If the Computer Said it, it must be True!

Well, maybe not.  “What Happens When GPS Can’t Find You?” is a commercial concern raised by a Wall St. Journal article.  Needless to say a business in today’s world is at risk if the GPS location associated with it is wrong, or just the path that is required to get there is not correct.  Consumers at best are frustrated, and may simply write off that operation.  In this case it is often not the business’s fault, but one in the GPS location service, or route mapping.

Behind this is a more pervasive and serious problem.  Often there is no way to “fix” these problems from the perspective of the consumer or the an affected business.  You may know the data is wrong, the route doesn’t work, and correcting the error(s) is not a straight forward path, and certainly not easy enough that the “crowd-source” solution would work. That is, many people might find the error, and if there were a simple way to “report” the problem, after the “nth” report, an automated fix (or review) could be triggered.

This is not just  GPS problem. I’ve found many web sites are validating addresses against equally flawed sources (perhaps even the USPS).  I can send mail to my daughter (and she gets it), I’ve even seen the mailbox on the side of her street. By one of the web sites I used to deliver items to her location is rejecting the address as “not known”… and of course there is no way to report the error. A related problem is entering an address in “just the right way” — am I in “Unit A101” or “Apt. A 101″ or maybe Apt A101”, note that the delivery folks can handle all of these, but the online ordering system can’t.  Technology design consideration: track such ‘failures’, and after some number, check the validation process, or better have a button such as “I know this is right, so please update the database”.

Online operations are losing business, as well as brick-and-mortar activities due to online “presumptions” of correctness .. and no corrective processes available.  It’s one thing when the word processor marks your spelling as “wrong”, but lets you keep it anyway.  It is another when medications or essential services can’t reach your location because the GPS or delivery address is not in the database, or is listed incorrectly.

AntiVaccination Epidemic and Communicating About Technology

An opinion piece by Dr. Paul  Offit, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the Wall Street Journal: “The Anti-Vaccination Epidemic” points out the impact that misinformation has had on vaccination rates in the US, and Japan. He observes that “not enough children had died” in outbreaks of whooping cough in Washington State (2012 1300% increase in cases – but apparently no deaths in 2012).  A similar event in Japan, where vaccination rates dropped from 80% to 10% in the late 1970’s resulted in 13,000 cases and 41 deaths.

An excellent program on PBS/Nova, “Vaccines: Calling the Shots” goes into depth on the issues emerging in this area.  To attain “Herd Protection”, 85% of the individuals need to be vaccinated, so dropping from historical levels in the 90% range below this magic percentage sets the affected communities up for epidemic impact.  In effect, the choice of some parents to not have their children vaccinated increases the risk, not just for their children, but also for others in the community — those where the vaccine does not provide sufficient protection or those who are allergic or unable to use the vaccines.

But here is the real question I see us face from a Technology and Society view point — how do we communicate effectively to the public to get them to take responsible action?  This issue emerges with vaccination, with climate change, and with other areas where technology plays a role in the problems or in the solutions.

Andrew Wakefield, who published the initial papers asserting a relationship between vaccination and autism has been discredited, and stripped of his medical license. But the incorrect and fraudulent information in these papers has continued to influence sufficient parents to create risk situations.  Unfortunately a sticky lie (meme) can propagate more effectively than a boring truth — a reason why ugly rumors in negative political campaigns have more traction than simple facts. Is the “Right to Lie” protected free speech? Is anti-vaccination or anti-climate change rhetoric a threat to public safety that warrants  the “crying fire in a theater”  exemption to free speech?

The longer term question is how to we effectively communicate factual data — and perhaps a pre-requisite is develop critical thinking skills in the public– so that folks will make well informed decisions in the public interest?


Free Will and Ethics

The June 2014 issue of Scientific American has a paper on “The World Without Free Will“.  The article does not consider the existence of free will, but the impact of the perceived lack of free will on behaviour.  Students who were introduced to text suggesting that man does not have free will where more lenient in hypothetical criminal sentencing, but also more likely to “lie, cheat, steal and feed hot sauce to rude people“. In effect, the authors suggests that memes that deprecate free will may lower the inclination towards ethical action on the part of receptive communities.

