating for a few days in hospital, Rita Chretien has said that she and her husband got into their difficulties following their GPS navigator:
[Sgt. McKinney of the Elko County Sheriff’s Office] said the Chretiens used their new GPS to find the shortest route to Jackpot. If they had typed the town’s name into the device from anywhere in the area, the shortest route would have led them off-highway and along possibly a half-dozen different Forest Service roads labelled only with numbers.
“I’m no expert on GPS devices and how they work, but if you plug in for the shortest distance to any location, it’ll give you that, but that’s not always the best way to go,” McKinney said of the remote, rugged terrain.
(“Sat Nav” = “GPS navigator”; Image courtesy of David Stowell via Wikimedia Commons.)
Designers of GPS navigation systems tend to blame their clients for such incidents, arguing that people need to remember that they are the boss, not their GPS unit. Here is my favourite example:
Joachim Siedler, spokesman for market leader Blaupunkt, said it was absurd to blame the gadgets for human errors and noted motorists are clearly warned the devices are there to help, not to take decisions.
“If a traffic light is red it’s obvious you have to stop even if the satnav says ‘drive straight on’,” he said.
“People who drive into rivers and then blame their satnav are just too humiliated to accept blame themselves.”
One German did drive his car into the Havel River near Berlin on a foggy Christmas Day. He said his satnav had made a ferry crossing look like a bridge.
ADAC spokesman Maurer said humans are ultimately responsible for the blunders but noted that satnavs are not infallible.
“I was on a motorway recently and my satnav said ‘turn left now’,” he said.
“If I had done, I would have crashed into the guard rail. It was using an outdated, pre-motorway map.”
Perhaps people should consider carefully before even buying a system from a company that uses outdated maps!
A British man was even convicted of a crime two years ago for following his satnav directions nearly off a cliff.
There are many things one might say about this situation. I will just make two observations:
- No one seems to be tracking these sorts of errors. That is, to my knowledge, no research is being done on how often such mistakes happen, or what the consequences are. Thus, we have no way of evaluating claims that people are getting dumber or that the GPS systems are not well designed. If you know of any, then please let me know. So far as I can tell, we are simply conducting a huge, uncontrolled experiment on the public.
- How do GPS navigation mistakes compare with mistakes made by people using maps? Would the Chretiens have followed a route that looked short on a roadmap in the same way they appear to have followed their navigation unit? I doubt it, but it is hard to say without systematic research.
If GPS units do result in more navigational failures than maps, then it seems fair to conclude that there is something about their design that is contributing to the problem. What might that be? How could it be addressed? Until we as a society take this issue seriously, we will never know. Perhaps this latest incident will provoke some more thoughtful investigation of this issue.
Royal Navy nuclear sub “Astute” runs aground: Dated charts to blame? October 29, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Daily Mail reports that the HMS Astute ran aground in shallow waters of the Isle of Skye recently. The sub has state-of-the-art navigational electronics, of course, but may have relied on outdated charts for some reason:
Senior Navy sources said submariners on the Astute would have also used computerised maps of the area and printouts to judge the vessel’s safest path in the shallow and it is these that may have misled the crew.
No word yet from the makers of the navigational system but it is traditional to blame the user in these circumstances, at least where GPS navigation systems are involved. If only the commander had realized that he, not the electronic chart, is the boss of the submarine.
(Image courtesy of PenumbraLpz via Wikimedia Commons.)
Of course, there is another possibility: The commander was texting while navigating. Has the Navy not yet banned this practice?
More GPS navigation follies October 7, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Globe and Mail has an article today about a young woman who followed the driving directions of her GPS unit and ended up not in Belleville, Ontario but in the Murray Marsh. The car became partially submerged in the marsh, forcing the woman to climb onto the roof while the OPP, heeding her call to 911, rescued her with ATVs.
(Image courtesy of SeppVei via Wiki Commons.)
