My Charter

The social, political and technological trends that affect how we live may interact unpredictably, but that doesn't mean logic and imagination can't guide us to better outcomes. Blaugury observes the strange goings on and raises a red flag, when needed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

There Ought To Be a Law

(Must. Not. Use. “Auto.” Pun.)
A fourth consecutive post anticipating the arrival of self-driving (SD) vehicles means I’m either in a groove, or a rut. (Hard to say, interrupted as I’ve been by a month-long, family-wide battle with a nasty flu. (Oh, yeah, and some football games.)) This time the focus is on legal and ethical issues. Next time I’ll try to wrap everything up, in what I hope will be recognized as a Blaugury idiom, by commenting on the auspices.
Previously we learned that by the end of 2013 licensing laws for autonomous vehicles were already on the books in Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan. Not a groundswell, but nonetheless a clear indication of the direction we’re heading. As other states get on board they’re either going to establish a rational, easily extended pattern, or a confusing, potentially dangerous patchwork. Smart money is on the latter.

Image: DonkeyHotey

That America’s deep ideological rifts are widening is well-documented. Open cultural and political conflicts are destroying public civility and further diminishing our government’s modest talents for enacting meaningful, collaborative change. If we also consider how many of our fellow citizens and legal representatives are willfully, cheerfully ignorant of science and technology, rather than rational vehicle codes we should expect only legislated disasters. 
What, too alarmist?
Automation: Coming to a Vehicle Near You 
Last time, I raised the specter of disruptive innovation, a term coined by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen to describe a new technology that displaces one or more established technologies -- creating in the process new product and service markets. Matter-of-fact as the definition sounds in the abstract, applying it to the coming automation of America’s transportation grids is like describing a hydrogen bomb as “fireworks.” 
Robot vehicles most certainly will cause -- disruption. Equally understated, the scale of the shakeup will be -- enormous. Deep and wide, the aftershocks could last a generation or more, affecting everyone who drives or rides in a car, truck or bus. Or who knows anyone who does. (Or who knows anyone who knows anyone who . . . well, you get the picture.)
With no trace of hyperbole, a NYT article asserts this technology will transform society as profoundly as the Internet has. One could argue they’re badly underestimating the potential impacts; but even if they’re not, odds are it’s going to be a rough ride.
As good as the Internet has been to us, during the twenty-odd years it’s been around, few would argue that its “Wild-West” environment has been all good. Fewer still would be content to let SD-vehicles develop the way Internet technologies have done -- in whatever directions thousands of competing innovators and entrepreneurs have wanted to take them, and with few regulatory constraints. 
Automated vehicles, on the other hand, are going to be -- must be -- entirely different animals. Unlike the relatively ephemeral threats posed by the Internet, robot cars are going to present serious visceral concerns. There will be skin in the game. 
However, while the potential physical dangers may draw the most attention, they represent only a fraction of the risks in such a large-scale project. Recognizing the broad scope demanded a systematic, multidisciplinary approach, DARPA, Google, MIT, and a growing list of automobile-related industries are already thinking -- and testing -- around the problem set* of a not-too-distant future that includes fully automated transportation networks.
(* Actually, instead of problem set, more like a myriad of complexly intertwined problem matrices -- virtually all of which must be resolved, before autonomous vehicles are loosed on the public.) 
Just when is that going to happen? Difficult as it is to predict what adoption rates will be, some carmakers have pledged to begin selling autonomous vehicles by 2020. That’s but six years away. Even more significantly, the really big pieces are in motion, or already in place. As revealed in this Department of Transportation presentation, government, industry and academia have been meeting to assign preliminary roles and responsibilities. They’re preparing to divvy up what may be the biggest pie, ever -- the Internet of Vehicles, autonomous and otherwise. 
(What happens when that pie hits the fan . . . er, road?)
Reaching Critical Mass 
While we can applaud their early start on the planning, we should be concerned they’ve yet to recognize the roles ordinary people should be playing in their overall calculus. If we are not prepared -- that is, we citizens who live, work and drive in the United States of America (to say nothing of the dozens of other industrialized nations that will be affected in a similar timeframe) -- the long transition to our automated future is going to be a nightmare.
The general public needs a seat at the table for these meetings, because what’s on the horizon is not just another restructuring of a few isolated product and service markets, with some minor ripples in a few supplemental industries and labor markets. What’s coming is much bigger than the Internet. 
Most would agree the Internet has transformed the way every level of society operates, legally, commercially and privately. In the past two decades, advanced computing technologies merged with high-speed wireless and global satellite communications -- to the point of inseparability -- and revolutionized almost everything on the planet. 
Now, by grafting robot cars and trucks onto that well-established, increasingly potent mix of computers and information, we’re going to make that “almost everything” a lot, lot bigger -- exponentially so. We all should consider carefully what that means.
Trade Offs
It is true, automation does mean safer roads. A study by the Eno Center for Transportation estimates, “if 90 percent of vehicles were self-driving, as many as 21,700 lives per year could be saved, and economic and other benefits could reach a staggering $447 billion.” 
The enhanced communication technologies -- vehicle-to-vehicle, as well as vehicle-to-grid -- also will help lessen congestion in major population centers. Efficiencies of scheduling and delivery promise to increase productivity and reduce carbon emissions across the country. In the end, everyone will benefit. 
Sadly, the benefits may not alleviate the pain of transition, at least not for everyone. Automated vehicles are going to change the way we live, even more dramatically than the robots already replacing skilled humans in manufacturing and service sector jobs, in the USA and across the globe. (And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: an estimated 47% of all US jobs will be lost to the eventual wide growth and deep sector penetration of automation technologies, of which SD-vehicles are but a part.)
Automation means fewer jobs. Many fewer jobs -- which means more hard feelings and more social unrest. It’s an unavoidable dynamic of the new relationship. Even absent any other potential negatives, the unfortunate correlation makes it highly unlikely that, when vying for the pole position with SD vehicles, freedom of the American road advocates will simply stand down, exiting quietly into the pages of our nation’s history. (If one is looking for analogues, consider Civil War reenactors, on both sides.) 
Releasing robots to the open road will be an automation milestone -- the next step toward a future where machines will provide the labor for almost every imaginable product and service. But not everyone will be happy about it. Emotions will run high, and demagogues of every stripe will assail the public, no matter the cost. (In other words, like now, only much worse.)
In other words, there will be mayhem.
Image: DonkeyHotey

