Self-parking cars make for a tight squeeze April 16, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A Technology Review article expresses a note of caution over the automation of driving. In the main, the article touches on the problem of partial automation, that is, the automation of some driving tasks but not others. The problem is that systems like adaptive cruise control can lead drivers to pay less attention to the driving task than is appropriate, given the limitations of the system.
This issue has already been discussed by Donald Norman.
It was a point on a different tack that caught my attention here. The author mentions his trial of the Lincoln MKS with Active Park Assist. This system steers the car during a parallel park, requiring the driver only to work the brake. However, the capabilities of the system are somewhat mismatched with those of most drivers:
Brian Reimer, a research scientist at MIT’s Age Lab, who uses the Lincoln to study driver behavior, was sitting in the passenger seat during my test drive as I searched for a parking spot. He warned me not to accept the first few that the car offered to squeeze into, not because he doubted the technology but because he doubted my ability to undo what it did. “You’ll just never get out of there,” he said, pointing out that the Lincoln can park itself with just a few inches to spare on either end.
Clearly, the Lincoln also needs a system to un-park the car!
This situation provides an interesting illustration of an unintended consequence: the automatic parking system can out-perform the driver in parking, leaving the driver unable to perform the reverse maneuver. It seems like an obvious problem in retrospect, but the designers of Active Park Assist may well never have considered the matter, having fixed their attention on the parking problem exclusively.
Hacking guns March 27, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV302 , comments closed
Huffington Post points out a short documentary by Motherboard on Cody Wilson and DEFCAD’s project to develop a gun printable on 3D printers. Here is the video:
If you have been following this story, then you will be familiar with the basic elements presented here. Perhaps the most interesting new element is the commentary provided by Wilson himself. Wilson comes across as a well-spoken young man on a mission, which is related to pushing a new technology to assist with a social goal, namely the proliferation of assault weapons. Why that is a good thing is not clear, but Wilson seems to regard it as both desirable and inevitable.
There is certainly much to discuss on this matter, and the video provides a good starting place. Issues raised include:
- Is the proliferation of printed guns indeed inevitable? Wilson and his associates seem to feel that it is. Certainly, it is not clear from the video how gun control might be exercised on people like Wilson who want to print guns on their own equipment and share their designs with like-minded associates. There is the usual tension of this view with the argument that those who use guns to commit murders, even mass murders, receive no impetus from the affordances of such technology. People like Adam Lanza, the shooter from Sandy Hook, had the freedom to choose to commit the massacre in some other way or, presumably, not at all.
- Is gun proliferation a good thing? It is still not abundantly clear to me why Wilson and his associates believe that it is. It is clear that their actions are a form of resistance to government-imposed limitations on their freedom of access to firearms. He characterizes governments attempting such control as living in a nostalgic, utopian dream of some kind. He denies being a utopian himself, although his worldview seems to fit the profile. Not that his utopia would be the same as those imagined by others, of which he is certainly aware.
- The video points out that printable guns are an illustration of the unintended consequences of new technologies. Those who introduced mass-market 3d printers do not seem to have given much thought to the matter. Of course, as entrepreneurs, their job is to hype new technologies, not to worry about potential downsides. As is pointed out, it often takes governments and other social institutions a while to come to grips with such developments. Clearly, printable guns are an issue. So, how should social institutions respond?
Stewart Brand on de-extinction March 14, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
Have a look at this recent TED talk by the irrepressible Stewart Brand. His topic is “de-extinction”, the resurrection (if you like) of extinct animals by the application of genetic and other technologies.
The idea is indeed a compelling one. Imagine getting back such iconic, extinct animals such as the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger, or even the wooly mammoth!
Of course, such a project raises some interesting difficulties. A couple are raised at the end of the video:
- Would such a project constitute “playing God”, that is, perhaps, arrogantly messing with nature? Brand’s response is to point out that we have already done so, which is precisely how the situation at hand arose. Whether or not that makes another act of playing God advisable remains unclear.
- Would there be unintended consequences? Perhaps the passenger pigeon or another
resurrectedde-extincted species would displace an established species that people are fond of. Perhaps these new/old species would qualify as invasive species in the world as it exists today. Brand admits that this outcome is one that must be faced.
Another problem alluded to in the talk is that de-extinction technology might be used as an argument against conservation: Who cares if the white rhino goes extinct? We can always de-extinct it later if we want to.
