Urban Studies

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Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles looks at his city and dreams of even more cars, though the driverless variety that can be used as taxis, that can be shared. He wants an L.A. in which commuters can buy a unit of transportation and apply it in myriad ways with their smartphones. From John Metcalfe at Citylab:

“Garcetti says the city is working with UCLA to develop a neighborhood for driverless vehicles, perhaps around the university in Westwood. He’s also working on something secretive-sounding with the brains at Xerox—’kind of like the Skunk Works guys who brought us the mouse and everything else’—to manage such a driverless network, as well as more traditional manned vehicles from bus down to bicycle.

The basic idea is that commuters would be allowed to purchase a dollar amount of transit (say, $500 a month) and then use their phones or computers to order transit in the way they might a pizza. Here’s Garcetti’s explanation of what this platform might involve:

‘Now through a single app, I could order a taxi, an Uber, a Lyft, a Sidecar; I could get on the bus, I could get on the rail, I could take out a shared bike, I could get a shared car like a Zipcar or something like that. And you never have to stress out anymore about how you’re going to get some place. You know you have the options…. And maybe the city makes a small transaction fee off of that, or MTA, so it’s actually in our interest to build that and then share that open-source again with the rest of the world.'”

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From the August 8, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

St. Louis — Philip H. Nickerson, a salesman, cut his arteries in an attempt to end his life, yesterday, because, he said, his wife was too affectionate. He was married three months ago.

‘I am fond of my wife,’ Nickerson added, ‘and I want her to be fond of me. But there is a limit to all things. She wants to sit continuously on my lap and hug and kiss me. If I stand up she stands up, too, and puts her arms about me, and when I am away she writes three letters to me daily.'”


I previously posted the audio of the “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” speech Timothy Leary delivered at UCLA in 1967, and here’s the video of the spirited LSD debate he participated in with Dr. Jerry Lettvin at MIT a few months later. In his remarks, Leary lambastes scientists and technologists devoted to manufacturing entertaining diversions.

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Robotics will increase productivity, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean wages will likewise rise. Automation to the extent that will soon exist is uncharted territory and no one can predict the exact fallout. From Brad DeLong at Project Syndicate:

“The wages and salaries of low- and high-skill workers in the robot-computer economy of the future will not be determined by the (very high) productivity of the one lower-skill worker ensuring that all of the robots are in their places or the one high-skill worker reprogramming the software. Instead, compensation will reflect what workers outside the highly productive computer-robot economy are creating and earning.

The newly industrialized city of Manchester, which horrified Friedrich Engels when he worked there in the 1840s, had the highest level of labor productivity the world had ever seen. But the factory workers’ wages were set not by their extraordinary productivity, but by what they would earn if they returned to the potato fields of pre-famine Ireland.

So the question is not whether robots and computers will make human labor in the goods, high-tech services, and information-producing sectors infinitely more productive. They will. What really matters is whether the jobs outside of the robot-computer economy – jobs involving people’s mouths, smiles, and minds – remain valuable and in high demand.”


Having edited many, many people over the years, I feel confident in saying that writing is a natural gift that must be developed incrementally. If you don’t have that innate flair, you’ll just be hitting your head against a wall over and over (as will your editor). It’s really no different than music or athletics: Without the inborn goods, effort can go just so far. And if you don’t work very strenuously to develop the gift should you possess it, you’ll be left with a writer’s ego minus the ability. God help you.

Steven Pinker thinks the preponderance of lousy writing stems from something else: the Curse of Knowledge, which causes people who are experts at something to fail to communicate properly with those outside their expertise. (Think of an IT person sending you inexplicable instructions.) Sure, that’s true, but I don’t think it’s the main problem. Plenty of experts can write very well. From a Pinker piece in the Wall Street Journal:

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it. Thirty students send me attachments named ‘psych assignment.doc.’ I go to a website for a trusted-traveler program and have to decide whether to click on GOES, Nexus, GlobalEntry, Sentri, Flux or FAST—bureaucratic terms that mean nothing to me. My apartment is cluttered with gadgets that I can never remember how to use because of inscrutable buttons which may have to be held down for one, two or four seconds, sometimes two at a time, and which often do different things depending on invisible “modes” toggled by still other buttons. I’m sure it was perfectly clear to the engineers who designed it.

