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San Francisco bans delivery robots

San Francisco just passed legislation largely banning delivery robots on the city's sidewalks. The rule allows each company testing such robots to get a permit which would allow only a trivial number of robots, and limit them to industrial streets at low speeds for testing only.

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How can robocar transit affect the personal safety of transportation, especially regarding sexual assault?

One "story of the year" for Time was the #metoo campaign, where (mostly) women shared stories of how they had been sexually harassed or molested, to make it clear just how widespread the problem is. Almost all women have a story, or many stories, sad to say.

I have frequently heard reports from women of being groped on crowded public transit. People are packed in, and villains use the plausible deniability and anonymity of the packed crowd to grope.

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Could hybrid-electric aircraft rule the skies?

Companies are proposing a hybrid airliner with electric motors, a smaller battery, and a liquid fuel powered generator.

One advantage of this design is you can get the redundancy that safe flight needs a different way. Today all commercial airlines have 2 or more liquid fuel engines. They can still fly if they lose one.

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Warner Brothers and Intel experiment with in-robocar entertainment. Is that a good idea?

Intel and Warner made a splash at the LA Auto Show announcing how Warner will develop entertainment for viewing while riding in robotaxis. It's not just movies to watch, their hope is to produce something more like an amusement park ride to keep you engaged on your journey.

Like most partnership announcements around robocars, this one is mainly there for PR since they haven't built anything yet. The idea is both interesting and hype.

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Has Uber already beaten private ownership on cost?

Today, various experts, like CR and the AAA rate the cost of private car ownership anywhere from 40 to 60 cents per mile, plus parking. That depends on your usage patterns, what car you buy and its age, plus a few other factors. Many people, though, pretend that using their car only costs the 8-12 cents/mile for gasoline. (A better estimate of the truly incremental cost without factoring in those things that don't vary with the miles is around 25 cents/mile.)

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Bitcoin can't handle big price drops, and the missing Satoshi Foundation

Having written yesterday about a decision to sell Bitcoin, I want to re-examine two posts I made in the past which are now even more apropos.

My sell decision was (at least temporarily) wise as it dropped to $9300 quickly. I don't think it will necessarily never see $11K again. It is a speculative value with no fundamentals behind it to help judge the right price range.

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The Bitcoin Bubble and the real value

I think Bitcoin is an amazing and valuable technology, but I just sold what I had at $11,000 because that price is crazy. Others think it will go much higher, and it might, but I believe this will be viewed as one of the great bubbles of history, and here's why...

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DARPA challenge mystery solved and how to handle Robocar failures

A small mystery from Robocar history was resolved recently, and revealed at the DARPA grand challenge reunion at CMU.

The story is detailed here at IEEE spectrum and I won't repeat it all, but a brief summary goes like this.

In the 2nd grand challenge, CMU's Highlander was a favourite and doing very well. Mid-race it started losing engine power and it stalled for long enough that Stanford's Stanley beat it by 11 minutes.

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Uber buys 24,000 Volvos, Trolley Problems get scarier, and liability

Uber and Volvo announced an agreement where Uber will buy, in time, up to 24,000 specially built Volvo XC90s which will run Uber's self-driving software and, presumably, offer rides to Uber customers. While the rides are some time away, people have made note of this for several reasons.

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Robocar/LIDAR news and video of the Apple car

Robocar news is fast and furious these days. I certainly don't cover it all, but will point to stories that have some significance. Plus, to tease you, here's a clip from my 4K video of the new Apple car that you'll find at the end of this post.

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I flew transatlantic on SAS with no food or drink, and it was actually pretty nice

On Nov 3 I flew on SAS from Copenhagen to San Francisco. The 11 hour flight had no food or drinks (other than water) due to a strike by the caterers, Gate Gourmet. It was actually surprisingly pleasant! (Unlike my experiences on Air Baltic which I will relate at the end of the article.)

