Monday, March 28, 2016

Drone Delivers to Doorstep: What Next?

Last Friday, Mar. 25, the Nevada startup Flirtey announced that it had made the first successful package delivery to a residential area in the U. S. with an autonomous drone (not steered by a person on the ground).  The demonstration flight, which was completed Mar. 10, carried a package of emergency supplies half a mile through the air to the porch of a vacant house outside Reno, Nevada.  Although large corporations such as Amazon and Wal-Mart have been toying with the idea of drone deliveries, Flirtey attributed its first to experience it has gained with similar tests in Australia and New Zealand.  It turns out that several other countries are more welcoming to commercial drones than the U. S., where strict FAA rules are still in place that are limiting commercial drone operations involving deliveries to test flights such as this one.

What does this achievement mean for a number of groups that may be affected by it:  consumers, companies in the delivery business, and people who earn a living delivering packages?

First, the consumer.  Whenever I thought of drone delivery in the past, I couldn't help but imagine how things could go wrong:  inadvertent haircuts from the propeller blades, for example.  Flirtey plans to avoid this sort of thing by keeping the drone itself at an altitude of around 40 feet (12 meters) while the package itself is lowered to the ground on a retractable cord leading to some sort of grappling hook that releases when the package hits the ground.  So unless you're asleep on the porch and the drone happens to land your box of live Maine lobsters on your head, chances are small that the drone will run afoul of living creatures on the ground.  Birds are another matter, of course, but I'm sure the Flirtey engineers have ways of dealing with them too. 

Although an engineer was killed in an accident involving a large experimental drone in 2013, no injuries or fatalities have so far resulted from a civilian drone colliding with a standard aircraft.  The FAA would like to keep it that way, and news reports of the Flirtey flight also mention that NASA is working on air-traffic-control software for drones.  It's possible that the authorities will work out something like the present direction-altitude rules for large-scale aircraft, but on a smaller scale.  Commercial pilots follow the "odd north east" rule:  if your plane's heading is anywhere from north to east to south, your altitude must be an odd number of thousand feet plus 500 feet, and if your bearing is westerly, you have to be at an even number of thousand plus 500.  So it would be easy to make a similar rule for tens of feet instead of thousands for drones.  It wouldn't solve every potential collision problem, but it would help.

Large organizations whose business includes deliveries of small packages are eagerly awaiting the day when they can take advantage of drones.  While computerized scheduling and routing has improved the efficiency of manned delivery operations, the actual physical delivery process of packages to homes hasn't changed much since the invention of the automobile.  Currently, the FAA rules require that delivery drones always be within sight of the operator.  That's going to involve an operator for a while yet, but you can picture one delivery guy getting a lot more done with the help of two or three drones in a densely populated neighborhood.  Of course, a package on a string can't go into an apartment complex and take the elevator to the 14th floor, but you've got to start somewhere.  So the initial operations will probably be a hybrid thing, with the delivery driver going to a central location, loading drones, and sending them to do the last run of a few hundred feet to individual houses.

Inevitably, that will lead to layoffs among delivery personnel, although with the seasonal nature of the delivery business, at first it might just mean that UPS and similar services won't hire as many temps during the Christmas rush as they used to—they'll just add more drones.  But if the rules eventually allow more nearly autonomous operation of drones, the unattended parts of the flights will be longer, and fewer live drivers will be needed.  And one more type of job that is currently open to someone with only a high-school education will become history.

This is not unalloyed bad news.  The nation survived the demise of the milkman in most parts of the country, and before that the iceman.  But as the current election cycle is demonstrating, for some time now the U. S. economy has been doing a fairly poor job of employing people with less than a college education, and there are lots of people out there who feel that they have gotten the short end of the economic stick.  And a good many college-educated workers with degrees in non-professional areas are underemployed, doing jobs for which they are overqualified.  This is not the place to go into this complex and many-faceted problem, but we simply note that technology is often a destabilizing force.  If you are stably under the thumb of a dictatorship, destabilizing can be good.  But just making things less stable by itself is not always helpful. 