Multiply these daily frustrations by a few billion, and you begin to see that the curse of knowledge is a pervasive drag on the strivings of humanity, on par with corruption, disease and entropy. Cadres of expensive professionals—lawyers, accountants, computer gurus, help-line responders—drain vast sums of money from the economy to clarify poorly drafted text.•


Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, who refuses to do interviews unless someone asks, just sounded off to the Wall Street Journal about the technophobia he feels is pervasive in America and Europe. More likely, people enjoy technology’s benefits but have concerns about the downsides (privacy issues, environmental concerns, unemployment, etc.), although there certainly is tension between the old Dream Factory (Hollywood) and the new one (Silicon Valley). An excerpt:

“Forget all the buzz over driverless cars; the days spent waiting in line for the latest iPhone; the drones delivering medicine. Tech investor Peter Thiel says that, fundamentally, our society hates tech.

‘We live in a financial and capitalistic age,’ he said. ‘We do not live in a scientific or technological age. We live in an age that’s dominated by hostility and unfriendliness towards all things technological.” …

Silicon Valley, he said, has people who believe in technology and scientific innovation, while much of the rest of the U.S. doesn’t.

‘The easiest way to see this is you just look at all the movies Hollywood makes,’ he said. ‘They all show technology that doesn’t work; that kills people; that’s destroying the world, and you can choose between Avatar, or The Matrix, or Terminator films.’ (Mr. Thiel has previously lashed out at Hollywood, including criticizing how Silicon Valley was portrayed in the movie, The Social Network–which documents Facebook’s creation and Mr. Thiel’s part in it.) “


One question from Jeffrey Rosen’s New Republic interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has quietly and gradually become a towering figure in American life:


What’s the worst ruling the current Court has produced?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be. So that’s number one on my list. Number two would be the part of the health care decision that concerns the commerce clause. Since 1937, the Court has allowed Congress a very free hand in enacting social and economic legislation. I thought that the attempt of the Court to intrude on Congress’s domain in that area had stopped by the end of the 1930s. Of course health care involves commerce. Perhaps number three would be Shelby County, involving essentially the destruction of the Voting Rights Act. That act had a voluminous legislative history. The bill extending the Voting Rights Act was passed overwhelmingly by both houses, Republicans and Democrats, everyone was on board. The Court’s interference with that decision of the political branches seemed to me out of order. The Court should have respected the legislative judgment. Legislators know much more about elections than the Court does. And the same was true of Citizens United. I think members of the legislature, people who have to run for office, know the connection between money and influence on what laws get passed.”•

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You could make money in the fin de siècle Kansas City bone market, though you weren’t at that point in any condition to enjoy the spoils. An article from the September 28, 1902 Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the free-market cost of skulls and such.




In a Guardian “Science Weekly” podcast, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, author Sapiens, tells host Ian Sample how homo sapiens was just one type of human prior to 12,000 years ago, only a mid-range member of the food chain, which used a collaborative spirit and abstract reasoning to conquer other humans and animals. He also explains why he thinks we’ll again in the future have many different types of humans. Two excerpts from the conversation follow.


How did we make that leap [to the top of the food chain] and what were the problems it caused?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Well, we made that leap thanks above all to large-scale cooperation. We often look for the advantage of Homo sapiens on the individual level because I want to think that personally I’m special, I’m so much superior to chimpanzees or baboons or elephants or whatever. But the fact is that on the individual level, we are not very remarkable animals. If you put me and a chimpanzee alone on an island, and we had to struggle for survival, I would definitely place my bets on the chimpanzee, not on myself. We are powerful only when we cooperate in large groups, and this is our big advantage. If you put a thousand chimpanzees and a thousand sapiens on an island, the sapiens will easily win, for the simple reason that a thousand chimpanzees can’t cooperate. Large-scale cooperation is the secret of Homo sapiens’ success, and this has made it not only the top dog in the food chain but also an ecological serial killer. We have been changing the ecology of the planet and causing the extinction of many, many species of other animals and plants long before the Industrial Revolution. The first time it happened was 45,000 years ago when the first sapiens reached Australia and colonized Australia, and within a few thousand years, 95% of all the big animals in Australia became extinct. And the same thing happened again and again in America and Madagascar and many other places.