Finally, not everyone interested in novel species may share Brand’s nostalgia for past ecosystems. We already have GloFish and other novelty animals as fruits of genetic engineering. People may become more interested in stocking nature with glo-yotes or mockingjays that scream commercial jingles than in thylacines or Carolina parakeets. Of course, extinct relatives of existing creatures may typically be easier to engineer, but once we get going, where do we stop?
Children on Facebook November 29, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
It is not news that some children lie to get accounts on Facebook. Young people tend to be intensely social and Facebook provides an means for connecting with friends when they are not otherwise available. However, the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires stringent safety and privacy controls to providers of services to children under 13. Since Facebook does not, by design, provide such strict control, it does not comply with the Act. Instead, it forbids children under 13 from joining the service.
(Deryk Hodge/Wikimedia commons)
If children under 13 join the service, Facebook has measures in place to remove their accounts. For example, users can report suspicious users using a reporting tool. According to Facebook, about 20,000 users per day are removed for violation of the age restriction. Whether or not this measure is adequate is a matter of controversy. As of last year, some 7.5 million under-age users were on the service in the US.
Facebook would like to allow young children to use its service and is exploring ways it might do so. According to Mark Zuckerberg, their motivation is that Facebook could be key in childhood education:
“Education is clearly the biggest thing that will drive how the economy improves over the long term,” Zuckerberg said. “We spend a lot of time talking about this.”
At least, getting more children on Facebook would be good for the company’s economy.
A new study of underage Facebook use provides more fuel for the fire. The issue concerns privacy measures that Facebook takes for users between 13 and 18 years of age:
Facebook has long said that it is difficult to ferret out every deceptive teenager and points to its extra precautions for minors. For children ages 13 to 18, only their Facebook friends can see their posts, including photos.
A child could be found, for instance, if she was 10 years old and said she was 13 to sign up for Facebook. Five years later, that same child would show up as 18 years old – an adult, in the eyes of Facebook — when in fact she was only 15. At that point, a stranger could also see a list of her friends.
As a result, the current situation creates an incentive for children to lie about their ages, a lie that then makes information about them publicly available a few years later when they, and their friends, are still minors. Without COPPA, children would be less likely to lie and would be subject to more stringent privacy measures for longer.
The situation provides an example of unintended consequences. In this case, a law that was designed to protect the privacy of minors tends to expose them instead because of the circumstances in which it operates. Such examples remind us that even the seemingly most rational and straightforward plans can fail due to limitations of knowledge or capacity to judge how our actions will turn out.
Enter the nacho April 30, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
An short piece on NPR discusses the lucky origins of some classic, American foods. One example is nachos:
One day in 1943, the wives of ten to twelve U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in nearby Eagle Pass were in Piedras Negras [Mexico] on a shopping trip, and arrived at the restaurant after it had closed for the day. The maître d’, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, invented a new snack for them with what little he had available in the kitchen: tortillas and cheese sauce. Anaya cut the tortillas into triangles, added shredded cheddar cheese, quickly heated them, added sliced jalapeño peppers and served them.
It seems that many staples in the American diet owe their modern form, in no small part, to luck.
This invention illustrates the phenomenon of unintended consequences. In the case of nachos, Ignacio Anaya intended merely to keep his customers happy. Without meaning to do so, he invented a dish that would become wildly and broadly popular. Unintended consequences in design is a frequent theme raised in this blog. Normally, the unintended consequences are negative – something bad happens and we commentators can say “tsk tsk” or “I told you so” in retrospect. It is appropriate to acknowledge that unintended consequences can result in successes as well.
Sliding injuries April 26, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
(Deutsche Fotothek/Wikimedia commons)
Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times points out how children may be injured on slides because their parents go down with them. What happens is that parents sometimes use the slide with their children in their laps, either for the fun of it (admit it!) or at the request of reluctant children. Unfortunately, this configuration of sliding parent and child can have an unanticipated outcome:
But without warning, Hannah’s sneaker caught on the side of the slide. Although Ms. Dickman grabbed the leg and unstuck her daughter’s foot, by the time they reached the ground, the girl was whimpering and could not walk. A doctor’s visit later revealed a fractured tibia.
The reason for the increased risk is that the impact of the child’s foot on the side of the slide is harder due to the force imparted by the weight of the parent. By themselves, children who get shoes stuck on the side can simply stop and extricate themselves.
Of course, the risk can be mitigated through technique, either by adults not sliding with children in their laps or, at least, by removing the children’s shoes and making sure their feet do not touch the sides of the slide. There might also be some possibilities in design, perhaps having a hoop at the slide entrance that is too small for adults to fit through easily so as to discourage them from using the slide. Any other ideas?