It doesn't look like we will be getting packages from Federal Express floating down from the sky any time soon.  For whatever reason, the FAA has decided to make haste slowly on commercial drones, while other countries speed ahead.  That may give time for the job market to readjust more gradually to the future realities of the delivery business, however it is affected by the advent of drones.  The fact that the first package delivered was emergency supplies reminds us that there are disaster scenarios for which delivery drones will be a Godsend.  And nobody should resent that.

Sources:  Numerous outlets carried the news of Flirtey's accomplishment. I referred to reports on the websites of the Christian Science Monitor at (by the way, the word meaning budding or fledgling is spelled "nascent," not "nacent"), and Fortune at  I also referred to the Lapeer Aviation website for information about the "odd-north-east" rule. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

AlphaGo Defeats Human Go Champion: Go Figure

First it was chess:  world champion Garry Kasparov lost a contest of five games to an IBM computer named Deep Blue in 1997.   And now it's the game called Go, which has been popular in Asia for centuries.  Earlier this month, Korean Go champion Lee Sedol lost four out of a series of five games in a match with AlphaGo, a computer program developed by Google-owned London firm DeepMind.  But Sedol says he now has a whole new view of the game and is a much better player from the experience.  This development raises some perennial questions about what makes people human and whether machines will in fact take over the world once they get smarter than us.

As reported in Wired, the Go match between Lee Sedol and AlphaGo was carried on live TV and watched by millions of Go enthusiasts.  For those not familiar with Go (which includes yours truly), it is a superficially simple game played on a 19-by-19 grid of lines with black and white stones, sort of like an expanded checkerboard.  But the rules are both more complicated and simpler than checkers.  They are simpler in that the goal is just to encircle more territory with your stones than your opponent encircles with his.  They are more complicated in that there are vastly more possible moves in Go than there are in checkers or even chess, so strategizing takes at least as much brainpower in Go as it does in chess. 

It's encouraging to note that even when Sedol lost to the machine, he could come up with moves that equalled the machine's moves in subtlety and surprise.  Of course, this may not be the case for much longer.  It seems like once software developers show they can beat humans at a given complex task, they lose interest and move on to something else.  And this shows an aspect of the situation that so far, few have commented on:  the fact that if you go far enough back in the history of AlphaGo, you find not more machines, but humans.

It was humans who figured out the best strategies to use for AlphaGo's design, which involved making a lot of slightly different AlphaGos and having them play against each other and learn from their experiences.  Yes, in that sense the computer was teaching itself, but it didn't start from scratch.  The whole learning environment and the existence of the program in the first place was due, not to other machines, but to human beings. 

This gets to one of the main problems I have with artificial-intelligence (AI) proponents who see as inevitable a day when non-biological, non-human entities will, in short, take over.  Proponents of what is called transhumanism, such as inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, call this day the Singularity, because they think it will mark the beginning of a kind of explosion of intelligence that will make all of human history look like mudpies by comparison.  They point to machines like DeepBlue and AlphaGo as precursors of what we should expect machines to be capable of in every phase of life, not just specialized rule-bound activities like chess and Go. 

But while the transhumanists may be right in certain details, I think there is an oversimplified aspect to their concept of the singularity which is often overlooked.  The mathematical notion of a singularity is that it's a point where the rules break down.  True, you don't know what's going on at the singularity point itself, but you can handle singularities in mathematics and even physics as long as you're not standing right at the point and asking questions about it.  I teach an electrical engineering course in which we routinely deal with mathematical singularities called poles.  As long as the circuit conditions stay away from the poles, everything is fine.  The circuit is perfectly comprehensible despite the presence of poles, and performs its functions in accordance with the human-directed goals set out for it. 

All I'm seeing in artificial intelligence tells me that people are still in control of the machines.  For the opposite to be the case—for machines to be superior to people in the same sense that people are now superior to machines—we'd have to see something like the following.  The only way new people would come into being is when the machines decide to make one, designing the DNA from scratch and growing and training the totally-designed person for a specific task.  This implies that first, the old-fashioned way of making people would be eliminated, and second, that people would have allowed this elimination to take place. 

Neither of these eventualities strikes me as at all likely, at least as a deliberate decision made by human beings.  I will admit to being troubled by the degree to which human interactions are increasingly mediated by opaque computer-network-intensive means.  If people end up interacting primarily or exclusively through AI-controlled systems, the system has an excellent opportunity to manipulate people to their disadvantage, and to the advantage of the system, or whoever is in charge of the system. 

