Monday, April 28, 2014

Digital Clones: Coming To a Hologram Near You

When you see the face of a familiar actor on screen, you probably assume that somewhere, some time, the actual human being presented to you via technology was really in a studio in front of a camera, speaking the lines you hear.  It is only when we remember that motion pictures are designed to produce illusions that we realize the words we hear may be another actor's voice-over, the background may be green-screened in, and even the actor's face could have been digitally retouched, or even created from scratch with sophisticated software.  Thinking about these things distracts from the enjoyment of the movie, so usually we don't.  But if you saw a person looking, moving, and sounding exactly like Humphrey Bogart acting in a movie made in 2015, say, it would be hard to ignore the little detail that Bogart died in 1957.  

The 1994 film "Forrest Gump" digitally placed the live actor Tom Hanks in archival footage of famous deceased persons such as John F. Kennedy, but what I'm talking about is the reverse:  hauling John F. Kennedy out of the grave to make him play a role in, say, a new Judd Apatow comedy.  And here's where we get into some ethical qualms.

In a recent New Yorker article, the digital exploits of University of Southern California computer scientist Paul Debevec are described, from his early work reverse-aging Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008) to his current attempts to preserve holographic versions of Holocaust survivors for use in a permanent museum display.  If the latter project is successful, visitors will be able to pose questions and a three-dimensional representation of the person, accurate down to such details as shadows that fall naturally according to the room lighting prevailing at the time, will answer the questions via artificial-intelligence technology.  In effect, Debevec will have resurrected the dead, although to a strictly circumscribed sort of life.
For the last few decades, progress in digitally-enabled technologies that initially depend on huge amounts of computer processing have followed a consistent path.  First, a new technique is developed at great expense, often paid for by the military or government agencies, and demonstrated in a limited way.  Next comes commercialization, with large institutions and corporations being first in line to use it.  And finally, advances in hardware and software lower the cost enough to make it affordable to a reasonably large number of average citizens.  Debevec fully intends for his super-accurate simulation and illumination technology to follow this well-worn path, so we ought to give at least a little consideration to its ethical implications.

The fact that Debevec is labeled a scientist obscures the reality of what he is doing when he takes Angelina Jolie's picture from hundreds of different angles to make a digital clone of her to perform a film stunt too dangerous for stunt doubles to do:  he is being an artist.  And the ethical rules for artists doing art are different from the rules for scientists doing science.  From what little I know about the way art is regarded in Western cultures today, there aren't any ethical rules that are generally observed, unless you count legal strictures such as bans on child pornography and copyright laws.  I suspect if Judd Apatow tried to make a digital clone of John F. Kennedy to do the kind of disreputable things that actors in his films typically do, he might hear from the Kennedy estate via a process server.  But the legal treatment of public figures differs from the way the rights of a private citizen are treated.  Courts have held that as long as the image of a public figure is not being used for commercial exploitation, it is okay to portray it in a work of art.  After death, a person's estate can still control the use of the person's image for commercial purposes, and this would undoubtedly include a Debevec-style holographic image.  So when Debevec was asked if he had considered resurrecting Marilyn Monroe, for instance, he said that Monroe's estate was unwilling, and so he dropped the idea.

On the other hand, when ConAgra, the firm that makes Orville Redenbacher popcorn, approached Debevec to simulate the recently deceased popcorn king for a TV commercial, Debevec readily agreed.  So, two years after Redenbacher died in 2005, viewers saw a digital version of Redenbacher, still promoting his popcorn.  But when critics started referring to "Orville Deadenbacher, the popcorn zombie" the ad disappeared.  This was not a violation of ethics so much as it was a violation of good taste, and I'm not talking about popcorn.

Highly realistic holographic images of people, alive or dead, are simply the latest advance in a sequence that began 40,000 years ago, when someone blew paint through a stencil onto the wall of the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain to form the earliest known cave paintings.  Sculpture, portraits in oils, photography, motion pictures, and CGI (computer-generated images) followed, and it is only our inordinate addiction to novelty that makes us think there is something fundamentally different in Debevec's hyper-realistic representations of the human form.  Art is one of the most notable activities that separates humans—the only rational animal—from other animals, and the fact that Debevec's form of art involves rationality of a scientific and technological kind does not make it any less an art form.  And art can be put to both the holiest and the most debauched of uses. 

