Monday, July 27, 2015

The Wireless-Car-Hack Recall: A Real-Life Drama in Three Acts

Act One—2010-2011

As automakers begin to build in more wireless technology to enable not only hands-free mobile phone use from their cars but streaming audio services and navigational and safety aids as well, some researchers at UC San Diego and the University of Washington look into the possibility that these new two-way communication paths can be used to hack into a car's computer for nefarious purposes.  After months of work, they manage to use a wireless connection to disable the brakes on a particular car, which to this day remains anonymous.  Rather than releasing the maker's name in their research publication in 2011, the researchers suppress it, and instead go privately to the car's manufacturers and warn them of the vulnerability.  Also in 2010, more than 100 car owners in the Austin, Texas area whose vehicles were linked into a system that can disable a car if the owner gets behind in his payments, found that their cars wouldn't start.  Only, they weren't deadbeats—one of the enforcement company's employees got mad at his boss and intentionally disabled the cars. 

Act Two—2012-2013

Two freelance computer security specialists, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, read about the UCSD/University of Washington wireless-car-hack study and decide to investigate the issue further.  They apply for and receive an $80,000 grant from the U. S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with which they buy a Ford Escape and a Toyota Prius.  With this hardware, they teach themselves the intricacies of the automakers' internal software and as a first step, develop a wired approach to hacking into a vehicle's control systems.  This allows them to plug a connector into the car's diagnostic port and operate virtually any system they wish.  However, when they show this ability at Defcon 2013, a hacker's convention, representatives of automakers are not impressed, pointing out that they needed a physical connection to do the hacking.  That inspires Miller and Valasek to go for the ultimate hack:  wireless Internet control of a car, and demonstration of same to a journalist.

Act Three—2014-2015

After reading dozens of mechanics' manuals and evaluating over twenty different models, the pair decide that the model most vulnerable to an online hack is the Jeep Cherokee. Miller buys one in St. Louis and the pair begin searching for bugs and vulnerabilities in software.  Finally, in June of 2015, Valasek issues a command from his home in Pittsburg and Miller watches the Cherokee respond in his driveway in St. Louis.  They have succeeded in hacking remotely into the car's CAN bus, which controls virtually all essential functions such as brakes, throttle, transmission, wipers, and so on. 

After the lukewarm reception they received from automakers a couple of years earlier, they have decided a stronger stimulus is needed to get prompt action.  When they informed Fiat Chrysler Autos of their hacking work into the firm's Cherokee back in October of 2014, the response was minimal.  Accordingly, they invite Wired journalist Andy Greenberg to drive the Cherokee on an interstate highway, telling him only in general terms that they will do the hack while he's driving, and surprise him with particular demonstrations of what they can do. 

Greenberg must have felt like he was in a bad sci-fi flick about aliens taking over.  As he recalled the ride, "Though I hadn’t touched the dashboard, the vents in the Jeep Cherokee started blasting cold air at the maximum setting, chilling the sweat on my back through the in-seat climate control system. Next the radio switched to the local hip hop station and began blaring Skee-lo at full volume. I spun the control knob left and hit the power button, to no avail. Then the windshield wipers turned on, and wiper fluid blurred the glass."  During the finale, the hackers disabled the transmission, throwing it into neutral and causing a minor backup on the interstate.

Greenberg's article appears on Wired's website on July 21.  On July 24, Fiat Chrysler Autos announces a recall of 1.4 million vehicles to fix software flaws that allow their cars to be hacked remotely via the UConnect Internet connection that Miller and Vasalek used.  It is the first recall ever due to a demonstrated flaw that lets hackers access a car through its Internet connection.

. . . Back in December of 2014, I blogged on the possibility that someone would figure out how to use the Internet to hack into a car's controls.  At the time, I reported that several automakers had formed an Information Sharing Advisory Center to pool knowledge of problems along these lines.  And I hoped that nobody would use a remote hack for unethical reasons.  What Miller and Vasalek have done has ruffled some feathers, but falls short of truly illegal activity. 

Instead, it's in the tradition of what might be called "white-hat" hacking, in which security experts pretend to be bad guys and do their darndest to hack into a system, and then let the system designers know what they've done so they can fix the bug.  According to press reports, pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration prompted Fiat Chrysler Autos to issue the hacking recall as promptly as they did, only three days after the Wired article appeared.  The annals of engineering ethics show that a little adverse publicity can go a long way in stimulating action by a large organization such as a car company. 

