Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Big Brother the Robot

For a time in the 1960s, George Orwell's novel 1984 was required reading in most U. S. high schools. The dystopia Orwell wrote back in 1949 described how a despotic police state could use a then-new technology called television to spy on its citizenry. Always alert to the ways that politicians tend to distort language, Orwell coined the phrase "Big Brother" to show how an intrusive and freedom-expunging government might try to put these activities in a good light. The leaders who proclaimed that "Big Brother is watching you" intended to sound reassuring, but the context of the novel makes it clear that being watched by Big Brother was the last thing most people wanted.

The fact is, we have gone a long way down the very road Orwell cautioned us about. To see what I mean, try counting the number of cameras you see in a typical day. If you go to an ATM, you can rest assured your portrait resides in some bank's data bank showing who got your cash. Any time you step into a convenience store, a grocery, hardware store, or these days any establishment bigger than a guy selling newspapers on the corner, your visage is snapped by security cameras. And if the guy selling newspapers has a cell phone, he can take your picture too.

In England, the constabulary has gone the rest of the way to 1984 by installing speakers next to cameras in public places. Right now they're being used to chastise litterbugs and other nuisance violators. Don't drop an empty fish-and-chips bag on the sidewalk in Middlesbrough—you're likely to hear a disembodied voice call out, "Will the gentleman in the blue button-down sweater and hushpuppies kindly pick up his refuse and deposit it in the nearest receptacle?" Evidently, the glares of other passersby are more effective than the presence of a bobby in making miscreants toe the line. Reaction has been varied, but since the English have already gotten used to one of the highest densities of closed-circuit TVs in the world, this next step seems likely to spread too.

It used to be argued that the Orwellian vision of spy cameras everywhere was silly, because to be effective you'd need a person watching every camera, and unless you had one half of the country spying on the other half, the system wouldn't work. That was before the age of digital video storage and analysis. Image processing technology is now so advanced that computers can be enlisted as robotic pre-screeners, serving up only the suspicious scenes to their human masters. So that argument is out the window these days. And spy robots are no longer tied to one place. At a meeting to demonstrate high-tech rescue robots at Texas A&M's Engineering Extension Service at College Station, Texas, last week, a German development called the AirRobot flew around taking pictures of imitation disaster sites and radioing them to operator Thomas Meyer. Think a toy radio-controlled helicopter, but equipped with four propellers, video, and infrared cameras. Before you rush out and buy one to fly over the nearest nude beach, be warned that Meyer does not sell to individuals—only to organizations that he considers qualified to use the technology responsibly.

And that is the question to consider: what is the responsible use of today's increasingly powerful visual spying technology? A fire chief who uses an AirRobot to find people trapped in an otherwise inaccessible location is certainly a responsible user. A bank that uses its ATM camera to catch the guy who stole your bank card—that's responsible too. So far, there haven't been many major scandals or Enron-type prosecutions based on someone misusing spy technology. The cases that have come up usually involve peeping toms who leave wireless video cameras in women's bathrooms and so on. This is bad behavior, but it isn't going to bring down the Republic.

The thing Orwell saw the Soviet Union doing, and the thing he wanted to warn the free world about, was the institutional and governmental misuse of spy hardware. In a well-functioning democracy, if the people get tired of governmental spying on them, they can do something about it, but only if they know about what's going on and if the government responds to their protests. But in dictatorships and regimes such as North Korea's, where privacy is highly restricted or simply ignored, technology is handing new weapons to those who are most happy to exploit it for their own nefarious ends.

I teach a class about electronic communications, and in the first session I define a communications system for the students. You have a true communications system only if there is a person at one end originating some information, and a person at the other end receiving it. Spy technology is a kind of communications system, although with an unaware or unwilling person on the sending end. I don't personally view the proliferation of security cameras in the U. S. as that much of a problem, mainly because the people watching them—most of them working for private firms, not the government—are generally trustworthy and have my own best interests in mind. But if we ever embark on a large-scale program that enables the government to spy on the public, I'll haul out my old paperback copy of 1984 and start comparing notes.

Sources: An article describing England's experiments with talking cameras was carried by the Canadian Broadcasting Company's website on April 4, 2007 at http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2007/04/04/talking-cameras.html. The Texas A&M security robot meeting was featured in a New York Times online article on June 25, 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/25/washington/25robots.html. A description of the AirRobot can be downloaded at www.securiton.eu/cms/upload/pdf/M3pdfs/englisch/WerbeflyerAirRobot_E.pdf.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mr. Wizard and the Twenty-First Century

Don Herbert has died. But the spirit of Mr. Wizard lives on.