A Nation of Laws
The changing situation on our roads and highways will challenge our already fraying social contract. That self-driving vehicles also will raise new and complex legal questions -- e.g., Who will set the standards for the hardware and software? What will the manufacturer’s liability be? Who’s responsible when an SD-car has an accident, or breaks the law?, etc. -- can only make things worse.
It will be up to our governments and judiciary to impose order on the chaos. One would suppose (despite ample evidence to the contrary) these new laws will protect the public and punish bad actors. But laws have limits, and sometimes laws may expose us to danger, too.
To whit: Stanford fellow Bryant Walker Smith predicts SD-cars are going to be legal in the USA because of a principle of freedom that posits “everything is permitted unless prohibited”. Somewhat perversely, by this reasoning, it’s all but certain that legal issues -- more so than technical or social ones -- will be throttling the schedules for at least commercial and private market versions of robot vehicles. (Of course, the military’s schedule is its own.)
There are legitimate questions about what laws (and whose) will apply when the robot rollouts begin in earnest. As this NY Times article points out, vehicle codes haven’t changed all that much since the horse-and-buggy days. Do we simply tack on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and call it a wrap? That won’t work. 
(FYI, a bit of a tangent, but science fiction writer Warren Ellis has formulated an alternative set of three laws. Harshly amusing and instructive, but not for the profanity-averse.)
There are many hazy areas in any system of laws, no matter how well-written and well-intentioned they may be. Clarifying them will demand litigation. Lots of it, and for a long time. (On the plus side, however, law school enrollments are certain to swell; and we can expect similarly robust job growth for the automobile, property and personal injury insurance industries.) 
Robot Ambulances and Ethical Burdens
Because SD-cars will be safer and more efficient, analysts predict insurance premiums will be higher for those who don’t have a robot driver. (At least one forward-thinking insurance company has started an ad campaign.) However, determining who’s liable in an accident won’t be a simple matter, even when video and black-box evidence may be available. 
New laws and codes will have to define the responsibilities of a vehicle's human operator/owner in at least two different domains, inside as well as outside their vehicles. When one adds in expressed or implied manufacturer warranties, recommended vs. mandatory maintenance schedules, computer performance and security concerns, and the operational vagaries of any exceedingly complex electronic system, one begins to appreciate the ambiguities of these new legal grounds. Let's hope our planners have ways to protect society from the consequences, when their plans become actions. Let’s hope planners are giving more than a passing thought to protecting society from the consequences, when their plans become actions.
Since it’s impossible to write laws that cover every situation, ethics must guide us when laws cannot. Ethics, however, are a reflection of external social norms -- assisted or, in individual cases, negated by a person’s internal moral principles. If you think solving ethical dilemmas is tricky, now, just wait. As this article in The Atlantic points out, autonomous vehicles are likely to come bundled with an entirely new set of puzzles.
For example, when faced with unexpected obstacles human drivers routinely break or bend the rules of the road -- crossing a double-yellow line to avoid a fallen tree; exceeding the speed limit in an emergency; etc. Faced with the same circumstances, robot drivers -- no matter how well-programmed -- might be incapable of behaving in the safe and responsible manner most of us take for granted, from ourselves and from our neighbors.
The why of this is easy to see: computer programmers are no more able to code in appropriate responses for every possible driving situation than lawmakers are to write laws to anticipate every legal question. An SD-car’s GPS link will never include a ethical/moral compass. The artificial intelligence will be programmed with every conceivable scenario, but it won’t be enough. It also must be prepared to respond to the inconceivable
A robot vehicle’s AI software will need parameters flexible enough to guide it in unforeseen circumstances. Obviously, when a playing child suddenly runs out into the street, an SD-car will be programmed to stop. But will it do the same for the child’s pet? And what if stopping (in either scenario) endangers the vehicle’s occupants? We have a right to expect humans to behave ethically and responsibly. Can we expect the same from robots?
Before they open our public roads to autonomous vehicles, planners in government, industry and academia have questions to answer. The stakes are enormous, and they need to get the answers right. Getting there will be difficult, but the end result must include ethical robot drivers a logical and a just code of laws to guide them. 
Then, step back, make popcorn, and cue the lawyers . . .
photo credits: DonkeyHotey via Flickr cc

