Monday, July 15, 2019

The Moon, Mars, or Stay Home?

This coming Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of humans on the moon.  I remember staying up late in my bathrobe and watching the blurry images on our old black-and-white tube-model TV as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the dusty surface.  I was no more moonstruck than most fifteen-year-olds were at the time.  I enjoyed the attention that engineers and high technology were getting as a part of the space program.  But the geopolitical forces that led up to the space race in the first place and the reasons why the U. S. government was spending so much money on it were things I was almost completely ignorant of. 

NASA is still very much with us, though almost a shadow of its 1960s self in terms of its percentage of the federal budget.  The questions of whether and how to spend the many billions of dollars it would cost to either return to the moon with manned spaceflights, or eventually go beyond the moon to Mars, will inevitably rise as we look back on what turned out to be a basically one-trick achievement.  This is not to belittle the incredibly complex and, overall, well-executed program that took men to the moon.  And if you want to connect the dots that go from the lunar landings to the Star Wars research initiatives to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, you can view the Apollo program as the most successful battle in the war against global communism, a war that the West won without starting a nuclear conflict. 

But all that is history, and now the world faces the question of what to do next in space.  The answer depends on which country you ask.

China makes no secret of the fact that they want to land Chinese citizens on the moon and establish a permanently-staffed lunar base.  That is also the goal of one version of plans that NASA has been discussing.  According to an article in Physics Today, during the Obama administration NASA examined the costs associated with setting up a manned lunar base:  $60 to $80 billion.  Faced with such a price tag, the agency instead proposed a plan involving lunar orbiters, landing on an asteroid, and eventually getting to Mars, but it attracted little support and became a dead letter.

More recently, Vice President Pence announced plans to land both men and women on the moon by 2024, but Congress refused to add the $1.6 billion needed for NASA to start planning for such an early date, so it looks like the political climate is more of a problem than any strictly technical issues.

As the barnacles of bureaucracy keep accreting on the U. S. ship of state, achievements of the past look even more impressive than they did at the time.  Taking the technology of 1961, when many if not most electronic systems used vacuum tubes, and moving it forward to the point that we landed men on the moon and got them back safely in only two Presidential election cycles, was truly a stunning achievement. 

But the country was more unified then, and nations that are deeply divided have problems uniting around any goal that isn't clearly for immediate self-preservation.  Nevertheless, it's possible that younger people could unite around a space program that manages to establish a permanent outpost on another planet.

In my work as an educator at the college level, I run across students who, despite their precociously mature and somewhat cynical attitudes, show their support for space efforts by their desire to work for bold, exciting companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin, the Jeff-Bezos-funded space firm.  I suppose it's the latest version of the pioneering spirit that led adventurous Swedes, Poles, and Englishmen to endure the hardships of a transatlantic voyage in the age of sail to explore and settle the unknown territories of the New World.  We've pretty much run out of that sort of thing on this planet, so the moon or Mars is the next frontier, as the old Star Trek series used to tell us.  It's no coincidence that the peak of that show's popularity was the late sixties, although its descendants have a cult following that continues to this day. 

Science fiction is one thing, but taking a substantial fraction of a nation's gross domestic product and spending it on sending a few people out of this world is not to be undertaken lightly, even if it is privately funded instead of paid for by governments.  It's the same kind of thing that the Egyptians did when they built the Pyramids, and it's no accident that most of the great construction achievements of the ancient and medieval world—pyramids, tombs, temples, cathedrals—involved religion in some way.  With those who reply "none" to the pollster's question about religious belief increasing in our U. S. population, it seems pointless to hope that an explicitly religious motive could be found to unite people behind a new effort to go to either the moon or Mars. 

But as the quasi-religious devotion of some Trekkies to the Star Trek franchise shows, some entirely secular things can become a religion for some people.  A lot of the folks who work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have a kind of religious fervor about their jobs.  And a good many Silicon Valley types believe with an almost religious conviction that once we overheat this planet we'll have no choice but to load up our interplanetary U-Hauls and move to another one. 

The danger in that kind of thinking is that it can begin to inculcate the attitude that any sacrifice in the present is worth doing for the future paradise that awaits.  Though I don't see any sign that this is happening yet, one could imagine a dictatorial government forcing its people into grinding poverty for the sake of a space program that at most could benefit a few dozen individuals directly.  The same sacrifice of present goods for the ever-receding magnificent future was the way that Communism tempted (and still tempts) people to do highly immoral things right now for the sake of imagined future generations.  The way things look now, we're in little danger of doing that in the U. S., but it might happen in China. 

If we do land on the moon by 2024 (only five years from now), I will be happy to watch a full-color, 4K-definition image of someone young enough to be Neil Armstrong's grandson (or granddaughter) set foot on the moon for the second time.  But I'm not placing any bets on it, and not just because I'm not the gambling type, either.

Sources:   Physics Today's article "Quo Vadis, NASA:  The Moon, Mars, or both?" by David Kramer appeared on pp. 22-26 of the July 2019 issue. 

Monday, July 08, 2019

Should Engineers Think Like Computers?

