When the computer is the ‘driver’

We’re familiar with the recent US declarations that “corporations are people too”. It now turns out that some cars are “people” as well.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has agreed with Google that Google’s self-driving car has “no need for a human driver”. In its place,

“NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the (self-driving system), and not to any of the vehicle occupants.”

This should hurry us along the path to answering the questions that come from this.

  • Who gets the ticket when the self-driving car runs a stop sign or changes lanes without signaling?
  • Who gets sued when the self-driving car stops unexpectedly and causes an accident?
  • Will the self-driving car be “licensed”? By whom — by each state, as licenses are now issued? by the federal government, creating the first national driver’s license in the US? by Google, using an international driver’s license?

There are many, many more questions to be answered here before these computers become “people”. I wonder if anyone is asking.

Related links

The Pledge of Allegiance (a short refresher)

History is such a good teacher, but only if you actually pay attention to it. Consider this history of the Pledge of Allegiance.
1892, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and [to] the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”
1923, in response to rising immigration into the US: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”
1924, just so there no confusion about which “United States” we mean: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”
1942, on the 50th anniversary of the pledge: Congress adopted the pledge as part of the national flag code
1943: an exception for Jehovah’s Witnesses, because their religion prohibits worshipping a graven image
1954, at the urging of the Catholic Knights of Columbus, Congress acts to add “under God” to the pledge: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation, under God, indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”
2004, in response to a lawsuit by an atheist parent on behalf of his school-age child, the Supreme Court declares the reference to God to be constitutionally permissible.
So the country was 178 years old, had fought (and won) against a British invasion, a civil war, and two world wars, had expanded to become the world’s superpower and was in the midst of the greatest economic expansion ever before it became “one nation under God”.
Personally, I’d be pretty happy if we were “one Nation indivisible” — but that may be too much to ask. We may have to settle for “one Nation, under God”.


The Perfect Presidential Debate

SCENE: A large living room, furnished with sofas, chairs, ottomans, side tables and coffee tables. To one side, a beverage service outfitted with coffee, tea, soft drinks, juice and ice, as well as bottled beer, liquor, mixes and wines, and appropriate glasses and cups. On the side and coffee tables, various snack foods — pretzels, popcorn, crackers, cheese, vegetables, cold cuts of meat, and dipping sauces, with utensils, napkins and small plates. Ash trays should be set on the tables.

LIGHTS UP evenly across all parts of the scene

ENTER all participating candidates, each fitted with a personal microphone and earpiece. All mikes are “hot”; audio from each microphone is fed to all candidates simultaneously through the earpiece. Everything anyone says can be heard by everyone else simultaneously.

A SINGLE STATIONARY CAMERA shows a high angle view of the whole room. The angle must be such that no candidate can step out of frame at any time. The camera shot remains open and steady throughout the program.

There is no live audience. There are no moderators or journalists. There are no advisors or consultants. There is no visible crew on site, because all audio and video is fixed and stationary. There are no television monitors. The candidates cannot see themselves “on-screen” and do not get live feedback to anything they say or do.

For 120 minutes, without interruption, the candidates interact with one another as a group while the audio and video are broadcast live. There are no predefined topics or questions. The candidates must determine, individually and as a group, during the 120 minute program, how to conduct themselves, what to talk about, who to address. They must decide whether to eat or drink anything, and if so, what and when and how. They must decide whether to smoke or not, and whether to ask others to stop smoking. They must survive 120 minutes with no interruptions, no restroom breaks. They must decide whether to stand or sit or pace, and where, and whether to face the single camera or to face the person they are talking or listening to. They must decide how to dress, whether to leave their coat on or take it off, and if they take it off, where to put it.

After 120 minutes, all cameras and microphones abruptly turn off. The program is over. There are no opening statements or closing statements.

The purpose of this exercise is to see how each candidate is able to assert leadership, take charge, set the agenda, drive the discussion, manage the time, interact with others.

Being President means that you must be able to do this — to be a leader in a room full of “the best and the brightest” minds, typically people whom you, as President, chose to give you great advice and information. As President, you must know how to listen to them as well as how to balance what they say against what else you know. As President, you must assess what everyone says, and then you must drive the conversation toward the decision you know you must make and find a way to persuade everyone else to agree.

Q & A sessions don’t do this. Sound bites don’t do this. Sharp attacks and sniping don’t do this. Smug reporters and pundits don’t do this. Clever analysts don’t do this.