I was keen to hear how you think the Scientific Revolution has influenced our path.

Yuval Noah Harari:

The Scientific Revolution is one of the three big revolutions of history, and it might turn out in the end to be the biggest revolution of all–not only of history but also of biology. Because at present in the early twenty-first century, science is starting to give people amazing abilities to reshape life itself and to move from the old principle of life, which was natural selection, to the new principle of intelligent design. After four billion years in which life on Earth evolved according to natural selection, we might just now be starting a new phase, which will be based on intelligent design, with the help of technologies like genetic engineering, like nanotechnology, like direct computer-brain interfaces, that can be used for the production or engineering of cyborgs. …

Just as 70,000 years ago, when we had something like six biologically different species on the planet, in the 21st or 22nd century, we might again have biologically different humans, each with very different capabilities and qualities, and maybe even desires.•

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Nobody calls anymore: It’s all texts, tweets and emojis. Phones are ever-more sophisticated, but most functions are silent. There are attempts, however, to remake the 135-year-old tool to fit the more fluid demands of what is becoming a post-voice world, though privacy may again suffer collateral damage. The opening of “Brave New Phone Call,” a just-published Medium piece by Steven Levy, the leading tech journalist of the personal-computing era:

“It is a gorgeous late summer afternoon, and I am sitting with Ray Ozzie in his spacious home office in Manchester-by-the-Sea, 30 miles up the coast from Boston. The software visionary who created Lotus Notes and who later succeeded Bill Gates as Microsoft’s chief software architect, is explaining to me how the humble phone call is not dying, as many might believe, but is busy being reborn.

It’s not an abstract subject for the 58-year entrepreneur. For the past few weeks I have been using the app his company is announcing today, called Talko. It’s a weird, almost magical, combination of phone calling, text messaging, virtual conferencing and Instagram-ish photo sharing. Depending on how you view it, Talko is three or 39 years in the making.

At one point, Ozzie wants to show me something on the app. We both pull out our iPhones and connect with each other; actually, in that moment, we reconnect to a conversation we’ve been having all month that’s been recorded and archived in the app. I think my editor might be interested in the discussion, so we expand the conversation to include him. He’s unable to join us at the moment—I should have known, because the app lets me see that he’s walking around somewhere on the West Coast—but I shoot a photo for him to look at anyway, and Ozzie and I continue talking. Later, my editor will listen to that part of conversation and see the picture at the moment we shot it. And he’ll have the option to comment, perhaps kicking off a longer discussion down the road, either by convening us together in real time or continuing in the same piecemeal fashion as today.

That’s a typical Talko phone call—mixing presence and playback for a totally new experience. God knows that the old experience of a phone call is getting tired.

A few days later, to note the irony of it all, Ozzie sends me a photo in the same ongoing conversation. It’s a plaque in downtown Boston, a block from a Talko engineering office there:

Here on June 2, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson first transmitted sound over wires.

That phone call represented an amazing advance in communications. But Ozzie considers it equally amazing that in the 139 years since ‘Mr. Watson, come here,’ phone calls haven’t changed much.”


Debut of the Picturephone, 1970:

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From the December 10, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Los AngelesLatham and Mars, the aviators, are noted hunters and keen rivals. While in California they will shoot ducks from their aeroplanes.”

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I’ve previously posted about Songdo, the high-tech insta-city being raised in South Korea, a top-down attempt to bring about tomorrow today. As the aerotropolis reaches the halfway point of its build, Ross Arbes and Charles Bethea of the Atlantic surveyed what might, perhaps, be the future, imperfections and all. An excerpt:

“Like most travelers, we spent our first night there in a hotel. Viewed from the 12th floor of the brand new, environmentally conscious Sheraton Incheon Hotel (the first LEED-certified hotel in South Korea), Songdo resembled an architect’s model. Unlike the crowded and colorful streets of Seoul, the scene below was polished, spacious, sparse—not quite artificial, but not quite broken in yet either. It was more like the manifestation of a designer’s master plan than an evolved metropolis, with layers of lived-in depth. In the middle of the city—which, at 13,195 acres, is almost half the size of Boston proper—sat the 101-acre Central Park, where a few joggers enjoyed the morning sun. North of the park, a number of undulating, blue-glass skyscrapers towered over us. Beyond stood rows of plain concrete buildings and, farther still, large plots of dirt. Construction cranes swung in all directions.

