Monday, February 1, 2016

Autonomous Cars Part 2

As I indicated in my previous column, I will continue the discussion of the Pros and Cons of Autonomous or Driverless Cars. For a review of Part 1, see the January entry.

Lest you think that driverless cars are pie in the sky, consider this cartoon in the Jan 11, 2016 New Yorker magazine: A cop is saying to a stopped motorist, “Does your car have any idea why my car pulled it over?” Keep in mind that cartoons typically examine current societal themes.

In the last column I suggested that the pros and the cons debate of autonomous cars can be organized into three categories: Safety/Security, Time, and Money and that format was followed last column ---- except that the plusses and minuses were abbreviated to fit column length constraints. Here are some more pros and cons that were not covered last time.


Autonomous cars don’t have to be perfect, they only need to be better than the current system. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good..

The focus of police officers could be shifted from writing traffic tickets and handling accidents to managing other, more serious crimes.

The lines at the DMV would be shorter since people wouldn't need a specialized driving license to operate cars.

There would be less of a concern about taking the keys away from elderly parents when they get too old to drive carefully (Personally, I don’t care much for this one; I could argue that this is a Con, not a Pro for many of our elders.).


If humans were allowed to take control of the car, some drivers might game the system by rudely cutting into lanes secure in the knowledge that the other autonomous cars would slow down to let them in. A related scenario has teenagers playing chicken or trying to herd the robot cars into going in circles. Ah teens...

Prototype driverless cars are not yet able to operate at a high level of safety in all weather conditions. In fact, heavy rain can seriously mess up the car’s laser sensor which provokes the question what role the driver might have to play in the event the technology fails.

Another issue raised in the last column that the role of passenger trains --- aren’t they already closer to full autonomy? The answer is: “ Yes but... ” Many engineers believe that the technology is already available to implement fully driverless trains; in fact,some already exist. According to the International Association of Public Transport, by the end of 2013, there were 48 fully automated public metro systems in use in 32 countries. It is interesting to note that Canada has almost twice as many automated Metros as the US--- thanks mostly to Bombardier) So, if our neighbor to the north can do it, why can’t we, why don’t we? To answer that question let us (one more time) consider the Pros and Cons.


Once a train gets up to speed there need be few or no stops between stations making for a quicker smoother, and more comfortable ride.

There is a precedent. Airlines have been using pilotless airplanes which can takeoff , fly and land the plane safely and the many many autonomous systems which allow this are slowly migrating to first the high-end cars and eventually to the mid and lower-end cars. These systems which make the car more autonomous all have various input sensors such as blind spot monitors, parking sensors, even water-in-fuel sensors!
To view several dozen more, go to:


The essence of these arguments mostly fall into the Money category. Basically, there are very little savings accrued by eliminating one engineer driving several hundred passengers.

Also, most workers in the transportation industries are in a union and are easily organized to turn out the vote. They are not going to vote for a project that will put them out of a job.

Overall, my prognostication is that we will see hybrid systems of autonomous cars,
busses and trains, each serving the unique needs of the passenger. not to mention nonautonomous bikes. Next time we examine the ethical issues. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pros and Cons of Autonomous Cars: Part 1

I recently attended my grandson’s wedding in the faroff state of Iowa and, at a family gathering, I listened to a discussion on the pros and cons of driverless cars.

The elder folks argued that the software required by a system of communicating vehicles would be so complex as to almost insure a disaster.; software engineers know that when a bug is fixed in a program of sufficient size, the odds are that several new bugs will be introduced by the changes. Robot cars would be unpredictable, even dangerous, and the experiment is doomed to failure.

The younger faction responded.that a robot chauffeur would actually be safer from human error (drunk drivers, tired or incompetent drivers..) if all cars were driverless. Of course, there would be a transitional period when there would be a mixture of driverless and human driven cars which would be tricky because the weak link in that scenario is you and me --- the human driver. Also, according to some studies indicate some problematic tradeoffs; especially comfort vs optimization of road capacity. There are virtually no complex solutions without some tradeoffs and autonomous cars are no exception.

But there is more to an autonomous vehicle than its ability to act as a robot chauffeur. Cars would become a part of the “Internet of Things”. If you’re not already knowledgeable about this, here is a definition from Google:

Internet of things

a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data.

