Monday, August 28, 2017

Chicago Objects to Driverless Cars

You know a technology's beyond the infancy stage when politicians start paying attention to it.  Driverless cars such as those being test-fielded by Waymo and other firms have upset a couple of Chicago aldermen to the extent that they have tried to enact a ban on them, saying they're too dangerous.  In an editorial as remarkable for its brevity as for its directness, the Chicago Sun-Times claims to take the side of the future in a piece titled "Driverless cars on the road to the future."

According to the Sun-Times, the aldermen—Ed Burke and Anthony Beale—are worried about jobs.  More perhaps than many other large U. S. cities, Chicago is a working-class town, and drivers of many kinds—cabbies, truck drivers, delivery people, airport personnel—make up a significant number of voters.  As such peoples' representatives, the aldermen elected by a particular district should take the concerns of their constituents seriously.  And if driverless cars threaten jobs, well, trying to do something about it is within the rights of a reasonable politician.  There's a whiff of hypocrisy in claiming safety concerns about a matter that's really more about jobs, but no more than usual in today's political environment.

The editorial writers take the side of Illinois's Governor Bruce Rauner, who may sign a bill that would prohibit Chicago and other cities from enacting a ban on driverless cars.  Conflicts between municipalities and state governments seem to be cropping up more frequently these days, typically with big cities taking more progressive positions and getting reined in by more conservative state legislatures and governors (Rauner is a Republican). 

If driverless cars become a significant percentage of cars on the road, that will mark one of the biggest technological changes in transportation since the introduction of the automobile.  We've been told that it will come with tremendous advantages compared to today's status quo:  lower accident rates, less traffic congestion, and the freedom to use your commute time for things other than steering and using the brake pedal a lot.  And probably the most visible downside is what it will do to the job market for paid drivers.  Every car on the road that used to need a driver but doesn't anymore represents a potential lower- to middle-class job that becomes history. 

The basis on which the editorial favors driverless cars is what historians call the Whig theory of history.  This is the idea that the farther back you go, the worse things were, and that human history is an unbroken series of triumphs over ignorance and primitive ways that will eventually issue in Paradise on earth.  After the horrors of the twentieth century (World War II, to name one), anyone who gives the matter a moment's thought will begin to see holes in the Whig theory.  But it's been around so long that it has become a kind of cliché idea that some writers spout automatically. 

The editorial writers claim that Chicago will become a "cow town" if it doesn't accept driverless cars, and they cite NASA's use of computers to get a man to the moon as an example of how computerized transportation is a good idea.  Well, these are not so much arguments as they are assertions and bad analogies.  The editorial winds up by saying no one banned Model Ts to protect jobs for blacksmiths, and "Old occupations may fade, but new ones come along."  The overall thrust of the article is basically to say, "Deal with it, and don't do something stupid that will make Chicago look like some kind of backward provincial hick town."

Beneath this rather trivial discussion are a number of serious questions.  What role should government play in the deployment of driverless cars?  Should their regulation be at a local, regional, state, or national level, or some combination of the preceding?  What, if anything, should be done to protect the jobs of people whose livelihood is threatened by the advent of driverless cars?  How can we get from the level of automotive safety we have now to a better one by implementing driverless cars, without running into some emergent large-number problem that could cause a significant increase in serious accidents, injuries, and deaths?  Almost none of these questions were addressed by the editorial writers, but if they were operating under a house rule that prohibits editorials of much more than 300 words, well, there's not a lot you can say in 300 words. 

By this point you may have the impression that I favor a ban on driverless cars.  I don't favor a ban, and I don't favor a law against a ban.  What I favor is a serious, in-depth discussion of the questions regarding driverless cars, and at least in the case of this editorial by one of the nation's major newspapers in a city of 2.7 million people, I don't see signs of that. 

There are many signs that the elusive thing called unity is on the decline in this country.  The degree to which citizens trust government to do the right thing has fallen precipitously compared to where it was several decades ago.  And people don't trust a system that they don't understand or feel that they cannot influence when it allows or encourages things that can cause them harm. 

