Urban Studies

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From the September 28, 1891 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Raymond Orterg check presented to Lindbergh.

In 1919, New York City immigrant hotelier and restaurateur Raymond Orteig had an inspiring if dangerous idea to speed up the development of aviation. He established a $25,000 prize to go to the first pilot to complete a successful solo flight between New York and Paris. The businessman received a great return on his investment as numerous aviators individually poured time and resources into the endeavor. The first six attempts ended in failure and death, before Charles Lindbergh collected the check from Orteig, who had flown to Paris for the occasion.

I was reminded of Orteig by a recent Vivek Wadhwa column in the Washington Post which compared him to Peter Diamandis, who 20 years ago established the $10,000,000 X Prize to similarly stimulate space travel. Below is a Brooklyn Daily Eagle feature published a few months after Lindbergh’s 1927 triumph, which told of Orteig’s unlikely rags-to-riches story and how he sparked one of history’s great moments.

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Illustration of Marage’s talking machine from Scientific American.

The practical talking machine invented by Dr. R. Marage in fin de siècle Paris was a sensation for awhile, though it seems to have passed silently into the vortex of technological history.

A member of the French Academy of Medicine, Marage was attempting with his device (photo here) to outdo Thomas Edison and his phonograph, which reliably offered recorded sound, though it was the latter invention that ultimately found a market. It’s only in our time that chatbots and Siri have begun to scratch the surface of machine-conversation potential. While the science behind Marage’s apparatus was immaterial to those innovations, it does remind that the dream of non-human speech long predated Silicon Valley.

An article from the Scientific American touting his achievement was reprinted in the November 3, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Many within the driverless sector think the technology is only five years from remaking our roads and economies. Perhaps they know enough to be sure of such a bold ETA, or perhaps they’re parked in an echo chamber. Either way, it appears this new tool will enter our lives sooner than later.

Beyond perfecting technology that works in all traffic situations and weather conditions are knotty questions about ethics, legislation, Labor, etc. Excerpts follow from two articles on the topic. 


From Anjana Ahuja’s smart FT piece on the problem of crowdsourcing driverless ethics:

Anyone with a computer and a coffee break can contribute to MIT’s mass experiment, which imagines the brakes failing on a fully autonomous vehicle. The vehicle is packed with passengers, and heading towards pedestrians. The experiment depicts 13 variations of the “trolley problem” — a classic dilemma in ethics that involves deciding who will die under the wheels of a runaway tram.

In MIT’s reformulation, the runaway is a self-driving car that can keep to its path or swerve; both mean death and destruction. The choice can be between passengers and pedestrians, or two sets of pedestrians. Calculating who should perish involves pitting more lives against fewer, young against old, professionals against the homeless, pregnant women against athletes, humans against pets.

At heart, the trolley problem is about deciding who lives, who dies — the kind of judgment that truly autonomous vehicles may eventually make. My “preferences” are revealed afterwards: I mostly save children and sacrifice pets. Pedestrians who are not jaywalking are spared and passengers expended. It is obvious: by choosing to climb into a driverless car, they should shoulder the burden of risk. As for my aversion to swerving, should caution not dictate that driverless cars are generally programmed to follow the road?

It is illuminating — until you see how your preferences stack up against everyone else.•


From Keith Naughton’s Businessweek article on legislating the end of human drivers:

This week, technology industry veterans proposed a ban on human drivers on a 150-mile (241-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 5 from Seattle to Vancouver. Within five years, human driving could be outlawed in congested city centers like London, on college campuses and at airports, said Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive transportation at consultant EY.

The first driver-free zones will be well-defined and digitally mapped, giving autonomous cars long-range vision and a 360-degree view of their surroundings, Schondorf said. The I-5 proposal would start with self-driving vehicles using car-pool lanes and expand over a decade to robot rides taking over the road during peak driving times.

“In city centers, you don’t even want non-automated vehicles; they would just ruin the whole point of why you have a smart city,” said Schondorf, a former engineer at Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. “It makes it a dumb city.”