And here is a link to an understandable presentation from Forbes:

And here is a caveat from the second part of Google’s above definition:

"if one thing can prevent the Internet of things from transforming the way we live and work, it will be a breakdown in security"

When we take into account that cars are “things”, we can organize The Pros and the Cons of autonomous cars into three categories: Safety/Security, Time, and Money. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting and important arguments in each category


Pros: Somewhere between 81% to 99% of car crashes are the result of human error On the other hand, computers are not easily distracted and they don’t drive under the influence so there would be no need for a designated driver.. A computer-driven car should be safer.

Cons: As part 2. of the definition of the “Internet of Things” implies the security of autonomous vehicles would be problematic. If you think viruses and malware are annoying on your cell phones and home computers now, they will be more annoying and dangerous in a self-driving vehicle. There have already been successful experiments in hacking into.the software involved.
(Search on the phrase, “Researchers Hack Into Driverless Car System,Take Control of Vehicle “)


Pros: Speed limits could be increased safely since every car knows what every car is doing and where it is (not to mention where the slowdowns are); thus commute times are reduced;

Cons: Some studies show a tradeoff between time and comfort; saving timecan make the ride herky-jerky.

Gasoline/Battery usage would be optimized as they are controlled by a computer.

Money would be saved on parking as the car can drop you off to work and park itself out of the high-rent district and return to drive you home.


The cost of driverless cars could be too much for many citizens.. Estimates of the cost for design, implementation and testing are in the $100,000+ range.

And, finally, to make the debate even more complicated, driverless cars should be compared with similar modes of transportation that are already in place like passenger trains. For starters, trains would provide a smoother, faster ride than driverless car so some argue we should apply our efforts to driverless trains instead.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Top Three Internet Annoyances

The Internet is a double-edged sword. It helps us shop, watch movies, and settle bar bets. On the other hand, it is full of false information (Obama is an undercover Muslim), weird diets (Lose 15 pounds in 3 days!) and lots and lots of sites that begin with the phrase “Top 10”, or “Top 5” or “Top ”.

It is these sites that perhaps annoy me the most. Don’t get me wrong --- I really do appreciate the plethora of “Top Whatever” reviews when I’m considering a new laptop or camera or a mini version of a Pilot G-2 pen that will actually fit in my tee-shirt pocket --- virtually any piece of merchandise. On the other hand, I cringe when I see something like “ Top 3 Ways to Lose Belly Fat” , “5 Ways to Stop Constipation” or “How to pick safe stocks that will triple your investment !!!”. I’m not sure why these come-ons are so prevalent, but the advertisers must think they are effective or we would not be seeing so many of them. This got me to thinking about which is the most attractive number for these sorts of come-ons? Is it 5 or is it 10 or even 20? I was pretty sure it wasn’t 20 (who has that kind of time?) but curious about the rankings from 1 to 10.

In a previous column I discussed Google’s NGram site which graphs the frequency of usage for any phrase you input between 1800 and 2000. For this experiment, I found the usage of all the occurrences from “Top 1” to “Top 10” (plus Top 20 and 100). The Ngram chart I got was and was not surprising (before you read further, what would you guess the order of usage was?) Which phrase was used the most during the last 200 years?

I was not surprised to find that the winner was ....”Top 10” which had double the number of occurrences as “Top 20”, but was surprised that the second place was taken by 20 --- I was dead wrong about the “Top 20” phrase which really took off in the 1950s but then I remembered the Music Charts back then most always comprised the Top 20 popular songs. Following were: 1, 100, 5 (100 and 5 were very close, and essentially the same by the year 2000), 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 4, and 9 bunched together as the least referenced. Now there’s some trivia that could possibly buy you a beer at the bar.

Another annoyance is the message I get when I decline to subscribe to a web service such as one that tracks stocks or sports or politics. Usually I’m given only two options: Yes!!! Sign me Up” and “No thanks I’m not interested in or < I’m not interested in becoming smart, rich and famous> or some equivalent snarky, passive-aggressive response designed specifically to make you change your mind. There’s nothing quite like being patronized by a computer. Nothing.