You might ask why Fiat Chrysler's own software engineers couldn't have done what Miller and Vasalek did, sooner and more effectively.  That is a complex question that involves the psychology of automotive engineers and what motivates them.  Budgeting for someone to come along and thwart the best efforts of your software engineers to protect a system is not a high priority in many firms.  And even if an engineer with Fiat Chrysler had concerns, chances are that his superiors would have belittled them, as they did Miller and Vasalek's demo of the wired hack in 2013.  To do anything more would have required a whistleblower to go outside the company to the media, which would have probably cost him his job. 

But this way, Miller and Vasalek get what they wanted:  real action on the part of automakers to do something about the problem.  They also become known as the two Davids who showed up the Goliath of Fiat Chrysler, and this can't do their consulting business any harm.  Best of all, millions of owners of Cherokees and other vehicles can scratch one small worry off their list:  the fear that some geek somewhere will pick their car out of a swarm on a GPS display somewhere and start messing with the radio—or worse.

Sources:  The Associated Press article on the Fiat Chrysler Auto recall appeared in many news outlets, including ABC News on July 24 at  The Wired article by Andy Greenberg describing the Cherokee hack is at  My latest previous blog on this subject appeared on Dec. 1, 2014 at

Monday, July 20, 2015

I Compute Your Pain: Emotion-Sensing Software

My wife usually knows when I'm upset long before I do.  I haven't performed a scientific study to determine how she does this.  She says she reads my body language, the tone of my voice, and my facial expressions, as well as what I say.  Women seem to have a built-in advantage when it comes to sensing the emotional states of others, so it's not a surprise that the co-founders of a company that sells software to read emotions were two women:  Rosalind Picard and Rana el Kaliouby.  The history of why they began their research into getting computers to sense emotions and what their company is doing now may tell us something about the ethical challenges to come if companies begin using emotion-reading software on a large scale.  A recent article in The New Yorker profiles these women and their work.

Back in the 1990s, almost no one in computer science was thinking professionally about emotions.  One of the few exceptions was Rosalind Picard, who has been on the MIT faculty since 1991.  She realized that computers could serve people better if they had a clue as to what emotional state a person was in.  Despite confused stares and even active discouragement from computer-science colleagues, she persisted in researching what she termed "affective computing" and wound up establishing an entirely new field.

Rana el Kaliouby entered the fray by a similar route.  Her first idea of a practical application of affective computing was to develop a kind of emotional hearing aid for autistic people, whose disability usually prevents them from inferring the emotional state of people around them.  She wound up teaming with Picard on some academic research projects, which attracted so much attention that they decided to spin off a company called Affectiva in 2009.

Once their ideas left academia for the commercial world, the tone of things changed.  Every second, thousands of marketers are competing for online attention—in TV ads, YouTube video ads, smartphone apps, and all the other electronic attention-grabbers we surround ourselves with these days.  Someone has even calculated what the attention of the average American is worth these days:  about six cents per minute in 2010.  Your attention is the coin of the realm that you exchange for "free" internet services, and companies who sell these services would dearly like to know how you feel about what you see.  This is what Affdex, the software offered by Affectiva, is supposed to do.

It works by monitoring facial expressions in a sophisticated way that uses fixed points (e. g. the tip of the nose) as references for the movement of eyebrows, the corners of your mouth, and other features that have been proven to be emotionally expressive.  The result is a readout of four emotional dimensions:  happy, confused, surprised, and disgusted.  I expect most marketers try to get the biggest happy readings, maybe laced with a little surprise here and there, and try to lower the confused and disgusted numbers.  Anyway, lots of companies are willing to pay lots of money to get these numbers.

So far, the main use has been in focus groups and other controlled settings where the consent of the consumer has been obtained to use video of their faces.  You can imagine the day when those little built-in cameras in computers and smart phones will be activated for emotion-reading software, possibly without your knowledge.  That is a thin red line which, to my own knowledge, has not been crossed yet.  But I can easily picture a situation in which a browser turns on your camera to watch your face, maybe in exchange for some bonus or free this or that, and somehow it just never gets turned off again.

Like most technology, affective computing can be used for either good or not-so-good purposes.  If software developers could learn how to sense a user's emotions, it could make software a lot easier to use.  I can think of many times when I was trying to do something with new software and got frustrated or confused.  Software that could sense this and trot out simpler and simpler explanations and help files, and even ask questions ("Just what are you trying to do?") would be a tremendous advance over that peculiar sense of helplessness I get when I face a zillion menu options and know one of them will do what I want, only I don't have twelve hours to spare in order to try each one. 