Perhaps the two Chicago aldermen responded to their constituents in the wrong way, but at least they saw a genuine threat to jobs and went about trying to do something about it in response.  Back when the average person could read things that required more than one step of logic to understand, there were typically a few local newspapers to read in any major city, two or three TV and radio networks, and maybe the newsreel at the movie house.  That was it, as far as finding out what was going on in the world, and as a result, those who operated the media took care to use it with a reasonable degree of responsibility, and something like rational debate about great public matters of interest could be carried on.

But now, the media have fractured into a million tweets, Instagrams, and other detritus of electronic communications, most of which are too short to convey anything more than a burst of emotion.  The Chicago paper's editorial is only 300 words long because they probably know from experience that people won't read 1000-word editorials anymore, if they read anything at all.  And talking heads in video clips are pushing out text-based media of all kinds anyway.

I hope we as a nation, and the city of Chicago in particular, both reach a beneficial accommodation to the advent of driverless vehicles that will benefit most people while injuring as few as possible.  But to get there in a way that makes people feel included, the discussion will have to be at a higher level than the Sun-Times has set for us.

Sources:  The editorial titled "Driverless cars on the road to the future" appeared on the Chicago Sun-Times website on Aug. 25, 2017 at

Monday, August 21, 2017

Cyber Command Gets a Promotion

On Friday, Aug. 18, President Trump announced that the Defense Department's U. S. Cyber Command would be elevated to the status of a "unified combatant command," joining the nine other commands such as the U. S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that oversees all military operations in the Middle East, and the U. S. Strategic Command in charge of nuclear weapons.  The heads of these commands are just below the Secretary of Defense in the chain of command, and each unified combatant command cuts across the traditional armed-services divisions of army, navy, and air force. 

According to a report at the website Politico, the promotion of the Cyber Command has been in the works for years, but carrying out this promotion is in line with the President's campaign promises to bolster the Cyber Command.  Currently that Command is headed by Admiral Mike Rogers, who also heads the National Security Administration (NSA).  The Senate must confirm a new Cyber Command leader before the reorganization is fully implemented, but no particular problems are expected on that score.

After taking an initial leadership position, the U. S. has appeared lately to be lagging in the recognition that cyberwarfare is no longer some science-fiction pipe dream.  The nature of cyberwarfare makes it difficult to state with certainty exactly who is responsible for what.  But most experts agree that, for example, Russia has been plaguing the Ukraine with cyberattacks of many kinds for the last few years, ranging from invading servers used by news media to causing widespread power blackouts in large cities such as Kiev in the middle of the winter.

Probably the first cyberattack that became widely known and has definite attribution was called Stuxnet.  Developed by the U. S. NSA, possibly with cooperation from Israel, it was a clever attack on Iran's uranium centrifuges in 2010 that caused numbers of them to self-destruct.  Stuxnet was the last major focused cyberattack we know of that the U. S. has committed, but by the nature of the business, there may be others we don't know about yet. 

In conventional warfare, the enemy is in a clearly defined geographical area, and even wears uniforms and puts insignia on their equipment so you can tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  Alas, such formality is long gone in many battlefields, and in the anonymous world of cyberspace it is next to impossible to identify the source of an attack in terms of a physical location and which people are doing the bad stuff.  In this regard cyberwarfare borrows from the world of espionage the mysteries and guesswork that makes spy novels so interesting, and makes actual espionage work so frustrating. 

But just because the enemy can't always be clearly identified, that doesn't mean we can ignore what they can do.  There is an old saying that generals always prepare to fight the last war, meaning that military thinkers are slow to deal with combat innovations.  The elevation of the Cyber Command to a level equal to the Strategic Command says that, organizationally at least, we are taking the threat of cyberattacks and the damage they could cause at least as seriously as we are taking the threat of nuclear attacks, which are far less likely but have a higher potential for damage.

