Category Archives: Musings

Technology changes how we see ourselves

I posted a version of this on my marketing technology blog in 2008, during an exotic summer vacation. This was just months after Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, and I had no idea I was living in the era of the migration of high quality cameras into our cell phones. The next 13 years would take the changes I observed below to far greater levels, with the assist of social media.

I documented my vacation using a digital camera. With every photo of friends and family that I snapped, I was thinking of the concept that had been sloshing in my brain for years. Still in a distant foreign country, I excused myself long enough to post this, even sketching the accompanying graphic. I’m rerunning the post here, and now, because of news of the well-hyped Poparazzi app, which takes the selfie off the menu for its users.


As I post this, I’m still on vacation in the Faroe Islands, where I’ve attended the wedding of a dear friend’s daughter. It was a traditional ceremony, blending ancient and new traditions. For instance, ancient Faroese and Danish songs were sung during the wedding reception, which also featured PowerPoint slideshows of photos and Quicktime videos depicting the bachelor and bachelorette parties. Digital cameras were everywhere.

I’ve thought a lot about how digital technology has changed the way we experience the world. We like to think that we craft our tools to serve us, but the limitations of these tools cannot help but change us as well, in the same way that our human eyes see a different spectrum of light than, say, the puffins I photographed the other day on the steep Faroese cliffs.

One example of this profound change is electricity. That’s obvious. The other I’ll describe is more subtle, and involves digital photography.

Electric Light: The Other Midnight Sun

Faroese weddings go on for two solid days. The first day, which included what Americans would call the reception, had three distinct meals (the formal dinner, the serving of cakes, and an early-morning soup course). The first meal was only just ending at 11 PM, which didn’t seem so late, since the sun was only just behind the horizon. What’s more, being so close to the Arctic Circle, the sun didn’t stay away for long. As it began to reemerge, at 4 AM, we were still dancing to a band that played exclusively American — and British Invasion — rock songs.

I was told that the wedding dancing of a few hundred years ago would have included a traditional Faroese dance that takes at least an hour to complete (danced, as it is, to a song with 300+ verses). Back then oil lamplight would have illuminated the steps. This certainly would have dampened some of the more boisterous aspects of the event!

So much about us has changed because of technology’s electric sun.

In Maury Klein’s The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, I recently read of the pivotal day in September of 1882, when Thomas Edison, the man known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” illuminated the first 400 electric lights installed in New York City.

What struck me about his description is the muted reaction of New York Times reporters. Keep in mind that daily news reporting is driven by extremely tight press deadlines. Yet before the electric light, there was much that could be forgiven. A reporter could more easily file stories developed over weeks — and in the process, get more sleep.

Edison’s “lighting of New York” included 27 electric lamps in the Times editorial rooms. And so, you may wonder, what was the account of this sudden conquest over darkness from the reporters of “The Grey Lady?” Well, the column on Page 8 (yes, 8!) of the next day’s paper said it was, “In every way satisfactory.”

Klein made the obvious point that the paper, “never fully grasped its significance.” Only hindsight could show these reporters that their careers were to be changed forever. And also their family life. The electric light would extend both wedding festivities and work responsibilities — allowing for a day that need never fade into darkness.

Life In A Digital Viewfinder

In my travels these two weeks I’ve visited some extraordinary families (and I have one more to meet, in Belgium, before returning to the States). On the walls of homes in Milan, Berlin, Copenhagen — and now Torshavn, Faroe Islands — I’ve admired photos of relatives that sometimes go back to the very first silver plate photographs of the mid-1800’s. These photos are sometimes right next to the latest generation’s photos. Having observed at the same time some very ancient European traditions, attitudes and mannerisms, I have to again posit that the medium has changed us as surely as we have changed the medium.

It was two years ago, when I saw this pose depicted in a still from a movie (illustrated below), that I first realized that the portability and disposability of digital camera technology actually created a new type of romantic embrace.

Compare the stock-still (and emotion-free) poses of couples and families in the tintypes of antiquity with this commonplace example of PDA (public display of affection), and you have to wonder if our cameras own us as much as we do them.

Traditional values — superseding romantic love with love of family, and narcissism with selflessness — may have been made quaint as much by our evolving tools as our evolving beliefs.

After the tears, inspiration from Stan Rogers

Those who know me well are aware I’ve been through some difficult times. To be clear: I’ve never for a moment forgotten the undeniable advantages I’ve had, by the era of my birth (Boomer here), the color of my skin and yes, my very maleness. But I’ve had tests in my life. And I’m writing to you now as a bearer of consolement. I bring you hope in these dark times. Maybe even joy.