The final annoyance that I have space to complain about is sort of a semi-scam. It usually appears on a search for merchandise. For example, the other day I realized that my Camry was over 12 years old and might need a new set of rotors and brake linings, so, on a whim I started to search out prices for a newer car to get a feel for the market. After navigating several sites that purportedly Toyota has approved, I found most of them wanted my email address before I could receive a quote which I don’t like to do as it just makes for more junk mail in my Inbox. I could have given them my decoy email address that I use for such cases,

but guessing that the site would just ask for more personal information, I just cancelled the transaction. After much searching, I found the actual Toyota website which did display list prices with no fuss or bother.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, have your own set of Internet Annoyances and I’d be interested in hearing from you. Please use my website ( or my email ( to share.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Potpourri: Revisiting Smartphones, Musing on Cyborgs and Editing DNA

I feel that it’s necessary to attempt to clear up any misunderstandings concerning my previous column, “Smartphones more distracting, isolating than useful” . The title I originally submitted was “Why I don’t own a Smartphone” and my intent was to explain why smartphones are not for me, mainly because I realize how easily distracted I am. I most certainly did not wish to imply that smartphones should be shunned by everyone --- only that one must consider the downsides as well as the many upsides. Recall that the March 8, 2015 column, “”Accentuate the Positive...“ was entirely devoted to singing the praises of how and why smartphones are the perfect technology for advising troubled teens. So, one more time: if you think you can handle the downsides, then dive in but please weigh the decision carefully. As our elders have advised:. Look before you Leap.

More to the point, I stumbled onto a TED Talk: “Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now” which deals with much the same issues I raised in “Why I don’t Own a Smartphone” and extends it into the field of “cyborg anthropology”. Quite a mouthful. She begins her talk with the startling pronouncement, “ I would like to tell you all that you are all actually cyborgs, but not the cyborgs that you think. You're not RoboCop, and you're not Terminator, but you're cyborgs every time you look at a computer screen or use one of your cell phone devices.”

She goes on to give the classical definition of the word Cyborg: "an organism to which exogenous (fancy word for ‘outside the system’) components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments." and, from an anthropological perspective, describes how humans have pretty much always used tools of one kind or another but this new tool, this network of computers comprising the Internet, is different. Up until the dawn of the digital computer age (circa 1940) humanity used tools that extended physical limitations --- such as stone chisels, trebuchets and jet planes. This newest tool, the computer, the heart of the Internet, extends our minds. This idea is not new --- indeed Doug Engelbart ( referred to these new machines as “mind augmenters”. and Vannevar Bush: before him explored this idea shortly after World War II.


Space limits the number of insights Amber Case presents so it would be well worth your time to search for “ Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now.” It’s less than 8 minutes and it’s what Infotainment ought to be: educational, enlightening and enjoyable.

While I certainly am not an expert in molecular biology, it seems to me that “editing dna in human embryos” qualifies as an ethical issue between technology and society. If we look at it from a computer science viewpoint, the term “edit” is usually associated with files of text, graphics, music and the like ---certainly not human dna! For example, when I edit a text file, there are only three operations that can be performed: Insert, Delete and Replace (actually only two as Replace can be simulated by applying Delete and Insert appropriately but it’s convenient for the user to have a separate Replace operation).As an added bonus, most modern word processor apps provide an “UnDo” operation as well.

As we all know from our experience with Word processors, if we make a mistake while editing, it is possible, even easy, to correct the mistake. Not so (so far) when editing the dna of a human gene and this could lead to unintended consequences. So modifying a gene’s dna incorrectly is much much more than an “OOPS!” moment. While it is true that scientists usually have a good idea of the intended outcomes of an experiment there’s always that, no matter how minute, possibility of a disaster. Let’s hope that nothing goes wrong. For the gory details point your browser at:

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why I don’t own a Smartphone

There are two reasons I don’t own a smartphone. The first is more complicated, so let’s address that one first. As a sometime Buddhist, an important goal, for me, is to be in the present moment. This is very difficult as I am easily distracted so if I don’t watch myself, on the way to the mailbox. for example, I can see some weeds in the garden which I start to pull and I discover a japanese get the idea. That’s problematic enough but there is an even more insidious force which diverts my attention and that is the ongoing conversation in my head which I guess many of us have. Zen Buddhists call that “the mad monkey” -- swinging from branch to branch, never stopping to experience the present moment. This buzzing in our minds works to divert our attention from what’s actually happening in the present moment and I believe certain technologies, like the smartphone, contribute to this unwelcome phenomenon.