The problem, of course, is that she trusted the directions of her GPS unit and, being unfamiliar with the area and driving through challenging weather conditions, she was not alert to the signs of trouble until too late:
On Tuesday night, she left a friend’s place in Campbellford, about an hour’s drive from Belleville. Unfamiliar with the region, she said she relied on her new Garmin GPS to get to her destination.
“That was the road it told me to take,” she said. “I don’t know the area at all, so I just thought it was okay, and apparently it was a swamp.”
It was pounding rain on the country roads, and visibility was poor. At first, she thought she was driving through puddles, but then her 2003 Mazda Protegé 5 stopped moving. Then water started seeping in, rising to seat-level.
Naturally, she feels “stupid” for getting into the predicament.
The article features links to other examples of travelers following their GPS units into the abyss, and an NBC news report, including a brief interview with UWaterloo’s own Colin Ellard, where the reporter smugly concludes that such incidents are best explained as a malfunction “behind the wheel” rather than on the dashboard.
We have discussed GPS navigation and their foibles before, but this latest incident provides an opportunity to discuss the issue of blame for failures of navigation. The producers of GPS units, and most reporters, simply blame the users: If only people were not so stupid, or were not so slavishly obedient to their gadgets, this sort of thing would not happen. Yes, sometimes people simply do stupid things, and sometimes they are overawed by their high-tech gear.
However, I think it must be conceded that GPS units are designed to fail in this way. How is that? Their guidance is based on simplifications about the road, the situation, and the driver, that are not always appropriate.
- To a GPS unit, the world is like a giant chess board, where the topology of the board and the locations of the pieces are all known with perfect certainty. The fact that road connectivity may change dynamically in a way that affects navigation is totally unrepresented. Nor is the possibility that the GPS unit’s information is simply false ever considered. Thus, the GPS unit provides its directions with the apparent greatest of confidence, no matter what.
- A GPS unit has no representation of the ambient conditions. In the story above, the woman was driving in the dark and through a heavy rain shower. Thus, she was not in a position to be critical of the GPS unit’s directions, if she had a mind to. Again, the GPS does not take these factors into account, even though such information is probably available to it through weather services over the Internet.
- A GPS unit has no representation of the cognitive state of the driver. People who are tired or stressed are not in a good position to evaluate GPS directions. As a result, drivers may follow the directions of their bossy GPS unit even when common sense suggests that this policy is not a good one.
In short, although GPS navigation units are presented to drivers as a kind of co-pilot, their design prevents them from acting like a co-pilot, especially in challenging circumstances. As people become more dependent on such units to find their way around, the situation becomes less promising. I understand, though, that designers of GPS units are starting to grapple with these issues. In the meantime, though, let us cut some slack to the poor souls who are guided by their high-tech toys into the middle of nowhere late at night in the rain.
Update: In Spain, a 37 year-old man drove his car into a reservoir following directions from his GPS navigator. The man drowned, although his passenger survived. The road had apparently been out of use since 1989, when the reservoir was constructed and flooded the roadway. This information was, evidently, not known to the GPS unit. Perhaps because it was dark, the driver did not realize his danger until too late:
“It seems the GPS system pointed them on to an old road that ends in the reservoir, and that in the dark they were unable to brake in time, with the car taking just a couple of minutes to sink,” the Red Cross said in a statement.
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?
GPS navigation: 0, Hand-painted signs: 1, Tourists: ? April 8, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV302 , comments closed
As a quick follow-up to Cameron’s earlier post about “whether or not GPS navigation systems will make traditional public signage, e.g., road signs, obsolete”, I noticed this piece about tourists in New Zealand who expect (and trust) GPS navigation systems in their rental vehicles, moreso than a paper map. As is so common in such stories, the travelers are unfamiliar with the local road network and unable to cope well when their GPS provides inaccurate and potentially hazardous navigation instructions. The unexpected consequence is that they might also miss the tourist town so handily located on the normal route.