You be the judge.

As I write this my friends are reeling from the news of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s the latest calamity this year and it comes when we all know more are on their way. Like a prize fighter on the ropes, with no referee in sight to stop the pummeling, that ruthless brute “2020” has landed some horrible blows and shows no sign of relenting.

  • We’ve just surpassed 200,000 deaths from Covid, before even the arrival of the flu season
  • The U.S. West is only in the middle of its fire season and already the devastation has sprawled beyond a combined area the size of Connecticut
  • Hurricanes drown other parts of our country

But of course there is more.

I fear, as I’m sure you do, for the very integrity of our democracy, while a vocal minority of our country nods approvingly toward fascism and insists Black Lives Matter has no place in our social discourse because, Why? Fake news? False equivalencies? I can still hear the booing from many in the audience for the opening NFL game when players and coaches linked arms or took a knee in a moment of silence and solidarity.

It’s as if our country has lost its mind, and one wing of the asylum is burning while another is flooding.

To quote a song from King Leer, “The rain, it raineth every day.”

The healing power of The Mary Ellen Carter

At around the time of his death in the mid-80s, my wife (at the time) and I became familiar with Stan Rogers. His folk music endures. At that time, when we first heard his song The Mary Ellen Carter, my wife was extremely sick with a debilitating chronic illness and I was barely making due with freelance consulting work. Times were bleak. (This was just before we scraped up enough money to move to Milwaukee. What came next was discussed in this speech to a Chicago audience, at the most recent Pecha Kucha Night.)

We loved this song, and eventually recorded it onto a cassette tape off of public radio. That tape got a lot of use. It was a source of healing, and inspiration.

When I stopped my marathon work sessions, and our low moods seemed to find no bottom, we would play this song, over and over if necessary, until we moved from holding each other and crying to loudly singing the refrain.

Maybe you will too.

So here is my advice to you: Play this song during or just after your tears, when what you need is a tonic to help you get ready to fight anew. There were other rallying cries for us back then (I’m thinking of Kenneth Branagh’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in the film Henry V), but none as reliable as this.

Here it is, played live as part of a documentary, prefaced by a brief explanation of the power of the song’s refrain. As one man recounts, it may have saved his life, as he faced a death by drowning or hypothermia in a swamped lifeboat.

Photo credit from this post. I hope the author(s) don’t mind.

Is lab-grown meat still meat?

I first wrote here about lab-grown meat a decade ago. With so many ethical and environmental benefits of the process, I’m saddened that there has not been more discussion about it in the years since. But that is beginning to change, first with this story of lab-grown “McNuggets,” and especially this piece on the semantics of meat. If the origin of your burger is a cluster of stem cells instead of a living animal, is that still meat?

In that New York Times article, Andy Lamey writes that the timing of this semantic question is far from coincidence. “Lawmakers know that plant-based meat substitutes have become big business: In 2019, plant-based meat sales totaled $939 million, an 18 percent increase over the year before, while sales for all plant-based foods reached $5 billion. The real reason for the meat industry’s interest in grocery labels is that it is threatened by this surge in popularity.”

When those interested in maintaining the status quo start firing up the lobbying machines, you know they are perceiving a real threat. The story of lab-grown meat is starting to get more than just academic. In that press release on lab-grown “McNuggets,” put out by KFC, they remind us of what’s at stake:

Biomeat has exactly the same microelements as the original product, while excluding various additives that are used in traditional farming and animal husbandry, creating a cleaner final product. Cell-based meat products are also more ethical – the production process does not cause any harm to animals. …

According to a study by the American Environmental Science & Technology Journal, the technology of growing meat from cells has minimal negative impact on the environment, allowing energy consumption to be cut by more than half, greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 25 fold and 100 times less land to be used than traditional farm-based meat production.

The coming few years will be interesting to watch.

Photo via Creative Commons by my_amii

Covid-19 and my late CPA father on Tax Day

In my family, this day of the year was more important than any holiday. My dad had been working intense nights and weekends since late January and was now wrapping up his clients’ taxes (or filing their extensions!).

The next evening, April 16, would be his firm’s Tax Party, where he and his fellow Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), figuratively drunk with pride, would gather to get literally so.

My dad died a few years ago, so is spared the isolation and fear of this pandemic. Not to mention witnessing the disruption of his firm — which is still going strong in my hometown — coping with the postponement of both Tax Day and the annual debauchery that followed.