John Krafcik, head of Google’s self-driving car project, said in an August interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that the tech giant is developing cars without steering wheels and gas or brake pedals because “we need to take the human out of the loop.” Ford Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields echoed that sentiment last month when he said the 113-year-old automaker would begin selling robot taxis with no steering wheel or pedals in 2021.•

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The past isn’t necessarily prologue. Sometimes there’s a clean break from history. The Industrial Age transformed Labor, moving us from an agrarian culture to an urban one, providing new jobs that didn’t previously exist: advertising, marketing, car mechanic, etc. That doesn’t mean the Digital Age will follow suit. Much of manufacturing, construction, driving and other fields will eventually fall, probably sooner than later, and Udacity won’t be able to rapidly transition everyone into a Self-Driving Car Engineer. That type of upskilling can take generations to complete.

Not every job has to vanish. Just enough to make unemployment scarily high to cause social unrest. And those who believe Universal Basic Income is a panacea must beware truly bad versions of such programs, which can end up harming more than helping. 

Radical abundance doesn’t have to be a bad thing, of course. It should be a very good one. But we’ve never managed plenty in America very well, and this level would be on an entirely different scale.

Excerpts from two articles on the topic.


From Giles Wilkes’ Economist review of Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans:

What saves this work from overreach is the insistent return to the problem of abundant human labour. The thesis is rather different from the conventional, Malthusian miserabilism about burgeoning humanity doomed to near-starvation, with demand always outpacing supply. Instead, humanity’s growing technical capabilities will render the supply of what workers produce, be that physical products or useful services, ever more abundant and with less and less labour input needed. At first glance, worrying about such abundance seems odd; how typical that an economist should find something dismal in plenty.

But while this may be right when it is a glut of land, clean water, or anything else that is useful, there is a real problem when it is human labour. For the role work plays in the economy is two-sided, responsible both for what we produce, and providing the rights to what is made. Those rights rely on power, and power in the economic system depends on scarcity. Rob human labour of its scarcity, and its position in the economic hierarchy becomes fragile.

A good deal of the Wealth of Humans is a discussion on what is increasingly responsible for creating value in the modern economy, which Mr Avent correctly identifies as “social capital”: that intangible matrix of values, capabilities and cultures that makes a company or nation great. Superlative businesses and nation states with strong institutions provide a secure means of getting well-paid, satisfying work. But access to the fruits of this social capital is limited, often through the political system. Occupational licensing, for example, prevents too great a supply of workers taking certain protected jobs, and border controls achieve the same at a national level. Exceptional companies learn how to erect barriers around their market. The way landholders limit further development provides a telling illustration: during the San Fransisco tech boom, it was the owners of scarce housing who benefited from all that feverish innovation. Forget inventing the next Facebook, be a landlord instead.

Not everyone can, of course, which is the core problem the book grapples with. Only a few can work at Google, or gain a Singaporean passport, inherit property in London’s Mayfair or sell $20 cheese to Manhattanites. For the rest, there is a downward spiral: in a sentence, technological progress drives labour abundance, this abundance pushes down wages, and every attempt to fight it will encourage further substitution towards alternatives.•


From Duncan Jefferies’ Guardian article “The Automated City“:

Enfield council is going one step further – and her name is Amelia. She’s an “intelligent personal assistant” capable of analysing natural language, understanding the context of conversations, applying logic, resolving problems and even sensing emotions. She’s designed to help residents locate information and complete application forms, as well as simplify some of the council’s internal processes. Anyone can chat to her 24/7 through the council’s website. If she can’t answer something, she’s programmed to call a human colleague and learn from the situation, enabling her to tackle a similar question unaided in future.

Amelia is due to be deployed later this year, and is supposed to be 60% cheaper than a human employee – useful when you’re facing budget cuts of £56m over the next four years. Nevertheless, the council claims it has no plans to get rid of its 50 call centre workers.

The Singaporean government, in partnership with Microsoft, is also planning to roll out intelligent chatbots in several stages: at first they will answer simple factual questions from the public, then help them complete tasks and transactions, before finally responding to personalised queries.

Robinson says that, while artificially intelligent chatbots could have a role to play in some areas of public service delivery: “I think we overlook the value of a quality personal relationship between two people at our peril, because it’s based on life experience, which is something that technology will never have – certainly not current generations of technology, and not for many decades to come.”