Venturing into the busiest section of town for dinner, we struck up a conversation with an Australian pilot-trainer who spends two weeks a month in Songdo. ‘Is this the city of the future?’ we asked. ‘I wouldn’t quite call it that,’ he said. ‘Of course, this is a great place to be. And it’s unbelievable that it was all just a pile of sand 10 years ago.’

The city was built for a future that hasn’t yet arrived. Songdo’s wide sidewalks and roads—evoking a movie set—are still waiting for pedestrians and cars to fill them. (A number of music videos and television shows, most notably Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style,’ have indeed been filmed in Songdo, taking advantage of its relative vacancy.) The quiet was almost eerie.

But this quiet lends itself to some nice surprises: You can hear birds, for instance. (Try that in Seoul.) An impressive 40 percent of the city will be park space—one of the highest percentages in the world, in keeping with Songdo’s design as a green city. (New York City, by comparison, leads the United States with almost 20 percent green space.) There are bicycles everywhere: A significant portion of the residents are bike commuters, and they park their rides in long neat rows in front of their apartment buildings at night. There are lovely pedestrian thoroughfares flanking clothing boutiques and restaurants with outdoor seating. There are even small plots of land for urban farming, many of which were given to Songdo’s former fishermen as reparation for the destruction of their fisheries. (Some now subsist as farmers.) Squinting at the green space, you could almost mistake the city for Portland, Oregon. Almost.

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Weak AI is going to continue to proliferate throughout the world, its laser focus on narrow tasks improving production and having major economic ramifications good and bad. But what of Strong AI? When will these rough beasts be “born,” their hour come round at last? From Diane Ackerman’s Salon profile of Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson:

“What’s the next hack for a rambunctious species full of whiz kids with digital dreams? Lipson is fascinated by a different branch of the robotic evolutionary tree than the tireless servant, army of skilled hands, or savant of finicky incisions with which we have become familiar. Over ten million Roomba vacuum cleaners have already sold to homeowners (who sometimes find them being ridden as child or cat chariots). We watch with fascination as robotic sea scouts explore the deep abysses (or sunken ships), and NOAA’s robots glide underwater to monitor the strength of hurricanes. Google’s robotics division owns a medley of firms, including some minting life-size humanoids—because, in public spaces, we’re more likely to ask a cherub-faced robot for info than a touchscreen. Both Apple and Amazon are diving into advanced robotics as well. The military has invested heavily in robots as spies, bionic gear, drones, pack animals, and bomb disposers. Robots already work for us with dedicated precision in factory assembly lines and operating rooms. In cross-cultural studies, the elderly will happily adopt robotic pets and even babies, though they aren’t keen on robot caregivers at the moment.

All of that, to Lipson, is child’s play. His focus is on a self-aware species, Robot sapiens. Our own lineage branched off many times from our apelike ancestors, and so will the flowering, subdividing lineage of robots, which perhaps needs its own Linnaean classification system. The first branch in robot evolution could split between AI and AL—artificial intelligence and artificial life. Lipson stands right at that fork in that road, whose path he’s famous for helping to divine and explore in one of the great digital adventures of our age. It’s the ultimate challenge, in terms of engineering, in terms of creation.

‘At the end of the day,’ he says with a nearly illegible smile, ‘I’m trying to recreate life in a synthetic environment—not necessarily something that will look human. I’m not trying to create a person who will walk out the door and say ‘Hello!’ with all sorts of anthropomorphic features, but rather features that are truly alive given the principles of life—traits and behaviors they have evolved on their own. I don’t want to build something, turn it on, and suddenly it will be alive. I don’t want to program it.'”

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If any of the current big tech companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple) exists 50 years from now, would we even recognize it? Google seems especially anxious to remake itself in grand ways, knowing that answering queries might not always pay the bills. With focus on driverless-car software and other moonshots, it has a chance to be that very successful company that used to be a search giant. Remember when? No?!?