I was reminded of all of this when I found this video of the brilliant improv duo, Nichols and May. Possibly the funniest sketch is the second of the batch, as they enact a psychiatrist scene.

Enjoy.

Just beyond the Overton window: lab-grown meat

A version of this post originally appeared in my workplace blog, behind a firewall.


Last week the lunch crowd at Accenture’s Digital Hub cafe in Chicago was buzzing with speculation. Actually, it was buzzing about speculation. An engrossing exercise in a Lunch and Learn presentation called Then & Now: The Evolution of Trends, presented by Fjord, had us reviewing some antique predictions of the future.

I and the rest of the audience was given a reprinted magazine article that our great, great grandmothers might have read and we were asked to summarize its themes. The piece was full of predictions about the last century, written just at the turn of it, in 1900, by The Ladies’ Home Journal.

We found some predictions spot on. Others not so much …

The free university education prediction is of course just depressing. But delivery of products via pneumatic tubes? That’s not far off. Just imagine bolting wings on those tubes, and jet engines on those wings.

Fjord’s predictions — well, actually, more like themes packaged up as trends — were quite good, albeit more conservative. That’s to be expected, since they weren’t boldly looking at a 100-year horizon. Or even one 10 years out. That’s what the excellent Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce, Vala Afshar, did in this recent tweet:

Roughly a decade ago I made a prediction. It’s not in the above list, which frankly surprised and saddened me. You see, it will be a game-changer for our planet.

Once the challenge of this innovation’s scalability is tackled, the only major hurdle will be mass acceptance.

Today at least, most people find it kind of icky.

Test Tube T-bones

If you’d like to tuck into the details of lab-grown meat, I urge you to do so. I wrote the post nine years ago, but the facts in it are still correct … and if anything more relevant today than in 2011.

Lab-grown meat can and will someday feed the planet, while simultaneously helping to heal it.

Fun aside: Many before me have made this prediction, but just this year I learned that none other than Winston Churchill predicted lab-grown meat, in the 1930s!

A changed perspective

I’m sharing all of this because, well, as I write this the polar ice caps are melting and Australia is on fire. I find that disgusting.

And although I’m an eager omnivore — I enjoy a real hamburger when I can’t get my hands on an Impossible one — the conditions of the domesticated animals that we slaughter, and the conditions of the underclass forced to do the killing, are also disgusting.

So while scalability is being solved, let’s all think about the tendency toward disgust … the ick factor. I urge you to talk to your friends and family about whether they would eat a hamburger or McNugget made in-vitro. Yes, they’ll say yuck initially. But that’s how societies change — by exposure. It’s called shifting the Overton window.

And if you don’t believe attitudes change, consider that 120 years after that Ladies’ Home Journal prediction, we’ve got legitimate presidential candidates talking about that previously unthinkable free college idea.

Yuck indeed.

An Aural Alchemy

The nineties had some exciting music. I could say the same for right now, but the difference is today you can experience that excitement at almost zero cost. As I type this I’m listening to something on Spotify, a cut from a Philip Glass album released thirty years ago. Thanks to streaming music services, my cost-per-minute-of-enjoyment is just pennies.

Not so back then. And because of the steep cost of owning music CDs before Napster kicked off a music distribution revolution, and also because of a personal lack of friends into neo-classical music — and also because I was a pretty broke small business owner with a tiny music-buying budget — I went through the early nineties completely ignorant of Mr. Glass’s work.

Ignorant of him — until that night.

I was living in Milwaukee, trudging through a gentle, sloppy snowstorm, heading to an East Side grocery store. My Walkman was keeping me company, set to FM radio mode, and tuned into WMSE. You need to know that back then WMSE was a college radio station that was particularly … er … college radio.

This meant you were listening not only for the music and news, but for the gaffes of student volunteers learning as they went along. Chaos could break out at any moment.

This was New Music Night. Every college radio station back then received boxes of sample LPs they could play at will, without royalty. The young man spinning vinyl that night must have grabbed the Glass album and plopped it on the turntable knowing as little about the composer as I did.

The excerpt below was recorded in the mid-seventies, but in my memory the sound that night resembled this:

What followed was some of the most repetitive, profoundly annoying music I had ever heard. It was also casting some kind of a spell on me. I almost walked past my destination. Instead I stood outside, eager for what happened next.

I didn’t have to wait long. The young man stopped the song mid-drone. No needle-scratch, but just as abrupt.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

A new song — by a different artist — filled the silence.

