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“Our daughter lives about a mile from us, in a rural area. One night, while her son and husband were away, she comes over to visit. She’s over 40 now, but still, when she leaves, I say, ‘give me a call when you get home’.”
Charles Wellford is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Maryland. He’s a scientist who studies how social systems work, an expert in the process of homicide investigations. He knows far more about crime than the average American, but that doesn’t stop him from being scared in a very normal, average way.
On this particular night, Wellford waited the 10 minutes he thought it would take his daughter to get home, but he didn’t hear anything. At first, he figured it was no big deal. He rationalized that she must have gotten delayed. But then 20 minutes, went by and the phone was still silent. At 30 minutes, Wellford tried calling his daughter. Nobody answered. He waited a few minutes and dialed the number a second time. The phone rang. The voicemail picked up. This was the point where Charles Wellford really started to worry.
Read the rest
I'm late getting to this (my own fault, I missed an important email), but We: Robot, the Robotics and the Law Conference at Stanford Law School is still accepting papers until Jan 18. Last year's event was apparently smashing, and this year's CFP is quite enticing:
The following list is by no means exhaustive, but rather meant as an elaboration on conference themes:
* Legal and policy responses to likely effects of robotics on manufacturing or the environment
* Perspectives on the interplay between legal frameworks and robotic software and hardware
* Intellectual property issues raised by collaboration within robotics (or with robots)
* Perspectives on collaboration between legal and technical communities
* Tort law issues, including product liability, professional malpractice, and the calculation of damages
* Administrative law issues, including FDA or FAA approval
* Privacy law and privacy enhancing technologies
* Comparative/international perspectives on robotics law
* Issues of legal and economic policy, including tax, employment, and corporate governance
In addition to scholarly papers, we invite proposals for demos of cutting-edge commercial applications of robotics or recent technical research that speaks one way or another to the immediate commercial prospects of robots.
I was born in 1981 and, because of that, I largely missed the part of American history where our rivers were so polluted that they did things like, you know, catch fire. But it happened. And, all things considered, it didn't happen that long ago. The newspaper clippings above are from a 1952 fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga river. Between 1868 and 1969 that river burned at least 13 times.
That's something worth remembering — not just that we once let our waterways get that trashed, but also the fact that we've gone a long way towards fixing it. We took 200 years of accumulating sewage and industrial degradation and cleaned it up in the span of a single generation. At Slate, James Salzman writes about that reversal of environmental fortune, a shift so pronounced — and so dependent upon a functioning government in which a diverse spectrum of politicians recognize the importance of investing in our country's future — that it seems damned-near impossible today.
... discharging raw sewage and pollution into our harbors and rivers has been common practice for most of the nation’s history, with devastating results. By the late 1960s, Lake Erie had become so polluted that Time magazine described it as dead. Bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times above the safe limit. I can attest to the state of the Charles River in Boston. While sailing in the 1970s, I capsized and had to be treated by a dermatologist for rashes caused by contact with the germ-laden waters.
In 1972, a landmark law reversed the course of this filthy tide. Today, four decades later, the Clean Water Act stands as one of the great success stories of environmental law. Supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, the act took a completely new approach to environmental protection. The law flatly stated there would be no discharge of pollutants from a point source (a pipe or ditch) into navigable waters without a permit. No more open sewers dumping crud into the local stream or bay. Permits would be issued by environmental officials and require the installation of the best available pollution-control technologies.
The waste flushed down drains and toilets needed a different approach, so the Clean Water Act provided for billions of dollars in grants to construct and upgrade publicly owned sewage-treatment works around the nation. To protect the lands that filter and purify water as it flows by, permits were also required for draining and filling wetlands.
Image from the Blog on Smog, which also has a really nice timeline of cleanup on the Cuyahoga.
Via Laura Helmuth
BURN: An Energy Journal, the radio documentary series hosted by former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, has a 2-hour election special out. It's the most powerful piece of radio journalism I've listened to since—well, since the last episode they put out. You really must do yourself a favor and set aside some time this weekend to listen to “The Power of One.”
Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years. In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.
The documentary examines how "individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential Election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence." It was completed and hit the air before Hurricane Sandy, but the energy issues illuminated by that disaster (blackouts, gas shortage, grid failure, backup power failure at hospitals) further underscore the urgency.
I've written a sequel to my talk The Coming War on General Purpose Computing, called "The Coming Civil War Over General-Purpose Computing," which I'll be delivering twice this summer: first on July 28 at DEFCON in Las Vegas, and then on July 31 in San Francisco at a Long Now Foundation SALT talk, jointly presented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As far as I know, both talks will be online, along with slides (a rarity for me -- I normally hate doing slides, but I had a good time with it this time around).
"Test, Learn, Adapt" is a new white paper documenting the ultimate in evidence-based-policy: government policies that are improved through randomized trials. It's co-authored by Laura Haynes, Owain Service, Ben Goldacre and David Torgerson. Ben Goldacre elaborates:
We also address – and demolish – the spurious objections that people often raise against doing trials of policy (like: “surely it’s unfair to withold a new intervention from half the people in your trial?”).
Trials are widely used in medicine, in business, in international development, and even in web design. The barriers to using them in UK policy are more cultural than practical, and this document will, I hope, be a small part of a bigger battle to get better evidence into government.
More than that, the paper describes several fun examples of trials that have been conducted in UK government over just the past year, reporting both positive and negative findings. The tide is turning, and there are lots of smart people in the civil service.