Facebook is a dicier proposition. In a category infamous for faddishness, it snaked its way into the American conversation, before constricting into a choke hold. It’s not foundational, though it often feels as if it is. Ello, the social-network phenomenon of the last five minutes, isn’t likely to reach Facebook status because nothing is likely to. But it’s all the rage right now due to the distrust users have for Zuckenberg as a social director. The wariness is warranted. From Ruby J. Murray at the Guardian:

“This year marks a decade since Mark Zuckerberg and his motley crew of 20 year old programmers moved to Palo Alto, California, and defined a new phase in the internet’s infant history with their soothing blue sans-serif. Facebook has succeeded by providing us with a mirror during our early development. It’s inevitable demise will stem from a problem that only starts to hit you as you grow up: the complicated nature of time.

Facebook’s core identity management strategy is its photo albums. They’re the only part of ourselves that it lets us store, search and catalogue in any meaningful way. Narcissus-like, we can organise thousands upon thousands of images of our selves down through the years. There is no similar organizing function for the identities we create as we change: our thoughts, books, links, articles and music.

Considering that Facebook claims American users spend 40 minutes a day on the site – a whopping 243 hours a year – it’s no surprise that our past selves are starting to seem oppressive and unwieldy in their muumuus.

Facebook’s most important social function, the flipside to the photograph, used to be that it truly did give you a place to connect. A shared hive mind with people you would otherwise drift away from. Then Facebook began using a News Feed algorithms and default filters to choose whose posts you saw, they were trying to slow down the wall – and boost the likelihood you’d see Britney Spears’ updates over your friends. Its overall effect was infantalising. When Facebook acts like an overbearing parent, it’s only natural that the adults will want to move out.

The constant data-collection and streams of personalized advertising added injury to the insult of what was already feeling like a tight, airless social space. The internet can seem like so much light and pulses, but its effects are real. Visually and emotionally, the self you inhabit on Facebook is still a child.”

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Same guy?

There was an obnoxious guy named Schein a year ahead of me in school who everyone beat up. This was back around 1980. The douche had a big mouth and would never admit that he was wrong about anything. Anyone else from Lawrence HS remember him?

I don’t think there’s any question that Uber is good for consumers and bad for workers, but even if America’s newest set of wheels goes bust like Napster, the bigger picture is that the war has been quietly lost regardless of what happens in that one loud battle. The music industry wasn’t brought down just by Sean Parker, but by the wave he represented. From Avi-Asher Schapiro’s Jacobin article about labor’s share getting smaller:

“Uber claims there’s no need for a union; it instead asks drivers to trust that the company acts in their best interest. Uber refused to show me complete data detailing average hourly compensation for drivers. It does claim, however, that UberX drivers are making more money now than before this summer’s price cuts.

‘The average fares per hour for a Los Angeles UberX driver-partner in the last four weeks were 21.4% higher than the December 2013 weekly average,’ Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend told me. ‘And drivers on average have seen fares per hour increase 28% from where they were in May of this year.’

I couldn’t find a single driver who is making more money with the lower rates.

What’s clear is that for Uber drivers to get by, they’re going to have to take on more rides per shift. Uber implicitly concedes as much: ‘With price cuts, trips per hour for partner-drivers have increased with higher demand,’ Behrend said.

So while drivers make less per fare, Uber suggests they recoup losses by just driving more miles. That may make sense for an Uber analyst crunching the numbers in Silicon Valley, but for drivers, more miles means hustling to cram as many runs into a shift as possible to make the small margins worthwhile.”

Ebola isn’t threatening to be a pandemic yet and probably won’t, but the rampant regional spread of its terror and death has reached a scale that never had to be. Mobilizing against a known disease should be relatively easy, but politics seldom is. From a Spiegel interview by Rafaela von Bredow and Veronika Hackenbroch with Peter Piot, one of the scientists who first discovered the virus in 1976:


There is actually a well-established procedure for curtailing Ebola outbreaks: isolating those infected and closely monitoring those who had contact with them. How could a catastrophe such as the one we are now seeing even happen? 

Peter Piot:

I think it is what people call a perfect storm: when every individual circumstance is a bit worse than normal and they then combine to create a disaster. And with this epidemic, there were many factors that were disadvantageous from the very beginning. Some of the countries involved were just emerging from terrible civil wars, many of their doctors had fled and their healthcare systems had collapsed. In all of Liberia, for example, there were only 51 doctors in 2010, and many of them have since died of Ebola.