Mind you, I had heard New Music Night cuts over the years that were real doozies. One example: a PIL “song” that sounded like a buzz saw over the screams of the band’s leader, Johnny Rotten. And yet this night was the first and last time I heard a song abruptly stopped, and an apology extended.

Now I’m listening to a Philip Glass cut that could easily have been what disturbed the snowy peace. How interesting that new music, like a new clothing fashion, soon becomes familiar and even welcome!

I hope, Dear reader, you too experience the pleasure of hearing with new ears the things that once confounded you. It’s a gift of our extremely flexible brains, an alchemy that can turn a lump of aural coal into a diamond.

Wolves, Trains and Automobiles: The Domestication of A.I.

I’ve thought and read a lot about artificial intelligence (AI). Particularly, its potential threat to us, its human creators. I’m not much for doomsday theories, but I admit I was inclined to fear the worst. To put things at their most melodramatic, I worried we might be unwittingly creating our own eventual slave masters. But after further reading and thinking, I’ve reconsidered. Yes. A.I. will be everywhere in our future. But not as sinister job-killers and overlords. No, they will be extensions of us in a way I can only compare with that most beloved of domesticated creatures: The dog.

For you to follow my logic, you’ll need to remember two facts:

  1. Our advancement as a species from hunter-gatherers to complex civilizations would not be possible without domesticated plants and animals
  2. Our collective fear of technology is often wildly unfounded

Bear with me, but you’ll also probably need to recall these definitions:

  • Domestication: Taking existing plants or animals and breeding them to serve us. Two examples are the selection of the most helpful plants and turning them into crops. Michael Pollan’s early book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, will bring you a long way to seeing this process in action. As for animals, you may think of dogs as being mere pets, but early in our evolution as humans we bred the wolf to help us hunt for meat, and to protect us from predators. Before domestication, we pre-humans hunted in packs, and so did the wolves … never the twain shall meet. After this domestication, we ensured the more docile canines a better life, under the protection of our species and its burgeoning technologies (see definition below), and they delivered the goods for us by helping us thrive in hostile conditions. It was a symbiosis that turned our two packs into a single unit. No wonder the domesticated dog adores us so, and that we consider them man(kind)’s best friend.
  • Technology: Did you know the pencil was once considered technology? So was the alphabet. You may think of them merely as tools, but technology is any tool that is new. And our attitudes toward anything new always starts with fear. Douglas Adams put it this way: “I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1.) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2.) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3.) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” Fear of technology not surprisingly spawned the first science fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a literal fever dream about a scientist’s hubris and the destruction it wrought upon himself and the world. This fear has a name: Moral panic. And it has created some pretty far-fetched urban myths.

In a Wall Street Journal piece, Women And Children First: Technology And Moral Panic, Genevieve Bell listed a few of these vintage myths. The first is about the advent of the electric light: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children … vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable … and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.” And consider this even bigger hoot: “There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”

Sounds messy.

I don’t have to tell you about our modern moral panic surrounding A.I. Except there is a bit of reverse sexism going on, because this time it is male workers who are more the victims. Their work — whether purely intellectual or journeyman labor — will be eliminated. We’ll all be out on the street, presumably to be mowed down by self-driving cars and trucks.

The Chicken Littles had me for a while

So what changed? In the same week I read two thought-provoking articles. One was in The New Yorker, The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark. Its subtitle says it all: The tools we use to help us think — from language to smartphones — may be part of thought itself. This long piece describes Clark’s attempt to better understand what consciousness is, and what are its boundaries. In other words, where do we as thinking humans end and the world we perceive begin?

He comes to recognize that there is a reason we perceive the world based on our five senses. Our brains are built to keep us alive and able to reproduce. Nothing more. All the bonus tracks in our brain’s Greatest Hits playlist … Making art, considering the cosmos, perceiving a future and a past … these are all artifacts of a consciousness that moves our limbs through space.

To some people, perception — the transmitting of all the sensory noise from the world — seemed the natural boundary between world and mind. Clark had already questioned this boundary with his theory of the extended mind. Then, in the early aughts, he heard about a theory of perception that seemed to him to describe how the mind, even as conventionally understood, did not stay passively distant from the world but reached out into it. It was called predictive processing.

Predictive processing starts with our bodies. For instance, we don’t move our arm when it’s at rest. We imagine it moving — predict its movement — and when our arm gets the memo it responds. Or not. If we are paralyzed, or that arm is currently in the jaws of a bear, it sends the bad news back to our brains. And so it goes.