As our power to create increasingly realistic-looking digital human forms grows and the technology to do this spreads, we can only hope that artists will rediscover that truth, beauty, and goodness are their true subjects.  Most of the art world refuses to acknowledge this fact, which is the real basis for the ethics of art.  But no amount of technological advance will change that situation.  That change cannot take place in server rooms, or in the theories of computer scientists.  That change can take place only in the heart.

Sources:  The article "Pixel Perfect: the scientist behind the digital cloning of actors" appeared in The New Yorker's Apr. 28, 2014 issue on pp. 32-38. I referred to, and the Wikipedia articles on Orville Redenbacher and cave painting.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Internet Porn and Children: The Body And the Soul

David Cameron, the United Kingdom's Prime Minister, not only thinks porn is bad for children—he's done something about it.  After calling in a speech last year for a change in online access to adult sites in the UK from "opt-out" to "opt-in", most internet providers were persuaded by Cameron's government to make porn-blocking filters the default option for their customers.  After the change, if an account holder wants to view such sites he or she must actively set the account option to do so.  In promoting this initiative, Cameron's goal was, as he put it, "protecting innocence, protecting childhood itself."   But what I want to ask is, exactly what is the harm that this initiative protects against?

Your opinion of how pornography can harm children will depend on what you think children are. 

If you believe children are simply economic units that consume for their early years, and then become units of productivity for their adult years, then you will naturally look to scientific surveys of objective measures of harm such as increases in teen pregnancies, evidence of social pathologies such as sex crimes, and so on.  This is the view that New York Times business writer David Segal took when he wrote a riff on Cameron's action called "Does Porn Hurt Children?"  After interviewing experts who did meta-studies of more than 200 social-science papers examining the question, he concluded that if there is any harm, it's hard to identify.  There were slight statistical increases in some measures, but nothing that could be called a smoking gun.  The only time he mentioned ethics in the article was when he decried the fact that the ideal scientific study of the effects of porn on children could not be done for ethical reasons.  It would be unethical, he said, to find a sample of children who had never seen porn, and then give them a strong dose of it over a period of months and measure its effects as compared with a control group whose innocence was preserved.

But what if you believe children are immortal souls whose eternal destiny may be affected by things they see?  And what if you believe the words of Jesus, who, after calling a child to him, and telling his disciples that they must become as little children to enter his kingdom, said ". . . whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea"?  In other words, it's better to die a quick and certain death than to run a porn website that children can view. 

We seem to have a difference of opinion here.  On the one hand is a materialist view that looks to scientific studies as the ultimate authority on whether porn harms children in objective, measureable ways.  On the other hand is a view that there is something special about children, an attitude or state of mind that we generally call "innocence", and that doing anything to damage that innocence is a worse thing than death by drowning.

Sociologists and psychologists don't have much to say about innocence, and even less to say about the soul.  William James, brother of the novelist Henry James and one of the founders of modern scientific psychology, famously dispensed with the soul, saying that if there was such a thing, it was incapable of being detected or measured scientifically.  For a picture of innocence, one could turn instead to the Christian eighteenth-century poet William Blake, whose Songs of Innocence contrast with his Songs of Experience.  Blake is a puzzle for modern readers, because he combines what for his time was a shocking frankness about sexuality (many of his hand-illustrated poems depict nude figures) and a total lack of what might be called pornographic intent, that is hard to comprehend today. 

As one of the leading spokesmen of the Romantic movement, Blake opposed the Industrial Revolution and the new scientific, rational mode of thought that was sweeping the intellectual world around 1800.  After two centuries of its dominance, we have a lot of trouble trying to think in any other way.  But even Segal encountered hints that there is another way of viewing children besides the scientific one.  Many scientists he talked with prefaced their remarks with comments like, "Don't portray me as endorsing pornography" or "I don't want my kids watching this stuff."  And he described an interesting event in which a group of teenagers were divided into two panels.  One panel was to argue in favor of the idea that pornography affected them, and the other was to argue that it didn't.  The pro-impact panel waxed eloquent about how pornography negatively affected their views of what sex should be like, and tempted them to go out and try some of the pornographic acts they'd seen.  By contrast, the no-impact group ran out of things to say after two minutes. 