On the other hand, both Picard and Kaliouby realize that this sort of software could be abused.  Picard left Affectiva in 2013, and although Kaliouby is still with the firm, she expresses some disappointment that the commercial applications of Affdex have overshadowed the assistive applications for autism sufferers and other disabled people.  If one tries to come up with a worst-case scenario for how emotion-reading software could be abused, some sort of subliminal manipulation comes to mind.  What if emotion-reading ads prove to be well-nigh irresistible? 

Years ago, there was a flap of concern that advertisers were inserting single-frame images in TV ads that went by so quick your conscious mind didn't even notice them.  But supposedly, they went straight to your subconscious and made you go out and buy a Coke you didn't need, or something like that.  So-called subliminal advertising has proven to be useless, but we have yet to see how effective advertising is when it's coupled to software that can read the viewer's emotional state and make changes in its presentation in real time in response.  Of course, a good salesman does this instinctively, but up to now Internet advertising has been open-loop, with no way of knowing what the viewer felt about the ad.  Software such as Affdex promises to close that loop. 

Let's hope that affective software leads to a kinder, gentler interaction with the machines that take up an increasing part of our lives, without taking us down a road that amounts to secret manipulation of consumers without their knowledge or consent.

Sources:  The article "We Know How You Feel" by Raffi Khatchadourian appeared in the Jan. 19, 2015 issue of  The New Yorker, and provided many of the details in this blog.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Rosalind Picard and the Affectiva website 

Monday, July 13, 2015

You Can't Take It With You: Airline Security as Industrial Engineering

The first question you may have is, what's industrial engineering?  It's an uninformative name for an important discipline:  the study of how best to design industrial processes of every type, from time-and-motion studies of assembly lines to how we can treat more hospital patients better with fewer resources.  The subject came to my mind recently as I was lifting empty gray plastic tubs from a conveyor belt onto a stacking machine that automatically recycled them to the head of the line at a security checkpoint in London's Heathrow Airport.  How did I get that job?  Well, let me begin at the beginning.

This was on the return leg of a business trip to France.  Lest you think I'm a world traveler, I should say that this was my first international trip in five or six years, and I'd never been to France before.  The conference I attended was in the "department" (sort of a state) of Cantal, in the legendary South of France, which is world-famous for its wine and cheese.  These attractions were somewhat wasted on me as I don't drink wine and I don't like cheese.  But at the end of the conference, the organizers gave me a box containing selections of the local foods.  I received it eagerly with the hope that I could take it back to my wife, who is fond of cheese and has been known to have a sip of wine now and then.  What neither I nor the conference organizers reckoned on was airline security.

For those familiar with the U. S. Transportation Security Administration system, the French do it similarly except you don't have to take off your shoes.  They had set aside my bag after the X-ray, though.  They wanted to know what a dark cylindrical object was.  I took out the cardboard box of goodies and opened it up for them.  There was a can of paté of some kind.  When they saw what it was, they were happy, and let me go.  So far, so good, but next came British security in London.

At Heathrow, everything is very organized.  First you queue up and have to go through a kind of museum display of all kinds of items you can't put in your luggage.  Anything liquid or liquid-like, you have to take out and put in a clear plastic bag for them to sniff at.  I'd done this with my toothpaste and thought I was all ready for them.  Think again.

It really did look like a miniature production line when I got to the luggage X-ray system.  You are handed these large gray plastic tubs and everything has to fit in a tub.  Then this industrial-quality conveyor belt with motorized rollers lines up the tubs to go through the X-ray.  If something fishy shows up, all the operator has to do is push a button, and a set of push rods shoves the suspect tub out of the main line into a second inspect-by-hand line behind a clear plastic barrier.  To my dismay, that happened to both of my tubs of stuff.

My glasses were in one of the tubs, but I could see well enough to watch my luggage as it sat behind the barrier.  It was well back in a line of several, and so it would be a while before I could get at it again.  Just to have something to do, I started picking up the empty tubs that the more fortunate travelers were leaving behind, and stacked them on the automatic return gizmo.  While I was doing this for ten or fifteen minutes, I noticed one of the inspect-by-hand inspectors playing with what I thought at first was a back-scratcher he'd confiscated from someone.  It was a blue plastic wand about a foot and a half (50 cm) long with some white cloth thing at the end. 

Then I noticed he was wiping it over contents of a piece of luggage and taking it over to a machine.  He removed the cloth and stuck it in the machine.  Turns out it was an ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) device that uses the varying speed of ions under the influence of an electric field to detect vapors of explosives, drugs, and other non-allowed chemicals.  Very clever technology which has made it out of the lab into the field—at least, a lot of airfields.