In a similar way we project this feedback loop out into the world. But we are limited by our own sense of it.

Domestication of canines was such a game-changer because we suddenly had assistants with different senses and perceptions. Together humans and dogs became a Dynamic Duo … A prehistoric Batman and Robin. But Robin always knew who was the alpha in this relationship.

Right now there is another domestication taking place. It’s not of a plant or an animal, but of a complicated digital application. If that seems a stretch … If grouping these three together — plants, animals and applications — keep in mind that domesticating all of them means altering digital information.

All Life Is Digital

Plants and animals have DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. They are alive because they have genetic material. And guess what? It’s all digital. DNA encoding uses 4 bases: G,C,T, and A. These are four concrete values that are expressed in the complex combinations that make us both living, and able to pass along our “usness” to new generations. We’re definitely more complicated than the “currently” binary underpinnings of A.I. But as we’ve seen, A.I. is really showing us humans up in some important ways.

They’re killing us humans at chess. And Jeopardy.

So: Will A.I. become conscious and take us over? Clark would say consciousness is beyond A.I.’s reach, because as impressive as its abilities to move through the world and perceive it are, even dogs have more of an advantage in the consciousness department. He would be backed up by none less than Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kohneman, of Thinking, Fast and Slow fame. I got to hear him speak on this subject live, at a New Yorker TechFest, and I was impressed and relieved by how sanguine he was about the future of A.I.

Here’s where I need to bring in the other article, a much briefer one, from The Economist. Robots Can Assemble IKEA Furniture sounds pretty ominous. It’s a modern trope that assembling IKEA furniture is an unmanning intellectual test. But the article spoke more about A.I.’s limitations than its looming existential threats.

First, it took the robots comparatively long time to achieve the task at hand. In the companion piece to that article we read that …

Machines excel at the sorts of abstract, cognitive tasks that, to people, signify intelligence—complex board games, say, or differential calculus. But they struggle with physical jobs, such as navigating a cluttered room, which are so simple that they hardly seem to count as intelligence at all. The IKEAbots are a case in point. It took a pair of them, pre-programmed by humans, more than 20 minutes to assemble a chair that a person could knock together in a fraction of the time.

Their struggles brought me back to how our consciousness gradually materialized to our prehistoric ancestors. It arrived not in spite of our sensory experience of the world, but specifically because of it. If you doubt that just consider my natural and clear way just now of describing the arrival of consciousness: I said it materialized. You understood this as a metaphor associated with our perception of the material world.

This word and others to describe concepts play on our ability to feel things. Need another example: This is called a goddamn web page. What’s a page? What’s a web? They’re both things we can touch and experience with our carefully evolved senses.

And without these metaphors these paragraphs would not make sense.

Yes, our ancestors needed the necessary but not sufficient help of things like cooking, which enabled us to take in enough calories to grow and maintain our complex neural network, and the domestication of animals and plants that led us to agriculture and an escape from the limitations of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes (I strongly recommend Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for more on this), but …

To gain consciousness, we also needed to feel things. And what do we call people who don’t feel feelings? Robots. “Soulless machines.”

Without evolving to feel, should A.I. nonetheless take over the world, it’s unlikely they will be assembling their own IKEA chairs with alacrity. They’ll make us do it for them. Because our predictive processing makes this type of task annoying but manageable. We can even do it faster over time.

It’s All About The Feels

But worry not. Our enslavement won’t happen because — and I’m feeling pretty hubristic myself as I write this — we’re the feelers, the dreamers, the artists. Not A.I.

Before we domesticated dogs, we were limited in where in the world we could roam, and the game we could hunt. After dogs, we progressed. We prospered. Dogs didn’t put us out of jobs, if you will, they took the jobs they were better at in our service. Inevitably, we found other ways to use our time, including becoming creatures who are closer to the humans we would recognize on the street today, or staring back in the mirror.

We are domesticating A.I. Never forget that.

And repeat after me: We have nothing to fear but moral panic itself.

The Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles

This Friday my colleagues at the Accenture Digital Hub in downtown Chicago will be participating in a lunchtime consortium. It’s a debate of sorts. The topic is autonomous vehicles and ethics.

I can’t make it, so volunteered to compose a little “thought-starter.” Here it is:

Dear Fellow “Digital Hubsians,”

Since I can’t be present, I asked if I could kick off proceedings with an introduction to the topic. A wedding out of town has taken me away but I am present in spirit, (obviously) excited about this topic, and eager to learn how the discussion went.

First of all, what is ethics? I’d say it starts with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would like done to you.