My basic premise is that while we create technology, technology also changes us causing a strange symbiosis which can be summed up by the phrase,”I change It, It changes me.” I worry that if I acquire a smartphone, then I will be carrying around an internet-enabled computer and the temptation to use it will be overwhelming and I don’t want to be overwhelmed. This phenomenon is not limited to technology -- it can occur in the arts as well. Let’s take a look at how that goes.

Back in the olden times, people could only listen to music when played by live musicians. Granted, one had to have wealth enough to pay for this pleasure which excludes about 99% of us but, nonetheless that’s the way it used to be. As time progressed so did technology and by the early 20th century Edison had found a way to record sound waves and before we knew it, many more of us had phonographs and records to play on which the music was recorded. We then had the luxury of listening to the great composers whilst sitting in our living rooms and sipping a cup of tea or perhaps something stronger. We no longer had to travel to listen to music and most everyone thought this a “good thing”. But the experience of listening to music was mediated by the technology on which the music was recorded. There’s a good reason we call it ‘media” --- it mediates or intervenes between me and the direct experience and cannot help but mitigate it. It means that any experience mediated through technology is is necessarily diminished.

Then the music delivery technology begins to change fast. Still in the 20th century, Sony invents the Walkman and, as its name promises, allows us to leave our living rooms and go outside and isolate ourselves from our environment (this includes other people) while enjoying our chosen playlists. Many more modifications allowed us to arrive at the present day where our music arrives from “the Cloud” and is then transported into our ears via earphones from our smartphones.

Many would call this progress but it has a price. Technology has allowed us to isolate ourselves from one another. Worse, it raises a barrier between you and what’s happening right now --- the present moment. Is it worth the price? Everyone must decide that for themselves but many are not even aware that a decision has to made --- we just accept the new shiny technology as progress (a good thing) and fail to reflect on its dark side.

Due to limited space, I have left out several steps in the evolution of the relationship between music and technology (such as the probable fact that our ancestors played music on a bone flute about 40,000 years ago), but my claim stands: Technology mediates and thus has the ability to isolate as well. Personally, I think anything that comes between me and experiencing the present moment is not useful; it is a step backwards. And a step backwards can hardly be called “progress”.

The second reason I do not own a smartphone is that my wife has one and when I need it, I can borrow it from her.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is the Internet Changing Us?

Do you ever wonder if technology like the Internet is changing us? If so, you’re not alone.

There are many people interested in this issue of how we create the technology but then it ends up changing us --- for the better? A good question.

Professor Sherry Turkle works in the Program of Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and is the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle has also presented two very interesting TED talks. TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design devoted to spreading ideas via interesting speakers giving short presentations on a very wide range of subjects; if you have not yet viewed, treat yourself to one at your earliest convenience.

In her first TED talk in 1996, Turkle came across as an evangelist for the Internet. She enthusiastically endorsed its promise of connecting humankind and believed that we would use the information gained through this virtual world to enhance our endeavors and make us more fully human. However, in 2012 she did another TED talk recanting her prior position. Instead of enhancing our lives, she argued that it is instead degrading them. Technology has allowed us to hide from real encounters with others as well as assuage our boredom. Her exact words were, “As a psychologist, what excited me most was the idea that we would use what we learned in the virtual world about ourselves, about our identity, to live better lives in the real world.”

On the other hand, she admits at the start of her 2012 talk that she loves getting texts; in fact she had just received one from her daughter just minutes before going on, “Mom, you will rock.” Turkle goes on to point out, “I'm still excited by technology, but I believe, and I'm here to make the case, that we're letting it take us places that we don't want to go...those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don't only change what we do, they change who we are. ”

Her epiphany came when she was visiting a nursing home where she was part of team treating an elderly woman who was grieving over a child who had recently died. Turkle’s part was to supply a “sociable robot” to give the patient the calming feeling that they were understood. This particular robot was constructed to resemble a baby seal and it was doing an amazing job of comforting her as it appeared to be understanding and following the conversation Many on the team found this amazing, but Turkle did not. She remembers, “...that woman was trying to make sense of her life with a machine that had no experience of the arc of a human life. ..That robot can't empathize. It doesn't face death. It doesn't know life...We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, "Why have things come to this?"