Finally, they got to my bag.  I pulled out the notorious box and showed him the contents.  There was a glass bottle of something—maybe it was beer—and a jar of what looked like marmalade. 

"I'm sorry, sir, but these are both over 200 milliliters.  To take them with you you'll have to go back out and check this bag."  There wasn't time, so I bid my marmalade and beer, or whatever it was, good-by.  I never even got a good look at them.  Then he let me go.

All was well after that till the U. S. passport control point at the Austin airport.  At passport control, there were just a bunch of kiosks with computerized touchscreens asking you a series of questions.  One of them was about food brought back from abroad. 

I faced an ethical dilemma.  I knew if I said I had none, I'd be lying, but I could also get through quicker.  Partly just to see what happened, I answered yes, I did have food from abroad.  There was a big "A" on the slip of paper that came out, which I handed to a man at the exit.  He put a big red checkmark on it, stuffed it in a blue folder, and told me to go have a seat over there.

Over there turned out to be a waiting area with people in it who looked like they were all at a funeral.  I said, "Nobody looks very cheerful over here."  One lady griped that this was what she got for being honest. 

In a bit, a brisk gal in a uniform came up, said, "Everybody with blue folders, come with me."  I was the only one, so I followed her into a room where once again, I took out the box and showed her what was in it.  This time the offending item was a piece of dried sausage sealed in plastic wrap.  "The meat has to go, but you can keep the other stuff."  So it went, and in another minute so did I.

Based on my limited sample during my trip, I'd say the British win the industrial-engineering competition for most efficient carry-on-luggage inspection.  They also took the most stuff.  All I have left from Cantal is a bag of cookies and that can of paté.  I don't know much French, but I think the label says it has a guaranteed minimum fat content of 30%.  Paté, anyone?

Sources: You can read more about ion mobility spectrometry at the website of a manufacturer of these systems, Smiths Detection: 

Monday, July 06, 2015

Inside Out For Real: Brain Mapping and Privacy

Recently my wife and I went to see "Inside Out," the Pixar animated comedy about a girl named Riley and what her five personified emotions—Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness—do in her brain when she's uprooted as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.  It sounds like an unlikely premise for any kind of a movie, but Pixar pulled it off, zooming into the minds of Riley, her mother, her father, her teacher, and even a few pets for good measure. 

The idea of getting inside somebody's brain to see what's really going on makes for a good fantasy, but what if we could do it now?  And not just in laboratory settings with millions of dollars' worth of equipment, but with a machine costing only a few thousand bucks, within the budget of, say, your average police department?  If you think about it, it's not so funny anymore.

Mind-reading technology is not just around the corner, to be sure.  But what gets me thinking along these lines, besides seeing "Inside Out," is an article about some new brain-scanning technology being used by Joy Hirsch and her colleagues at the Yale Brain Function Lab. 

The biggest advance in monitoring what's going on in a living brain in recent years has been fMRI, short for functional magnetic-resonance imaging.  This technology uses an advanced form of the familiar diagnostic-type MRI machine to keep track of blood flow in different parts of the brain.  Associating more brain activity with more blood-oxygen use, fMRI technology shows different brain areas "lighting up" as various mental tasks are performed. 

While great strides in correlating mental activities with specific parts of the brain have been achieved with fMRI, the machinery is expensive, bulky, and temperamental, involving liquid-helium-cooled magnets and cutting-edge signal processing systems that confine it to a few well-equipped labs around the world.  But now Joy Hirsch has come along with a completely different technology involving nothing more complex than laser beams and a fiber-optic piece of headgear that fits on your (intact) skull like a high-tech skullcap.  From the photo accompanying the article, it looks like you don't even have to shave your head for the laser beams to go through the skull and into the top few millimeters of the brain.  While that misses some important parts, a lot goes on in the upper layers of the cerebral cortex, much of which is within reach of Dr. Hirsch's lasers.  So she has been able to do a lot of what the fMRI folks can do, only with much simpler equipment.

Don't look for a view-your-own-brain kit to show up on Amazon any time soon, but my point is that this technology is almost bound to get cheaper and better, especially now that President Obama's brain-initiative research funds are attracting more researchers into the field.  So it's worth giving some thought to what the ethical implications of cheap, easily available brain-monitoring technology would be.