Anyway, I think (I hope!) that the paper is readable and straightforward, like the Ladybird Book of Randomised Policy Trials, and I really hope you’ll enjoy reading it.
It’s free to download here.
The video, made by Mae Ryan for Los Angeles public radio KPCC, traces trash from a burger lunch to its ultimate fate in a landfill. It reminds me of those great, old Sesame Street videos where you got to see what goes on inside crayon factories and peanut butter processing plants. Which is to say that it is awesome.
The process you see here, though, is L.A.-centric, which started me wondering: How much does the trash system differ from one place to another in the United States?
Over the last couple years, as I researched my book on the electric system, I spent a lot of time learning about how different infrastructures developed in this country. If there's one thing I've picked up it's the simple lesson that these systems—which we are utterly dependent upon—were seldom designed. Instead, the infrastructures we use today are often the result of something more akin to evolution ... or to a house that's been remodeled and upgraded by five or six different owners. Watching this video it occurred to me that there's no reason to think that the trash system in place in L.A. has all that much in common with the one in Minneapolis. In fact, it could well be completely different from the trash system in San Francisco.
I'd love to see more videos showing the same story in different places. Know of any others you can point me toward?
Suggested by maeryan on Submitterator
Lee sez, "The next generation of robots will be in homes, offices and hospitals, not to mention driving cars, flying around as drones, and, yes, working as prison wardens. Robots will be programmed to learn, and will exhibit emergent behavior not necessarily contemplated by their designers. What happens when good robots do bad things? Who is responsible? And what ethical and legal constraints should be considered at the design stage so that the robotics industry does not become the next full employment opportunity for lawyers? What kinds of public policies should we put in place to encourage the smart deployment of robots, striking the right balance between encouraging innovation and safety? These are the kinds of questions to be examined at We Robot, "an inaugural conference on law and policy relating to robotics" at the University of Miami School of Law on April 21 & 22, 2012. The We Robot call for papers, and a parallel call for live-from-the-frontlines-of-design reports from robot-makers, is open for initial expressions of interest until Jan. 12, 2012.
Topics of interest for the scholarly paper portion of the conference include but are not limited to:
* Effect of robotics on the workplace, e.g. small businesses, hospitals, and other contexts where robots and humans work side-by-side.
* Regulatory and licensing issues raised by robots in the home, the office, in public spaces (e.g. roads), and in specialized environments such as hospitals.
* Design of legal rules that will strike the right balance between encouraging innovation and safety, particularly in the context of autonomous robots.
* Issues of legal or moral responsibility, e.g. relating to autonomous robots or robots capable of exhibiting emergent behavior.
* Issues relating to robotic prosthetics (e.g. access equity issues, liability for actions activated by conscious or unconscious mental commands).
* Relevant differences between virtual and physical robots.
We Robot 2012: Setting the Agenda (Thanks, Lee!)
My latest Guardian column is "Movie fans turn to piracy when the online cupboard is bare," a report on the Open Rights Group's study of the lawful options for people who want to watch great British movies online. The UK government and courts keep ratcheting up Internet censorship proposals because they say that there are so many lawful marketplaces that there's no excuse for "piracy." But ORG's research shows that large swathes of critical material isn't available for sale. And as we saw when major rightsholders pulled out of Hulu and iTunes before, the availability of their material on BitTorrent spiked -- if you don't offer lawful channels, you drive customers to unlawful markets.
Here's what ORG found: though close to 100% of their sample were available as DVDs, more than half of the top 50 UK films of all time were not available as downloads. The numbers are only slightly better for Bafta winners: just 58% of Bafta best film winners since 1960 can be bought or rented as digital downloads (the bulk of these are through iTunes – take away the iTunes marketplace, which isn't available unless you use Mac or Windows, and only 27% of the Bafta winners can be had legally).
And while recent blockbusters fare better, it's still a patchwork, requiring the public to open accounts with several services to access the whole catalogue (which still has many important omissions).
But even in those marketplaces, movies are a bad deal – movie prices are about 30% to 50% higher when downloaded over the internet versus buying the same movies on DVDs. Some entertainment industry insiders argue that DVDs, boxes and so forth add negligible expense to their bottom line, but it's hard to see how movie could cost less on physical DVDs than as ethereal bits, unless the explanation is price-gouging. To add insult to injury, the high-priced online versions are often sold at lower resolutions than the same movies on cheap DVDs.
In a New Scientist op-ed, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi take aim at the trendy idea of "nudging" people towards healthy, socially beneficial choices. The authors find the evidence for the effectiveness of nudging isn't supported by the literature, and policy-by-nudging misses the key to good governance: an informed citizenry who are part of the solution, not the problem to be solved.
This points to the key problem with "nudge" style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats' prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.
As political scientist Suzanne Mettler, from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, argues, libertarian paternalism treats people as consumers rather than citizens. It either fails to tell people why choices are set up in particular ways, or actively seeks to conceal the rationale. When, for example, Obama's administration temporarily cut taxes to stimulate the economy, it did so semi-surreptitiously to encourage people to spend rather than save.
Mettler uses experiments to show how ordinary people can understand complicated policy questions and reach considered conclusions, as long as they get enough information. This suggests a far stronger role for democratic decision-making than libertarian paternalism allows. People should be given information, and allowed to reach conclusions about their own interests, and how to structure choices to protect those interests. By all means consult experts, but the dialogue should go both ways.