Cheating on tests October 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A school district in Newfoundland has decided on a controversial policy: They will give students who are caught cheating on tests or assignments the opportunity to re-do the assessment at a later time. A student caught cheating will not be awarded a grade for the illicit work; the grade will be taken from the make-up work instead.
The measure is justified on two grounds:
- The policy will detach assessments of student knowledge from assessments of student behaviour. Reductions in grades for cheating, in other words, distort the picture of the cheater’s academic ability.
- The policy will encourage wayward students to complete their assessments.
“We want to encourage students to do their best work and not to give up,” said Rice [chief executive of education for the Eastern School District]. “We are a district that believes in hope and second chances and we want our policies and practices to reflect that.”
Viewed as a measure directed at an individual case of cheating, the policy seems to make sense. An educator learns little about the knowledge that a student possesses from work that was plagiarized, say. Provided that the make-up assessment is not similarly cheated, better information can be obtained. And, indeed, the student is given a second chance.
Of course, problems may arise that are more easily viewed from a broader perspective. For example, the policy will create more work for teachers, who may well have to set and grade more work per student than before. Will teachers be given more time and resources, or smaller classes, to compensate for the new policy? (I doubt it.) If not, the policy may discourage teachers from making the effort to identify and deal with cheating students.
Also, the policy may actually incentivize cheating. Suppose that a student is unprepared for a test. The option of writing the test honestly will likely result in a low mark. However, the option of cheating will likely result in a higher mark. If the student is caught cheating, then there is always a second chance. By providing a possibility of over-achieving, this policy may have the effect of inflating the performance of cheating students instead of measuring it more accurately.
Also, consider the potential effect on other students who do not cheat. The procedure will probably strike them as unfair (from the article’s comments):
I get 70 on test and not cheating You get 69 for cheating and not studying .given a second chance and you make 80 HMM .Society is disinergrating with morals and values now we are teaching in school that its ok to cheat.Whats wrong here?
The inflation of some students’ marks will be seen (rightly) as unfair to the honest students, which will demoralize them. As a result, they may become less invested in achieving well, which would bring down their performance. This result will also distort the information that the school board is hoping to measure more accurately.
So, there are plausible grounds to fear that the policy could both incentivize cheating and disincentivize the detection of cheating on the whole. If the result is to inflate the grades of dishonest students and to reduce the grades of honest ones, then the policy cannot achieve its stated ends. Worse still, honest students may decide that they have to cheat as well, in order to stay ahead of the dishonest ones. In that event, the moral value of honesty in the classroom will be cheapened.
I think that the motivation of the policy is laudable. It strikes me as an example of a maxim endorsed by Ghandi: Hate the sin and not the sinner. In other words, we should deplore cheating but try to help cheaters. Although well-intentioned, this policy strikes me as apt to backfire and harm all students, cheaters and others, through unintended consequences.
But can it play shinny? April 12, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV404 , comments closed
Walking to work this morning through the new Engineering 5 building on campus, I got to see a robot play hockey.
Well, it wasn’t playing hockey, per se, but it fired a slapshot or two. It’s “the first ever robot capable of properly mimicking the professional slap shot”, a product of UW professor John McPhee and several Mechanical Engineering undergraduates. The purpose of the project and the company founded to promote it, Hockey Robotics, is to figure out the hows and whys of hockey stick breakage, particularly in the modern world of composite sticks. (For what it’s worth, McPhee is a faculty member in the Systems Design Engineering Department, and CSTV is partially linked with Systems Design, but this blog post is purely that of serendipity. I happened to catch the team filming a promotional video).
The inevitable comparison might be to wonder “will this eventually lead to robots playing hockey?” It doesn’t look like there’s any place to lace up skates or strap on a helmet, and I doubt it could hop over the boards with those legs. But in a country that is willing to move federal election debates to accommodate hockey playoffs, almost anything hockey-related is fair game for discussion. I think that in the post-Watson era, people have probably come to understand that even if computers can reduce some drudgery (like Wikipedia replacing the need to memorize facts), computers are still in no danger of replacing humans outright, at least intellectually. Of course, there might be some factory workers going back, oh, two hundred years or so, that might have something to say about robotics and automation and employment. I wonder if in a few years we might witness the Luddites vs the Robots in an ice hockey championship. Would the humans underestimate the robots, or fear them? At the famous 1972 Summit Series, the Canadian all stars were famously casual about going up against “the Big Red Machine”. Just like the Slapshot XT? Hmm.