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bumps In The Road

Pardon my French, but it’s a fait accompli.
Yep, a done deal: We’re going to be sharing the road with robot drivers. While it's difficult to predict exact dates, with estimates ranging from 10 to 30 years or more, it likely will happen sooner than most people think. And nothing can be done to stop it. 
Begun a decade ago with little fanfare, automated transportation initiatives already have considerable momentum. The rush to develop, sell and operate self-driven vehicles is accelerating; and even the prodigious gridlocking talents of federal and state legislatures will be challenged to slow it down. 
Opinions on the proper roles for government aside, slow might be a good thing in this case. Someone needs to take the time to ensure the rollout goes as smoothly as humanly (and mechanically) possible. A lot is riding on it.
The future is hazy -- but there will be robots 
Backed by DARPA and to an extent steered by their agenda, Google and a host of others are developing the relevant technologies with breathtaking speed. It’s already difficult to keep abreast of what’s happening in the field. Soon it will be impossible, which is why it’s important that everyone who’s affected (i.e., every last one of us) begins to learn about autonomous vehicle technologies now, while there’s time to minimize their negative impacts.
Who's Driving This Thing?
Depends on where you’re looking and what you mean by drive. First, let’s be clear, I’m a car-lover and avid technophile; the majority of my consciousness actively salivates over the promise of automation’s idealized end-state -- including a safe and reliable transportation grid. 
A somewhat smaller part of me believes Google is the perfect company to usher in that tantalizing future. Their technological innovation and skillful, almost prescient, management will be crucial to resolving the complexities of integrating a vast information network with a distributed hive-mind of robot vehicles.
A still smaller fraction even takes a degree of comfort in DARPA’s motivating presence in the epic endeavor. After all, the agency has a history of finding and funding R&D in new technologies (e.g., ARPANET, TRANSIT/NAVSAT, etc.) that become not just commercial successes, but vitally important contributors to billions of lives, each day. 
Recall that what began life as ARPANET became the World Wide Web. The TRANSIT/NAVSAT system turned into today’s Global Positioning System (GPS). Each extremely powerful in its own right; together, a synergy that continually reshapes humanity’s view of the planet and of itself. 
Transformative as these technologies have been, however, the changes they brought about were relatively easy to embrace. Their advantages are abundant, their problems are few. Most significantly, neither GPS nor Internet carry any inherently serious physical risks, either to those who use them, or to those who don’t. Not so, autonomous vehicles. 
Disruptive Technologies
What’s coming isn’t another human-computer chess match, results to be met with a collective sigh of, “Gee whiz, who cares?”
What’s coming is more likely to produce variations on the theme, “Whiskey!? Tango!? Foxtrot!?”
What’s coming is Human driver vs. Robot driver -- a struggle made all the more fascinating because the open road is one of the few arenas where man and machine may exist in direct competition for decades. 
As things play out to their inevitable end (spoiler alert: robots win), it will be interesting, but it won’t always be pretty. We need to make sure it doesn’t become hell on wheels along the way. The way we’re wired -- erratic emotional pathways hopelessly intertwined with our more rational selves -- won’t make it easy.
If it’s true unrestrained anger differs from violent psychosis by only a few degrees of the psychological compass, road rage is even more closely aligned. When the products of automation escape the factories and spill into the streets, the push-back may take inappropriate, even bizarre forms. (I leave possible examples to the reader’s imagination.) 
Those doing the planning for our automated future must take into account the emotional aspects of driving, because emotions are certain to play a big part in the transition. When humans and robots start vying for position in the high-speed lane, some complex, volatile feelings will be stirred in the former. Some of the responses will be simply inappropriate. Others will be downright dangerous.
Robot vehicles -- cars, trucks and busses -- will cause disruption on a scale unlike anything society has faced since the automobile displaced the horse-drawn carriage. A number of factors will conspire to make this modern analog much more difficult. 

