Monday, May 23, 2022

Driver of Tesla on Autosteer Charged with Vehicular Manslaughter

 

Shortly after the first commercially available driver-assist autopilot-equipped vehicles appeared on roadways, pundits raised the question of who would be responsible in case of an accident:  the driver, the vehicle maker, or both?  That question is about to get legs in the case of Kevin George Aziz Riad, who prosecutors have charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter as a result of an accident that occurred on Dec. 29, 2019 in Gardena, California.

 

As we described the crash in this space shortly after it occurred, a couple in a Honda Civic were making a left turn at an intersection with the terminus of the Gardena Freeway that evening.  The traffic light at the intersection was green for them, and red for oncoming traffic to their right coming off the freeway.  Neither Riad nor the Tesla Model S he was driving paid any attention to the numerous slow-down signs or the red traffic signal when the Tesla barreled at 74 MPH into the Civic, killing both of its occupants and slightly injuring Riad and his passenger. 

 

Subsequent investigation proved that the Tesla had both Autosteer and Traffic Aware Cruise Control engaged at the time.  Tesla's instructions to drivers using these features are clear:  the driver must keep a hand on the steering wheel at all times and "be prepared to take over at any moment."  The Gardena Freeway is basically straight for at least five or six miles before its termination, and data recovered from the Tesla showed that Riad had not moved the steering wheel significantly nor applied the brakes for six minutes before the crash. 

 

Riad's defense attorney asked Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Teresa Magno to lower the charges to misdemeanors, claiming that if a crash hadn't occurred the worst charges would have resulted from just running a red light.  The judge declined to follow that line of reasoning, and instead ruled that the trial for vehicular manslaughter will proceed.  It is widely believed that this is the first such trial involving a commercial version of automated driving technology, according to a report in the Orange County Register and a subsequent AP story.

 

Car accidents due to inattention are nothing new, but the novel feature of this case is that technology has allowed inattention to soar to new heights. 

 

In the days before driver-assist technologies such as autosteer and cruise control, one of the chief dangers of a long, straight, dull stretch of freeway was that a fatigued driver might simply fall asleep from monotony.  I'm sure this has happened to most drivers at least once or twice, and most of the time, the consequences are minor:  a slight drifting from one's lane, a jerk awake once you realize you've been dozing, and a quick flurry of attention to get things back on track.  If a fatal crash results, then the prospect of vehicular homicide charges arise, and while juries may be sympathetic to someone who simply falls asleep at the wheel, part of driving responsibly is knowing not to drive when you're very sleepy, and it's reasonable to charge such people and sometimes convict them of negligent homicide.

 

With the sophisticated driver-assist technologies of cars such as Tesla's Model S, the driver receives mixed messages.  According to an article in Popular Science, the Society of Automotive Engineers has established a five-level system for assessing how self-driving a self-driving car is, and the Model S features get it only to Level 2.  In Level 2, the driver is still in charge, even though the system can automatically brake, accelerate, and steer.  But according to Popular Science, that is not the impression that Tesla gives many of its drivers, who apparently play chicken with the system to see what they can get away with, keeping one hand on the steering wheel but having their attention otherwise engaged for many seconds or minutes, as Mr. Riad apparently did. 

 

And despite the efforts of Tesla engineers to prevent this kind of thing, they have not yet developed a psychic feature that reads the driver's mind in order to find out if he or she is really paying attention, or just acting like it with one hand on the wheel and the rest of the body doing something else altogether.  The number of fatal crashes involving Teslas with some form of driver assist engaged has reached the point that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required automakers to report any crashes on public roads involving such systems, including vehicles from Tesla and those of several other firms. 

 

While the absolute number of fatalities in such crashes is small, they form a leading edge of a worrisome upward trend in auto casualties generally.  After reaching a minimum in 2011, the number of U. S. auto fatalities has been creeping upward from less than 33,000 in that year to 38,824 in 2020.  A significant number of these crashes have been linked to inattentive driving in which technology—smartphones, videos, and driver-assist devices, among others—was a factor.

 

As driver-assist technology is only going to get more widespread as the cost declines and the performance increases, it's even more important that we figure out how to manage the transition between complete driver responsibility, in which nothing automated intervenes between the driver and the road and the driver recognizes that—and complete irresponsibility, the sought-for SAE Level 5 in which the car harbors an effective ideal chauffeur who allows the passengers to play pinochle, sleep, or do whatever else they want during the completely programmed ride. 