Or maybe not.  At any given time, there is probably a maximum amount of damage that a determined cyberattacker could do with the capabilities they have and the nature of the target.  One advantage that the U. S. has compared to smaller and more tightly organized countries is that we have a lot of diversity in our technical infrastructure.  For example, in the recent flap about Russia's attempt to sway U. S. elections, no one has found any convincing evidence that Russian hackers were able to manipulate electronic vote counting.  Even if they had wanted to, the hackers face the difficulty that votes are counted in literally thousands of different jurisdictions using a wide variety of systems.  Anybody wanting to mess with a voting district that was big enough to make a difference would probably have to have a spy physically present for some time in order to gather enough information to give a cyberattack even a chance of success.  Something of the same principle applies to our electric grid, which is a congeries of old and new technology with a bewildering variety of SCADA (supervisory, control, and data acquisition) systems.  Again, a determined cyberattacker would have to focus on one system that is particularly vulnerable and large enough to make a terrorist attack worthwhile in terms of headlines.

Despite these built-in defenses, the U. S. should not be complacent with regard to the possibility of a crippling cyberattack, and the promotion of the U. S. Cyber Command to the board of Unified Combatant Commands is a step in the right direction.  As I mentioned not long ago in a blog on ransomware, one of the U. S. government's primary responsibilities is to defend the nation against attacks, and this includes cyberattacks.  The spectacle of private companies, even small ones, getting held up for ransom by hackers is morally equivalent to a cross-border raid by physical invaders.  What would normally be a domestic police matter then becomes an international incident, and the intervention of the U. S. military would be appropriate in both cases.

But a lot is yet to be defined about the responsibilities of the military on the defense side.  Historically, the computer industry has held consumers responsible for cybersecurity to the extent of installing patches and upgrades promptly and following good cybersecurity "hygiene."  But as attacks become more sophisticated, there may have to be closer cooperation among private technology developers, their customers, and the military, which up to now has not had much input into the business except as a good customer. 

If history is any precedent, not much will change in a major way until a foreign cyberattack succeeds with a truly crippling blow that costs many billions of dollars, affects millions of people, or results in multiple deaths and injuries.  Then we will get serious about how the military can fight the next war—a cyberwar—and not the last one.

Sources: carried a story entitled " Trump elevates U.S. Cyber Command, vows 'increased resolve' against threats" on Aug. 18, 2017 at  I referred to an article in Wired Magazine published June 20, 2017 at and the Wikipedia article on Unified Combatant Command.  My blog on ransomware appeared on Mar. 27, 2017 at

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Ethical Spin on Spinners

The first time I saw one in a store, I couldn't figure out what it was for and I had to ask my wife.  "Oh, that's a fidget spinner," she said.  "You don't need one."  She's right there.

As most people under 20 (and a few people over 60) know, fidget spinners are toys that you hold between your finger and thumb and spin.  That's it—that's the whole show.  When the fad showed signs of getting really big, somebody rushed into production battery-powered Bluetooth-enabled spinners.  My imagination obviously doesn't run in mass-marketing directions, because I couldn't think of what adding Bluetooth to a spinner could do.  Well, a quick Amazon search turns up spinners with little speakers in each of the three spinning lobes (playing music from your Bluetooth-enabled device), spinners with LEDs embedded in them and synced to the rotation somehow so that when you spin it, it spells out "I LOVE YOU," spinners with color-organ kind of LEDs that light in time to music—you name it, somebody has crammed the electronics into a spinner to do it.

But all this electronics needs super-compact batteries, and where there's batteries, there's the possibility of fire.  Already, there have been a couple of reports of Bluetooth-enabled spinners catching on fire while charging.  No deaths or serious injuries have resulted, but the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has put out a nannygram, as you might call it:  don't overcharge the spinner, don't plug it in and leave it unattended, don't use a charger that wasn't designed for it, and so on.  I am not aware that teenagers are big fans of the CPSC website, but nobody can say the bureaucrats haven't done their job on this one.

The Wikipedia article on spinners discounts claims that they are good for people with attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and similar things.  Seems to me that holding a spinning object in your hand would increase distraction rather than the opposite, and some high schools have agreed with me to the extent of banning the devices altogether. 

As a long-time manual tapper (no equipment required), I think I can speak to that aspect of the matter from personal experience.  Ever since I was a teenager or perhaps before, I have been in the habit of tapping more or less rhythmically on any available surface from time to time.  My wife is not exactly used to it—she will let me know now and then when it gets on her nerves—but it's no longer a huge issue between us.  Often when she asks me to stop, it's the first time I've fully realized I'm doing it, and that's part of the mystery of tapping or doing other habitual, useless things with your hands.