A new King of the Road

For one thing, there were fewer people then, and they were more inclined to respect each other, more inclined to acknowledge civil and federal authorities. For another, horses were being supplanted by an arguably better technology that gave users greater autonomy and increased range and rate of travel. 
Consider also that motor vehicles are in much wider use now than horses were a hundred years ago. There were 99.1 million people in 1914 and approximately 21 million horses (according to the USDA’s Farmer’s Bulletin). Today, there are more than 317 million people and 254.4 million passenger vehicles (according to a 2007 DOT estimate).
We, as a society and as individuals, need to prepare ourselves for this disruptive technology and for the changes it will bring. Not to resist it, but to understand it -- the better to adapt ourselves to the needs of the technology, the better to adapt the technology to our own needs. 
Given our current political and social divides, I wish I could be more optimistic about how we’re going to respond.
What’s It Going To Be Like?
If I want to keep myself awake at night, I imagine what the transition period will be like.
No doubt most people will be curious about and, insofar as it’s practical, accommodating to the new technologies. However, significant numbers will not. There will be those among us who view robots as an abomination. Those who rebel to prevent (or protest) job losses. Those who only want to cause havoc for the sheer spectacle of it. Everyone will have an opinion.
As autonomous vehicles proliferate toward critical mass, some wildly divergent interests and philosophies may be expected to defend their claims to public roadways. The emergence of this unlikely coalition will constitute a resistance, and the Internet and GPS make it likely they’ll be organized.
Initial versions of the robot tech will be expensive, and early adopters may become targets of unwanted attention. Think a 19 year-old car-junkie in his nitro-burning Nissan beater -- or a meth-head in a Ford pickup, or a motorcyclist with a death-wish and a 1000 cc crotch-rocket, etc. -- playing highway tag with a self-driving 2018 Volvo. (Not to suggest that any Prius-by-Google would attract fewer aggressive motorists, but do you really want to be riding shotgun for a Swedish HAL?)
Such possibilities frighten sane people, but manna for television programming directors. Media moguls (or Mongols?) will find many ways to deliver a voyeur’s-eye view of the chaos, including: live-streaming dashboard camera and surveillance video feeds; Win/Fail compilations of people interacting with robot vehicles; bloody accident drive-bys and hover-cam fly-overs. Social media is going to be backed up with the by-play. 
Don't Worry, We Won't Be Useless
No matter how confident we may feel going into this battle, there’s only one way it can end. Because they’re going to be tightly integrated with the new transportation grids, every conceivable technical edge will belong to the robots; eventually the roads will, too. However, it’s not going to happen overnight. 
Autonomous vehicles won’t be problem-free, particularly the early versions. Nor will they soon (or perhaps ever) be able to completely absolve humans from their responsibilities behind the wheel.
Current incarnations of the robot AI demonstrate limited abilities to deal with the unexpected -- not a good thing in general, and a particularly bad thing when driving next to a drunken angry guy. Additionally, they don’t handle ambiguous situations well; they can’t see road signs and hand-signals; snow and other weather phenomena can thwart the onboard range-finding radar; etc. While ongoing technical developments may be able to mitigate these problems, it’s unlikely that all will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
And this is where we come in. We’re going to be the problem-solvers. We’re going to be interpreters for and -- for the foreseeable future -- final arbiters of the robot-human interface-on-wheels that controls our self-driving vehicles. It will be left to us to oversee the integration of robot-driven vehicles with other vehicles, driverless and human-driven, and with bicyclists and pedestrians. 
It’s all but certain that for at least a generation or more the automated transport systems of the future will be more aspirational than functional. In reality, the AI software and robot hardware systems will be less like chauffeurs, and more like autopilots for our road-traveling vessels. 
We, on the other hand, will be less like drivers and more like captains. Ignoring for a moment the romantic overtones of the title, it’s sobering to remember we’ll still bear all the legal and operational responsibilities the word implies. For some those burdens may appear needlessly large, but studies show the greatest dangers exist during handoffs -- when the computer releases control back to the captain, er, driver. What if the driver isn’t ready, or able, or willing to accept control? 
Answering such questions will not be easy. But on the plus-side -- boldly returning to the notion of captaincy -- when Google’s self-driving car is given the go-ahead to enter the “automated cruise” mode, it gives a little whirring sound, like a star ship’s warp drive! 
I wonder how long it will take me to stop saying, “Engage.”
We'll dip into the legal waters next time in There Ought To (I’m forcing myself not to use “Auto”) Be a Law! 