Peter Kreeft is a philosopher at Boston College and author of a textbook on Socratic logic.  So far, so dull, you may think.  I have heard Prof. Kreeft speak on numerous occasions, and "dull" does not apply either to his speaking or his writing.  In the introductory section of his text, he says something that I think engineers need to hear.  It's about ways of thinking and knowing, and the two different competing kinds of logic that are taught today.

If you take a course on logic in college these days, it is most likely going to be what is called "symbolic logic" or "formal logic."  In fact, most electrical engineering undergrads get a sample of this kind of logic when they take digital electronics.  It turns out that digital computers use things called logic gates.  One of the simplest logic gates, called an AND gate, can have two inputs and one output.  As you may know, the numbers in digital computers are in binary form, meaning they have the value of either 1 or 0.  Typically, 1 is represented by a high voltage and 0 by a low voltage.  An AND gate looks at its two inputs, and the only time its output is a high voltage is when both one input AND the other input are high.  Otherwise, its output is low.
If you understood that, you have a firm grasp of an element of what is called Boolean algebra, named after the nineteenth-century logician George Boole, who formalized this type of thinking in an attempt to bring the discipline and clarity of mathematics to logical thinking.  Boole's project was taken up by others, and now most philosophers think, do, and teach highly mathematical symbolic logic when they do any kind of logic at all.

But there's a problem with symbolic logic, a problem it shares with computers, whose structure is nothing more than a physical embodiment of symbolic logic.  The old expression "garbage in, garbage out" applies to symbolic logic as well as it does to computers.  Symbolic logic can do marvelously complicated things with its inputs, but it doesn't "know" what the inputs are any more than a copy machine knows Shakespeare after you've copied a page of King Lear with it.  Symbolic logic says nothing about the truth or reality of what you give it.  To understand what things really are, you have to get outside the pristine mathematical structure of symbolic logic and embrace what Prof. Kreeft calls Socratic logic.

It could just as well be called Aristotelian logic or classical logic.  You can get a sense of what gets lost if you think symbolic logic is the only way to think, by reading what Prof. Kreeft says about reason and logic: 

"The very nature of reason itself is understood differently by the new symbolic logic than it was by the traditional Aristotelian logic.  'Reason' used to mean essentially    
'all that distinguishes man from the beasts,' including intuition, understanding, wisdom,    moral conscience, and aesthetic appreciation, as well as calculation.  'Reason' now usually means only the last of these powers." (Socratic Logic, edition 3.1, p. 22)

He goes on to say that as first philosophers and then people in general have accepted these definitions of logic and reason, it's become harder to understand some concepts that earlier ages knew almost without thinking.  Take one of the most basic questions that even five-year-olds can ask:  "What is it?"  That goes to the heart of the being of a thing:  what is a horse or a man essentially?  Not just what is it made of, but what is its true nature?  Symbolic logic doesn't ask such questions.  It is a logic of manipulation and process.  As Kreeft says, instead of trying to understand the fundamental essentials of things, we "think about how we feel about things, about how we can use them, how we see them behave, how they work, how we can change them, or how we can predict and control their behavior by technology."  That last phrase—predicting and controlling behavior by technology—is largely what engineers do. 

And it's a good thing to do, rightly applied, and symbolic logic is essential to the task, especially these days now that everything engineers do involves information technology.  But it is a great mistake to think that symbolic logic is all we need to make our way in the world, and we can safely ignore the questions of what a thing really is on our way to bending it to our technological will.

As Kreeft points out, animals have feelings, use their environment, and even make use of rudimentary tools in some cases.  But we do not share with animals the higher operations of the human mind, including the ability to see connections between apparently different things, and to achieve true understanding about universal concepts such as freedom or love.  No animal and no computer (sorry, all you artificial-intelligence folks) will be able to do that. 

Kreeft is concerned that we will give in to the ancient temptation to idolize the work of our hands:  symbolic logic and the computers it gave rise to.  But if we do so, we will lower ourselves to the level of the beasts, and neglect those powers of the mind recognized by classical logic as what makes the difference between humans on the one hand, and animals and computers on the other hand. 

The takeaway from all this is simply to remind us that scientific thinking in the sense of symbolic logic is not the only kind of thinking or knowing that there is.  Engineers of all people should recognize that they do their work in the context of human society, which is forever beyond the grasp of symbolic logic to analyze or comprehend.  Something more is required.  We can call that something classical logic, or wisdom, or even faith.  But to limit ourselves to the kind of logic that computers can do is to leave our humanity behind. 

Sources:  Peter Kreeft's Socratic Logic, edition 3.1 was published by St. Augustine's Press in 2010. 

Monday, July 01, 2019

When Driving Becomes Illegal

I've been reading a new book about autonomous driving by a couple of academics and the former CEO of Audi in Germany.  They back up their claim of their subtitle—"How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World"—with detailed statistics, economic analyses, and examples from research labs around the world.  Admittedly, the bloom has somewhat faded from the autonomous-driving rose in the last year or so, but this may be just a temporary lull in what looks to be a decades-long progression of the technology toward full Level 5 totally hands-off robotic driving. 