It has been argued that the widespread availability of internet porn has damaged or destroyed what should be one of the strongest bonds between a married couple:  the channeling of a man's sexual desire into fulfillment exclusively by his wife, and vice-versa.  True, this is an ideal, not always realized for long, if at all, in some marriages.  But the fact that an ideal is not always realized does not make it any less of an ideal.  And the competition women feel between their own appearance and the fictional airbrushed images online may explain why so many young women obsess about their looks and are generally unhappy with them, no matter how attractive they are.
So I applaud Cameron's move toward restricting internet porn access in the UK, and wish we could do something similar here, though our federal system and fragmented regulatory structure makes such a move much more difficult in the U. S.  But for sure, nothing much will happen about protecting children from internet porn if the only authorities we listen to are scientific ones. 

Sources:  David Segal's article "Does Porn Hurt Children?" appeared on Mar. 29, 2014 at  David Cameron's speech before Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children calling for the change to opt-in for internet porn is at  The quotation from Jesus is from the English Standard Version of the Bible, Matthew 18:6. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dealing with Climate Change: Getting There from Here

Engineers are people of action, not just words.  But even if we believe what we are often told about climate change, it's not at all clear what we should do about it.

Last week, I attended a meeting at which a highly credentialed professional meteorologist outlined the history of the science of climate change from the nineteenth century to the present.  Prof. Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M's Department of Atmospheric Sciences described how as long ago as the 1890s, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated that the small concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (then around 300 parts per million) had a disproportionate effect on the earth's temperature.  Regular monitoring of this concentration began in the 1950s, and by then it was clearly understood that more carbon dioxide means higher temperatures.  Dr. Dessler said that for at least fifty years, there has been a consensus that the present human-caused increase in carbon dioxide in the air will eventually lead to a rise in global average temperatures of "a few degrees C." 

So far I was with him.  Other things being equal (which they never are), more greenhouse gases in the air (of which carbon dioxide is one) means the planet gets warmer.  But then he started talking about cigarette smoking, and how the tobacco industry mounted a cynical disinformation campaign in the 1960s against the overwhelming evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease.  Because it took about forty years for the scientific truth to change public policies (you began to see smoke-free campuses and workplaces only about ten years ago), Dr. Dessler thinks it may take that long for the U. S. to get serious about global warming.  Personally, I think it will take longer than that, because the two cases are more different than they are similar.

As someone else in the audience pointed out, smoking has highly specific individual consequences.  As long ago as 1964, anyone who read a newspaper knew that by smoking, you made it a lot more likely that you would die early and fast, the way my father died of lung cancer at 57 only a year after he was diagnosed.  If driving a Humvee increased your personal chances of having your own house wrecked by a tornado by the same degree as smoking increases your chances of causing lung cancer, what would happen?  Well, for one thing, Humvee owners would have a lot of trouble getting home insurance.  And sales of Humvees would fall.

But in contrast to the smoking-cancer tie-in, the actions that contribute to climate change, and the possible (I emphasize "possible") consequences, are about as far removed as you can get and still stay on the same planet.  From what little I know about the matter, it appears that the most widespread and likely consequence of letting the earth's average temperature rise a few degrees Celsius is that a lot of ice will melt, water will expand, and the ocean's average levels will rise.  Let's leave aside all the other stuff—species extinction, storms, and other changes in weather patterns—and concentrate on just that one thing.

About 44% of the world's population in 2010 lived within 150 km (94 miles) of the sea.  And many of the world's most populous cities are coastal ones, or so close to the coast that a significant rise in ocean level would cause them major problems.  Now if all the ice in Antarctica melted, the ocean's level would rise some 61 meters (200 feet).  So in that case, good-bye Hong Kong, New York, and Florida.  But to my knowledge, no serious scientist has proposed that the entire ice sheet covering Antarctica is going to melt because of human-induced climate change.  So the fact is that you have a range of estimates of how much the oceans will rise, but all of them are much less than 61 meters.  They may be well-educated estimates, but that's all they are—estimates.