photo credit: nronga via photopin cc
photo credit: brizzle born and bred via photopin cc

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Seasons Greetings To Our Robot Driver Overlords

My last post provided links to some news items regarding the arrival of self-driving cars, in timeframes that, upon inspection, seem more than a little optimistic. In famously robot-friendly Japan, Nissan has vowed they’ll be selling autonomous vehicles by the year 2020. Upping the ante, Sweden boasts Volvo will be putting 100 self-driving automobiles on the streets of Gothenburg in 2017. 
Pardon me, but Google has already jumped that shark, though quietly, testing self-driving cars on public roads in California since 2010. Their controlling software is called Google Chauffeur. The project is led by Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-leader of the team that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge (for autonomous vehicles).
While it’s most unlikely that Google wants to be in the business of building robot cars, they surely do want to be in the business of controlling them. Along with, it may be presumed, prime chunks of the environments in which they operate. 
There is power/money in assisting autonomous vehicles to play nicely with each other and with other elements of the environment, particularly on crowded city streets. There is power/money in collecting, parsing and distributing the data that nourishes these systems. There is power/money in being the hub that ties it all together.
Google is positioning itself to do that. That makes me glad. And a little worried. Yes, I’ve read the company’s announcements. Google says robot drivers will save lives by cutting traffic fatalities in half. They will save automotive fuel with increases in efficiency impossible for human operators to achieve. They will adhere to the company motto, Don’t be evilThe other goals are nice, but it’s Google's motto that really gets me. I badly want them to adhere to that motto. 
Without question, demonstrations of Google’s self-driving tech are impressive. At a 2011 TED Conference some journalists from Popular Science got a ride in a Chauffeured Prius. The car was equipped with $150K in aftermarket modifications, including a roof-mounted LIDAR (laser radar) range finder. The setting was the rooftop of a large municipal parking structure. The video is linked below.

I wonder how many viewers were surprised by what they saw in the video. The PS journalist clearly was.
We're Not Ready
Don’t get me wrong, I love what Google is doing for the Internet Age. The amazing Google Maps/Satellite/Earth services have become invaluable to my personal and professional lives. I am unapologetically dependent upon Google’s most excellent search engine. I think I’m hooked on Blogger, the drop-dead simple system that allows me to produce and publish Blaugury. (I’m even considering -- hard as it is for a Mac-head to admit -- an Android-based smart phone!)
Still, I’m not sure their so-far excellent record for enhancing our virtual world is quite enough to sell me on their ability to deliver a real-world self-driving car. Develop and test, yes, but viable on a wide commercial scale? Given the strong likelihood of deep and wide societal impacts, shouldn’t we be thinking of solutions in generational terms? Are our state and federal governments
On March 1, 2012, Nevada passed the first law permitting the operation of autonomous cars. A month later Florida was the second state to do so; in September, California was the third. Michigan joined the club in 2013, and more will follow. Somewhat obviously Google led the lobbying for the Nevada law. (Though I hope not for that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” thing.) A little more surprising, however, was Google’s recent acquisition of Boston Dynamics, a developer of fast, agile, animal-like robots for military applications. 
Want a cold chill? Watch these demonstrations.