Philosophers have been here before anybody else, of course, with their consideration of what is known as the "mind-body problem."  The issue is whether the mind is just a kind of folk term for what the brain really does, or whether the mind is a separate non-material entity that is intimately related to the physical thing we call the brain.  Everybody admits that no two brains are physically identical.  But what does it mean to say that two people are thinking the same thing?  Say you had two bank-robbery suspects in custody and you asked each one where they were on the night of the robbery.  If both of them happened to be robbing the bank that night, the memory of the robbery would have to reside in each of the two brains.  So at some level, the same information would have to be present in each suspect's brain. 

But can technology ever get to the point where you could actually read out memories of things like bank robberies, without the subject's consent? 

It seems like the only safe thing to say at this point is that we don't know.  It's not clear, at this early stage of brain research, that there is enough commonality among brain structures even to hope that memories can be read out in any meaningful way, even if the subject spends hours or days cooperating with researchers and telling them exactly what he or she is thinking while they gather their brain-sensing data.  And crime suspects are not likely to do that.

What we're talking about is a sort of high-tech lie detector (polygraph) test.  And frankly, lie detectors have not made huge strides in law enforcement, maybe because they simply don't work that well.  That may be because we are at the point in brain-reading technology where music broadcasting was in 1905.  The only way you could broadcast music in 1905 was over telephone lines, and while there were some limited successes in this area, the technology was simply too primitive and expensive for music broadcasting to catch on.  It had to wait for the invention of radio (wireless) in the 1920s, which launched the broadcasting industry like a rocket.

Something similar might happen with brain-reading technology if it ever gets cheap and reliable enough.  Dr. Hirsch herself speculates that some day, instead of actually painting a picture with your hands, you'd only have to think the painting, and your brain-reader connected to a laser printer would finish the job.  Any technology that could do that could certainly give a second party some insight into your thoughts, possibly against your will. 

Currently, there are safeguards against the misuse of lie-detector tests.  But if a new technology comes along that is orders of magnitude more informative than the few channels of external data provided by a polygraph, the legal system might be caught with its safeguards down.  The current research regime of institutional review boards seems to do a fairly good job of protecting the rights of research subjects in these matters.  But if law-enforcement organizations with their very different priorities ever get the technical ability to scan brains for personal information, we are going to see a very different ball game, and new rules will be needed.

If you have a chance, go see "Inside Out."  It's funny and ultimately hopeful about the human condition of having emotions that are part of us, yet not under our complete control.  The same is true of our thoughts.  If we ever develop the ability to see another person's thoughts with any degree of accuracy, the amusing fantasy of that movie may become a reality we might not want to have to deal with.

Sources:  The original story on the Yale Brain Function Lab by AP reporter Malcolm Ritter can be read on the Associated Press website at, and appeared in numerous news outlets following its initial publication on June 22. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Residential Solar Energy: Power to How Many People?

A friend of mine recently installed an array of solar panels (photovoltaic generation) on his roof.  It's part of an Austin Energy plan that makes it straightforward for well-heeled consumers to get a turnkey installation done.  After a stretch of sunny days he'll meet me for lunch and tell me how much power he sold to the utility that week. 

I was reminded of this when I read a recent article by environmental writer Bill McKibben in The New Yorker.  Entitled "Power to the People," McKibben describes how residential solar-power installations such as the one at my friend's house are getting cheap enough so that ordinary blue-collar workers and other middle-class types can afford them, at least when their electric utility cooperates in various ways.  McKibben starts his piece with the story of a couple in Vermont who had their house made over for energy conservation and production:  better insulation, a heat-pump heating unit, all-LED lighting, and a solar panel on their garage.  After the installations, their electricity usage for a heating season (October to January) went down by 16%, and they were able to get by without starting up their old oil-burning furnace at all. 

McKibben is supporting the presidential run of Bernie Sanders, the far-left independent senator from Vermont.  But to read his New Yorker piece, you might not guess it—he sounds more like a free-market libertarian.  His main point is that it's starting to make not only environmental and political sense (depending on your view of the environment and politics) but economic sense for more people to go solar and invest in energy-saving technology, simply because it's getting cheaper to do so.  And so McKibben is looking to the free market to do what his years of playing a prophetic Cassandra in the wilderness of environmentalism haven't done so far:  to foster a major move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy for electric power.

 While I welcome Mr. McKibben's newfound friendliness toward the market economy, one can question how realistic his optimism is.  As he points out in the article, one of the main obstacles in the way of further adoption of solar power in private housing is the electric utilities themselves.  While some, notably in California and Vermont, have been in the forefront of renewable-energy initiatives, others feel threatened by the idea of home-grown electricity.  And the reason is money. 

