Sunday, December 27, 2015

When we let computers take over, who gets to control the computers?

"A car is a high-speed, heavy object with the power to kill its users and the people around it. A compromise in the software that allowed an attacker to take over the brakes, accelerator and steering (such as last summer’s exploit against Chrysler’s Jeeps, which triggered a 1.4m vehicle recall) is a nightmare scenario. The only thing worse would be such an exploit against a car designed to have no user-override – designed, in fact, to treat any attempt from the vehicle’s user to redirect its programming as a selfish attempt to avoid the Trolley Problem’s cold equations.
Whatever problems we will have with self-driving cars, they will be worsened by designing them to treat their passengers as adversaries.
That has profound implications beyond the hypothetical silliness of the Trolley Problem. The world of networked equipment is already governed by a patchwork of 'lawful interception' rules requiring them to have some sort of back door to allow the police to monitor them. These have been the source of grave problems in computer security, such as the 2011 attack by the Chinese government on the Gmail accounts of suspected dissident activists was executed by exploiting lawful interception; so was the NSA’s wiretapping of the Greek government during the 2004 Olympic bidding process."

I drive a lot for work. I've thought of scenarios where the poor computer program would be oblivious to the moral choices it faces in some situations. It would only know things like "avoid hitting something" and "if in doubt, slow down."  It might not know the human cost that such choices might require.  So, who gets to write that code then?  And who gets to decide?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Micro-flats in NYC; the future of housing or just future slums?

"Now wait another second, you’re saying, $2500 to $3000 for a studio in Kips Bay is not affordable! That’s only the market rate (which is actually about the median Manhattan rent for a studio). The rents for the 22 affordable housing units are set at different rates based on income and need. Prospective tenants apply through a lottery and might pay anywhere from $1000 to $1500. 60,000 people applied.
So yeah, no one can deny that the demand isn’t there for these types of units. But the bigger question is if these units are actually the right kind of new housing for cities to be building. If we’re talking big picture here, the building as a whole is far more responsible than tacking yet another megadevelopment on the edge of sprawl, forcing all its residents to drive. But the worry is that these tiny spaces will become the new slums of the city, mostly occupied by lower-income residents who don’t have much of a choice about where to live, further stratifying inequality problems. In cities like Los Angeles, for example, micro-units are still mostly being used as transitional housing for formerly homeless individuals."

The demand is there. It fills a niche in housing.  But if such housing is isolated to certain sectors, then those sectors will probably become undesirable addresses after a time.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Underground water use will have to change now

"Groundwater is disappearing beneath cornfields in Kansas, rice paddies in India, asparagus farms in Peru and orange groves in Morocco. As these critical water reserves are pumped beyond their limits, the threats are mounting for people who depend on aquifers to supply agriculture, sustain economies and provide drinking water. In some areas, fields have already turned to dust and farmers are struggling.
Climate change is projected to increase the stresses on water supplies, and heated disputes are erupting in places where those with deep wells can keep pumping and leave others with dry wells. Even as satellite measurements have revealed the problem’s severity on a global scale, many regions have failed to adequately address the problem. Aquifers largely remain unmanaged and unregulated, and water that seeped underground over tens of thousands of years is being gradually used up.
In this project, USA TODAY and The Desert Sun investigate the consequences of this emerging crisis in several of the world’s hotspots of groundwater depletion. These are stories about people on four continents confronting questions of how to safeguard their aquifers for the future – and in some cases, how to cope as the water runs out."

"Groundwater has been severely overpumped by farms in Morocco’s Souss-Massa region, and the water table has fallen dramatically. When the family’s well dried up, their farm was transformed into barren land.
The orange grove’s disappearance nearly five years ago eliminated the main source of income for Mbarek Belkadi, his three brothers, and their families. They’ve turned to whatever work they can find, often buying and selling fruit. Earning enough to survive has become a constant struggle.

'All this land was irrigated with this well. Now it’s dead,' Mbarek said, standing beside piles of dry branches. 'It’s finished here.'
As the family crowded around their old well, they pulled back the metal cover. A rusty cable lay in a heap next to it. This cable, they explained, was used to lower people into the hole to dig deeper. They dug down to more than 600 feet, and then gave up as the water level kept dropping. They could no longer afford a more powerful pump to lift the water from so far underground."

This is quite an eye-opening series.  I had heard that California's central valley has actually been sinking due to the groundwater depletion.  And I heard something about Saudi Arabia sucking the life out of their groundwater supply.  It's sad to see that people all over the world have been satisfied with the short-term gain rather than trying to utilize the groundwater in a sustainable manner.  Now we have to pay for that shortsightedness.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Finland to go with a universal basic income

"Finland's government is drawing up plans to give every one of its citizens a basic income of 800 euros (£576) a month and scrap benefits altogether.
A poll commissioned by the agency planning the proposal, the Finnish Social Insurance Institute, showed 69% supported the basic income plan.
Prime Minister Juha Sipila was quote by QZ as backing the idea.
'For me, a basic income means simplifying the social security system,' he said.
The proposal would entitle each Finn to 800 euros tax free each month, which according to Bloomberg, would cost the government 52.2 billion euros a year."

Finally we'll get to see how this actually works!  I look forward to this idea expanding around the world.