Have things come to this? I believe so and I agree with Turkle that the root of the problem is control; in this case, it’s control over where you choose to put your attention. She says, “So you want to go to that board meeting, but you only want to pay attention to the bits that interest you. And some people think that's a good thing. But you can end up hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other.”

I would add another factor to why we spend so much time “alone together”and that is: boredom.. We humans, at least in this culture, just cannot deal with being bored for any appreciable length of time. Whether we’re in traffic, waiting at the check-out or just plain “at loose ends” it’s a frustrating and often claustrophobic experience. So, to combat the boredom, we have TV, smartphones, and even books to assuage the pain of boredom. What to do?

Ironically, there’s an app for that, “Headspace” which is described in the July 6&15 New Yorker.. “The Higher Life”. Is this Two Wrongs making a Right or is it just fighting fire with fire (which, in fact, works in extreme cases? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Around The Internet

Although I base my research primarily on articles from the New Yorker and Atlantic Magazines, the New York Times and the Washington Post newspapers as well as several websites such as the MIT Technology Review, Google Tech, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, today’s column springs from two articles in the 5/24/10 Press Republican. Although They both appear on the same page, but they illustrate vastly different aspects of technology’s effect on society.

The first, “Researchers making strides with Cheyenne supercomputer” describes how the biggest, newest, fastest computer can help society with solving problems that were previously deemed intractable such as accurate weather and earthquake prediction. Housed in Cheyenne, Wyoming this “giant brain”, appropriately named “Yellowstone” can perform 1.5 quadrillion operations per second.

When I read this fact, I paused and remembered my experience working on an earlier supercomputer, the ILLIAC IV, during the late 60s to early 70s at the University of Illinois (you may recall HAL’s reference to ILLIAC I in Kubrick’s classic film “2001” ). It’s claim to fame was that it was capable of performing one million operations per second --- that’s a billion times faster. This line of thought led me to considering the obvious question, “What kind of ‘operation’ are we talking about here? Surely not brain surgery. If you guessed that it’s more likely some internal electronic computer operation such as doing arithmetic you’d be right on track. In fact the ILLIAC IV was advertised as achieving a “megaflop” in one second which was an acronym for “ one million floating point additions”. And what, you may ask, is a “floating point addition” as opposed to a plain vanilla one? Well,like any technical problem, the details are somewhat technical but the gist is that the computer circuitry for adding whole numbers is simpler and faster than the circuitry for adding numbers with decimal points (which are called “floating point”), so, unlike in a social situation, it’s more glorious achievement to do a “flop”.

ILLIAC IV was not a commercial success; only a few ILLIACs were sold to government agencies but many of its technical innovations were incorporated into future generations of supercomputers leading to Yellowstone. (Makes you wonder if the Edsel possibly had similar effects on automobiles...)

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after I read the second article on the Science page, “Ready for liquor bottles smart enough to talk to Smartphones?”. When I first started following the development of the “Internet of Things” I was moderately impressed with the idea that milk cartons could be designed with gizmos that broadcast to your smartphone/watch when they were past expiration date or down to one-quarter and that it was time to start thinking about adding them to your grocery list. But this “advance” seems to me to have crossed the threshold of common sense. Based on those frames that continuously scroll through photographs of your grandchild’s last birthday or your recent travels, this advance allows you to post a scrolling text from your smart device (smartwatch, smartphone, tablet, pc, etc, etc etc...) that will display ala Times Square Banner Headlines on your...wait for it....liquor bottle.

While I can understand the benefits accrued to the purveyor of spirits (it can also track the location of the bottle which, in and of itself, is a tiny bit creepy) I fail to see how it will help me become a better person (unless, in its next version, it will sound warnings that I’ve had my limit and refuse to dispense for 24 hours). This is a good example of an NTTT technology (Not Thought Through Thoroughly).

On the plus side, here’s an amusing example that low tech still survives somewhere in this world: “Police in India this week arrested a pigeon on charges of spying for Pakistan. The bird,..., reportedly had a "stamped message" on its body that ... included a Pakistani phone number. An X-ray of the bird didn't show anything out of the ordinary, but police have nevertheless registered it as a "suspected spy" and are keeping it in custody.” (

My faith in a Deity with a sense of humor has been restored.

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