Saturday, November 24, 2012

Self Driving Cars

Whether called "driverless cars" or "robo-cars" the, "auto" mobiles are coming. And although like all new technologies they will bring with them a new set of yet unknown problems, they are being developed  to solve an existing set of problems most of us would like to eliminate.

There has been a lot written about robotic cars and the reader can spend an afternoon reading about the success of, for example the Google car.

While a completely machine-driven vehicle is not on the market today, there are several developments in recent years where sensors and microprocessors already adjust the operation of a vehicle without the driver knowing about it. Anti-lock brakes is one example, as is the parking-assist feature that uses a rear-bumper sensor and other automation technologies.

Many say that once the market is saturated with autonomous vehicles, there will be a reduction in personal ownership of cars in favor of hiring them on demand. After all, a fleet of robot vehicles could easily contain the technology to drive themselves to a person's home when he calls for one via computer. After taking the passenger to the directed location, the vehicle would leave the scene and park itself (perhaps with other idle vehicles) so as to take up as little surface street/lot area as possible.

The system of robots for hire would have a number of ramifications, many of which no doubt I have not thought of yet. But one of them would be to ultimately reduce the competitive nature of car ownership that seems to have dominated the auto culture since the 1950s.

The commodification of cars as suggested by automated cars-for-hire has implications for the physical care and condition that private ownership has in the past addressed. For example, what happens when a renter of these auto-mobiles on demand uses one and leaves trash strewn about the interior or otherwise stains and leaves the interior dirty? The anonymity of the usage of this kind of automobile means that people might be more likely to leave their empties or not clean up after themselves like they would in a public place such as a  bus or subway car staffed by the mass transit operator.

For this reason it may be that driverless cars that we don't own but rather hire on demand will have to look a lot different from the comfortable compartments we know today. For example, they will likely  not have cloth seats but rather hard plastic seats and floors in much the same way that many subway and bus systems.

Like the technological change to sports officiating (see other post) the new driverless cars are certainly feasible within a short time but the test will be whether the public and government (law enforcement, etc.) will accept them. I'm afraid that a lot of people are emotionally attached to owning their own car, one with comfortable cloth seats and carpets and that are bigger, faster and shinier than their neighbors'. This may be the primary obstacle to adoption.

The Boundary Between Man and Machine

Noted futurist, Ray Kurzweil has said that human immortality is probably less than 20 years away. Actually, I didn't hear him say this or even read his exact words. But I read the newspaper headline and that's more than most people do.

I strongly suspect that Kurzweil is predicting the marriage of biomedicine and computer technology so that it will be possible to revive failed anatomical systems (e.g. respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive) and/or replace human organs beyond those that are currently possible (e.g. heart, kidney, lungs). And that therefore it is possible to keep an individual alive indefinitely. Or at least this is what immortality will look like in the beginning.

Some might argue that (if my assumptions are correct) replacing so many parts means that the resulting individual can hardly be considered the same person. I suppose the argument might be made that if I have a 40 year old car and over its life I have replaced the engine, front and rear axles, suspension, interior and enough other components that it really is a misnomer to say I have the same car today that I had all these years.

But no matter, I think that we humans will one day soon have components implanted in our bodies that are intelligent and that are custom designed to respond to circumstances enough so that instead of wearing out over the years, they improve with time. We already have artificial joints and organs so this is not that far off. The big difference is that we will now move into supplementing or replacing our thinking and memory functions in addition to our motor skills, circulation or respiration.This may one day make humans and machines virtually indistinguishable. Or at least humans and synthetic organisms and/or biological parts.

Furthermore on boundary blurring . . .

It seems that boundaries are disappearing everywhere. There is a border between the U.S. and Canada, but aside from a different form of currency, you wouldn't know you're in another country were you to walk across it. I would say the same thing about the boundary between Texas and Mexico; there is very little noticeable difference on either side.

In media, the boundary between the program and the advertisement has been eroding for years. Product placement has been growing in Hollywood film and television programming so that it is not clearly defined which part of the broadcast is paid for by the sponsor and which is part of the creative work.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Effectiveness of Deficit or Stimulus Spending

Conventional wisdom holds that an industrialized nation facing an economic slide should spend government funds to get money into the hands of those who can spend it on goods and services. This in turn puts other workers back on the payroll and creates a virtuous cycle. This idea is attributed to John Maynard Keynes, although it was undoubtedly bandied about by earlier theorists (just as the idea of evolutionary biology was considered by scientists earlier than Charles Darwin).

Deficit spending worked well in the 1930s but it was actually wartime production (financed by deficit) that ended the Great Depression more than domestic works projects. But if the economic stimulus helped during that period, unfortunately the effectiveness of this kind of measure has been diluted in subsequent recessions. It was used in the early 1980s, the early 1990s and the early 2000s with dubious success. The United States pulled out of each of those recessions but the degree to which we can attribute the recovery to deficit spending is questionable. 

However having said that, I must admit that it is one of very few tools available to government to get us out of the current predicament. The others are so ludicrous that I mention them only to demonstrated the inevitability of the Keynesian approach: printing money and soaking the rich.

The former would only exchange one problem for another. The second is also a non-starter since the rich run our country. I should point out that president Obama advocates increasing taxes on the wealthy and although I agree with his position, the increased income for the Treasury wouldn’t come close to solving our fiscal deficit.