After seeing those BD robots in action, you should have no trouble remembering that Google’s still working with DARPA. Google-powered robots dominated the Defense Agency’s most recent Robotics Challenge. 
Now, I’m as aware as anyone that military applications have been the (cough) driver for all manner of excellent inventions, things that have benefitted society and the world at large -- including, it must be said, the Internet that brings these fine pixels to your screen. Google’s broad-spectrum efforts to automate transportation -- at every conceivable level and to every conceivable purpose -- will no doubt lead to many more amazing and wonderful technology products and services, things that will enrich our future selves immensely. 
Or they could, as some Netizens have suggested, turn into Skynet.
(That last part really doesn't bother me. Plenty of other things could go wrong before that ever happens.)
Bumps in the Road is my next post.
A sincere Happy Holidays to all . . . !!!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On The Road (And Way Off)

As an American male in good standing, I might be able to get into this whole blogging thing more easily if I could just climb into my car and drive there. I’d tap the address into my trusty GPS unit and follow the turn-by-turn instructions -- and because I zeroed out her voice within the first few hours of operation, I wouldn't have to listen to the humorless woman who lives there. After a quiet interlude I’d arrive at my destination: Blog Heaven. Or at least Blog Limbo or Blog Purgatory. Not Heaven, but not Hell, either.
Hmm, let’s just see where this whole driving thing takes us.
It’s clear driving is considered a birthright in this country, and I remain mystified why our Founding Fathers didn’t spare a few words for the “freedom of the road” somewhere in the Bill of Rights. (Actually, I think the Declaration of Independence manages to cover it with “pursuit of happiness” -- something which the automobile has managed to turn into a high-speed chase.) Getting a license to drive is a right of passage, for male and female, alike. Having an automobile of one’s own is a grant of seemingly absolute power over physical inertia and boredom. Driving should be glorious, liberating . . . but it’s not.
Instead of joy, too often I’ve experienced Hell-on-Wheels: More than three decades of commuting in Los Angeles; three years of navigating quirky and narrow European byways; three days stuck in Rome’s glacial traffic. I’ve driven on the wrong side of the road (the UK), legally and well. I've been a passenger in NYC taxis. Worse, I’ve even endured cold sweats on bus tours in Egypt, where people think nothing of crossing busy six-lane highways, on foot, pausing on the white lines, as if they’re magically safe there. (In reality, of course, those lines are invisible to Alexandria’s furious drivers, who care little for the rules of the road, and not a fig for pedestrians.)

Alexandria, Egypt

Obviously I survived to write this post, but even though I’m retired and living in Georgia, I can find Hell by getting into my car. While far removed from my cultural roots, the South is a truly beautiful part of the country; but its roads are home to a maddeningly inconsistent breed of driver. Emphasis on maddeningly inconsistent: People here politely observe proper queueing etiquette at traffic bottlenecks, yet also pull out into oncoming traffic -- slow as blackstrap molasses, heedless of the cannon-balling semitrailer rig they’ve just cut off. 
Such risky/stupid behavior makes me crazy, and I react by swearing a lot. When my wife is in the car with me, she gets angry, too -- not because of my language (I tend to favor creative, occasionally humorous invective), but because of the volume: she has to hear me, and the people I’m swearing at generally don’t. (Confession: I blow my horn, too, but not as often as I used to because people here carry guns.) Truth is I want to do a better job of keeping cool at the wheel, but the insanity of the average driver makes it hard.
And then I saw Russian dashboard camera videos! 
First, a little background: Russian courts prefer video footage to eyewitness testimony. Because mayhem is so common on that country’s roads -- chain reaction pileups, road rage incidents, staged accidents and insurance fraud, police corruption, etc. -- dashboard cameras are ubiquitous. And even in cases where videos aren’t needed in court, the Internet provides an insatiable appetite for bizarre and shocking footage. 
Because so much of the craziness exceeds the written word's capacity to describe, I'm providing the following links to compilations of Russian dashcam footage. They are testimony to a driving environment that would challenge the sanity of even the hardiest motoring soul. If the reader still can’t believe his or her eyes, try a few search strings on YouTube. Eventually you’ll be convinced. Or rendered catatonic.
Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