 

No Level 5 technology currently exists outside laboratories and highly-controlled environments, and it is far from clear that we will ever get there unless some radical changes are made in our entire approach to automotive transport.  In the meantime, we have to figure out a way to keep things like the Gardena crash from occurring.  Prevention may have to take the form of really annoying features such as having to press a button whenever a random light blinks, or something along those lines.  Although it would go against the grain of the Tesla-style "Look, Ma, no hands!" approach, we as a society will have to evaluate how much we want to save lives at the price of a little inconvenience.

 

Sources:  The AP story on Judge Magno's ruling to proceed to trial was carried in numerous places including ABC News at https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/driver-stand-trial-deadly-tesla-crash-california-84851701.  I also referred to an article in the Orange County Register at https://www.ocregister.com/2022/05/19/driver-of-tesla-on-autopilot-in-fatal-gardena-crash-to-face-trial-judge-rules/, and used the sites https://www.popsci.com/technology/autonomous-vehicles-explained/

and https://www.kktv.com/2022/05/18/federal-agency-sends-team-probe-tesla-crash-that-killed-3/as well.  My first blog on this incident is at https://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2020/01/are-self-driving-cars-more-dangerous.html.

Monday, May 16, 2022

What Tom Brady and I Have In Common

 

Tom Brady, as every sentient resident of the U. S. probably knows, is widely regarded as the greatest football quarterback of all time.  But even that track record didn't help him the other day when he decided to rent a Citi Bike in New York City and ride a few blocks, subsequently posting his experience on his widely-followed Twitter account, where the New York Post found it and wrote it up. 

 

Here's where he and I shared a common experience.  By his own admission, he hadn't ridden a bicycle in New York for about fifteen years.  When he went up to the self-operated kiosk to unlock a rental bike, Brady says it took him about ten minutes to figure out how to unlock the thing.  I, too, have recently decided to rent a bike from a self-service kiosk for the first time.  And I, too, had a heck of a time getting it unlocked, though perhaps for different reasons than Brady had.  Beyond this single commonality, I don't think Brady and I share much else.  But the fact that someone as otherwise physically competent as Tom Brady had that much trouble figuring out how to rent a bike may say something about the systems used. 

 

Because I naturally have more first-hand knowledge of my experience, I'll summarize it briefly here.  I still have relatives in Fort Worth, Texas, where I visit occasionally, and last month I was in town staying with my sister and had some extra time on a Saturday afternoon.  The last time I'd been in town, I had noticed some bike-rental kiosks on the bank of the Trinity River, where the city has installed jogging and biking trails that follow the river for many miles.  So I looked up on the web where you could rent a bike at a location I knew how to access by car, paid online for a one-hour pass (eight bucks), and headed down to the kiosk without any clear knowledge of how they were going to know I paid for it.

 

I should mention at this point that, in contrast to Tom Brady and most other adults in modern civilization, I do not have a smart phone.  Well, I sort of do, but it's what you might call brain-damaged.  It's a flip phone sold by the Caterpillar Tractor people, I suppose on the basis that if there is still any market for rugged flip phones, people in the heavy-equipment industry are liable to be a big part of that. 

 

I don't spend a lot of time around heavy equipment, but when my telecomm company forced me to get rid of my old flip phone a few months ago because it would no longer work with their upgraded 5G system, I hunted around and found the one new flip phone out there, and got that.  It's basically an Android system, but the little screen makes most standard apps either inoperable or impractical, and I haven't bothered with installing any of them anyway, because that's not what I want the phone for.  So I can make phone calls, I can text after a fashion, but that's about it.  And that's all I want from my flip phone, which I don't have to worry about dropping on the floor.

 

Fortunately, the people who designed the bike-rental kiosk had taken into account eccentrics like me who, for whatever reason, chose not to download the rental app on their smartphone.  At the end of the kiosk there was a box with a touchscreen, and a place where I could enter personal details like my phone number.  The idea was, they'd text me a confirmation number to check that it was me, and then when that matched my paid-up account, the system would unlock the bike.

 

Most of the bikes had electric assist, which wasn't something I was familiar with, so I picked the one bike on the rack that was just a plain old manual bike, and started to try to rent it. 

 

At this remove, I don't recall all the details, but I ran into several problems. 

 

One was, the surface of the touchscreen was very weathered.  This both made it hard to read in the sunlight, and it also failed to register my touches unless I pounded two or three times in the right place, which wasn't easy.  So it took the better part of a minute just to enter a four-digit number, what with all the mistakes and not-registering and all.

 

Eventually, I got through the rigmarole that a non-phone-app-user had to get through, and I heard a click.  I pulled my selected bike out from the rack, only to discover that it had a flat.