The fact that the outbreak began in the densely populated border region between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia …

Peter Piot:

… also contributed to the catastrophe. Because the people there are extremely mobile, it was much more difficult than usual to track down those who had had contact with the infected people. Because the dead in this region are traditionally buried in the towns and villages they were born in, there were highly contagious Ebola corpses traveling back and forth across the borders in pick-ups and taxis. The result was that the epidemic kept flaring up in different places.


For the first time in its history, the virus also reached metropolises like Monrovia and Freetown. Is that the worst thing that can happen?

Peter Piot:

In large cities — particularly in chaotic slums — it is virtually impossible to find those who had contact with patients, no matter how great the effort. That is why I am so worried about Nigeria as well. The country is home to mega-cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt and if the Ebola virus lodges there and begins to spread, it would be an unimaginable catastrophe.


Have we completely lost control of the epidemic?

Peter Piot:

I have always been an optimist and I think that we now have no other choice than to try everything, really everything. It’s good that the United States and some other countries are finally beginning to help. But Germany or even Belgium, for example, must do a lot more. And it should be clear to all of us: This isn’t just an epidemic anymore. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. We don’t just need care personnel, but also logistics experts, trucks, jeeps and foodstuffs. Such an epidemic can destabilize entire regions. I can only hope that we will be able to get it under control. I really never thought that it could get this bad.”

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As robots proliferate, we’re going require far more than three laws to govern their actions. The questions are seemingly endless, and the answers will likely have to be very elastic. The opening of an Economist report about the RoboLaw group’s recently released findings:

“WHEN the autonomous cars in Isaac Asimov’s 1953 short story ‘Sally’ encourage a robotic bus to dole out some rough justice to an unscrupulous businessman, the reader is to believe that the bus has contravened Asimov’s first law of robotics, which states that ‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’

Asimov’s ‘three laws’ are a bit of science-fiction firmament that have escaped into the wider consciousness, often taken to be a serious basis for robot governance. But robots of the classic sort, and bionic technologies that enhance or become part of humans, raise many thorny legal, ethical and regulatory questions. If an assistive exoskeleton is implicated in a death, who is at fault? If a brain-computer interface is used to communicate with someone in a vegetative state, are those messages legally binding? Can someone opt to replace their healthy limbs with robotic prostheses?

Questions such as these are difficult to anticipate. The concern for policymakers is creating a regulatory and legal environment that is broad enough to maintain legal and ethical norms but is not so proscriptive as to hamper innovation.”

Jeremy Waldron of the New York Review of Books has an article about legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who believes a nudge is often better than a “no,” though it’s not always easy to define the distinction.

Of the examples of nudge-ish paternalism provided in the below excerpt, the one that most bothers me is the TV that’s programmed to always turn on first to PBS. It feels like a violation of personal space and an oppression of cultural tastes. Plenty of gatekeepers have been wrong over the years, while the masses have been right. Cheap comics weren’t a plague and rock music wasn’t just a bunch of noise.

It’s true, though, that the absence of paternalism doesn’t mean we have unobstructed free will. Corporations don’t just nudge but shove us toward their products (here and here), often unhealthy ones, and some pushback is warranted. An excerpt:

“Cass Sunstein is a Harvard law professor and the author of dozens of books on the principles of public policy. He knew Barack Obama from Harvard Law School and in 2009, he was appointed administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein’s thought about nudging is evidently the fruit of his determination to consider alternatives to the old command-and-control models of regulation. Now, with his government service behind him (for the time being), he has given us another book, called Why Nudge?, in which he provides an accessible defense of what he calls ‘libertarian paternalism’—a good-natured paternalism that is supposed to leave individual choosing intact.

‘Paternalism’ is usually a dirty word in political philosophy: the nanny state passing regulations that restrict us for our own good, banning smoking and skateboarding because they’re unsafe, or former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg trying to limit the size of sugary sodas sold in New York City—’the Big Gulp Ban.’ Now, a nudger wouldn’t try anything so crass. If you ordered a soda in nudge-world, you would get a medium cup, no questions asked; you’d have to go out of your way to insist on a large one. Not only that, but diet beverages would probably be the ones displayed most prominently in nudge-world and served without question unless the customer insisted on getting the classic version from under the counter.