There’s an upgrade of sorts that fits even better with autonomous vehicles. It’s been called the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would like done to them.

Obviously the Platinum Rule is trickier, because you have to be empathetic enough not to automatically project your preferences onto the other person. But it applies pretty uniformly to autonomous vehicles debates, since just about all of us do not want these things to happen:

  1. Being struck and killed by a vehicle, driverless or not
  2. Ditto being killed or injured while riding in a driverless vehicle
  3. Being put out of a job because of driverless vehicles

These are the three major risks to individuals with the advent of better GPS, car sensors and AI.

To get your brains engaged, what follows are some considerations for each.

1. Pedestrian Deaths and Injuries

How does our society deal with the loss of life when someone is struck by a car driven without a driver? We were suddenly forced to confront that when, on March 18, an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona. Although she was not walking inside a crosswalk, and was likely not paying attention as she crossed, this is nonetheless tragic and raises ethical questions such as this one: Should we be climbing into an Uber sometime in the future that is priced below the current cost of even an Uber Pool, because this savings could be correlated with an elevated risk of taking a pedestrian life?

There are few defenders of Uber in terms of ethics, but when Uber begins its defense for killing that woman with one of their vehicles, they will undoubtedly say the pedestrian was carelessly jaywalking. When they do, it’s significant that they’ll be using a framework that is approaching its hundredth birthday. In a Vox.com piece from 2015, entitled “The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of ‘jaywalking’“, it was pointed out that things changed when more and more pedestrians were dying. And the change was due to an “aggressive effort in the 1920’s” led by “auto groups and manufacturers”…

“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers’ job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.”

With AI and sensors getting progressively better at sensing things like crosswalks, a new shift in perception may be fostered that carves out the safe zone as anything within those painted lines. Pedestrians may actually come to feel safer when crossing a street that’s busy with passing autonomous vehicles. Why safer? They would know that as long as they are within the lines of a crosswalk, they are shielded from harm to a degree that arguably doesn’t exist today, due to the fallibility of human operators.

A New Yorker article from 20-plus years ago (the January 22, 1996 issue), written by a much younger Malcolm Gladwell, stuck with me then so vividly that when I found it just now in the website’s archives I was able to zero in on exactly the term — and the concept — it had taught me then: Risk homeostasis.

Risk homeostasis, Gladwell explained, was first described by a Canadian psychologist Gerald Wilde, in his book Target Risk. The idea is simple: “Under certain circumstances, changes that appear to make a system or organization safer in fact don’t. Why? Because human beings have a seemingly fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.”

And an example there of “one area” versus “another” is the very type of crosswalk the pedestrian was not using that day in Tempe. Risk homeostasis is illustrated beautifully by Gladwell inside and outside those lines in the road. He writes:

Why are more pedestrians killed crossing the street at marked crosswalks than [elsewhere]? Because they compensate for the “safe” environment of a marked crosswalk by being less [vigilant] about oncoming traffic.

It could be argued that risks will rise in some parts of the streets, but they may fall in others, causing an autonomous-vehicle-induced homeostasis.

2. The risk of riding in a driverless vehicle

Once all of the kinks are worked out, you’d think you couldn’t possibly be safer than riding in a vehicle that obeys all traffic rules and slows to safe traveling speeds when weather or reduced visibility dictates. But the AI spiriting you along would learn to make snap decisions that minimize fatalities based on values well beyond who is making the car payments. Your “passenger life” would possibly not be as valuable compared to multiple lives also at stake.

A decade ago I saw what I considered a truly cringe-worthy Will Smith movie. Some people adored it, raved about it. I found it ethically bonkers. It’s called Seven Pounds, and it’s about a jerky, Type A executive type who, while driving too fast with his wife as a passenger, reads a text message that distracts him long enough to cause a collision which kills seven people, including his wife. Over the next couple of years, while in the throes of depression, he contrives a way to redeem himself. Spoiler: He plans to donate parts of his body to seven other people.

For the sake of this discussion, I will restrain myself and not go off on the filmmaker’s willingness to portray an ultimately fatal illness – depression – as heroism and selflessness. Instead, let’s talk about the accident. What if those six passengers in the other vehicle could have been saved if the car driving him and his wife simply veered off the road and into a tree? How safe would you feel traveling in such a vehicle?

This is part of an emerging field called “machine ethics.” They go well beyond your autonomous Uber ride, as this article in The Economist,Morals and the Machine,” points out:

As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming – or at least appearing to assume – moral agency. Weapons systems currently have human operators “in the loop”, but as they grow more sophisticated, it will be possible to shift to “on the loop” operation, with machines carrying out orders autonomously.