So instead of a single increased chance that you, individually, will suffer about the most serious consequence you can encounter—death—as a result of your individual actions, your individual motivation to do something about climate change is that somebody, somewhere, possibly but not certainly near a coastline, might eventually have to move or suffer an increased chance of getting flooded out in a storm.  And that person might be you, but not for another few decades, anyway.  And even if you become a hyper-climate-conscious zero-carbon-footprint fanatic, your solitary actions will be fruitless unless billions of people all across the world do likewise, or at least move in that direction.

Personal versus impersonal, individual versus transnational, death versus some fuzzy probabilistic consequence for many people you will never meet—at the point of political action, the analogy between smoking and burning fossil fuels collapses.  There is also the little matter of the difference in economic importance of the two industries in question.  If the entire tobacco industry vanished tomorrow, life could go on more or less normally for most of us, but if the entire fossil-fuel industry vanished tomorrow, a large number of us would die in a matter of weeks for lack of basic necessities.  That is a big downside cost to the proposal to something about climate change fast.

Prof. Dessler sees a global carbon tax as the way forward.  He thinks if the U. S. slapped a big carbon tax on imports, that the rest of the world would fall in line and come along quietly.  A global tax high enough to put significant brakes on fossil fuel consumption now would likely do something similar to what the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 did.  Most economists believe that those extremely high U. S. tariffs contributed significantly to the worldwide depression of the 1930s, and punitive carbon taxes imposed on countries that don't get in line with reduction in fossil-fuel use would probably trigger a global depression that would make the 1930s one look like a mild headache in comparison.

From an engineering point of view, achieving the goal of transitioning from a global economy based on fossil fuels to one in which fossil-fuel use is cut to a small fraction of its present rate is logically possible.  But achieving it in a way that is just and fair, and imposes hardships less than those otherwise suffered from whatever climate change would result, is an immensely challenging technical and political task, and would require a degree of coordination and cooperation that is unprecedented in world history. 

Maybe it will happen.  But if history is any guide, something really awful, and unequivocally attributable to climate change, will first have to happen worldwide, in order to create the political will to act.

Sources:  Prof. Andrew Dessler spoke at the Lone Star Historians of Science meeting at Texas A&M University on Apr. 11, 2014.  I referred to Charles Krauthammer's column on climate change carried by the Washington Post on Feb. 20, 2014 at, and Daniel Yergin's history of climate change at 
The statistic about ocean levels and Antarctica is from  And for how a qualified opponent of the conventional view of climate change, Prof. William Happer, was received at another professional meeting, see my blog "When Scientists Aren't Scientists" on Oct. 7, 2013.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The GM Ignition Switch Recall: Too Little Too Late?

How much stuff do you carry on your keyring?  Besides keys, I mean.  Some minimalists like my wife carry car keys separately from other keys, with nothing attached except maybe a small plastic tag to make it easier to find in her purse.  Other people, many of whom are younger, may carry a whole bundle of stuff on their keyrings:  those little barcode cards that give you discounts at retailers, miniature plastic poodles, handcrafted bits of knitted yarn, and I don't know what all.  But it probably never occurred to you to think that a heavy keyring could be hazardous to your health. 

Brooke Melton probably wasn't thinking of her keyring one rainy March night in 2010.  She was driving her 2005 GM Cobalt when the ignition switch suddenly moved from "run" to "accessory."  This had the unfortunate effects of killing the engine, disabling the power steering, and turning off the airbags.  The sudden loss of power caused Melton to cross into oncoming traffic.  The Cobalt crashed into another car at 58 mph and wound up in a creek, killing Melton and starting a chain of events that revealed the true cause of more than a dozen similar crashes going back more than half a decade.