There are plenty more where those came from: an entire subculture is devoted to them, including subscription video channels and busy Facebook pages. If you’re like me you find the images to be, in no particular order, stunning, amusing, horrifying, inexplicable. All your years of driving -- especially if they’ve been spent exclusively in the USA, Australia or Europe -- will have prepared you not at all for what’s in some of the clips: High-speed passing of slow or stopped traffic, where there’s no hope of doing so safely. Trucks and cars careening through icy intersections, ignoring signal lights, road signs, police and other vehicles. Crumbling infrastructures transforming thoroughfares into minefields and obstacle courses. 
The spectacular crashes and harrowing near-misses are enough to make me treasure the average American driver. (But I still watch them like a hawk, because I never know when they’ll suddenly turn “mad Russian.”) Fortunately for actual Russians, the whole truth isn’t quite as disturbing as the videos imply. In terms of traffic-related death rates, with 18.6 deaths per 100,000 people, Russia is middle-of-the-road. (More illuminating would be fatalities/mile driven, but that info is not available.) The USA, by comparison, comes in at a relatively benign 10.4. (Pity the poor Eritreans who suffer 48.4 traffic-related fatalities per 100,000 people. Someone should send them some dash cams)
I’m pleased to report at least one happy ending: a YouTube video I saw several months ago showed a young man getting out of his car to help an old woman, who was trying, and failing, to cross a busy road. While the 35 angelic seconds didn’t exactly erase the 15 or so minutes of devilish carnage that preceded it on the compilation, it left me with a sense that the very best humanity has to offer is behind at least some of those steering wheels.
* * *

So, what’s the Blaugury trend-analysis point of this post? Given the horror show of hurtling metal monsters and traffic scofflaws, what would help to slow the headlong rush toward greater and greater highway carnage? Certainly social pressures matter little because, inside our little castles on wheels, anti-social behavior is only a rude gesture away. Politics -- formal state and municipal vehicle codes -- and the informal rules of the road, exist only to be broken. Does technology offer us any hope?
There are some things on the horizon that may yet play a part:

For me, it’s the last bullet point that really puts things in perspective. Seriously, is there any possibility that driverless automobiles will catch on in this country? (Go ahead, laugh some more; doctors say it’s good for you.)
In a nation where so many citizens consider registering firearms a dangerous infringement of individual freedoms, and believe background checks and waiting periods unthinkable invasions of anyone’s (even a mentally unstable terrorist’s or former felon’s) right to “bear arms” and “resist tyranny,” is there any reason to hope Americans will be willing to turn their wheels over to specialized versions of their home computers?
I think not -- at least not anytime soon -- and I’ll try to explain why next time.

photo credit: M. E. Mendrygal

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Welcome to BLAUGURY: Part Two

This post -- my last, prior to launching into the real business of Blaugury -- concludes my message of welcome and self-introduction. The paragraphs below will attempt to lay out a coherent methodology for the trend analyses to follow. (If only to convince myself I have one. If the reader is convinced as well, so much the better.) I also will say a bit about myself and why I’m interested in doing these analyses in the first place.
In a usage common to both math and physics, a vector is an expression of magnitude and direction, but not position. Familiar examples from our 2- and 3-dimensional Euclidean spaces include velocity and acceleration; in studies of electromagnetism vector calculus is used to analyze the strength and gradient of magnetic fields. Other disciplines have their own ideas about how to use vectors, but most (with the possible exception of biology) still endeavor to describe different kinds of forces mathematically. 
Now, for the reader to visualize my proposed methods I need to introduce a word almost as arcane as augury: i.e., vector. With primary roles in mathematics and physics, and wide applications (and very different meanings) in fields as diverse as biology, business and computer science (among others), vectors are extremely versatile tools for visualizing and calculating interactions among real phenomena, as well as among more abstract notions, in both physical and virtual systems.
Math phobes needn’t worry. My forthcoming discussions of social, political and technological trends won’t aspire to the rigor of the “hard,” nor even the “soft” sciences. Nevertheless, on occasion I’ll likely refer to one subject trend or another as a vector -- mostly because it’s a convenient analog for concepts that don’t readily lend themselves to clarity of expression, especially in informal discussions among lay persons. Perhaps it’s just the illustrator in me, but I find it easier to think and talk about ideas when something essential about them can be expressed through the simple expedient of a picture. When something is distilled down to the point one can draw a rational representation of it -- on a chalkboard, on paper, or on a computer screen -- it’s possible to develop and share deeper understandings about what it is and how it acts.
Vectors do that in spades. A vector’s arrowhead indicates the direction a force (or trend) is going; the length of a vector line indicates the magnitude (or speed) of the force (or trend). The picture truly is worth a thousand words. Given that starting point, it’s not too much of a stretch to extend the analogy by using vectors to characterize the speed and direction of technology developments. Or social changes. Or political movements. Or the result of all of them interacting together.
Instead of calculating geometrically complex products, or even taking simple vector sums, we’ll confine our manipulations to some flippant hand-waving to dismiss the “show-your-work” rule of mathematical proofs. Instead of conducting lab experiments or double-blind clinical studies, we’ll search out and embrace our “gut feelings.” Of course, we’ll still try and get to the same places the experts do -- or at least understand a bit better why they come to their particular conclusions. We will focus on what those conclusions mean to us, in the long run, both as individuals and as a civilization. 
There’s more to follow, after the picture -- in this case a rendering of vectors in the wild, posing problems in addition and subtraction. 