If you were a boy with a mechanical or scientific bent, the 1950s and early 1960s were a kind of golden age. Politicians who feared that the Soviet Union was producing more scientists and engineers than we were poured money into all kinds of educational programs designed to attract young men (sorry, women weren't considered) into technical fields. And one of the most popular TV children's programs in 1955 starred a nerdy-looking guy in a white shirt and tie who, in his clipped Minnesotan speech, led a child each Saturday morning through the wonders of science by letting them do fun stuff on camera.

I just managed to watch Mr. Wizard (that was the name of the program, actually, Watch Mr. Wizard) for its last couple of seasons, in 1964 and 1965. As vividly as some people remember near-death experiences, I can see in my mind's eye Mr. Wizard's guest of the hour (Jimmy or Timmy, names didn't matter) as he poured steamy-looking liquid nitrogen over a pan full of shiny liquid mercury, transforming it into a hard block with a crinkled surface like aluminum foil. I can remember the boy's expression of delight as he slid a light bulb along a model high-voltage transmission line that spanned the length of the studio, showing why high voltage is needed to send electricity long distances. I wanted with all my heart to be that boy, and in large measure, the rest of my professional life formed itself around that desire.

I suppose I might have become an engineer without Mr. Wizard's help, but his demonstrations of the cool things you could do with science and technology was probably the most powerful incentive I had at the critical age of ten or twelve. My family knew no scientists or engineers, I was years away from my first proper science class, and I had read all the books and encyclopedia articles about science that I could get my hands on. But reading about science is to doing it as reading about swimming is to swimming, or any other pleasureable physical activity you care to name. At least during the sacred half-hour that Don Herbert ruled the airwaves, I could do experiments vicariously, take mental notes of the apparatus he used, and plague my mother to take me to Radio Shack where I could spend my carefully hoarded allowance on things like voltmeters and potentiometers.

A little-known line in the Code of Ethics of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a 300,000-member professional organization, says that it is the duty of engineers "to improve the understanding of technology, its appropriate application, and potential consequences." Although he wasn't an engineer, Don Herbert, who died last week at the age of 89, improved the understanding of technology and science for millions of young people, not by writing a textbook, or by discovering anything new, but by using the power of the then-new medium of television to show fun, neat things to a child who was the same age as his target audience. Herbert, whose background included training in both education and theater, was forced by the personal, intimate nature of the medium to contrive a dramatic narrative that would believably hold the attention of a twelve-year-old boy for close to thirty minutes. This was no easy task, but over his years of practice he brought his peculiar style of theater to a consummate level that has never been surpassed. And as his Los Angeles Times obituary noted, countless engineers and scientists whose careers are now in full flower cite Mr. Wizard as an important influence.

Of course, he and his show were a creature of their time. To the best of my recollection, Watch Mr. Wizard used no music except for intro and closing themes; there were no costumes, rock bands, or other show-business paraphernalia. I imagine that if I watched a kinescope copy of an old show today, I would be disappointed by the crude production values compared to present-day television. But the same kind of kid-centered technology programming can be found these days, especially on public television, which hosts a reality show called Design Squad. Each week, two teams of high school students (generally about equal numbers of boys and girls, I'm happy to note) tackle a task that a professional engineer has come up with, and face a two-day deadline to complete it. In one episode, the job was to take some old tricycles and the motor from a hand drill and build the best drag racer you could in forty-eight hours. Unlike most reality shows, which specialize in showcasing the baser sides of human nature as the losers get dissed by everybody else, the tone of Design Squad is friendly and positive, at least judging by the reviews I have read. Losing teams even have the decency to congratulate the winners. Young people model their own behavior on the way they see people act on TV, and so it's good to know there is at least one show that portrays teenagers as responsible, ingenious, and polite to each other.

I don't know how Design Squad has fared in the ratings. My suspicion is it will continue as long as its producers can maintain their funding from a variety of sources interested in increasing the number of young people interested in science and engineering: corporations like Intel and institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the IEEE. But Don Herbert did it in a free-market way, convincing networks and sponsors that kids would want to watch his show. And they did. And on the whole, I think the world is a better place because of it.