As long ago as 2001, engineers at General Motors knew that a certain model of ignition switch assembly that was later used on a number of models had a problem.  The mechanical design of an ignition switch is a compromise, as are so many things in engineering.  Most mechanical ignition switches use a device called a detent, which divides the continuous rotation of the switch that would occur without the detent into a small number of discrete positions, typically four:  "off", "accessory", "run" and "start."  If the detent provides too much resistance, the switch will be hard to turn and might eventually wear so much that it would fail to work at all.  But if the torque (twisting motion) required to move the switch is too small, you take the risk that unbalanced forces resulting from heavy stuff on a keyring, for instance, may spontaneously make the switch turn from one position to the other.  This is apparently what happened to Brooke Melton and the 12 or more other drivers who died in ignition-failure accidents in GM cars having the suspect assembly.

At this remove, it is obvious what GM should have done.  The guilty part, No. 10392423, should have been redesigned with a more forceful switch detent plunger—a 57-cent piece that consists of a rounded plastic cylinder backed by a coil spring.  It is the force exerted by this plunger that sets the amount of torque needed to turn the ignition key from one position to the next.  Changing the spring fixes the problem by increasing the torque needed to turn the key from "run" to "accessory."  Then, the ignition assembly part number, or some documentation somewhere, should have been changed to reflect the fact that the new part was substantially different.  And GM should have recalled however many cars they had sold with the defective ignition switch and replaced them free of charge. 

If this had been done early, before too many cars had been sold with the defective ignition, it would have cost something, but the earlier such things are dealt with properly the less expensive they are.  But at the time, a few other things were happening at GM that provided distractions, namely, bankruptcy.  So matters drifted along, and at some point, Delphi (the company that makes the switch in Mexico for GM) changed the plunger to fix the problem.  There is contradictory information as to whether Ray DiGiorgio, a GM engineer, approved a design change in April of 2006 making this fix.  He has testified that he did not, but a Congressional committee claims it has documentation showing that he did.  Whatever was done in 2006, it had no effect on the thousands, if not millions, of cars already on the road at that time with defective switches.

After Brooke Melton's death, her parents decided to sue GM.  Their lawyer, Lance Cooper, hired a consulting materials engineer named Mark Hood to look into why the ignition turned off—an event that was documented by the car's black box.  After plowing through numerous Cobalts of various vintages in junkyards, he discovered that the critical plunger had been silently altered around 2006 or 2007.  Switches made before then took less torque to turn off than the newer switches.  Armed with these facts, Cooper took depositions from GE engineers and reached a settlement with the firm.  But the publicity surrounding the lawsuit attracted enough attention that others with similar crash incidents on their hands began looking into the matter.  And just last week, GM CEO Mary Barra testified before Congress about the whole thing.

To her credit, Barra took action to issue massive recalls, affecting some six million cars, on this and other problems within weeks after learning about them when she took the helm of GM in January of this year.  But these recalls are too late for Melton and at least a dozen others who died in ignition-related crashes of GM cars.  Although the investigations are continuing, it appears that at least one GM engineer may have lied under oath about the matter. 

This story has heroes and villains, although most engineering ethics cases are not black and white, including this one.  Consulting engineer Hood and GM CEO Barra appear to have done the right things with what they learned.  Investigations may prove that the GM engineers involved with the faulty ignition switch may have made the best decisions they could have, based on the information they had available.  No automaker can afford to do as much prototype testing as they would like.  It took making and selling thousands of cars to reveal that a few people with exceptionally heavy keyrings could end up getting killed by a switch that took just a little less torque than usual. 

But the truly blameworthy actions happened after GM began receiving reports of such ignition-caused crashes.  One fatal accident due to a defect that can occur under certain conditions should be looked into, and if necessary, a recall—not just a service advisory, which GM issued about the matter in 2005—should be issued. 

This situation shows that corporations, like people,  have good times and some not so good times.  GM's financial troubles possibly dissuaded decision-makers from issuing the massive recall that would have been needed to fix the ignition defect early, before more defective cars were sold.  But the result has been an even larger and more costly recall later.  Let's hope GM can fix all of the defective ignitions soon and move on, a sadder but wiser organization.

Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article "2014 General Motors recall," as well as the following online news articles.  CNN reported on the problem at  Engineer Mark Hood's detective work is described at  Also, a Reuters article at correctly describes the critical component as a "detent" plunger (it has been elsewhere described incorrectly as an "indent" plunger).  And National Public Radio published a helpful timeline of the issue at