But whether everyone can be “upskilled” to carry out more fulfilling work, and how many staff will actually be needed as robots take on more routine tasks, remains to be seen.•

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From the October 13, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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As long as the Earth is around, they’ll be those who wrongly argue that it’s flat.

Few did so more vehemently than evangelist Wilbur Glenn Voliva, one of the most famous advocates of Flat Earth theories in America during the first half of the 20th century. In 1906, the preacher gained power over the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois. He turned the community of 6,000 into a multi-pronged industrial concern, taking advantage of the very low wages he paid members of his flock. By the 1920s, Voliva owned one of the most powerful radio stations in the nation from which to preach his anti-science views, a forerunner of the many dicey religious figures to come who would mix mass and media.

While Voliva despised globes, it was the advent of aerial photography (and his own outsize financial improprieties) that dimmed but did not end his career. After all, despite any proof, some still see what they want to see.

Three articles below from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle follow the arc of his notable life.


From June 22, 1924:

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From April 19. 1931:

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From October 12, 1942:

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From the July 17, 1951 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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William James Sidis amazed the world, and then he disappointed it.

A Harvard student in 1910 at just 11 years old, he was considered the most astounding prodigy of early 20th-century America, a genius of mathematics and much more, reading at two and typing at three, who had been trained methodically and relentlessly from birth by his father, a psychiatrist and professor. It was a lot to live up to. There was a dalliance with radical politics at the end of his teens that threw him off the path to greatness, resulting in a sedition trial. In the aftermath, he quietly disappeared into an undistinguished life.

When it was learned in 1937 that Sidis was living a threadbare existence of no great import, merely a clerk, he was treated to a public accounting which was laced with no small amount of schadenfreude. He sued the New Yorker over an article by Gerald L. Manley and James Thurber (gated) which detailed his failed promise. He was paid $3,000 to settle the case by the magazine’s publishers just prior to his death in 1944.

Three portraits below from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle chart Sidis’ uncommon life.


From March 20, 1910:


From May 5, 1919:

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From July 18, 1944:

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Not that long ago, it was considered bold–foolhardy, even–to predict the arrival of a more technological future 25 years down the road. That was the gambit the Los Angeles Times made in 1988 when it published “L.A. 2013,” a feature that imagined the next-level life of a family of four and their robots.

We may not yet be at the point when “whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and a reply“–I mean, who talks on the phone anymore?–but it doesn’t require a quarter of a century for the new to shock us now. In the spirit of our age, Alissa Walker of the Curbed LA works from the new report “Urban Mobility in the Digital Age” when imagining the city’s remade transportation system in just five years. Regardless of what Elon Musk promises, I’ll bet the over on autonomous cars arriving in a handful of years, but it will be transformative when it does materialize, and it’ll probably happen sooner than later.

The opening:

It’s 2021, and you’re making your way home from work. You jump off the Expo line (which now travels from Santa Monica to Downtown in 20 minutes flat), and your smartwatch presents you with options for the final two miles to your apartment. You could hop on Metro’s bike share, but you decide on a tiny, self-driving bus that’s waiting nearby. As you board, it calculates a custom route for you and the handful of other passengers, then drops you off at your doorstep in a matter of minutes. You walk through your building’s old parking lot—converted into a vegetable garden a few years ago—and walk inside in time to put your daughter to bed.

That’s the vision for Los Angeles painted in Urban Mobility in the Digital Age, a new report that provides a roadmap for the city’s transportation future. The report, which was shared with Curbed LA and has been posted online, addresses the city’s plan to combine self-driving vehicles (buses included) with on-demand sharing services to create a suite of smarter, more efficient transit options.

But it’s not just the way that we commute that will change, according to the report. Simply being smarter about how Angelenos move from one place to another brings additional benefits: alleviating vehicular congestion, potentially eliminating traffic deaths, and tackling climate change—where transportation is now the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases. And it will also impact the way the city looks, namely by reclaiming the streets and parking lots devoted to the driving and storing of cars that sit motionless 95 percent of the time.