You could order a supersized sugary beverage if you wanted it badly enough, but it wouldn’t be so convenient to carry it to your table because Thaler and Sunstein are in favor of abolishing trays. It is all too easy to load up a tray with food that will never be eaten and napkins that go unused. You could insist on a tray if you wanted to hold up the line, but a tray-free policy has been proved to lower food and beverage waste by up to 50 percent in certain environments. Nudge and Why Nudge? are replete with examples like this.

Nudging is paternalistic, but it is surely a very mild version of paternalism. It’s about means, not ends: we don’t try to nudge people toward a better view of the good life, with compulsory library cards, for example, or PBS always coming up when you turn on your TV. And it is mild too because you can always opt out of a nudge. Not that Sunstein is opposed to more stringent regulations. Sometimes a straightforward requirement—like the rule about seat belts—might be a better form of paternalism. These options are left open for the regulator.”

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From the September 29, 1860 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“A man named George Huff was arrested by Constable Hanibel on Wednesday afternoon in Flushing on the charge of being intoxicated. He was put into a cell, and on Thursday morning his dead body was found eaten by rats, a portion of the forehead and one hand being gone. A post mortem examination was held and a verdict rendered that he came to his death by disease brought on by intoxication. The occurrence will lead to the erection of better accommodations for prisoners.”

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Speaking of unemployed drivers, the sharing of autonomous vehicles isn’t happening today or tomorrow, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a reality in the not-too distant future. From Jack Smith IV at Betabeat:

“The world is covered in unused cars — absolutely blanketed with them. All day, our cars sit useless in driveways and parking garages, sitting idle for far longer than we’re actually driving them. But what if when we got out of our car, it automatically drove off to give someone else a lift, and then kept doing so, day in, day out?

A pair of researchers from the University of Texas have published a report outlining the possible impacts of Shared Automated Vehicles (SAVs). For the study, the team simulated a hypothetical cab service of self-driven cars like the kind Google has already developed. They found that in a dense enough urban area — this example used Austin, Texas — the system would replace about nine out of ten vehicles while ‘maintaining a reasonable level of service,’ as measured by the time people spent waiting for a ride. The test was run entirely on paper, modeled mathematically using Austin’s existing daily traffic data.

The hypothetical service would function like Uber, only without drivers who need to sleep, take breaks, be paid, and other feeble human shortcomings. The city-wide program would know enough to know who could carpooling with who, and estimate departure and arrival times, so the cars would minimize the amount of time spent uselessly idling. Ideally, this kind of service would supplant the need for many people to actually own a car.”

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There are many areas where billionaire investor Peter Thiel and I disagree–he seems unconcerned about that–but we do concur that AI is more the solution than the problem. While I accept that smart machines could possibly be the ruination of humans, it seems very likely to me that we’ll become extinct without their continued development. (There are some other low-tech, out-of-the-box measures which might be useful in staving off our species’ collapse, but it’s highly improbable they’ll be implemented.) 

In his new Financial Times piece, “Robots Are Our Saviors, Not the Enemy,” Thiel examines the more mundane economic costs of silicon brain drain. He extols the value of a man-machine hybrid, saying that robots will complement rather than replace human labor in many instances, though former employees of Blockbuster, Borders and Fotomat might disagree. And if driverless cars arrive anywhere near on schedule, there will be a whole new class of unemployed that wasn’t a useful complement. An excerpt:

“Unlike fellow humans of different nationalities, computers are not substitutes for American labour. Men and machines are good at different things. People form plans and make decisions in complicated situations. We are less good at making sense of enormous amounts of data. Computers are exactly the opposite: they excel at efficient data processing but struggle to make basic judgments that would be simple for any human.

I came to understand this from my experience as chief executive of PayPal. In mid-2000 we had survived the dotcom crash and we were growing fast but we faced one huge problem: we were losing upwards of $10m a month to credit card fraud. Since we were processing hundreds or even thousands of trans­actions each minute, we could not possibly review each one. No human quality control team could work that fast.