 

So here we went again:  put it back, make sure the machine recognizes I finished my world's record short bike ride, make sure I still had some of my eight dollars' worth of riding left, and start all over with the phone number entry, the text to my phone, the punching in of the new text code, etc. etc.  This time I grabbed the first bike that didn't look like it had a flat.  I tried the electric assist but never could get it to do anything.  No matter—I'd come out for the exercise anyway.

 

The bike ride itself was uneventful, and I made it about halfway to Benbrook before turning around at a point where I would have had to cross the river over a kind of spillway.  The battery made the electric-assist bike a little heavier than it would have been otherwise, but it had three manual gears too, which was all I needed for the gentle rises on the path.

 

Once Tom Brady finally managed to free a bike, his ride was uneventful too, although as a safety issue I feel compelled to mention that he failed to wear a helmet. (I'd borrowed my sister's helmet on my ride.)  Imagine the headlines if he'd fallen off:  "All-time-greatest quarterback felled by rough spot on Broadway pavement." 

 

Fortunately, neither Brady nor I encountered anything worse on our bike rides than a less-than-friendly user interface.  But we both eventually got our bikes, and I suppose that is some sort of success.

 

Sources:  Tom Brady's bicycle excursion around New York is written up at https://nypost.com/2022/05/14/tom-brady-rides-citi-bike-around-nyc-in-best-morning-ever/. 

Monday, May 09, 2022

Is Cryptocurrency the Future of Money?

 

The Silicon-Valley firm Nvidia recently got in trouble with the SEC for not disclosing that a good bit of its profits in 2018 were due to sales of their graphics processing units to cryptominers.  Cryptominers verify cryptocurrency transactions in operations that take a vast amount of computing power, real electrical power, and cooling.  One estimate quoted in a recent Associated Press story says that cryptominers making Bitcoin, only one of several types of cryptocurrency, use up 0.2% of the world's electrical supply. 

 

The reason the SEC fined Nvidia $5.5 million was that cryptocurrency, and presumably the cryptomining that goes along with it, is notoriously volatile.  In the SEC's judgment, Nvidia should have told its investors that a lot of their 2018 profits came fron the up-and-down business of cryptomining.

 

For a firm with $26 billion in revenue, $5.5 million is chump change, and most of the damage to Nvidia was already done once the press releases came out.  But the SEC's action bespeaks a larger prevalent attitude that government institutions, at least in the U. S., have toward cryptocurrency.  If a company can get in trouble merely for selling their products to cryptominers and not telling their investors about it, the SEC must be really down on cryptocurrency.

 

And this is not a surprise.  Whoever came up with the idea of Bitcoin in 2008 clearly wanted to leave governments and their meddling with currency behind.  In a sense, cryptocurrency is a libertarian's dream:  nobody controls it and nobody can do Federal-Reserve-type manipulations to it or attempt to tie it to any particular conventional currency.  A unit of cryptocurrency is worth exactly what people will pay for it—no more and no less.

 

In retrospect (Monday-morning quarterbacks are always right), it was almost foreordained that the few lucky people who bought bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies as they were issued ended up making fantastic profits, at least on paper (or bits).  But after the first cryptocurrency-rush days, the crypto market turned into something resembling the futures market for hog bellies,  but without the inconvenience of having to keep a lot of smelly hog bellies around.

 

And unlike hog bellies, cryptocurrency uses a lot of energy, much of which is generated with fossil fuels that increase the globe's burden of carbon dioxide.  That bothers some people more than others, but it is a definite downside to cryptocurrency compared to more conventional media of exchange.

 

Another factor that gives cryptocurrency a somewhat shady reputation is that it has proved very popular with international criminals.  An untraceable, serial-number-free virtual currency is just what the drug dealers and online extortionists like to use, and many of these types will not accept any other kind of money.  (I'm told this—I've never tried to pay a drug dealer myself, either with cryptocurrency or cash.)

 

So with those counts against it, one shouldn't be too surprised that although cryptocurrency has been accepted in certain circles and by at least one government as legal tender (El Salvador), its progress is slow.

 

While some may view the advance of cryptocurrency as progress, in some ways it marks a return to a system that prevailed in the early and mid-19th century in the U. S.  While the U. S. government (and the Confederacy during the Civil War) issued its own currency, many private banks chartered by state governments also issued their own currency.  In a given locality, you might have businesses trading in three or four different kinds of money, and so someone would have to keep an exchange chart stating what their comparative worths were. 