Nearly all electric utilities are regulated to some degree by state utility commissions, which allow them to set rates that guarantee a certain profit in exchange for highly reliable delivery of power.  This sort of environment fosters conservative behavior and a set of rules that favors the status quo.  For example, if people start making their own power, who pays for the expensive and maintenance-intensive electric grid, especially if more and more fossil-fuel-burning power plants that feed it are shut down?  The economic incentives built into the system were not designed for power to go backwards, and it's not clear how the organizations that operate distribution networks are going to get paid for what they do in a highly distributed power-generation situation such as the use of extensive solar power would create.

Here in Texas, things are a little less regulated than in other places.  It's not quite true here, as McKibben states in his article, that "utilities are granted exclusive rights to a territory."  That's true for electric distribution companies, but not for electric generation in Texas, where most electric-utility customers can choose from a variety of generation sources, including renewables such as wind power.  And partly due to a recently phased-out subsidy, Texas leads the nation in terms of wind-powered electric generation.  So in a way, there's evidence even in fossil-fuel-friendly Texas that what McKibben hopes will happen is already happening.

But a totally free market for electric power is almost inconceivable, and so we have to look soberly at what it would take for renewables (solar being the newest contender) to make a significant dent in the use of fossil fuels for electric power in the U. S.  According to the U. S. Energy Information Administration, about two-thirds of all electric power in the U. S. is produced by burning coal, oil, or natural gas.  Say we wanted to reduce that fossil-fuel usage by a third, out of concern for climate change and so on.  Anything smaller would be a drop in the bucket  (and we're not even getting into the question of what other countries are doing and whether this U. S. contribution would make a difference globally).  That's about a trillion kilowatt-hours per year (1015 watt-hours, for you exponential-notation fans).

Now, suppose everybody—not just upper-class environmentalists, but everybody in every kind of rental and owner-occupied housing in the U. S.—installed solar panels with an average generating capacity of 5 kW, which is the typical size for residential installations.  That is an upper limit, by the way—clouds, nighttime, and other issues mean that you don't get 5 kW twenty-four hours a day.  Even if everybody had solar panels, we would still need the utility network for emergencies, to ship surplus power to places where it was needed, and so on.  The question is, would we be able to make a dent in that trillion kilowatt-hours?

My very sketchy back-of-the-envelope calculations say yes, sort of.  You would still need peak-capacity generators hooked to the grid to deal with hot days and so on.  But yes, you could afford to shutter a lot of old coal-burning power plants if everybody installed solar panels.

And while we're dreaming, how would we pay for all those solar panels?  A typical residential solar installation today is still expensive—$18,000 might be a typical actual cost, not including subsidies, tax breaks, and so on.  While this figure is going to decline in the future, it can't follow the path of Moore's Law and get down to practically zero, because there's a certain amount of labor involved, and even if we could make solar panels for free they don't climb up on the roof by themselves.  Multiply $18,000 by over a hundred million U. S. housing units, and you get $1.8 trillion.  The U. S. federal budget for 2015 is $3.8 trillion.  As you can see, this solar-installation idea is not a trivial deal.  Even if it were spread out over a decade, you'd be spending each year as much on solar panels in the U. S. as one optimistic solar-industry estimate says annual global sales will be by 2021.

Yes, it could be done.  But I think it's clear that unless there is a huge degree of government intervention in the forms of subsidies, incentives, or other external market manipulation, the free market isn't going to put solar panels on everybody's roof any time soon.  Maybe President Bernie Sanders could do it, but offhand I can't think of any other way.

Sources:  Bill McKibben's article "Power to the People" appears in the June 29, 2015 edition of The New Yorker, pp. 30-35.  I used statistics on the fraction of electric energy produced with fossil fuels from the website  The Solar Energy Industries Association website has plentiful data on historical and current trends in solar-energy installations.  The 180-billion-sales-by-2021 figure is from 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pope Francis' Vision for a New Ecology

When the spiritual leader of the largest division of the Christian faith says something about climate change and the problems of technological progress, engineers of all faiths and no faith should take notice.  Last Thursday, Pope Francis released his latest encyclical, Laudato Si', known in English as "On the Care of Our Common Home."

Contrary to some reports, in the encyclical Pope Francis doesn't come out in favor of Marxism, though he does say that international efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions have failed and that something stronger is needed.  And he doesn't say you can't be a good Catholic if you use air conditioning, though he does use air conditioning as an example of a "harmful habit of consumption."  What he does is to lay out a vision for how humanity can turn around from a lot of wrong paths and get back on the right path, which is all a good sermon does anyway. 

