Archive for September, 2017

Sep 12 2017

The Safety and Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

Published by under Technology

Google-SDCGermany just came out with their first regulations for self-driving cars that address how they will be programmed with respect to safety. Specifically – what should the programming do if harm cannot be completely avoided and it has to decide between the lesser of two bad outcomes? Germany is the first country to come out with such regulations, and therefore sets the example for other countries who will likely follow.

Here are the key elements of their decision:

  • Automated and connected driving is an ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers (positive balance of risk).
  • Damage to property must take precedence over personal injury. In hazardous situations, the protection of human life must always have top priority.
  • In the event of unavoidable accident situations, any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible.
  • In every driving situation, it must be clearly regulated and apparent who is responsible for the driving task: the human or the computer.
  • It must be documented and stored who is driving (to resolve possible issues of liability, among other things).
  • Drivers must always be able to decide themselves whether their vehicle data are to be forwarded and used (data sovereignty).

This all makes sense to me and I don’t see anything overly controversial. Prioritizing people over property is a no-brainer. Treating all people as of equal value also seems like the right move. This is because you could not individualize such decision – only treat people demographically or as part of a group. This would be too ethically fraught to be practical.

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Sep 11 2017

PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

PETA_Protest_onlineIn North America house sparrows are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 19th century, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as blue birds. They are cavity nesters and will use up many of the prime nesting spots before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

Birders have a special disdain for house sparrows and European starlings (another invasive species). They are both a threat to bird biodiversity. They are also not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means it is legal to remove their nests and even to capture and euthanize them (you can then donate them to raptor refugees for food). Many birding enthusiasts recommend active measures to control house sparrows and minimize their impact on native species.

Partly for these reasons house sparrows are an ideal target for scientific research. They can be legally captured, and the research will then serve the extra added small benefit of removing house sparrows from the wild.

All of this makes it all the more ironic that PETA has chosen to target a young researcher (a post-doc) for harassment due to her research on house sparrows. Really, PETA, you have chosen the wrong subject to defend, the pests of the birding world.

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Sep 08 2017

How People Thrive

Published by under Neuroscience

happy-facesThere is a science to happiness and to what we might call thriving (sometimes called flourishing) – not just surviving, but being happy and fulfilled. Obviously any such phenomenon is going to be very complex and variable, but some clear patterns are emerging in the psychological literature. A recent study by Brown et al reviews that literature in an attempt to summarize what we know about thriving.

Brown identifies a number of factors that contribute to thriving, but the core seems to come down to two things: being confident and being good at something. Other researchers looking at the same question have had a slightly different emphasis, but I think are essentially saying the same thing. Thriving correlates with living with purpose, for example. Other studies emphasize community and having a belief system (which may just be a proxy for having a purpose). Having a purpose in life has even been associated with better physical health in older adults.

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Sep 07 2017

Eliminating Personal Belief Exemptions for Vaccines

ExImmunMap15-TuesdayIn the US routine childhood vaccination is required for entry into public school, and in some states even private school. This is a reasonable public health policy. Vaccination not only protects the individual against common infectious diseases, but when enough people get vaccinated this creates community immunity (often referred to as herd immunity) which protects everyone.

Any parent knows first hand that children are seething vectors for germs. Their concept of hygiene, generally speaking, is often not the same as the average adult. Put a large group of children together in a close environment like a school, and you have basically created a disease factory.

Further, some children cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. They may have a chronic illness that makes their immune systems too weak to handle the vaccine, or they have an intolerance to vaccines. For these children, if they want to attend school, their only protection is the community immunity that results from all the more healthy children being vaccinated.  Continue Reading »

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Sep 05 2017

Sustainably Using Space

Published by under Technology

space-debrisIt does seem that human civilization has grown to such a point that sustainability is becoming a significant issue in many domains. Prior to the last century or so the world was relatively large compared to human population. For most of human history it seemed as if resources were limitless – we could pull fish out of the sea without worrying that they would run out. Resources and disposal locations were treated like bottomless pits.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our population, our industry, and our appetites are now large enough that infinite sustainability is no longer something we can blithely assume.

It is also true that over the last couple of centuries there have been many premature warnings about “peak whatever”, or some way in which our civilization would not be sustainable. So far technology has advanced to fill in any gaps. This has given any new warnings about sustainability a reputation for screaming that the sky is falling, and makes it easy to dismiss. They were wrong before, so why should we worry now? Technology will eventually change the game and everything will be fine.

The classic errors that lead to these premature warnings were simplistically extrapolating from current trends, and not considering the development of new technology. The phrase “if current trends continue” should always be looked at with a skeptical eye. Historically, current trends rarely continue. You have to consider what is driving those trends, and if there are any feedback loops that will tend to moderate them. Also, we have proven a very clever species and I would not underestimate our ability to find innovative solutions.

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