It all sounds a bit silly, but I remember many years ago reading a young-adult book Hockeyeurs cybernétiques by the Quebec writer Denis Côté. It was about that very thing: a team of human players going up against a robotic hockey team sponsored by a robot manufacturer. The subtext of the book was of robots replacing humans, creating rampant unemployment and a new social class, les inactifs. As I recall, the story featured a three game series between the teams, described in great detail, but I what can’t remember is who won!
And what might happen if Hockey Robotics does end up helping make a better hockey stick? I’m not a hockey player and claim no great insights here, but technological improvements have not always lead to overall sporting improvements. Edward Tenner’s 1997 book Why Things Bite Back had two chapters about the revenge effects of sports technologies: The Risks of Intensification, and the increase in chronic injuries and health problems that ironically often come about from better sporting safety equipment, and The Paradoxes of Improvement, on the problems of technologies that are simply too good for sport. With regards to the first, its is often observed that athletes that participate in contact sports with considerable padding and protective equipment are often more likely to suffer serious injuries — the armor everyone wears make it easier to hit harder then necessary to complete a check or hit. As for the second, there are many instances of technology simplifying or otherwise reducing some human element giving an unfair advantage, going against the general sense of fair play expected in sport; alternately, new technologies can disrupt the game, changing the manner of play, and creating in effect a technological-sports hybrid. Composite hockey sticks that break less often doesn’t seem too risky, but what if the same sticks made accurate slapshots easier or more reliable for more players, particularly those beneath the NHL elite? Would hockey scores start to creep up? Would it change the strategies and game plans? Would it initiate and eventually escalate a war between goalie equipment and hockey stick manufacturers? Will leagues start to crack down on the “Canadian robot sticks”?
Perhaps I’m out of my depth here (offside? or two minutes for interference?) I wish the team the best of luck, and that it would generally improve, rather than detract from the game.
Dams and unintended consequences March 19, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
An article in Science discusses how the Aswan dam constructed in southern Egypt about 50 years ago has had a host of unintended consequences. Prominent in the article are the following:
- The dam prevents the Nile from depositing sediments to the Nile Delta. As a result, the Delta is subsiding, that is, sinking into the Mediterranean.
- Every drop of water flowing down the Nile is used for irrigation, leaving none to flow into the sea. As a result, pesticides and other pollutants are collecting in the Delta soils.
- Also, the lack of fresh water flow is allowing sea water to leach into the water table, depriving the Delta’s inhabitants of drinking water.
The Egyptian government has hatched a plan to deal with the situation. It is diverting water at the Aswan dam into the desert, to create an oasis to which the people of the Delta can repair after the Delta becomes uninhabitable. There may be problems with this scheme:
According to Moufaddal, however, Egypt hasn’t seriously thought about the environmental impact of the project, which he fears could destroy desert habitats and hasten the demise of the Nile Delta by siphoning away its water. “We are repeating the mistake of Aswan,” he says.
Egyptian officials view things differently. “Bringing life to the desert” is the goal of the Toshka “megaproject,” says Khalifa. It is seen as crucial for meeting the government’s goal of a 50% increase in the country’s farmland by 2017. And by that date, according to a government brochure, 2 million people will be living at Toshka.
“That’s not going to happen,” warns El-Baz. Besides temperatures that can reach 50°C, he says, “no one wants to live out in the middle of nowhere.”
It is easy to laugh from this distance, but the problem is a serious one.
I would just point out one lesson (out of many) from this affair. Herbert Simon, in his theory of design, discussed the issue of bounded rationality. That is, the optimality of our plans or designs is limited by the fact that planners do not have all the facts at their command, nor do they understand all the consequences of their actions. Very true.
Another problem, somewhat overlooked by Simon, is that of motivated inference. In brief: planners design according to what they want to believe, not just what they have evidence to believe. Consider this point from the article:
At the time, the damming of the Nile raised few concerns. “There was no discussion” about the merits of such a potent source of pride for the newly independent nation, says Moufaddal. “It was a giant experiment,” yet, he notes, there was no plan for collecting environmental data.
Egyptian designers were proud of their new, independent country, and desired to exhibit their independence through major public works like the dam. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your country, but the pride that a major public work brings is not evidence that the work will accomplish its stated aims, such as making Egypt a better place to live. I think that this lesson is one that designers of any stripe and circumstance need to bear in mind.