The legal system impact is perhaps well addressed in Figments of Reality by Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen (1997) in their chapter “We Wanted to Have a Chapter on Free Will, but we Decided not to, so Here it is.” In which the Judge responds to the convicted criminal’s “no-free-will” plea with complete agreement and laments that he too is without free will, and must sentence the miscreant to jail.

So, are we creatures enslaved by the inevitability of determinism?  Comment if you must.  Or perhaps more in line with SSIT’s challenges — are ethics meaningful in a deterministic world?

How Do We Know (Global Warming for Example)

There has been a thread in the SSIT LinkedIn group with a dispute about the question of Global Warming. Needless to say this is an issue with much noise (contributing to global warming?) triggered in part by corporate interests (alternative energy folks vs. folks who might have to pay the bill for carbon sequestration), academic reputations (worse than US Congress deadlocks IMHO), and funding for research.  The initial issue of the posting raised the question (paraphrased) “Can technologists ethically ignore global warming?

Let me dispose of a red-herring point up front: “Human caused” is not the question. If global warming is occurring, and if it creates problems for humanity, then it is something to consider — and this is the scientific basis for taking action.  So we can assume that all persons who focus their dispute on “human cause” agree that global warming is occurring and that it represents a problem for humanity or they would not be focusing on that subordinate point.

Here is the question I see — how does a technologist (presumably not a climate scientist) make decisions in the context of such controversy?  The recent UN Report (2200 pages, complete with a focused Summary for Policy Makers provides a solid, authoritative,  multinational (albeit controversial) set of conclusions.

The controversy raised by Murdoch media holdings (Fox News, WSJ, etc.) focuses on the last 15 years of overall warming data (see that chart set) where the overall upward trend since 1910 does not reflect the same rise.  They accuse the UN of abusing the data by not focusing on this aspect.  Other data (see other charts) such as snow cover, arctic sea ice, ocean heat content and sea level change do not show the same change in trend, they all reflect the impact of climate change.  So, picking your favorite charts, or authorities, or media outlets provides an excuse for your prefered course of action.  But is that ethical?

Lets take a practical engineering example (close to my heart) — rebuilding the river beds in Colorado after the recent flooding.  The “official” perspective was that the 1976 flood was a 100-year flood (worst to be expected every 100 years) and the 2013 flood was a 1000-year flood.  Historically  this might be true, but if climate change is a factor, then the action plan might be different.  Restoring the river bed (for flood control) to the 2012 state assuming the next event is a 100-year flood, is likely to be a different objective than restoring the river bed to address an additional 1000-year event in the near future, or perhaps a 10,000 year event if we hold to a historical model.  This same engineering question (and flood insurance question, and zoning/building permit question) surfaces in every weather triggered disaster over the last few years.  Lives and property will be  impacted by the decisions that the relevant engineers make.

No doubt similar, and unfortunately more subtle, examples can be raised with many of our technology design decisions. Should we maximize the useful life of a device (presumably minimizing it’s environmental impact), or make it ‘disposable’ (with the added increase in future replacement sales?)  What energy generation investments are the most ethical (as opposed to the lowest cost)?  What should the next generation car have (max power, max weight, max MPG, etc.)  These decisions surface in many fields for many technologists and in some cases are decided by these technologists (in some cases management, or marketing makes the calls — although this does not reduce the ethical obligations involved.)

Some salient quotes from the UN report include:

  • “evidence of climate change based on many independent scientific analyses from observations of the climate system, paleoclimate archives, theoretical studies of climate processes and simulations using climate models”
  • “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased”
  • “Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0-700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971. “
  • “Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent “
  • “The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m”
  • “The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times…
  • “Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions”

Needless to say this last conclusion has a direct tie to my flooding example.

So how do technologists decide what “facts” to consider?  Is it ethical to pass the buck to those who are supplying the bucks?  Or to pick your prefered research study or media outlet?  How do you make this decision on the job?  Or in your decision on the location for your home?

IEEE Society on the Social Implications of Technology


Katina Michael at the University of Wollongong, guest editor of the June 2013 Computer magazine special issue on Big Data: New Opportunities and New Challenges, talks about the IEEE Society on the Social Implications of Technology (SSIT), IEEE Technology and Society (T&S) magazine, and the International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS).

View the video on YouTube


From Computer’s June issue:http://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/…. Visit Computer:http://www.computer.org/computer.