The report is groundbreaking because it makes LA the first U.S. city to specifically address policies around self-driving cars.•

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From the March 17, 1904 New York Times:

Jacksonville, Fla. — While in a cage with three lions this afternoon, Alfred J.F. Perrins, the animal trainer, suddenly became insane. Soon after he entered the cage Perrins struck one of the lions a vicious blow and cried, “Why don’t you bow to me, I am God’s agent.”

Perrins then left the cage, leaving the door open and saying, “They will come out, as God is looking after them.” He then stood on a box and called on the spectators to come and be healed, saying he could restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and heal any disease by a gift just received from God.

The lions started to leave the cage and the spectators fled. The cage door was slammed by a policeman, who arrested Perrins. Physicians announced Perrins hopelessly crazed on religion. He has been in show business thirty years, having been with Robinson, Barnum, and Sells.•

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Many of the goals of the Industrial and Digital Ages have been aimed at trying to make heretofore irreducible things smaller: putting the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, reducing musical recordings and newspapers to pure data, etc. In that same vein, scientists endeavored to shrink an entire meal to the size of a pill long before Rob Rhinehart made dinner drinkable with Soylent. An article in the August 28, 1899 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on such efforts.

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From the July 31, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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It’s no mere coincidence painkillers have been the hot drug in America in this new century, because, wow, it’s hurt. 

Until recently, I had relatives living in the Oxy capital of NYC, and when I visited and walked around, it was a bit like encountering zombies, lost souls still hopeful enough to continue buying lottery tickets but unable to wish for more. That’s as much as the Dream lives not only there but in many stretches of the U.S. It’s been decades of decline for the former middle class, and for a lot of folks it feels like endgame. It’s not their imagination.

Big Pharma incentivized doctors to hand our fistfuls of opioid scripts, sure, but the loss of hope was the other toxic half of the equation. Hard drugs were once the province of the poor who were already at rock bottom and comfortably middle class kids who could afford a (temporary) fall, but almost nobody can pay that price anymore, even as the nation grows wealthier in the macro. That’s led some to do the unthinkable, to embrace a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, someone who wants to Make America White Again. That’s a lottery without a winning number.

The great David Simon, the Victor Hugo of Baltimore, just conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything and addressed this topic, among others. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

I can genuinely say that The Wire directly inspired me to pursue the career path that I’m in today. I first watched the show while in college, and it informed me about many issues that I had previously been unaware of or apathetic too. Bubbles story arc connected with me so deeply that I took my first sociology course and began volunteering with homeless populations. Today I’m working as a substance abuse and mental health care coordinator in the field of community health, where I primarily work with lower income and homeless individuals.

The content you create has an impeccable ability to educate the public about real world issues through compelling storytelling that is absolutely unmatched. Thank you for the work that you do and inspiring me to pursue a career in a field that I previously wouldn’t have considered.

At this point what do you believe needs to happen to start making an impact in combating the growing opioid epidemic in our country?

David Simon:

I believe the abuse of narcotics — whether street drugs or pharmasale — is the result of a fundamental existential crisis among working and middle-class Americans in the same way that it was once that for the underclass. We need to return to an economic model that values labor, and the human lives that comprise labor.


Question:

What’s your take on the Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter situation?

David Simon:

Black lives matter. So do blue lives. But the context of the “black lives matter” credo is that unlike blue lives, or white lives — which have de facto mattered in our country for generations — African-Americans have been far too vulnerable to unnecessary and hyperbolic response by law enforcement. This is simply so, and is now evidenced by the smart phone revolution.


Question

Where do you see print journalism heading in the next decade? Any examples of recent work that you find interesting?

David Simon:

I want and we need to see an on-line revenue stream for journalism established that ensures that professional reporters can earn a living covering the quotidian beats of institutionalized America. When stuff is funded, it’s good and fixed and every day. Citizen journalist is not a phrase I take seriously in any sense. I think Pro Publica and Mother Jones and a number of on-line elements show great chops; but the money still isn’t right. People need to pay and copyright has to matter again, or it can’t grow as it needs.

Question:

What can a common person do to stop the death of journalism?

David Simon:

Pay for it. Online. Pay a little bit each month. You did when they dumped it on the doorstep, and you can pay even less than that now to support the salaries of trained reporters and photographers and videographers.


Question:

What’s your bucket list project or subject that you’d like to tackle?