 

And volatility was also an inevitable consequence of that system.  Private banks could flood the market with bills or even go broke, rendering the currency they issued worthless.  In a time before the telegraph had penetrated to most parts of the U. S., a store might take in payment a bunch of bills issued by the Pawtucket State Bank of North Carolina, only to learn a few days later that the bank had ceased to exist.

 

Of course, all paper money back then was exchangeable at some rate with gold, which was the main medium of monetary exchange between governments.  There are stories of one company loading a ton or so of gold bullion onto a ship at Port A bound for Port B, and another company loading a ton of gold onto a ship in Port B bound for Port A.  Besides being downright silly, such mechanical exchanges were prone to the hazards of ocean travel.  If one of your ships went down with your gold bullion, you were out of luck.

 

That can't happen with bitcoin, but it can certainly "sink" metaphorically, and has numerous times, wiping out value just as effectively as if it was a pile of gold bars going down to Davy Jones's locker.  As long as cryptocurrency developers insist on staying independent of government control, it seems like volatility will be part of the game.  And that means only people who like to take lots of risks anyway (e. g. drug dealers and online shakedown artists) will accept the risk of volatility for the anonymity and other advantages cryptocurrency has for their business models, if we can call them that.

 

Three years ago, Facebook launched its own version of cryptocurrency, then called Libra.  Originally, they tried to tie it to a basket of currencies, but regulators nixed that idea.  Then it was rebranded as Diem, and tied to the dollar, but reportedly the Federal Reserve pressured the bank involved to cut its ties with the organization, thus dooming it.  If a substantial outfit like Facebook can't launch a modified cryptocurrency that has some promise to maintain a stable value, it looks like nobody else will try any time soon. 

 

So for the foreseeable future, all five minutes of it, cryptocurrency looks like it will remain a fringe enterprise, enjoyed by a few rich risk-takers, disappointing others who buy it at the wrong time, and having a core constituency of users whose characters are dubious, to say the least. 

 

Sources:  The AP story about Nvidia's fine by the SEC appeared in numerous outlets, including the Sacramento Bee at https://www.sacbee.com/news/business/article261167522.html.  A report on the fate of Facebook's Libra can be found at https://www.theverge.com/2022/1/25/22901830/facebook-meta-libra-diem-crypto-project-explores-sale.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Nvidia and cryptocurrency.  My blog on Libra when it came out in 2019 is at https://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2019/06/is-facebooks-libra-cash-in-your-future.html.

Monday, May 02, 2022

Finding Drones in Peace and War

 

DJI, the world's largest drone maker, has announced that it is stopping all shipments of new products to both Ukraine and Russia.  The Verge reported this on Apr. 27 following earlier stories that Russian troops were using a drone-tracking technology called AeroScope to locate Ukrainian drone pilots flying commercial drones that had been converted to combat use.  And last week, the White House announced that it was asking Congress to pass laws making it easier for government agencies to detect and track drones.

 

Drones, more formally known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), have changed from super-expensive military-only devices a couple of decades ago into popular consumer and professional products today.  Advances in software and hardware have led to over two million drone users in the U. S. alone, and the repurposing of consumer drones for military uses both by guerilla groups and defenders of the Ukraine. 

 

Most drones are not autonomous, but controlled from the ground by means of a radio link.  The radio link is the means by which both the controller and other parties can locate and track the drone.  In anticipation of the time when radio identification of drones would become a government requirement, in 2017 DJI began to include a signal broadcast from every drone they made which provides the drone's "position, altitude, speed, direction, serial number, and the location of the pilot."  This data is unencrypted, meaning that anyone with the proper receiver can pick it up. 

 

DJI also conveniently made available a system called AeroScope, which can receive this data and provide a readout of all drone locations within distances of a few kilometers, depending on the type of system.  Up to now, DJI has sold AeroScope only to law-enforcement agencies and other entities that it deems appropriate for the technology. 

 

Confirming DJI's intuition, in 2020 the U. S. FAA issued regulations that make it mandatory for any drone weighing more than 0.25 kilograms (about half a pound) to broadcast its location, the operator's location, and an identifying number by 2023.  So by next year, all drones big enough to do anything other than entertain the owner will have to have such radio identification means, whether they are new or old.

 

As an ethics issue, the question of drone identification and location technology has a number of ramifications.  From the Wild-West days when consumer drones were too rare for the FAA to have made detailed regulations, we have now reached the point that drones of any size must be trackable by authorities. 