But so far, all the giant AI-inspired systems are all firmly under the control of human beings, not machines.  No computer has ever applied for the position of CEO of a company, and if it did, it would probably get crossways to its board of directors in the first few days and get fired anyway.  As far as I can tell, we are still in the regime of Man exerting control over Nature, not Artifice exerting control over Man.  And as C. S. Lewis wrote in 1947, ". . . what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." 

I think it is significant that AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, but I'm not going to start worrying that some computerized totalitarian government is going to take over the world any time soon.  Because whatever window-dressing the transhumanists put on their Singularity, that is what it would have to be in practice:  an enslavement of humanity, not a liberation. And as long as enough people remember that humans are not machines, and machines are made by, and should be controlled by, humans, I think we don't have to lose a lot of sleep about machines taking over the world.  What we should watch are the humans running the machines.

Sources:  The match between Lee Sedol and AlphaGo was described by Cade Metz in Wired at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on DeepBlue, Go, and AlphaGo.  The quotation from The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis is from the Macmillan paperback edition of 1955, p. 69. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Hot Feet from Hoverboards

Not long after my university went back in session in January, I saw a couple of young men tooling along a sidewalk on campus on two-wheeled things that looked like Segways, but without the vertical handle.  They turned out to be hoverboards, a gadget that packs two high-power motors, some gyros and accelerometers, some electronics, and high-capacity lithium-ion batteries into a space smaller than a skateboard.  Evidently if your balance is good enough and you can pay the roughly $300 and up the thing costs, you can have the sensation of standing on your own private moving sidewalk.  But a few users have had a more exciting time with their hoverboards than they bargained on:  their units have caught fire.  One family in Petaluma, California reported that after fifteen minutes of charging, their daughter's hoverboard "exploded" into flames, making a noise like a small bomb and sending burning embers around the room.  Fortunately, someone was around to put out the fire, but a hoverboard was possibly responsible for a house fire in Santa Rosa that did extensive damage and killed two of the family's pet dogs. 

Also in January, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched an investigation after receiving more than 40 reports of fires involving these devices.  Although many of the units were purchased through, evidently for Christmas presents, Amazon has since quit selling hoverboards and carries only accessories for them now.  But you can still find independent sellers online who carry the things, along with answers to questions like, "Will my hoverboard catch fire?"

All sources I consulted agree that the fire problem is traceable to the lithium-ion batteries in the units.  The motors can draw as much as 300 watts apiece, and no other type of battery currently available on the consumer market can supply that much power and still fit in a hoverboard that doesn't weigh more than the rider.  Lithium-ion battery technology is a carefully calibrated technological dance along the line between success and failure, where failure is usually spectacular.  Charging the batteries too much can cause the already pressurized cell to rupture, it can heat the thin insulating separator between the cell's cathode and anode to cause a short circuit and further heating, and can lead to the lithium compounds inside the cell to burn vigorously when exposed to air. 

Over a dozen different brands of hoverboards have come on the market, and some companies may be using inferior-quality batteries that are especially prone to catch fire.  In reaction to the posting of vivid videos of hoverboard fires on Youtube, some companies have started boasting that they use only genuine Samsung or other name-brand batteries.  But they still advise against leaving the room while a hoverboard is charging, just in case something goes wrong. 

Fortunately, no human has died as a result of a hoverboard fire.  And considering the already rather self-limited market for these things—you have to be young and flexible enough to both balance on one and survive any falls, plus be able to afford to blow $300 or more on a thing you may never learn to use—hoverboard fires don't rank up there with issues like the onboard lithium-battery fires that plagued the Boeing 787 back in 2013 and caused a couple of potentially deadly incidents before the fleet was grounded to fix the problem.  Still, the fact that we are aware of at least 40 fires caused by hoverboards shows what can happen when a flock of fast-moving manufacturers, probably all based in Asia, try to exploit a short-fuse market opportunity without taking the time and effort to do thorough safety testing.