David Simon:

A history of the CIA from post-WWII to 9/11/2001. And a narrative of the American leftists who fought in Spain and paid early for our stated ideals. Also, a small feature film about David Maulsby, a rewrite man, and Jack, a gorilla at the Baltimore Zoo. I’ll say no more about that.•

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Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was more famous than infamous, which seems a strange thing.

During the 1930s, the soft-featured felon participated in a string of brazen bank robberies and left behind a body count, but such was the hatred for financial institutions in America during the Great Depression that he was widely considered a Robin Hood if not a saint. Stories circulated that he shredded mortgages of down-and-out farmers while emptying safes and shared his ill-gotten gains with the hungry and disheartened, which was nearly everyone.

Who knows? Maybe he found time for such acts of benevolence in between shootouts and jail breaks, but these legends had more to do with what a desperate people needed than what a lone gunman was delivering. It was Woody Guthrie who put it all in perspective in his great song named after the beloved criminal, writing “Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered / I’ve seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen.”

Two Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles from 1934 recall Floyd’s wide renown at the end of his wild run.


From October 23, 1934:

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From October 29, 1934:

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In an Atlantic Q&A, Derek Thompson has a smart conversation with the Economist’s Ryan Avent, the author of the soon-to-be-published The Wealth of Humans, a book whose sly title suggests abundance may not arrive without a degree of menace. Avent is firmly in the McAfee-Brynjolfsson camp, believing the Digital Age will rival the Industrial one in its spurring of economic and societal disruption. An excerpt:

The Atlantic:

There is an ongoing debate about whether technological growth is accelerating, as economists like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (the authors of The Second Machine Age) insist, or slowing down, as the national productivity numbers indicate. Where do you come down?

Ryan Avent:

I come down squarely in the Brynjolfsson and McAfee camp and strongly disagree with economists like Robert Gordon, who have said that growth is basically over. I think the digital revolution is probably going to be as important and transformative as the industrial revolution. The main reason is machine intelligence, a general-purpose technology that can be used anywhere, from driving cars to customer service, and it’s getting better very, very quickly. There’s no reason to think that improvement will slow down, whether or not Moore’s Law continues.

I think this transformative revolution will create an abundance of labor. It will create enormous growth in [the supply of workers and machines], automating a lot of industries and boosting productivity. When you have this glut of workers, it plays havoc with existing institutions.

I think we are headed for a really important era in economic history. The Industrial Revolution is a pretty good guide of what that will look like. There will have to be a societal negotiation for how to share the gains from growth. That process will be long and drawn out. It will involve intense ideological conflict, and history suggests that a lot will go wrong.•

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Seminal reading about NYC of the last five decades is “My Lost City,” Luc Sante’s brilliant 2003 New York Review of Books paean to an era not too long ago when hardly anyone here was a have-not, even if they were poor, with a trove of printed matter and records and furnishings to be had on many a curb to whomever was willing to haul it away. The riches poureth over and provided a different, and often deeper, kind of wealth. Okay, some people truly had it worse four decades or so ago. For instance, child prostitutes were a staple of Times Square. Relentless gentrification, however, wasn’t the only way to deal with that horror.

Sante has now republished “The Last Time I Saw Basquiat” in the NYRB, another piece about a time of greater creativity that’s been lost, though he’s hopeful in asserting that the struggle against wealth inequality for an affordable, working-class New York continues. I wish I felt the same. In Cohen-esque terms, the war to me seems over, the good guys having lost. 

An excerpt:

The last time I saw Jean I was going home from work, had just passed through the turnstile at the 57th Street BMT station. We spotted each other, he at the bottom of the stairs, me at the top. As he climbed I witnessed a little silent movie. He stopped briefly at the first landing, whipped out a marker and rapidly wrote something on the wall, then went up to the second landing, where two cops emerged from a recess and collared him. I kept going.