 

If drone users aren't doing anything nefarious, it's hard to imagine why they would object to the requirement that drones must broadcast their identity and location.  A useful comparison might be made to automobile license plates.  The first state to issue state-made automotive license plates was Massachusetts, back in 1910.  Most automobile owners back then were glad that the states began to register and license their vehicles, because it freed them from having to follow a hodge-podge of local regulations that often put them at a disadvantage with respect to horse-drawn vehicles legally.  Massachusetts started their early license-plate numbers with 1 and went up from there.  I don't know if this is still the case today, but up to 1999 (the last year I lived in the state), it was possible to will one's legacy two-to-four-digit license plate to one's heirs, so that your low license-plate number let everybody know that your ancestors were among the first thousand or so people to own a car in Massachusetts. 

 

I doubt that any drone owners are going to get so attached to their drone ID numbers.  But there are real privacy and security issues in the question of who can access the drone ID signals.  Because DJI has not encrypted the data up to now, the company's AeroScope is simply a convenient way for a law-enforcement agency to get into the business.  I suspect that any well-informed engineer could come up with a similar system by combining the suitable microwave receivers with decoding equipment that would not have to be fancy at all. 

 

The White House's initiative seems aimed at giving more government entities permission to do this kind of snooping, and providing them with a list of approved equipment that does so.  There is an opportunity here for entrepreneurs to get in on the ground floor of drone-detection equipment, assuming that Congress responds, but that is an open question.

 

What is not in question anymore is whether a drone operator can fly with the assurance that nobody can find out whose drone it is or where he is.  That assurance, if it was ever present, is now gone.  And in the vast majority of legitimate-use cases, this can only be an asset to the situation.

 

As for Ukrainian drones, one must applaud the ingenuity of those who repurposed commercial and amateur drones for military purposes, either for surveillance or actual delivery of weapons.  At the same time, it's not at all surprising that the Russians would use AeroScope or something similar to track down the drone operators and attack them, although at this writing it is not clear whether this has actually happened.  One does not see license plates on tanks, and so the requirements of wartime use for drones are very different. 

 

Drones originated to meet wartime needs, and it's likely that the U. S. or other allied countries can supply Ukraine with military-type drones that will be far more effective than repurposed hobby-type units. 

 

Whenever I bring up the subject of engineering ethics in a discussion, if it goes on long enough sooner or later someone will come up with the bromide, "Technology is neutral—it's only how it's used that's good or bad." 

 

Like many sayings, this one has an element of truth in it.  But anonymized drones are obviously more suited to warlike uses than ones that constantly announce both their position and the position of the operator.  So the cases of drone identification in peace and war shows that this saying is limited in its applicability, to say the least. 

 

Sources:  The Verge carried articles I referred to on various aspects of drones and AeroScope at https://www.theverge.com/2022/4/25/23041869/white-house-biden-admin-counter-drone-legislation-plan-tracking and https://www.theverge.com/22985101/dji-aeroscope-ukraine-russia-drone-tracking.   A summary of the White House initiative is at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/25/fact-sheet-the-domestic-counter-unmanned-aircraft-systems-national-action-plan/.  The FAA's new drone ID requirements are found at https://www.theverge.com/2020/12/28/22203398/faa-remote-id-rules-location-night-over-people.  And the story about the first automotive license plates in the U. S. is from https://time.com/4301055/license-plate-history/.

Monday, April 25, 2022

A Musk-Owned Twitter: Threat or Promise?

 

After buying nine percent of outstanding Twitter shares recently, Elon Musk has announced his intention to buy Twitter and take it private.  The financial details are still in flux, but two numbers tell the story:  Musk is the world's richest man (estimated net worth north of $200 billion) and the largest money numbers Wikipedia associates with Twitter (assets and equity) are less than one-tenth of that.  So no matter what the SEC, shareholders, and even Twitter's board says or does, it's very likely that if Musk wants to buy Twitter, he'll be able to do it.

 

Then what?

 

On the face of it, why a serial entrepreneur and latter-day Tom Swift like Musk would want to buy a not-very-profitable social media company is not clear.  On Wikipedia's list of the ten most-followed tweeters (I don't use it myself, so excuse the linguistic infelicities if I don't use quite the right words in discussing Twitter), Musk is No. 8, just ahead of Narendra Modi (India's prime minister) and just behind Lady Gaga.  No. 1 is Barack Obama, who more than two years after stepping down from the presidency still has a twitter-hold on 136 million followers.  No. 2 is Justin Bieber, who Wikipedia dryly lists as "musician."  Musk is the only businessman in the top ten, but he's not just a businessman.  He's also an instinctive showman who has somehow managed to retain a teenage boy's "hold my beer and watch this" attitude while transforming whole industries—aerospace and automobiles, in particular. 