Some would call for the heavy hand of government regulation to make sure that all consumer products pass standardized safety inspections before they can be sold.  The private Underwriters Laboratories, which is responsible for the "UL" symbol borne by many consumer products that pass its rigorous safety tests, has been trying to find a hoverboard that is worthy of the UL label, but so far all the ones they have tested have flunked. 

What we see in the hoverboard situation is how the rapid pace of information exchange on the Internet has dealt with the problem while the government is still pulling its pants on, so to speak.  As I mentioned, somewhere between January and today (March 13) Amazon quit selling hoverboards and offered a money-back exchange for those already sold, no questions asked.  Anyone googling "hoverboard fire" can find a lot of privately posted videos of smoking hoverboards, which the younger population is sure not to miss.  And many of those who are still selling the units are using the fear of fires as a selling point for the higher-quality name-brand batteries they use in the particular models of hoverboard they sell. 

Of course, even name-brand batteries can catch fire if abused, and there are warnings about not subjected the batteries to excessive shocks.  That would seem a little hard to avoid in the case of a consumer product that is likely to be flipped around underfoot by the user, at least a few times, until he or she gets the hang of it.  And who knows?  maybe hoverboards will form the basis of a new sport.  San Marcos, the Texas town where I live, happens to be a hotbed of activity for, believe it or not, unicycle football.  There are regular tournaments downtown and clubs and the whole bit.  Anybody who can play unicycle football isn't going to have much of a problem riding a hoverboard, and keeping it protected from undue shock and vibration.  Watch out, unicycle football.  Hoverboard football may not be far behind.

Eventually, the CPSC will come up with conclusions from its investigation, but by then hoverboards may either have become a routine part of the way we get around, or a forgotten fad like the Hula-Hoop.  The worst that you could do with a Hula-Hoop was to throw your back out.  But if you did, you probably shouldn't have been fooling with the thing in the first place.  The long-term solution is to find a battery technology that isn't as much like playing with fire as lithium-ion batteries are.  In the meantime, enjoy your hoverboards, but don't leave them alone when they're charging.  You might be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Sources:  I referred to a couple of reports on KGO's website (the ABC-TV outlet in San Francisco) at and  The information about UL and hoverboards is from the Chicago Tribune on Feb. 23, 2016, at  I also referred to a story posted on the CBS News Interactive site on Jan. 20, 2016 at and the Wikipedia article on lithium-ion batteries.  My blog on the Boeing 787 battery fires appeared on Jan. 28, 2013 at

--> In an earlier version of this article, I referred to Underwriters Laboratories (UL) as "insurance-company funded."  That is not correct.  UL (LLC) is a private for-profit company as of 2012, and presumably makes money by charging companies who want the UL label for its certification services.  And while it is still true that no hoverboard has passed the requirements for UL certification, the organization has only had a month or so to start the process, and so it is possible that at least one such device will eventually pass.  I thank Brooke Higginbotham of UL for this information.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Will Brake Problems Slow Down Ford's F-150 Pickup?

On Mar. 4, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it was launching an investigation into brake failures of Ford's popular F-150 pickup trucks.  The agency claims that nearly half a million 2013 and 2014 models could have brakes that suddenly fail completely.  While no fatalities have yet been associated with the failures, the NHTSA has received 20 complaints of this problem in the last seven months, including four incidents that resulted in non-injury crashes.  Ford has responded that it will cooperate fully with the investigation.

In the automotive industry, the F-150 is a legendary success story.  It is the single best-selling vehicle in the U. S., and if Texas had a contest to name the state automobile, the F-150 would win hands down.  This is despite the fact that few F-150 owners routinely carry a half ton or more of stuff in the truck bed.  In other words, people buy pickup trucks for reasons other than practicality.  As any TV ad for pickups will show, the automakers have spent millions to associate pickup trucks with virility, toughness, and other he-man qualities.  The Wikipedia article on pickup trucks puts it this way:  "In America pickups are favored by low fuel prices, taxes and regulations that distort the market in favor of domestically built trucks, and a cultural attachment to the style."  (I especially like that "cultural attachment to the style.")  Ford has parlayed this attachment into a huge share of the U. S. automotive market, and with today's historically low fuel prices, the popularity of pickups shows no sign of abating.