Blaugury is a reflection of my concerns for humanity’s future -- as a biological species, and as a socio-politcal organism. Not surprisingly, these are exactly the concerns that birthed my science fiction/fantasy series “The Merlin Protocol.” At this point in time bringing along the two in parallel seems at once crucial and inevitable.
The speed of technological change is making writing science fiction more challenging every day. A meeting I attended the mid-90s may help illustrate this: I was a member of a technology think tank for a multinational financial corporation. It was the dawn of the Internet Age, and our little group was discussing a number of then-current and near-future threats to online banking security. (A number, I should add, that has grown exponentially, during the past two decades.) 
Midway through what had been a boisterous and freewheeling exchange, a colleague and friend of mine had chimed in to the effect that “quantum computers could defeat even the strongest encryption schemes.” As I recall, utter silence greeted his remark. Quantum computers, we all seemed to be thinking, are at best only theoretical! Why are we wasting time talking about science fiction? 
When someone finally spoke again, it was only to nudge the conversation in a completely different direction. And the sudden, palpable sense of relief in the room made it clear my friend had been the only one at the table who’d considered the idea even remotely possible in our lifetimes. Even the least technical among us understood computers pretty well. We’d been hired to be forward-thinking, but working for a gigantic bank, we also were expected to recognize certain practical limits. My friend was not simply dreaming, he was hallucinating. 
(Remember, in 1995 the Internet had only recently escaped from its governmental wombs and academic midwives and gone feral. Desktop computing was barely a decade old, and the largest supercomputers were little more than massively parallel versions of their little PC brothers -- extremely powerful, but still limited by semiconductor technologies, fundamentally unchanged since the invention of the transistor in 1947. Quantum computing -- using “spooky interactions” among atoms or photons to perform multiple simultaneous operations on data -- was little more than . . . science fiction.)
We're not quite there yet, but quantum machines are already much more science fact than fiction. Quantum computing has already been demonstrated -- if only on a tiny scale -- in the lab. How many more years will pass, do you imagine, before no encryption scheme will be enough to keep our most private and well-guarded secrets from prying eyes? Because there are so many technical problems yet to be solved, the answer to that question is unclear; but it’s now very likely that we’ll see large-scale quantum computing in our lifetimes. (Which, of course, means my friend wasn’t hallucinating, and the rest of us in the room that day were woefully shortsighted.)
There are many more examples of changes that once seemed impossible, but are now real (or at least reality-adjacent). So, rather than fight a losing battle against developments that appear to be hurtling toward Kurzweil’s human-computer Singularity, at a rate approaching a significant fraction of c, I’ve decided to embrace them. I'm writing “The Merlin Protocol” as series of eBooks, and the science fiction in them is as realistic as I can make it. That means I spend a lot of time reading about the bleeding edges of science and technology, and extending what I learn in ways that I hope will attract and withstand scrutiny from the highly intelligent, notoriously well-informed audiences who devour science fiction in every medium available to them.
To be sure, with a nod to the mysticism that suffuses the Arthurian legends, my story also has elements of fantasy -- most of them rationalized by numerous quasi-scientific conceits -- enough to propel my work into the speculative fiction sub-genre. I’ve long been fascinated by the weave of future possibility, present reality and mythic past. The works of Roger Zelazny, in my youth, and now, Charles Stross, have inspired me to explore our uncomfortably near future in fiction, through the lens of characters and situations that constitute the bedrock of Western romantic traditions. Again, a welcome to those who join along the way.
* * *
I closed my last post with vague assurances that whatever enlightenment Blaugury might provide, it won’t be dimmed by my own meager supply of candles. Many of my arguments will be abridged restatements of those made by the brilliant thinkers and subject matter experts of our time, who have made and are still making outstanding contributions to their respective fields of study. They are Technologists. Futurists. Sociologists. Writers whose grasp of the thrust of world change far outstrips my own, but whose ideas have fired my imagination. Others will reflect the influence of some of the extraordinarily smart people I’m lucky enough to know personally. Collectively their analyses of important social, technological and political trends have reshaped the way I look at our world. But since I haven’t yet articulated any positions that require bringing in these “big guns,” I’m going to hold the artillery support in reserve for next time.
I hope to see you then.

photo credit: M. E. Mendrygal