One local man had a suggestion for the town, to recover the tourists and their wallets:
Back in 2008, while on an extended family holiday touring South East Queensland, Mr Dempsey found their satellite navigation system was very eager to take them off the “beaten track”.
He described that as a scary prospect in a tropical state where distances were huge and mistakes costly in terms of time and fuel.
“It was also apparent that some locals were fed up with wayward tourists and developed a simple solution – large hand-painted signs stating `YOUR SAT NAV IS WRONG – GO BACK!’.
So simple it might just work, although I can imagine scenarios with darker outcomes. For instance, local con artists might target tourists with imperfect instructions, much like the taxi scams played out everywhere around the world. Of course, even paper maps have been known to be intentionally wrong.
Guess I’ll stay home this summer. I probably won’t get lost in my own backyard, GPS or not.
GPS navigation: just a tool? March 15, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , comments closed
The question, “Is technology just a tool” is one that gets debated a lot. The question actually has several meanings, one of which could elaborated as follows: “Is novel technology just a tool, or does it do more than merely give people new opportunities?” Neil Postman argues that technology change is often ecological: it changes not only the contents of the toolbox, but it changes the tool-user as well.
Here is an interesting example from Julia Turner’s recent series on A world without signs. In the final installment, she raises the issue of whether or not GPS navigation systems will make traditional public signage, e.g., road signs, obsolete. After all, if people can someday just turn left, right, and so on as their GPS system tells them in order to get to their destination, then road signage would become redundant.
It could happen as GPS systems become more reliable and widespread. People will simply come to depend on them, with the result that they will not be able to navigate in the old-fashioned way, by learning the route and reading the signs. A recent guest at my house used a GPS system to find it, and confessed that he had no idea where he was or how he got there! Such a state of knowledge could become general, as Turner points out:
As a result, personal navigation tools foster our dependence on them. (Rather than teaching us to fish, as the old parable would have it, they just give us the fish, again and again.) Which means that once we start using them, we’re unlikely to stop.
So, GPS systems are becoming an example of a technology whose effect is ecological: It does not merely facilitate the job of navigation, it eliminates it! The nature of the work itself is changed by the introduction of this tool. In this sense, the GPS navigation system is not just a tool, it is a part of a subtly different way of life.
An old/new risk for GPS March 1, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed
It has been decades since the first computer viruses were written and released on the world of personal computers. Some have been relatively benign while others have been rampantly destructive. To counter this threat, an industry of anti-virus software vendors exist to protect (and hopefully cure) computers from an infection from a virus or one of its spyware, worm, or trojan cousins, but my guess is that this remains an un-winnable war. There are just too many incentives for the authors of a virus. An academic fascination in the workings of a self-replicating program has caused its share of grief, such as with the famous Morris worm or even an infamous course offered at the University of Calgary on writing computer viruses. On the other end of the scale are the underworld fortunes made when millions of infected computers in a ‘botnet’ are sold to as tools of spammers, fraud-artists or for denial-of-service attacks, with a shady range of mercenary or military-sponsored hackers working in between at the behest of organizations of varying legitimacy.
The latest issue of Risks Digest brought to light that another area of information technology is ripe for similar mischief and mayhem. Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers have little security in place to protect drivers, pilots or even marine navigators from fake GPS signals which can be generated relatively easily and cheaply. As one expert interviewed for a BBC article puts it:
“You can consider GPS a little like computers before the first virus – if I had stood here before then and cried about the risks, you would’ve asked ‘why would anyone bother?’.
But as he points out, there are many reasons to bother as the incentive are not hard to find. For example, expensive and high-value cargo in armored cars could be redirected, and anyone driving a rental car, company car (or even their parents car) could spoof a recorded GPS signal to carry out their mischief undetected. We have seen the risks of people passively over-relying on GPS for directions, but this represents an active and potentially quite suble threat to the widely used technology. Will it be easy to detect? Will it spawn an industry of GPS anti-jamming devices? Will alternative or backup positioning systems appear? What would it take for people to give up on their GPS devices, if anything?