 

It's not in Musk's nature to lay out his plans in any coherent news-release way.  But my sense is that he thinks Twitter does too much censorship and suspension of accounts, and maybe also doesn't exploit their position as the globe's largest short-message service of its kind as effectively as they could.  Surprisingly for a company with over 200 million active users (and many more who receive tweets), they lost money in 2021.  So Musk's interest in the firm may be purely financial, and he may think he can just run it better.  If he buys it, he will have the opportunity to find out.

 

Twitter is a novel phenomenon in the history of communications.  Sociologists, political scientists, and historians are still sorting out its manifold effects on society, and many of the intellectual class worry that Musk's takeover bid will make things worse.  They fear that Musk, who has shown libertarian tendencies in the past, will reduce Twitter's efforts to monitor and control its content, as it famously did when it permanently blocked President Trump on January 8, 2021, thus ending what was perhaps the most-watched Twitter account ever. 

 

What is the worst-case scenario for a Musk takeover of Twitter, at least short of him shutting the whole thing down and dissolving the company (which Twitter has done to smaller rivals in the past)?  The greatest fear seems to be that Twitter will turn into some sort of common-carrier technology that literally anyone can use for anything—pornography, incitement to riot, murder threats, you name it. 

 

Twitter already allows pornographic messages but insists on labeling them as such.  So that wouldn't be much of a change.  I can imagine some changes in Twitter's policies that would make the free-for-all prospect less threatening.  I don't know what legal boilerplate one has to agree to in order to use Twitter (and probably nobody but a few lawyers understands it all anyway), but if there was some clause to the effect that Twitter will fully cooperate with any law-enforcement officials in the investigation of illegal doings using Twitter, that would allow the organization to point its fingers at wrongdoers, or at least their accounts.  Tracking down bad guys on the Internet is always hard, but to pretend that Twitter is the main security threat to Internet users is to ignore all the other cybercrime that goes on without it.

 

My point is that right now, Twitter seems to be pretty free, and if Musk made it totally free it would be a rather small and incremental change.  And on the plus side, allowing completely free speech on Twitter would comport better with the First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, although technically, as a private company Twitter can (and still could) censor anything and everything it wants to. 

 

Money is power, and we see here a fabulously rich and therefore powerful man attempting to control another center of power, or at least conduit of power, which Twitter as a prominent social-media outlet represents.  But what little I know about Musk tells me that his intentions, while they may have a touch of silliness now and then, are basically benign. 

 

There is a growing trend on the part of some to view certain ideas and discourse as so threatening that it should be suppressed, whether by Twitter censors or some other means.  Those of us raised long enough ago that freedom of speech was presented to us as grade-schoolers in a positive and un-ironic way tend to believe that such freedom is one of the bedrock foundations of U. S. democracy.  And if we start going down the path of censorship—whether it's called that or "stopping disinformation" or "countering fake news"—the consequence will be less freedom and a move toward tyranny. 

 

The technology of the Internet and social media have given rise to something that we as societies are still trying to figure out:  a way of reaching millions or billions of people that is potentially uncontrolled by any central authority.  This is a truly new thing in the world.  Some regimes have decided that Twitter is so bad in its current form that they won't allow it at all.  Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are on that list, and Nigeria banned it for a year after it deleted tweets from the Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari. 

 

That list suggests to me that whatever Twitter is doing, the good may well outweigh the bad.  In trying to buy Twitter, I think Musk is only trying to make it better.  And I for one am willing to see what he means by better.

 

Sources:  NPR carried a report on Musk's plans to buy Twitter at https://www.npr.org/2022/04/21/1094020022/elon-musk-twitter-money.  I also referred to a brief piece on the New Yorker website at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/infinite-scroll/why-would-elon-musk-want-to-buy-twitter and the Wikipedia article on Twitter.  For those who do not recognize the reference to Tom Swift, he was a fictional young inventor featured in dozens of novels published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in the early 1900s aimed primarily at teenage boys. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Is the Internet Making Us Too Literate?

 

Writing in the Spring 2022 issue of The New Atlantis, British author Kit Wilson wonders if the Internet is endangering our mental health by metaphorically burying us in words. 