The most famous manual fidgeter in fiction was a character in Herman Wouk's World War II novel The Caine Mutiny, Captain Philip F. Queeg, who had the habit when under stress of taking two half-inch ball bearings out of his pocket and rolling them together.  (Queeg lived in an impoverished age when customized fidget toys were only a distant dream, so he had to use whatever fell to hand, so to speak.)  During the court martial that forms the heart of the novel, a psychologist is called to the stand to speculate on the reasons for Queeg's habit of rolling balls.  The doctor's comments ranged from the sexual to the scatological, and will not be repeated here.  But it appears that psychology has not made much progress in the last seventy years to find out why some people simply like to do meaningless motions with their hands.  That hasn't kept a lot of marketing types from making money off of them.

Fidget spinners are yet another example of the power of marketing to get people to buy something they didn't know they wanted till they saw one.  I don't know what the advertising budget was for the companies that popularized the toy, but I suspect it was substantial.  For reasons unknown to everyone but God, the thing caught on, and what with Bluetooth-enabled ones and so on, the marketers are riding the cresting fad wave for all it's worth before it spills on the beach and disappears, as it will.  Somehow I don't think we're going to see eighty-year-olds in 2100 taking their cherished mahogany spinners out of felt-lined boxes for one last spin before the graveyard.

Like most toys, fidget spinners seem to be ethically benign, unless one of them happens to set your drapes on fire.  Lawsuits are a perpetual hazard of the consumer product business, but the kind of people who market fad products are risk-takers to begin with, so it's not surprising they cut a few corners in the product safety area before rushing to the stores with their hastily designed gizmos.  By the time the cumbersome government regulatory apparatus gets in gear, the company responsible for the problematic spinners may have vanished.  Here's where the Internet and its viewers' fondness for exciting bad news can help even more than government regulations.  When hoverboards started catching fire a year or two ago, what kept people from buying more of the bad ones wasn't the government so much as it was the bad publicity the defective board makers got on YouTube.  And that's a good thing, when consumers who get burned (sometimes literally) can warn others of the problem.

As for Bluetooth-enabled spinners, well, if you want one, go get one while you can.  They'll be collectors' items pretty soon.  And those of us who learned how to cope with tension the old-fashioned way by drumming on a tabletop can at least rest assured that they aren't going to take our fingers or tabletops away.  But they might tell us to stop tapping.

Sources:  Slate's website carried the article  
"New Fidget Spinner Safety Guidelines Prove We Can’t Have Nice Things" by Nick Thieme at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on fidget spinners.  Herman Wouk's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Caine Mutiny was published in 1952, and led to a film of the same name starring a considerably miscast Humphrey Bogart.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Giulio Tononi and His Consciousness Meter

If you're reading this, you're conscious of reading it.  Consciousness is something most of us experience every day, but for philosophers, it has proved to be a tough nut to crack.  What is it, exactly?  And more relevant for engineers, can machines—specifically, artificially intelligent computers—be conscious? 

Until recently, questions like this came up only in obscure academic journals and science fiction stories.  But now that personal digital assistant devices like Siri are enjoying widespread use, the issue has fresh relevance both for consumers and for those developing new AI (artificial intelligence) systems.

Philosophers of mind such as David Chalmers point out that one of the more difficult problems relating to consciousness is explaining the nature of experiences.  Take the color red, for example.  Yes, you can point to a range of wavelengths in the visible-light spectrum that most people will call "red."  But the redness of red isn't just a certain wavelength range.  A five-year-old child who knows his colors can recognize red, but unless he's unusual he knows nothing about light physics and wavelengths.  Yet when he sees something red, he is conscious of seeing something red.

One popular school of thought about the nature of consciousness is the "functionalist" school.  These people treat a candidate for consciousness as a black box and imagine having a conversation with it.  If its answers convince you that you're talking with a conscious being, well, that's as much evidence as you're going to get.  By this measure, some people probably already think Siri is conscious.