A month later he was famous and I never saw him again. We no longer traveled in the same circles. I was happy for him, but then it became obvious he was flaming out at an alarming pace. I heard stories of misery and excess, the compass needle flying around the dial, a crash looming. When he died I mourned, but it seemed inevitable, as well as a symptom of the times, the wretched Eighties. He was a casualty in a war—a war that, by the way, continues. Years later I needed money badly and undertook to sell the Basquiat productions I own, but got no takers, since they were too early, failed to display the classic Basquiat look. I’m glad it turned out that way.•

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From the March 3, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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A century ago in France it might have been as apt to refer to Georges Claude as a luminary as anyone else. The inventor of neon lights, which debuted at the Paris Motor Show of 1910, the scientist was often thought of as a “French Edison,” a visionary who shined his brilliance on the world. Problem was, there was a dark side: a Royalist who disliked democracy, Claude eagerly collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation and was arrested once Hitler was defeated. He spent six years in prison, though he was ultimately cleared of the most serious charge of having invented the V-1 flying bomb for the Axis. Two articles below from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle chronicle his rise and fall. 


From February 25, 1931:

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From September 20, 1944:

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The robots may be coming for our jobs, but they’re not coming for our species, not yet.

Anyone worried about AI extincting humans in the short term is really buying into sci-fi hype far too much, and those quipping that we’ll eventually just unplug machines if they get too smart is underselling more distant dangers. But in the near term, Weak AI (e.g., automation) is far more a peril to society than Strong AI (e.g., conscious machines). It could move us into a post-scarcity tomorrow, or it could do great damage if it’s managed incorrectly.What happens if too many jobs are lost all at once? Will there be enough of a transition period to allow us to pivot?

In a Technology Review piece, Will Knight writes of a Stanford study on AI that predicts certain key disruptive technologies will not have cut a particularly wide swath by 2030. Of course, even this research, which takes a relatively conservative view of the future, suggests we start discussing social safety nets for those on the short end of what may become an even more imbalanced digital divide.

The opening:

The odds that artificial intelligence will enslave or eliminate humankind within the next decade or so are thankfully slim. So concludes a major report from Stanford University on the social and economic implications of artificial intelligence.

At the same time, however, the report concludes that AI looks certain to upend huge aspects of everyday life, from employment and education to transportation and entertainment. More than 20 leaders in the fields of AI, computer science, and robotics coauthored the report. The analysis is significant because the public alarm over the impact of AI threatens to shape public policy and corporate decisions.

It predicts that automated trucks, flying vehicles, and personal robots will be commonplace by 2030, but cautions that remaining technical obstacles will limit such technologies to certain niches. It also warns that the social and ethical implications of advances in AI, such as the potential for unemployment in certain areas and likely erosions of privacy driven by new forms of surveillance and data mining, will need to be open to discussion and debate.•

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Not an original idea: Driverless cars are perfected in the near future and join the traffic, and some disruptive souls, perhaps us, decide to purchase an autonomous taxi and set it to work. We charge less than any competitor, use our slim profits for maintenance and to eventually buy a second taxi. Those two turn into an ever-growing fleet. We subtract our original investment (and ourselves) from the equation, and let this benevolent monster grow, ownerless, allowing it to automatically schedule its own repairs and purchases. Why would anyone need Uber or Lyft in such a scenario? Those outfits would be value-less.

In a very good Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Nick Bilton doesn’t extrapolate Uber’s existential risk quite this far, but he writes wisely of the technology that may make rideshare companies a shooting star, enjoying only a brief lifespan like Compact Discs, though minus the outrageous profits that format produced. 

The opening:

Seven years ago, just before Uber opened for business, the company was valued at exactly zero dollars. Today, it is worth around $68 billion. But it is not inconceivable that Uber, as mighty as it currently appears, could one day return to its modest origins, worth nothing. Uber, in fact, knows this better than almost anyone. As Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, candidly articulated in an interview with Business Insider, ride-sharing companies are particularly vulnerable to an impeding technology that is going to change our society in unimaginable ways: the driverless car. “The world is going to go self-driving and autonomous,” he unequivocally told Biz Carson. He continued: “So if that’s happening, what would happen if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by, basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way.”