So what is the correct answer to the “Seven Pounds accident?” It’s actually addressed in a thought experiment, created by Philippa Foot in 1967. It’s called The Trolley Dilemma. The latest version goes like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track.

You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

When professional philosophers were polled, the results were:

  • 68% would switch (sacrifice the one individual to save five lives)
  • 8% would not switch
  • The remaining 24% had another view or could not answer

So if Will Smith’s character was being driven by an autonomous Uber and a judgement call similar to the Trolley Dilemma was presented, he and his lovely wife (played by MaShae Alderman) would be toast. Six is three times greater – and more worthy of saving by dint of simple math – than two.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Job Displacement

As though driven by an AI-powered car, our society is barreling toward what could be perceived as an abyss. Millions of professional drivers could be put out of work. True, many of these jobs are extremely difficult and can even shorten lifespans. Automation in the past has saved several generations of workers from back-breaking, life-shortening jobs.

But where will these displaced workers go? With little promise of training into better-paying jobs, there is the very real risk of a social upheaval. Innovative countries and states are looking into a solution, that itself presents ethical challenges. The solution is state-funded universal guaranteed income, also known as UBI (Universal Basic Income).

The ethical quandary is this: Assuming UBI works to quell revolt and ensure public health and modest comfort, should the relatively few “haves” fund the lives of the many more “have-nots” — even if it is for the good of the state?

Ethics questions aside, UBI is being taken seriously. It is being tried in a couple Scandinavian countries, and seriously debated by voters in Switzerland. Closer to home, it’s actually being attempted today, in Stockton, CA.

Like autonomous vehicles and AI transformations in other industries, UBI seems to be something that cannot be ignored. How will it be framed in the U.S.? And what would happen to the American standard of living if it was embraced in other parts of the world but not here? The U.S. was founded and built upon Puritan ideals of hard work and self-sufficiency (reliance on legalized slavery for part of that “hard work” notwithstanding). Can we as a society agree to revise our thoughts about work in time to save our rapidly transforming economy?

Talk amongst yourselves.

Test Tube T-bones

A magazine article I read as a kid has stayed with me all these years. It must have been 1970. Back then Time was an important window to the world (scary thought). In this piece its editors wanted to dazzle us with visions of the future; 50 years hence to be exact. They had a staff artist sketch the predictions of a jury of futurists. The result is a picture of the men and women who would inhabit the U.S., circa 2020. These people, it didn’t escape my notice, were the young adults I would come to know when I was as old as my grandparents.

You could see in those sketches the time’s many revolutionary changes. The forecasters used as their starting blocks the recent revolutions in feminism, fashion and technology — and probably many more. They ran feverishly from that spot, only stopping when the horizon gleamed brightly with geo-domes and hovercrafts. Sometimes optimistic, the depictions were mostly just plain weird.

True, there were a few on-target predictions. I especially recall the general metrosexual appearance of the men.  It seems that by then facial hair will be outlawed, or perhaps cured. The men were also uniformly round-shouldered, presumably made so by the helpful toilings of brawny robots. As for the fairer gender, I was a little too young then to notice, but yes, the women of the future will be plenty hot … if you go in for the boyish, fashion model types.

A Thin Future

Conspicuous by today’s standards, no one depicted in this lineup looked even remotely in need of Jenny Craig. The effects of the Earl Butz / Nixon Era agricultural policies had not yet materialized at the time of the article, so the futurists couldn’t factor them forward to today’s ever-expanding American waistlines. Corn crops were not yet heavily subsidized. The cost of food on American tables was three times higher in 1970 than it is today, factored for inflation. Futurists had no inkling of a time where cheap corn-based calories were the norm and rates of obesity and diabetes were through the roof.

Those postcards from the future seemed lightweight in other ways as well.

There were many small gaffes. Example: There were no tattoos or piercings. There were several glaring ones, too. I recall that all the Americans were WASP-white. (This was after all from a time in our history when, until a few years earlier, Crayola was able to unironically label a salmony-beige crayon “Flesh.”) Also, inexplicably, everyone in 2020 will wear long robes. Did you know this? Apparently we’ll all look like we just stepped out of the shower.

The Future, Now and Then

Why do I bring all this up? I occasionally read freshly-minted portraits of the future, and I find it fun to compare the way they make me feel now versus back then. I’ve just read a new glimpse of our future, and I can tell you this: Our future, four decades ago, may have looked weird, but today the future just looks gross.