 

In support of this conclusion, he cites some statistics.  For example, a report that the prestigious management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. published in 2012 stated that the average time Americans spent reading or writing each day was between one and two hours from 1900 all the way up to 1990.  But when the Internet came along and was joined by text messaging, that number rose to around four to five hours a day—almost a third of a person's disposable free time (that is, when you're not doing something like eating or going to the bathroom—and I'm sure some people read while doing those things too). 

 

He also found a journalist who claims that your average person browsing the Internet as part of their daily routine may expose themselves to as many as 490,000 words a day, which approaches the length of Tolstoy's War and Peace (600,000 words, according to Wikipedia's "List of Longest Novels.") 

 

But nobody reads the Internet like you would read War and Peace, and therein lies the problem.

 

Have we exploited digital technology's amazing ability to multiply words practically without end to flood cyberspace with an ocean of words that threaten to drown us? 

 

My title is something of a conundrum.  Being unable to read is what illiteracy means, but what is the measure of reading too much?  We have all known the so-called bookworm type who seems to prefer the library to the clubroom or the bar.  That isn't the problem here, because there were bookworms before the Internet. 

 

For his part, Wilson seems to be concerned that as we deal with the world more and more as it is mediated to us in the form of words, we will lose track of what reality is really like and begin to treat it as an abstraction that words adequately describe.  The overarching theme of this issue of The New Atlantis is expressed by the somewhat grim cover title "Reality:  A Post-Mortem." 

 

I think it's a little premature to write reality's obituary just yet, but I have to admit a general sense of creepiness remains with me after reading it. 

 

The problem we face was captured neatly by C. S. Lewis in his 1946 sci-fi novel That Hideous Strength, which involves a young sociologist named Mark Studdock who gradually becomes embroiled in some sinister doings as a part of his new job with the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N. I. C. E.).  Mark was already in a bad way with regard to reality even before he took on his new job.  As Lewis points out:  " . . . his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw.  Statistics about agricultural laborers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow."

 

So the tendency has been with us longer than the Internet to take the written word more seriously than the reality that it attempts (always incompletely) to describe.  As Lewis shows later in the novel, this habit allows wicked people to do heinous things with the stroke of a pen—after all, the only direct contact a manager might have with the consequences of his order to liquidate thousands of people will be the alteration in some columns of population figures. 

 

Having access to more words than ever isn't all bad.  When evil is exposed to the light, it can lead to good people fighting it more effectively.  The Internet makes keeping secrets much harder, especially if they are secrets about evil things done in public. 

 

I may not be the best person to write about this problem, because whether out of old habits or laziness or something else, I think I am on the low end of Wilson's estimates of how much time people spend reading stuff on the Internet.  While I will admit to the occasional lapse of falling down a rabbit hole out of random curiosity, I try to be in charge whenever I'm browsing and attempt to keep my destination in mind.  If you know what you want before you go into the store, you'll probably spend less time (and money) there, and the same thing is true of the Internet.

 

If there's a specific problem caused by the superabundance of words on the Internet, it consists in what it's done to our reading habits.  Back when it took a person half a bottle of ink and an hour to write a three-page letter, the recipient felt obliged at least to read every word, and maybe some parts over more than once.

 

But now that words are so cheap and easily multiplied, we just zip through paragraphs like kids hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn—who needs all this grass?  Get to the good part.  But what if the good part won't emerge unless you read the whole thing?

 

If you've done me the good turn to read every word I've written down to this point, you have my thanks and appreciation.  But you are probably the exception.  Nobody can pay that kind of close attention to 490,000 words a day, nor should they.  The best we can do is to be a lot more selective about the stuff we look for, and favor sites that are well-curated (the term used to be "edited") which allow in only material that is truly worth our attention.  Because attention is what we bring to the table, or the screen, and because it's so limited, we should treat it as the valuable commodity that it is, for our own good and for the good of society as well.

 

Sources:  Kit Wilson's article "Reading Ourselves to Death" appears on pp. 73-79 of the Spring 2022 issue of The New Atlantis.

 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Will Solid-State Batteries Bail Out Electric Vehicles?

 

Last week, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a recall for electric-vehicle batteries made by LG Energy Solution of South Korea.  Fires have been caused by some of these batteries, which are used in Mercedes, Hyundai, and General Motors products, among others. 

 

The problem is that rare manufacturing defects can cause overheating and fires.  An Associated Press article describing the recall notes that recalls made voluntarily by individual manufacturers for these batteries date back to February of 2020.  In November of that year, GM began recalling over 140,000 Chevrolet Bolt EVs to replace possibly defective LG batteries, and LG paid GM $2 billion in compensation. 