Kalanick wasn’t just being dramatic. He was being brutally honest. To understand how Uber and its competitors, such as Lyft andJuno, could be rendered useless by automation—leveled in the same way that they themselves leveled the taxi industry—you need to fast-forward a few years to a hypothetical version of the future that might seem surreal at the moment. But, I can assure you, it may well resemble how we will live very, very soon.•

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From the August 11, 1889 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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A CBP Border Patrol Agent investigates a potential landing area for illegal immigrants along the Rio Grande River in Texas

Surveillance is a murky thing almost always attended by a self-censorship, quietly encouraging citizens to abridge their communication because maybe, perhaps someone is watching or listening. It’s a chilling of civil rights that happens in a creeping manner. Nothing can be trusted, not even the mundane, not even your own judgement. That’s the goal, really, of such a system–that everyone should feel endlessly observed.

In a Texas Monthly piece, Sasha Von Oldershausen, a border reporter in West Texas, finds similarities between her stretch of America, which feverishly focuses on security from intruders, and her time spent living under theocracy in Iran. An excerpt:

Surveillance is key to the CBP’s strategy at the border, but you don’t have to look to the skies for constant reminders that they’re there. Internal checkpoints located up to 100 miles from the border give Border Patrol agents the legal authority to search any person’s vehicle without a warrant. It’s enough to instill a feeling of guilt even in the most exemplary of citizens. For those commuting daily on roads fitted with these checkpoints, the search becomes rote: the need to prove one’s right to abide is an implicit part of life.

Despite the visible cues, it’s still hard to figure just how all-seeing the CBP’s eyes are. For one, understanding the “realities” of border security varies based on who you talk to.

Esteban Ornelas—a Mexican citizen who was charged with illegal entry into the United States in 2012 and deported shortly thereafter—swears that he was caught was because a friend he was traveling through the backcountry with sent a text message to his family. “They traced the signal,” he told me in his hometown of Boquillas.

When I consulted CBP spokesperson Brooks and senior Border Patrol agent Stephen Crump about what Ornelas had told me, they looked at each other and laughed. “That’s pretty awesome,” Crump said. “Note to self: develop that technology.”

I immediately felt foolish to have asked. But when I asked Pauling that same question, his reply was much more austere: “I can’t answer that,” he said, and left it at that.•

 

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Some argue, as John Thornhill does in a new Financial Times column, that technology may not be the main impediment to the proliferation of driverless cars. I doubt that’s true. If you could magically make available today relatively safe and highly functioning autonomous vehicles, ones that operated on a level superior to humans, then hearts, minds and legislation would soon favor the transition. I do think driving as recreation and sport would continue, but much of commerce and transport would shift to our robot friends.

Earlier in the development of driverless, I wondered if Americans would hand over the wheel any sooner than they’d turn in their guns, but I’ve since been convinced we (largely) will. We may have a macro fear of robots, but we hand over control to them with shocking alacrity. A shift to driverless wouldn’t be much different.

An excerpt from Thornhill in which he lists the main challenges, technological and otherwise, facing the sector:

First, there is the instinctive human resistance to handing over control to a robot, especially given fears of cyber-hacking. Second, for many drivers cars are an extension of their identity, a mechanical symbol of independence, control and freedom. They will not abandon them lightly.

Third, robots will always be held to far higher safety standards than humans. They will inevitably cause accidents. They will also have to be programmed to make a calculation that could kill their passengers or bystanders to minimise overall loss of life. This will create a fascinating philosophical sub-school of algorithmic morality. “Many of us are afraid that one reckless act will cause an accident that causes a backlash and shuts down the industry for a decade,” says the Silicon Valley engineer. “That would be tragic if you could have saved tens of thousands of lives a year.”

Fourth, the deployment of autonomous vehicles could destroy millions of jobs. Their rapid introduction is certain to provoke resistance. There are 3.5m professional lorry drivers in the US.

Fifth, the insurance industry and legal community have to wrap their heads around some tricky liability issues. In what circumstances is the owner, car manufacturer or software developer responsible for damage?•

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download (1)More than six decades ago, long before Siri got her voice, Georgetown and IBM co-presented the first public demonstration of machine translation. Russian was neatly converted into English by an “electronic brain,” the IBM 701, and one of the principals involved, the university’s Professor Leon Dostert, excitedly reacted to the success, proclaiming the demo a “Kitty Hawk of electronic translation.” Certainly the impact from this experiment was nothing close to the significance of the Wright brothers’ achievement, but it was a harbinger of things to (eventually) come. An article in the January 8, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered the landmark event.

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