I’m referring to the recent New Yorker story about meat that is being cultured in the lab. Yes. Right now, in 2011. Food scientists are taking stem cells of our holy trinity of animal protein – cattle, chickens and pigs – and culturing them in a nutrient-rich broth. As you may know, stem cells are capable of turning into any of their owners’ tissues. Scientists are flipping the cellular switches to Muscle and seeing what happens.

What they’re finding is plenty: The promise of cheap, plentiful meat. This is meat free of corn-fed, antibiotic drenched, water-guzzling, e-coli-growing livestock. Yes, all this from clusters of cells multiplying with abandon in labs far from their genetic benefactors.

These scientists are also finding that by “folding” sheets of these cultured cells onto themselves, they can create what will look like ground meat. Future research will look at the next step, using 3-D printers that issue bubbles of specialized cells instead of colors of ink to “print” lab-grown steaks, cutlets and chops.

Is your mouth watering yet? No, mine isn’t either. But if you care for the fate of the earth you may want to stay seated at the table.

Solving Several Global Problems At Once

In that May 23, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, Michael Specter describes this strange but thrilling convergence of people and technology. He writes, “[This is] a new discipline, propelled by an unlikely combination of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activists, and environmentalists.”

A brand new discipline is a big deal. The father and elder statesman of this one is William van Eelen, an 88-year-old Dutch native; part-time scientist, and full-time zealot. He is the focus of this New Yorker piece. Specter reports that van Eelen has pursued his dream of feeding the world from a Petri dish since the 1950s. We learn that he doggedly championed his cause in (not surprisingly) the face of decades of aggressive skepticism and even derision. It has only been relatively recently that technology and world events have caught up to him and begun to propel his work forward. A dozen years ago he achieved an important milestone. He was granted U.S. and international patents for his Industrial Production of Meat Using Cell Culture Methods.

Why are environmentalists among its supporters?

For all the carbon emissions they are responsible for, you’d think every beef flank and chicken breast we eat arrives at our plates from the back of a Hummer. According to the piece, “our patterns of meat consumption have become increasingly dangerous for both individuals and the planet …”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty percent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That is more than all cars, trains, ships and planes combined. Cattle consume nearly ten percent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty percent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat.

There is also a cure for individual crises: “According to a report issued recently by the American Public Health Association, animal waste from industrial farms ‘often contains pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria’ … Seventy percent of all antibiotics and related drugs consumed in the United States are fed to hogs, poultry, and beef.

“[Also,] the World Health Organization has attributed a third of the world’s deaths to the twin epidemics of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both greatly influenced by excessive consumption of animal fats.” The article made the point that by re-engineering the meat that’s being cultured, we may someday be able to dine on burgers more akin to health food than heart-attacks-on-a-bun.

Phasing Out the Factory Animal

That’s just the humanitarian outlook of in-vitro meat. Let’s not forget the “animalitarian” perspective:

By 2030, the world will likely consume seventy percent more meat than it did in 2000. The … implications for animal welfare [are daunting]: billions of cows, pigs, and chickens spend their entire lives crated, boxed, or force-fed grain in repulsive conditions on factory farms.

We’re reassured in the article that the cure for these social ills won’t leave a bad taste in our mouths. The fact is, we’re not talking about artificial meat. It’s the real thing. This is hard for people to grasp, as demonstrated by the way Terry Gross of Fresh Air struggled with the idea in her recent interview of Mr. Specter.

He concedes this point, and its general lack of appeal, “Nearly every person I told that I was working on this piece asked the same question: What does it taste like? (And the first word most people blurted out to describe their feelings was ‘Yuck.’) Researchers say that taste and texture – fats and salt and varying amounts of protein – can be engineered into lab-grown meat with relative ease.”

What won’t be easy is scale.

This work is being done by scientists now in tiny quantities, with muscle tissue no larger than contact lenses. What is needed is a transition from science to engineering. Rallying the financing for this won’t be easy until more people can see a shared vision of the benefits of in-vitro meat.

But don’t despair. Just as the space program in the 1960s prospered because the science was already in place, the scientific underpinnings of industrial meat exist today. What is lacking is awareness. That, and the leadership necessary to tackle tough problems like global warming, and human hunger and illness, in the face of a future that makes us all a little queasy. It’s one thing for a nation to get behind men on the moon. It’s another to look forward to tucking into a test tube T-bone.

Photo credit courtesy The Big Scout Project via Creative Commons