No one has yet routinely fielded a car that can handle all the roadway and environmental conditions a human driver can deal with, which is the Society of Automotive Engineers' (SAE) definition of Level 5 performance.  But some companies, notably the Google-fostered Waymo, are coming close.  For example, Waymo claims that in 2017, its autonomous test cars racked up over 350,000 miles with an average distance between "disengagements" (occasions when the human driver takes over) of almost 5,600 miles.  Of course, one suspects that few if any of these miles were driven on the New Jersey Turnpike at night during a January blizzard, which is the worst driving conditions your scribe has personally experienced.  Nonetheless, it looks like cars that drive themselves are headed our way.

I remember talking about autonomous cars with a friend one day a few years ago, and I asked him under what circumstances he would give up driving his own car manually.  He answered, "When they pry the steering wheel from my cold dead hands."  I suspect that here in Texas especially, this is not an uncommon sentiment.  The advent of the automobile in the early years of the twentieth century fundamentally reshaped American life, especially for women.  The freedom to pick up and go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted, without bothering about train schedules or other third-party issues, was fundamental to the growth of the nation and molded much of its infrastructure to this day. 

At first glance, there is no obvious reason why the advent of autonomous vehicles would limit this freedom.  After all, if it amounts to nothing more than a kind of robotic chauffeur, your autonomous car's controls will do your bidding every bit as well as you could if you were driving—probably better, in fact. 

But buried on page 81 of Autonomous Driving is a hint that the transition from where we are now—with manual driving being the norm and autonomous driving the still-rare exception—to an all-autonomous fleet nationally may not be as smooth as you might think.  The reason has to do not so much with the fact that human drivers are bad drivers—most of them aren't.  But a manually driven car will lack the communications and infrastructure connections that are shaping up to be an essential part of the autonomous-car package. 

You may have seen simulations of how heavy traffic in both directions at a four-way intersection can flow smoothly without any traffic lights or stop signs, as long as the vehicles coming to the crossing are able to interact with each other and mutually work out subtle speed changes that allow collision-free traffic flow.  The simulators don't show this, but all it would take to snarl up such an ideal situation would be one comparative-lunkhead manual driver who was unaware of all the intense coordination going on around him, and tried to bull through the intersection like everyone else seemed to be doing. 

Enlarge that snarlup to nationwide proportions, and you can see why the developers of autonomous cars are concerned that the continued presence of old-fashioned manual drivers on the road may some day present a significant obstacle to the progress of autonomous vehicles. 

The authors propose some interim solutions, such as reserving special lanes on some roads for autonomous cars and even prohibiting manually-driven cars altogether in certain areas.  They say that the best solution, however, would be if "the transition to driverless cars is accelerated by means of legislation."  In other words, at some time in the perhaps not so distant future, they hope that legislators will summon the nerve to ban manually-driven cars altogether.  So much for my friend with his cold dead hands.

This plan is not without its aspects of class and socioeconomic implications.  Who drives the oldest, most decrepit cars nowadays, and who is least likely to be able to afford even a used autonomous car if the time comes that manually-driven cars are banned?  Poor people, that's who.  Of course, this notion assumes that the dominant model of privately-owned and privately-driven cars persists long enough to last to the time when Level-5 autonomous cars are widely available and affordable by most people.  There are autonomous-car proponents who claim that car ownership will wither away as cheap robotic Uber or Lyft-type cabs will make public transportation so appealing and inexpensive that even the poorest person will not miss their old junk manually-driven vehicle as they take advantage of the newer, cleaner, and more convenient and reliable autonomous cab services that will show up. 

That may make sense for places like New York or Los Angeles.  But what about small towns and rural areas?  Whatever the costs of autonomous cabs, they will be more expensive if the trips are farther, and for many rural and semi-rural areas, owning your own manually-driven car will probably be cheaper overall than paying for some autonomous-driver cab service that may never show up where you live at all.  Historically and on average, mass public transportation has never been profitable, and the economic case has yet to be made (to me, anyway) that the advent of autonomous vehicles is going to change that. 

Besides the economic argument, there is the principle that when I drive the car that I own, it becomes an extension of my personality, whether for good or ill.  This metaphysical connection between the human being and the vehicle is behind much of the present automotive advertising you see.  It's behind my friend's vehement opposition to letting go of the steering wheel to allow a robot to drive.  And I suspect that if the question of banning manually driven cars ever came up in the Texas state legislature, for example, what would happen next would leave our calm, logical German book authors with their heads spinning.

So the day may yet come when it will be not only inadvisable, but illegal, to get behind the wheel of a car and drive it yourself.  But if it does, it won't be without a struggle.
Sources:  Authors Andreas Herrmann, Walter Brenner, and Rupert Stadler wrote Autonomous Driving:  How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World (Bingley, UK:  Emerald Publishing, 2018).  An interesting side note which doesn't change my generally positive view of the book:  shortly after it was published, Stadler, who at the time was CEO of Audi, was arrested in connection with the Volkswagen emissions scandal (see my blog on this at, and released in October 2018 after stepping down from his post with the company.  I also referred to the Wikipedia pages "Autonomous car" and "Rupert Stadler."  A simulation by MIT researchers of an intersection with all autonomous cars can be viewed at