But stopping a vehicle that weighs up to 2 tons (1800 kg) unloaded and more than 3 tons (2700 kg) loaded is no simple matter, so power-assisted brakes are standard on these vehicles.  Most brake boosters, as they are called, use a diaphragm actuated by a partial vacuum taken from the intake manifold or other source.  When the driver applies the brakes, this motion opens a valve that adds the force from the diaphragm to the brake-pedal force, and applies much greater force on the hydraulic master cylinder than one's foot can ordinarily supply.  If the booster fails, the brakes still work, but it takes much greater force for a given braking effect.

While it is too early to determine what may be going on with the F-150 brakes, it's easy to see what could go wrong with such a system.  Complaints to online auto-mechanic help websites about F-150 brakes indicate that in several cases, the brakes totally failed:  the brake pedal went to the floor and no braking happened.  When the vehicle was towed to the shop, no external signs of leakage were found but the master cylinder had no brake fluid in it.  That fluid had to go somewhere, and my guess is that a seal broke or an accidental passageway was formed between the master cylinder's high pressure and the vacuum in the brake-assist system, sucking the fluid into the vacuum system of the power assist. 

I have never worked on brakes more advanced than those in a 1955 Olds, and my idea of what is wrong with the F-150 brakes may be total nonsense.  But the NHTSA doesn't think the complaints are nonsense, and now both Ford and the government are trying to find out what's happening.

Besides this specific case, there may be something bigger going on with regard to the way the NHTSA is treating consumer complaints.  The Detroit News quotes NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind as saying recently that we are now in the era of the "Big Recall," which he says is not a good thing.  As anyone who has looked into the matter knows, automakers are constantly fielding complaints of flocks of problems of all kinds ranging from the trivial—interior trim that fades oddly in sunlight, for example—to the deadly, like the GM ignition-switch debacle I wrote about in this space in 2014.  The problem the automakers face is to allocate their limited investigative and engineering resources so that the truly dangerous problems get addressed promptly—hopefully before anyone gets killed—and the less serious ones are dealt with as time permits.  This is an art as much as it is a science, and historically the NHTSA has limited its involvement to situations where fatalities were involved and a serious defect could be identified.

The NHTSA's action in this brake-failure problem is not unprecedented, but is unusual in that no fatalities or even injuries have been reported in connection with the problem.  And the total number of complaints—about 30 in the last year—is not all that large, considering the millions of F-150s out there on the roads.  Perhaps this is the NHTSA's attempt to head a problem off at the pass, so to speak, before anybody does get killed as a result of an F-150's brake failure.  In any event, Ford has been called on the public carpet concerning the issue, and they now have no choice but to come up with documents requested by the government before April 20, or face large financial penalties. 

Has Ford done anything wrong?  That remains to be seen.  The NHTSA's action falls into the category of what legal specialists call "administrative law," which is in a kind of gray area between laws explicitly passed by legislatures, and arbitrary and capricious bullying by out-of-control government agency administrators.  As federal agencies go, the NHTSA has been fairly well-behaved compared to, for example, the Environmental Protection Administration, which has landed in the U. S. Supreme Court numerous times for what some say is vast overreaching of its statutory authority. 

There are good reasons to treat a large corporation like Ford differently than one would treat a private individual.  And in using complaints from private individuals to build a case against Ford, in that sense NHTSA is looking out for the little guy.  But it is easy to imagine how the NHTSA could overdo the thing by pestering Ford about every little complaint that could conceivably result in an injury.  So far, they don't seem to be doing that, but there is nothing except the integrity of NHTSA officials to keep the agency from going overboard.

The best outcome of this situation will be if Ford finds a definite cause for the brake failures and fixes it.  This might involve a massive recall, but we are almost used to those now.  Even if millions of F-150s are recalled, there is little chance that the American consumer will quit buying his favorite pickup.  The NHTSA is no match for all those he-man pickup ads. 

Sources:  I referred to the articles on the F-150 brake problem carried on Mar. 4 by Autoweek online at and by the Detroit News at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles "Ford F-series," "pickup truck," and "vacuum servo."  I blogged on the GM ignition switch recall last year on Apr. 7, 2014 and June 9, 2014.