Now along comes a neuroscientist named Giulio Tononi, who has been working on something he calls "integrated information theory" or IIT.  It has little to do with the kind of information theory familiar to electrical engineers.  Instead, it is a formal mathematical theory that starts from some axioms that most people would agree on concerning the nature of consciousness.  Unfortunately, it's pretty complicated and I can't go into the details here.  But starting from these axioms, he works out postulates and winds up with a list of characteristics that any physical system capable of supporting consciousness should have.  The results, to say the least, are surprising.

For one thing, he says that while current AI systems that are implemented using standard stored-program computers can give a good impression of conscious behavior, IIT shows that their structure is incapable of supporting consciousness.  That is, if it walks like it's conscious and quacks like it's conscious, it isn't necessarily conscious.  So even if Siri manages to convince all its users that it's conscious, Tononi would say it's just a clever trick.

How can this happen?  Well, philosopher John Searle's "Chinese room" argument may help in this regard.  Suppose a man who knows no Chinese is nevertheless in a room with a computer library of every conceivable question one can ask in Chinese, along with the appropriate answers that will convince a Chinese interrogator outside the room that the entity inside the room is conscious.  All the man in the room does is take the Chinese questions slipped under the door, use his computer to look up the answers, and send the answers (in Chinese) back to the Chinese questioner on the other side of the door.  To the questioner, it looks like there's somebody who is conscious inside the room.  But a reference library can't be conscious, even if it's computerized, and the only candidate for consciousness inside the room—the man using the computer—can't read Chinese, and so he isn't conscious of the interchange either.  According to Tononi, every AI program running on a conventionally designed computer is just like the man in the Chinese room—maybe it looks conscious from the outside, but its structure keeps it from ever being conscious.

On the other hand, Tononi says that the human brain—specifically the cerebral cortex—has just the kind of interconnections and ability to change its own form that is needed to realize consciousness.  That's good news, certainly, but along with that reassurance comes a more profound implication of IIT:  the possibility of making machines whose consciousness would not only be evident to those outside, but could be proven mathematically.

Here we get into some really deep waters.  IIT is by no means universally accepted in the neuroscience community.  As one might expect, it's rather unpopular among AI workers who either think consciousness is an illusion, or that brains and computers are basically the same thing and consciousness is just a matter of degree rather than a difference in kind. 

But suppose that Tononi's theory is basically correct, and we get to the point where we can take a look at a given physical system, whether it's a brain, a computer, or some as-yet-uninvented future artifact, and measure its potential to be conscious rather like you can measure a computer's clock speed today.  In an article co-written with Christof Koch in the June 2017 IEEE Spectrum, Tononi concludes that "Such a neuromorphic machine, if highly conscious, would then have intrinsic rights, in particular the right to its own life and well-being.  In that case, society would have to learn to share the world with its own creations." 

In a sense, we've been doing exactly that all along—ask any new parent how it's going.  But Tononi's "creation" isn't another human—it would be some kind of machine, broadly speaking, whose consciousness would be verified by IIT.  There has been talk about robot rights for some years, fortunately so far entirely on the hypothetical level.  But if Tononi's theory comes to be more widely accepted and turns out to do what he claims it will do, we may some day face the question of how to treat entities (I can't think of another word) that seem to be as alive as you or me, but depend for their "lives" on Pacific Gas and Electric, not the grocery store.  

Well, I don't have a good answer to that one, except that we're a long way from that consummation.  People are trying to design intelligent computers that are actually built the way the brain is built, but they're way behind the usual AI approach of programming and simulating neural networks on regular computer hardware.  If Tononi is right, the conventional AI approach leads only to what I was pretty sure was the case all along—a fancy adding machine that can talk and act like a person, but is in fact just a bunch of hardware.  But if we ever build a machine that not only acts conscious, but is conscious according to IIT, well, let's worry about that when it happens.

Sources:  Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi's article "Can We Quantify Machine Consciousness?" appeared on pp. 65-69 of the June 2017 issue of IEEE Spectrum, and is also available online at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on integrated information theory and the Scholarpedia article at