What are the wrong paths?  While most environmental activists concentrate on actions, statistics, and policies, Pope Francis goes to the heart of the problem:  sin.  God's world as originally created was good.  But when man decided he knew better than God, things started to go wrong.  There's nothing new about sin, but what is new in the last couple of hundred years is mankind's ability to transform the environment through technology.  A few hundred thousand cave men armed with spears couldn't make much difference to the global environment no matter what they did.  But seven billion people using massive amounts of organized technological power and treating the earth simply as a raw-material resource can cause tremendous harm, both to the environment and many of the poorest people who try to live in it.

Pope Francis's roots are in the Global South, and his concern for the billions of the poorest people around the world is evident on every page of Laudato Si'.  What if you are the father of a family on the coast of Africa, trying to feed yourself by fishing, and some pollution kills the fish and the ocean rises so much that your land is flooded out?  What if you then move to the city and try to commute to a low-paying job three hours a day on filthy, crowded buses while breathing soot-filled air that gives you a lung disease that makes you so sick that you lose your job?  While the physical environment and the marvelous biodiversity of plant and animal life on our planet come in for mention, Pope Francis's fundamental concern is for people, each one of whom is a child of God and deserving of respect, attention, and love.  But when giant economic and technological systems conspire to deprive millions of their culture, their land, and their livelihood, these folks can no longer receive what they have a fundamental right to as human beings.

What are the answers?  Pope Francis wisely refrains from making explicit scientific pronouncements or calling for specific laws or policies.  Instead, he spends much of his time asking for dialogue between governments and citizens, between the privileged and the empoverished, and between scientists and religious believers.  He hopes—and there are many places where he expresses hope—that men and women of good will, emboldened by a vision of humanity as one family sharing one planetary household, can change their ways for the better.  These changes include everything from family efforts to save energy and recycle products up to stronger international agreements that could make a real difference in the rate at which fossil fuels are being used. 

At the beginning and again at the end of the encyclical, he mentions the saint whose name he bears, St. Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis was a revolutionary figure in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus himself.  He lived in utter poverty, but with such love for all creatures, both animal and human, that he collected followers who sought to carry out his vision of Christian love in a unique way that was both humble and vastly effective. 

Much of what Pope Francis criticizes is the byproduct of pride, which theologians know is the root sin, the sin that enables all the others.  If we think we have all the answers and that the material world is simply waiting for us to bend it to our whims, we are in fact enslaved to the sin of pride, and all the problems mentioned in the encyclical can be traced in one way or another back to that attitude. 

On the other hand, if we look on the world as a wonderful gift, packed with hidden prizes and meanings to be treasured, not just exploited, we will tread more gently.  We will think before we act, or buy, or sell, or design.  We will bear in mind not only our own family, and our friends and social groups, but also others who might be affected by what we do, or purchase, or waste.  And we will change our ways accordingly.  Among other things, that is what engineering ethics is all about.

With Laudato Si', Pope Francis has not gone off the deep end politically or theologically. The encyclical emerges from a deep consideration of the entire Christian tradition and its meaning for how spiritual beings can best live in a material world, being themselves material as well.  While not many previous popes have made ecological concerns a focus of their ministries, I think Pope Francis has chosen the right time to do so.  And anyone who has any dealings with modern technology, whether as an engineer or an ordinary citizen who simply lives in the modern world, needs to give serious consideration to what he is saying.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Life In the Robotic Economy: Two Views and One Conclusion

Worries about machines or robots taking the place of humans go back at least as far as 1932, when Jean Harlow famously mentioned it in the film Dinner at Eight, from which the clip was taken.  While the post-World-War II boom ended the Great Depression and allayed such concerns for a while, they have returned recently with a vengeance.

When a guy with dreadlocks who plays obscure Egyptian musical instruments writes a book warning of a future economic disaster as technological unemployment spreads, you can be excused for thinking he's just one voice in the wilderness.  But when a clean-cut British high-tech entrepreneur comes along saying close to the same thing, maybe you'd better listen.  What are both of these gentlemen talking about?  Both of them are worried that as computer and network technology improves, not just many but most jobs in advanced economies will be done better, cheaper, and faster by machines.  And then what will all the displaced workers do?