But putting everyone in a room together with a blank sheet of paper will reveal everything we need to know about them.


The Rise of the Robots

In an interview, Gordon Moore (of “Moore’s Law” fame) answered this question:

I, RobotDid he worry … that machines would really start to replace both white-collar and blue-collar labor at a scale that could mean the end of work for a lot of people?

“Don’t blame me!” he exclaimed!…

The “rise of the robots” is not something to blame anyone for. Rather, we should see that as yet another step forward in our human progression. We should ask and answer the two eternal questions:

  1. how can we use this to improve ever more lives (rather than make a few lives even better than they already are)?
  2. what will we expect of the people whose employment is displaced by a faster/cheaper/just-as-smart robot?

Both of these questions have answers — but they aren’t being asked often enough or loudly enough by those who are able to make the answers come to life.

The benefit of lowering the cost of doing good things should be to do more good things — instead, it is seen as an opportunity to make more money.

The concern with “what about the people” is a real one — if, say, “full employment” means that 10% or 20% of the population is unemployed, that will significantly change our thinking about how our society is defined, and — with that — what our social leadership, our government, ought to be doing.

I don’t fear the robots. I fear our own reticence to take them seriously.

I Don’t Care What You Say

Nothing should be more effective in stopping an argument than these words:

I don’t care what you say…

There are other variations — “no matter what you say”, “you can’t tell me”, “I know for a fact”.


These are STOP signs in any conversation. The person who injects these phrases is telling you that any further discussion is pointless.

So the proper reaction is to just end the conversation. Walk away. Move on to something else.

Yet — in real life and certainly in internet life — that’s not what happens, usually. Instead, for no apparent reason, these words increase the volume or accelerate the typing. When someone says “I don’t care”, we take that as a challenge that must be answered, swiftly, with even more words, facts, opinions, sound bytes.

How often have you turned right back into the argument, determined to get in the last word and end it on your terms, not theirs?

Why? They’ve let it be known quite clearly that they aren’t open to any further evidence or reasoning or authoritative findings. Yet you persist.

Take them at their word. They don’t care. It doesn’t matter.

Move on.

Oh, right — before YOU inject this into your speech, STOP and think.

I’m Sorry You’re So Dumb

How often have we had to listen to the “you’re so dumb” apology? We heard it today from Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives Brian Bosma who said:

I extended my apology to [Greg Louganis], not for actions taken, but for messages received. And I extend that same apology to anyone who received that same message.

Get it? I didn’t do anything wrong — you just read the wrong thing into it.

There are variations on this:

  • “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
  • “I apology for any offense you may have felt.”
  • “I’m sorry you misunderstood.”

This is not an apology — this is placing the blame on you, not on me. And, if that’s really the way it happened, I shouldn’t be apologizing at all — YOU should be apologizing to ME for being so ignorant.

Words To Replace “Ummm”

When you listen to interviewers and interviewees on the radio or television, count the number of times you hear words that replace “ummm” and “uhhh” — words that allow the speaker to stall until they can think of what to say.

Here’s one that makes me cringe: It’s interestingI hear this from questioners and respondents alike:

  • “It’s interesting, because …”
  • “That’s an interesting question. …”
  • “You know, what’s interesting is …”

While I’m glad to be told that something is interesting, I’m a little insulted — if it’s really interesting, I’ll recognize that not because you told me, but because it’s interesting.

So all of these “it’s interesting” uses are just stall tactics … no different from saying “uhhh” or “ummm”.

What are some other modern-day replacements for “ummm”?

Whispering Against the Shouters

[submitted as a comment in the NYTimes in response to other comments on Paul Krugman’s op-ed column “Imaginary Health Care Horrors“, March 30, 2015.]

In a comment in the New York Times, “Frank” wrote:

The trouble is that Democrats are not there defending [the Affordable Care Act]. They have bought into the myth that people don’t like it and so they are afraid to speak out.
And in so doing, they are perpetuating the false story. That’s how the Democrats lost seats in 2010. They allowed the shouters to go unchallenged and if they do it again, they will lose again.

It is not enough to challenge the shouters — the challenge must be brought with the same theatrical sense, the same bombast, the same excess as the shouters use. Otherwise, the challenge is just a whisper in a roomful of shouters. Continue reading