We tried to solve the problem by writing software that would automatically identify bogus transactions and cancel them in real time. But it quickly became clear that this approach would not work: after an hour or two, the thieves would catch on and change their tactics to fool our algorithms.

Human analysts, however, were not easily fooled by criminals’ adaptive strategies. So we rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious trans­actions, and human operators would make the final judgment.

This kind of man-machine symbiosis enabled PayPal to stay in business, which in turn enabled hundreds of thousands of small businesses to accept the payments they needed to thrive on the internet.”

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A couple of things I learned from “How to Tell When a Robot Has Written You a Letter,” a Medium piece by the reliably excellent Clive Thompson: 1) Companies remain which employ people to handwrite letters for you, and 2) Subtle differences make it possible to detect if a machine has written a missive rather than a human (though I must admit I would still be fooled even after reading Thompson’s post). An excerpt:

“So now robots are trying to write like us. But they’re not perfect yet! It turns out there are some intriguing quirks of human psychology and letter-formation that the machines can’t yet mimic. Learn those tricks, and you can spot the robots.

I first heard of these human-machine handwriting differences in a conversation last week with Brian Curliss and Daniel Jurek, the cofounders of the startup Maillift. If you need to send out 200 personalized letters to sales leads but haven’t got the time to handwrite them yourself — or if your handwriting is, like mine, grotesque — then Maillift will generate them for you, using teams of genuinely carbon-based people. (What sort of person enjoys handwriting letters for others? ‘Teachers,’ Curliss replies. Apparently teachers have spectacular handwriting, take enormous pride in the craft, and want to make some extra coin in their evenings and weekends.)

Curliss and Jurek also own a handwriting robot, so they’ve studied thousands of human-written letters and compared them to ones produced by machines. They’ve identified three crucial distinctions.”

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Is there too much venture capital? Yes, there is. Whether it’s traditional firms, angels or crowdsourcing, investors seem to be out there for dreamers of all sized dreams, even during these difficult times. Case in point: Waypoint 2 Space, a start-up which aims to acclimate Earthlings to the final frontier, preparing tourists and long-term tenants physically and psychologically for a mission to Mars or wherever. It took its small steps with Kickstarter and is working on making a giant leap with the help of deeper pockets. It actually will be necessary at some point, but now may or may not be that moment. From Issie Lapowsky at Wired UK:

“The age of commercial spaceflight is finally here. From Richard Branson to Elon Musk, some of the world’s greatest innovators have spent years developing a new kind of space shuttle, with the promise that one day, in the not too distant future, all of us will have a chance to hop on a flight to space.

And Kevin Heath wants to make sure we don’t puke on the way.

Heath is the founder and CEO of Waypoint 2 Space, a space-training startup based at the Houston Technology Center incubator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Its goal is to prepare potential space tourists for the trip, using similar training methodology and technology that NASA astronauts receive. Waypoint’s staff-many of whom are former NASA trainers-will prepare students not only for maneuvering their bodies in a weightless environment and completing a lunar walk, but for the psychological toll that even a short trip to space can take. ‘We’re not a Disneyland experience. This is not space camp,’ Heath says. ‘We’re literally training people to go to space.’

Heath’s timing is right. Just last week, NASA awarded two contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop and deploy their own space shuttles, sending a $6.8 (£4.2) billion cash infusion straight into the heart of the commercial space flight industry. Though the shuttles will only be used to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station for now, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that the partnership ‘promises to give more people in America and around the world the wonder and exhilaration of space flight.’

But space tourism is only a fraction of the potential market. A constellation of industries is now popping up around the development of commercial shuttles, from companies like Planetary Resources that want to mine the moon for natural resources, to companies like Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace, which have plans to open so-called space hotels for wealthy space travellers in the near future.

‘If we’re to see the logical extension of the technological gains of the last 30 years, we need people in space, ways to get them there and training for the trip,’ says Mike Lousteau, a partner at I2BF Global Ventures, which has invested in several space-related startups (though not Waypoint). ‘Whether we’re talking about advanced telecommunications, resource exploration or imaging and Earth observation, a trained human element can provide operation, maintenance and innovation. As these industries and others draw more people to go to and stay in space, the need to train more people will only increase.'”

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