The clean-cut Brit is Martin Ford, who founded a Silicon Valley software firm and wrote Rise of the Robots:  Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.  While I haven't read the book, in a recent interview published in the San Jose Mercury-News Ford echoes the concern posed in his book's title.  He foresees a bleak future not only for semi-manual laborers such as truck drivers, but for many white-collar workers such as radiologists, journalists, and even lawyers.  The problem is a two-edged sword.  Not only will lots of people be unable to get good-paying jobs, but the supply side will suffer as well.  If nobody can earn any money, it's going to be hard for the smart non-robotic elite who own all the means of producing goods and services, to sell those goods and services.  Already, Ford says, high-volume goods firms such as Wal-Mart are having trouble selling all their stuff, because their customers are having trouble earning enough money to buy it.

The dreadlocked musician is Jaron Lanier, who I mentioned briefly in this space a few weeks ago.  He wrote the book Who Owns the Future? in which he makes essentially the same point.  Suppose virtually all the service jobs end up being performed by networked robots that are owned and operated by only a few big privileged companies, which is typically the way this kind of thing ends up.  Then, Lanier says, "When only certain privileged players can own capital, while everyone else can only buy services, the market will eventually consume itself and evolve into a nonmarket."  What will the vast unemployed majority buy those services with?  Credit cards? 

Lanier and Ford have moderately different answers to the problem, though neither one thinks solving it will be simple, easy, or fast. 

Ford advocates a guaranteed income, citing for support no less an authority than the economist Friedrich Hayek, who is usually viewed as favoring a conservative free-market approach.  While it is true that Hayek accepted the notion of a guaranteed minimum income, it's unlikely that he envisioned an economy in which a few super-rich people and firms would provide nearly all goods and services, and the rest of us poor slobs would take our government checks and go buy whatever the super-rich people wanted to sell to us.  Instead, Hayek viewed a minimum income as a small-scale safety net intended for the few who either could not work by reason of disability or were temporarily thrown out of work, not as a way of running the whole show.

Lanier's solution is more complicated.  He thinks that we should transition to an economy in which average people are paid for their teeny incremental contributions to giant databases.  If, say, you write a review of a book that you bought on Amazon, you ought to get paid, not only for writing the review, but every time somebody reads it online, or copies it and uses it for something else, for a good long while.  His ruling principle would be that anything useful or valuable that anyone does online should have that person's name attached to it.  And nobody should be able to use it for any purpose without paying something to the person who originated it. 

No crystal ball is perfect, and so just because two different high-tech gurus foresee the same looming problem doesn't mean it's as inevitable as death and taxes.  In my own mostly white-collar profession of engineering, I have seen something like what Lanier and Ford are talking about take place over the years.  When I started out in this business in the 1980s, the typical electrical engineer spent most of his (yes, his, rarely her) time with his fingers in circuit boards or with a soldering iron in his hand, building and testing prototype circuits.  It was both a craft and an intellectual activity, but craftsmanship was a good part of it.  Contrast that with a fairly typical senior design project I'm helping to oversee this year.  The students took some raw signal data from the sponsoring company, are developing some software using advanced commercial software tools to process it, and will finish with a presentation of their software package to the sponsor. 

It's all typing on a computer, as so much of engineering has become.  And while the human brain is still involved in the process, it's moving toward a situation where all it will take is one person (probably in sales) looking up the solution to a customer's problem on a proprietary database, tweaking a few options, and selling it.  All the engineering either has been done already, or is being done by software operating on more software.  Yes, somewhere somebody has to write the software, but as software engineering gets more efficient and people quit reinventing the wheel all the time and swap known algorithms around, you need fewer and fewer people to get the same job done.

Will it all end up like Ford fears, 99% of us sitting around on the dole playing computer games all day in our subsidized housing, while the 1% live their fabled lives in Aruba or Cote d'Azur?  Or like Lanier prefers, where the middle class resurges with value in the form of money coming back to them as they create value in the form of data, data that is currently being sucked into the Googles and Facebooks with nothing spendable being given in return?  Or like something else that neither Ford nor Lanier foresees, except in patches?

My money is on the third option.  It won't necessarily be better than the other two.  But I think these two gentlemen are on to something that technologists and everyone else ought to be aware of.  Whether we can do something about the problem before it gets much worse is another question entirely.  And if Jean Harlow were here today, she might have to deal with a virtual-reality replacement for her—unless she had a good robotic lawyer.

Sources:  The interview with Martin Ford by Matt O'Brien was published in the online version of the San Jose (California) Mercury-News on June 12, 2015 at  Jaron Lanier wrote Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2015), from which I quoted p. 356.  I blogged about Lanier last on May 11, 2015.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Friedrich Hayek.