 

The insurance industry obviously has a stake in this matter, and a small survey conducted by its Highway Loss Data Institute showed that the rate of fires for electric cars is about the same as it is for gasoline-burners:  0.2 per 1,000 insured vehicle years.

 

If the best you can say about electric car fires is that they're no worse than fires in gas-powered ones, that's faint praise. 

 

The underlying problem in electric-car battery fires is the technology.  You may not be aware that the liquid or gel electrolyte in the type of lithium battery used in electric vehicles cannot be exposed to air without catching fire.  This is one reason that manufacturing such a battery is so tricky.  Back when photographic film was the only way to take pictures, manufacturers figured out how to make hundreds of square yards of sensitive film every day in total darkness.  But it wasn't easy, and the fact that film never got as cheap as, say, toilet paper, had an incalculable effect on the entire industry.

 

Unless the electric-car business manages to break free of liquid-electrolyte batteries, it may find itself stuck in a similar rut.  Except for the battery, an electric car is markedly cheaper to make than a fossil-fuel one.  The electronics and the motors are much simpler than the corresponding parts of a gas-powered car.  But right now, the cheapest electrics on the market are many thousands of dollars more costly than an average gas model because of the darned battery, and so the vision of replacing most of our gas-guzzlers with electrics remains just that:  a vision.

 

On the technological horizon is a development that could change all that:  the solid-state battery.  Michael Faraday himself (1791-1867) discovered that solid materials such as silver sulfide could act as electrolytes, which means that ions can move about through them under the influence of electric fields.  But up to now, truly solid electrolytes (as opposed to the liquid or gel-like products used in most batteries today) have resisted commercialization for a number of reasons.

 

A significant milestone in the development of solid-state batteries happened when John Goodenough, who was one of the original developers of current lithium-battery technology, announced in 2017 that he had made a solid-state battery with a glass electrolyte.  According to some sources, solid-state batteries could have up to 2.5 times the energy density of current lithium batteries, although it is not clear whether this is a volume or mass energy density.  Either way, it would mean that for the same size or weight battery, a car using a solid-state battery might have a longer driving range than a gasoline car with a typical gas tank. 

 

No one knows yet how to make solid-state batteries cheaply.  Thin-film technologies such as vacuum deposition are sometimes used, and while there is concern that such technologies may be difficult to scale, vacuum deposition in other manufacturing areas has been applied to rolls of plastic and other large-scale manufactured goods.  So it's more a question of investment and effort than fundamental technological obstacles, I suspect.

 

Several automakers, notably Volkswagen and Toyota, are investing heavily in solid-state battery technology.  But they have the obstacle shared by all automakers that any product engineered for automotive use has to be a lot more durable and reliable than anything used in the military or even aerospace fields.  Do you thinkmilitary tank drivers go ten thousand miles without needing any service, or astronauts think they'll be able to ride their rockets for ten thousand launches without having any problems?  Yet we start a car several times a day for years and expect nothing to go wrong. 

 

It's that kind of standard that every electric-vehicle battery is expected to meet, and the wonder is that they have come this far.  Pardon an old technologist for making a statement that is more intuitive than fact-based, but when I look at a typical EV battery that consists of several thousand individually-manufactured, hermetically sealed, and electrically insulated cells, I see a technology that is fundamentally immature.  Digital computers remained the expensive province of a few wealthy institutions until manufacturers learned to take the many thousands of largely similar components and integrate them onto a chip.  I suspect that electric cars will also remain in the realm of the wealthy until solid-state batteries bring the core cost down to the point that people will want to buy them, not because they're afraid of global warming or want something to match their Patek Phillipe watch, but because they're cheaper and easier to run than gas-powered ones. 

 

In the meantime, we're going to have to put up with recalls like the ones for the LG batteries that catch fire on rare occasions, because it seems to be the nature of liquid-electrolyte lithium cells to do that once in a while.  The best manufacturers can do is to watch their processes and inspections rigorously and hope that a better technology will come along that will let them make batteries more like people make computer chips these days, rather than like photographic film was once made, under difficult and unique conditions that are hard to maintain for long.

 

Sources:  I referred to an article on the NHTSA recall carried by the Apr. 6, 2022 Austin American-Statesman and other outlets of the AP, such as ABC News at https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/us-agency-opens-probe-electric-vehicle-batteries-83882398.  I also referred to articles on solid-state batteries at https://www.dnv.com/to2030/technology/are-solid-state-batteries-the-holy-grail-for-2030.htmland https://www.samsungsdi.com/column/technology/detail/56462.html?listType=gallery, and the Wikipedia article "Solid-state battery."