SAS certainly could have done better. Since I checked in online I did not learn of this until, while waiting in the lounge, they announced that flights overseas would have "limited food choices." I figured that was not that big a deal, especially since I was seated in business class. On the way out I asked about it and they said that "limited" actually meant "absolutely none" and I was given a coupon, which I took to the airport 7-11 to get some sandwiches and snacks. There was a giant line at the 7-11 of course, but I made it to the flight.

(Trigger warning: If you only fly in coach, it will seem pompous to read complaints about problems in business class. The harsh reality is that if you travel frequently for your work, spending all that time in the compressed horror of coach simply isn't an option, especially for a big guy like me. You won't be able to do your job. So I pay the extreme prices of business class because otherwise I would not travel. If you pay that much, you expect a higher quality of flight.)

While annoying, there were some fairly positive results of the experience. The flight was actually much more pleasant without all the constant distraction of food and drink service. It makes me give serious thought to the virtue of flights, even long ones, which offer boxed food and drink that you grab at the gate and take to your seat to consume when you like.

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Waymo deploys with no human safety driver oversight

In a major milestone for robocars, Waymo has announced they will deploy in Phoenix with no human safety drivers behind the wheel. Until now, almost all robocars out there have only gone out on public streets with a trained human driver behind the wheel, ready to take over at any sign of trouble.

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The "disconnected car" is the right security plan for robocars

Once robocars got public attention, a certain faction promoted the view that we should be giving much more attention to the idea of the "connected car." The connected car was coming sooner, would have a big effect, and some said that it was silly to talk about robocars at all without first thinking of them as connected cars. Many even pushed for the vocabulary around robocars to always include connectivity, pushing names like "connected autonomous vehicle" as a primary term for the technology.

Robocars will be connected, but not nearly as much as people in the "connected car" world imagine. And the connection won't be essential. Some cars will work with only a connection when they are parked, or with intermittent connectivity during the day. But most of all, they won't connect out to the world. The robocar probably will connect only to servers at its HQ -- the company that made it or which runs the fleet it's in. It won't talk directly to infrastructure and other cars, it may not even talk two-way with the rider's phone.

Fortunately, the efforts to require vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity in cars are rumoured to have suffered a setback in the USA.

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V2V/V2I mandate may be dropped, the good and the bad

Rumours are swirling that the US Federal government will drop the proposed mandate that all new cars include a DSRC radio to do vehicle to vehicle communications. Regular readers will know that I have been quite critical of this mandate and submitted commentary on it. Whether they listened to my commentary, or this is just a Trump administration deregulation, it's the right step.

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Will robotic stores, billboards and RVs roam the streets?

A few years ago, Eran Shir (who was one of my students at Singularity University and who today has an interesting startup using mobile phones to solve ADAS and self driving problems) suggested that rather than delivery robots, the future might see roving stores. These would be self-driving trucks filled with the most popular items for their region which come to you. You would open them, shop, and automatically be charged for items. From time to time they would travel to a depot for restocking.

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Robocars will make traffic worse before it gets better

This blog, and many other sites, paint a very positive picture of the robocar future. And it is positive, but far from perfect. One problem I worry about in the short term is the way robocars are going to make traffic worse before they get a chance to make it better.

The goal of all robocars is to make car travel more pleasant and convenient, and eventually cheaper. You can't make something better and cheaper without increasing demand for it, and that means more traffic.

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Switching Blog to Drupal 7

I've been running this site on an ancient version of Drupal and decided to start the work of migration to something newer. Drupal 8 migration didn't work, but I have got 7 up and running, and will eventually get it to 8. Hopefully you won't see too much change other than the layout and styles. Leave notes in the comments on problems you find, but at least today I know there are a few things missing, like the topic menu and the recent comments list. I prefer a right sidebar but for now this theme is more set for a left one. The site slogan is missing too.

A cryptographic solution to securely aggregate allegations could make it easier to come forward

Nobody wants to be the first person to do or say a risky thing. One recent example of this is the revelations that a number of powerful figures, like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and Bill Cosby, had a long pattern of sexual harassment and even assault, and many people were aware of it, but nobody came forward until much later.