Sources: The Los Angeles Times obituary of Don Herbert can be found at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-herbert13jun13,0,7656221.story. The IEEE Code of Ethics can be found at http://www.ieee.org/portal/pages/about/whatis/code.html. The Design Squad website is at http://pbskids.org/designsquad/index.html. More information about Don Herbert and his career can be found at the website operated by Mr. Wizard Studios at http://www.mrwizardstudios.com/.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Ethics of IEDs

In 1916, Thomas Edward Lawrence joined a force of Arab irregulars (today we might well call them insurgents) in their struggle against the Turkish occupying force of what is now Saudi Arabia. The Arabs wanted to attack the Turkish-held city of Medina, but Lawrence persuaded them to leave Medina alone and focus their attention on the Hejaz railway that supplied the city. A memorable scene in the film Lawrence of Arabia shows Lawrence blowing up a supply train with dynamite. To heighten suspense, the movie portrayed Lawrence in a closeup, waiting with bated breath as he held onto a detonator box plunger until the right moment as the train rolled over the mine. Biographical accounts relate that the reality was less dramatic. Lawrence helped the Arabs make what he called "infernal machines" in the form of bombs hidden in the firewood fuel supply for the locomotives. When the unsuspecting fireman tossed a booby-trapped log into the firebox, it would explode, taking the engine out of service, and perhaps the engineer and fireman as well.

Ninety-one years later, insurgents in a Middle Eastern country are still attacking the transportation systems of occupying forces with terrorist bombs. Only now, we have Iraqis instead of Arabs, humvees instead of steam locomotives, and Americans instead of Turks. Is engineering done in the service of military operations ethical, and if so, where do you draw the line between things that are okay to do and things that no civilized engineer would stoop to?

Ethically speaking, this is well-trodden ground. On one extreme you will find pacifists, who believe all military activity is wrong in principle. On the opposite extreme, there are people like Osama bin Laden, who evidently believe killing civilians in a terrorist attack serves some higher good and therefore must be ethical. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and that includes most engineers. This is another case in which answering specific ethical questions can't be done unless you first say what your worldview is, and what assumptions or postulates you accept. Whether or not we can agree that aggressive wars are right or wrong, I think most people—even pacifists—would agree that preventing harm in war is a good thing. And in the current Iraq conflict, the single most prominent way in which American troops are injured or killed is by "improvised explosive devices" or IEDs.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, IEDs account for more conflict-related fatalities of American troops in Iraq than any other cause. Although the U. S. military terms these devices "improvised," the makers have achieved a high degree of technical competence in the last few years. According to one 2005 report in Military Review by Montgomery McFate, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Intelligence Service operated a bomb-making organization that developed a variety of techniques for hiding explosives in purses, briefcases, belts, and other camouflaged locations. Typically, however, the IED used against mobile forces is buried in a roadway and connected either by wire or wireless link (such as a cell phone) to an insurgent who waits for a U. S. convoy to pass by, and detonates the mine when it will do the most harm. And many of them do.

There is not a lot technically that can be done to defend against these devices. While occasional news reports carry items about RF-based anti-IED technology or other ways to defuse the devices, either these systems have not performed in the field as their inventors hoped, or there are other problems (technical or logistical) involved. Speaking from my experience as an RF engineer, I can say that a powerful enough field to disable a wireless-based system would (a) probably set off the detonator anyway and (b) have a range of only ten or fifteen feet. The obvious disadvantages of operating such a device yourself make it a problem to deploy. More armor on vehicles is another option, but the IED makers have countered this move with shaped charges and other techniques to penetrate armor. And not everybody can drive around in a tank, anyway, even if tanks were shown to be proof against IEDs.

An alternative approach to dealing with the issue that so far hasn't been implemented that well is to go after the network of bomb makers and suppliers. This was the approach favored by McFate in her Military Review article. As the IEDs become more sophisticated, fewer insurgents with the skills necessary to make them will be available. These skilled workers become the Achilles' heel in the network. Taking them out would severely cripple the entire operation.

But that's where we get into other problems. Despite some efforts to learn about the society and culture of Iraq, the majority of U. S. troops in that country have been there for only a short time, have learned only what they need to know to survive, and look forward mightily to their return to the U. S. It's a marked contrast to the way T. E. Lawrence learned Arabic, dressed often as an Arab, and took the side of the Arabs in international negotiations even when the policies he promoted were not always in the best interests of his native country. But it would take someone like Lawrence, or perhaps many Lawrences, even to figure out the social networks that support the IED attacks, much less do anything about them. However, as McFate points out, a similar effort which used software to coordinate information about tribal relationships and connections helped in the capture of Saddam Hussein.

I am no military expert by any means, and as Will Rogers once said, "All I know I read in the newspapers." Anyone with any personal experience in Iraq probably knows a great deal more about the situation than I do, and I will defer to their judgment. All the same, it's depressing, to say the least, to read or hear about yet another IED attack that has killed more American troops. Whatever one's position is on the war in Iraq, or war in general, I think we can agree it would be a good thing to figure out how to prevent these attackers from killing more people, both Iraqis and Americans. But it looks like that won't happen until either the people making and using IEDs decide it's no longer a good idea, or else the people they want to attack aren't there anymore.