People finally come forward when one brave person goes public, and then another, and finally people see they are not alone. They might be believed, and action might be done.

Eleven years ago, I proposed a system to test radical ideas, primarily aimed at voting in bodies like congress. The idea was to create a voting system where people could cast encrypted votes, with the voter's identity unrevealed. Once a majority of yes votes were cast, however, the fragments of the decoding key would assemble and the votes and the voter identities could be decoded.

This would allow, for example, a vote on issues where a majority of the members support something but few are willing to admit it. Once the total hit the majority, it would become a passed bill, with no fear in voting.

I still would like to see that happen, but I wonder if the approach could have more application. The cryptographic approach is doable when you have a fixed group of members voting who can even meet physically. It's much harder when you want to collect "votes" from the whole world.

You can easily build the system, though, if you have a well trusted agency. It must be extremely trusted, and even protected from court orders telling it to hand over its data. Let's discuss the logistics below, but first give a description of how it would work.

Say somebody wants to make an allegation, such as "I was raped by Bill Cosby" or "The Mayor insisted I pay a bribe" or "This bank cheated me." They would enter that allegation as some form of sworn legal statement, but additional details and their identity would be encrypted. Along with the allegation would be instructions, "Reveal my allegation once more than N people make the same allegation (at threshold N or less.)"

In effect, it would make saying "#metoo" have power, and even legal force. It also tries to balance the following important principles, which are very difficult to balance otherwise:

  1. Those wronged by the powerful must be able to get justice
  2. People are presumed innocent
  3. The accused have a right to confront the evidence against them and their accusers

How well this work would depend on various forms of how public the information is:

  • A cryptographic system would require less (or no) trusting individual entities or governments, but would make public the number of allegations entered. It would be incorruptible if designed well.
  • An agency system which publishes allegation counts and actual allegations when the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps allegation counts private until the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps everything private, and when the threshold is reached discloses the allegation only to authorities (police, boards of directors).

There are trade-offs as can be shown above. If allegations are public, that can tell other victims they are not alone. However, it can also be a tool in gaming the system.

The allegation must be binding, in that there will be consequences for making a false allegation once the allegations are disclosed, especially if the number of existing allegations is public. We do not want to create a power to make false anonymous allegations. If it were public that "3 people allege rape by person X" that would still create a lot of public shame and questions for X, which is fine if the allegations are true, but terrible if they are not. If X is not a rapist, for example, and the threshold is high, it will never be reached, and those making the allegations would know that. Our system of justice is based important principles of presumption of innocence, and a right to confront your accusers and the evidence against you.

Could states affect gerrymandering outside their state with conspiracy rules?

In puzzling over solutions to gerrymandering, I remain stymied by the following problems:

  • The people in power don't want to undo the gerrymandering that is putting them in power.
  • The courts want to stop gerrymandering but they only overturn rules, they try not to write new ones.
  • States could act, especially a few in concert, but what they do might be overturned by the courts

Arguments were heard this week in a lawsuit attempting to get the supreme court to stop gerrymandering. Courts have been ready to declare that a district is gerrymandered, but are reluctant to force states to adopt some rule on how they draw their districts. The concern is that there is no one best and most fair way to draw districts. You can tell when a district is unfair, but it's up to states to write the rules and the courts to rule on their constitutionality. The plaintiffs have a hope that the courts might rule that any districting is a disenfranchisement, and force states to allocate representatives based on a proportional system from a statewide popular vote.

I have wondered if states can find, on their own, the power to fix this. Many states have already written anti-gerrymandering rules for their own districts, but can they make those have extra-territorial effect.

One way is with an interstate compact. I outline a plan for this here. It has the problem that the counter-gerrymandering might be found illegal by the court. Remember the court is ready to say, "That's not a valid district shape" without saying a formula for what a valid district shape is. They just know it when they see it.

Here's another idea -- possibly unconstitutional as well, but it may be improved with refinement.

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