Sources: Montgomery McFate's article in the May/June 2005 issue of Military Review can be found at http://usacac.leavenworth.army.mil/CAC/milreview/. The Christian Science Monitor report on IED statistics is at http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0102/p01s03-usmi.html.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Defending the Indefensible: Amateurs Threaten the Porn Industry

Pity the poor professional pornographers. They have come a long way since the days when the only markets for what used to be called "stag films" were certain men's clubs in big cities and a few shady movie theaters. The advent of the home videotape player in the 1970s, and then the Internet in the 1990s, made it possible for people to view dirty movies in the privacy of their own homes. Now the production of pornography is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that sells millions of DVDs and even more images directly over the Internet. But as a recent New York Times article noted, sales of pornographic videos fell 30% from 2005 to 2006, down to a measly $3.62 billion. The reason? Competition from amateurs.

Back when it took a camera costing several thousand dollars, time on a video editing suite costing even more, and a modicum of professional skill to produce any movie, pornographic or otherwise, the entry barrier to making porn movies was pretty high, which limited the supply (not to mention social opprobrium and legal restrictions). But now that there are few social or legal barriers in this country to making and selling porn, the economic barrier is falling too, as high-quality digital video cameras and editing software have become cheap and simple enough for anybody with a few hundred bucks to buy and use. And pornography is the one kind of movie for which untrained actors, directors, and editors can draw as well as professionals.

It's funny to listen to how the pornographers think they're going to compete against two guys and a gal armed with a $300 camcorder and iMovie. David Joseph, president of an outfit called Red Light District, says, "We use good-quality lighting and very good sound. . . . We use different locations, rooms and couches." I'm sure that Mr. Joseph's customers are paying lots of attention to the production values, upholstery, and backgrounds. Surely those things will do the trick, so to speak.

Another pornographer complains that a lot of online porn outlets give away too much free material. Harvey Kaplan, a man who earns his bread by processing payments for pornographic websites, says that circulating free clips in hopes of attracting paying customers is a failed strategy. Many surfers just watch what they want for free and then take off for the next site without spending a dime. Brand loyalty is not a prominent factor in this business.

This problem should sound familiar to any woman who has listened to the line, "If you love me, you'll prove it to me by . . . ." How many times has that worked? And how many times has the woman watched the man walk away afterwards? A lot.

Pornography is bad. Everybody knows that—people who watch it after promising themselves for the thousandth time not to, people who make it and sell it, people who act in it. Everybody who deals with it does so, not because of a principled belief that pornography is a benefit to humanity, but for some other thing they perceive as good—a cheap (or free) thrill, easy money, a start in the movie business, or something else they see as good or valuable. In essence it's no different from drug dealing, in that anyone who makes money off it profits from the enslavement of others to a pernicious habit.

I confess to having mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand, I have no sympathy for people who exploit women and make a living off the moral weaknesses of millions. To their complaints that amateurs are ruining their business, I reply, "Tough bubkis." But on the other hand, I am not entranced by the prospect that the house down the street rented by four or five college students may become a secret pornographic movie studio.

Where you stand about pornography depends on your worldview, and I can think of two different worldviews that give diametrically opposite conclusions about it. If you subscribe to a secular liberatarian worldview, then pornography is one of those "victimless crimes." As long as the pornographers or those indulging in their wares don't bother anybody else, they should be permitted to go about their business. In that worldview, this judgment makes sense.

But if in your view, the world is fundamentally spiritual, occupied by eternal spirits temporarily inhabiting bodies, and this world is a training ground for achieving perfection in the next by the grace of God, then virtue is an eternal value that counts more than money, reputation, health, or physical life itself. The Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once said that purity is the most mysterious of the virtues, and that is especially true for those outside the faith, who simply can't see what all the fuss is about. But purity is nonetheless real. In this view, to make, sell, or watch pornography is to fail in the virtue of purity, which makes it that much harder to become what God wants us to be. That is the real damage that pornography does—it damages souls. But if you don't believe in souls, you're not going to see the point of this argument either.

As long as there are people, there will be sexual misbehavior. (In the Christian worldview, that is a point of doctrine known as original sin.) But laws and customs and standards for interstate commerce and so on are teachers. Back when most of what shows up on pornographic websites was illegal even to send in the mail, your average guy growing up learned that such stuff was dangerous to your legal health and socially unacceptable in most circles. Guys growing up nowadays learn something entirely different, thanks to the ubiquity of Internet porn. And engineers bear some of this responsibility, whether they like it or not.

Sources: The New York Times article appeared online on June 2, 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/02/technology/02porn.html?hp. For an in-depth look at the intimate connection between the rise of home video and pornography, see the historical article by Jonathan Coopersmith, "Pornography, Video, and the Internet," in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 19, no. 1 (2000), pp. 27-34.