If You Don’t Know, Now You Know: The Black Box in Your Car

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This post is the first in an ongoing series here on Bytes & Belief.  The goal of “If You Don’t Know…” is to educate our readers on how data is being collected about them, many times without their knowledge. Regardless of whether you’re cool with it or creeped out by it, we all deserve to know when and how our behavior is being monitored.

For our inaugural post, I selected this article from our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It discusses the use of EDRs (Event Data Recorders) in today’s new automobiles. EDRs are small computers that connect and record real-time data about an automobile’s systems, such as current MPH, brakes and throttle position, and airbags.

While this data may be used for the proper operation of the vehicle, it can also be very valuable to others, such as insurance companies (“How often does this driver speed?”) and law enforcement (“Did the driver hit the brakes before the crash?”). EDRs are regularly subpoenaed during court cases. Insurance companies, such as Progressive Insurance, are using this data to set car insurance rates. And since the information is embedded in the auto manufacturer’s proprietary software, consumers DO NOT have access to this information.

As the EFF article explains, there are currently no regulations around what data can legally be collected and who is allowed access to it (For instance – auto companies could also collect your GPS location data). The National Highway Safety and Transportation Agency is currently proposing that EDRs be mandatory in all new vehicles by September 2014.

Check out the article and post your thoughts in the comments…

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The Doctrine of Efficiency

The word doctrine, while having a very official and somewhat churchy ring to it, describes a fairly simple concept. A doctrine is a principle (or set of principles), which act as the foundation of one’s beliefs. A person (or a people’s) doctrine, describes what’s at one’s core – what he/she/they are really all about. The choices we make in life all spring up from our doctrine. Everyone has a guiding doctrine. I would argue that, because of technology’s advance into all aspects of our lives, the guiding doctrine of today’s world is increasingly becoming what I call the Doctrine of Efficiency.

One of the best examples of society’s persistent drive towards efficiency is the Internet itself. As it has evolved, the Internet has consistently moved in the direction of the increasing the efficiency of disseminating information. News and current events were communicated through a broad spectrum of print periodicals, available only through purchase or subscription. With the Internet, news from most, if not all sources is now available online. While some context is lost, and the barrier to reportingg false information has been lowered (vs. print media), the Internet delivers more news to more people in a format that is easily consumable. Another simple example is music. Purchasing a new album (Album? What’s an album???) from an artist on physical media (CD, Vinyl LP, etc.) was the primary means of distributing music prior to 2002. The Internet now makes the majority of mankind’s library of recorded music available via download. Consumers can now store hundreds of thousands of songs on single 3.5 inch hard drive. With physical media, a warehouse may be needed to store that much music. While the sound quality of downloaded music file may be slightly diminished when compared to the physical media version, digital downloads are a more efficient means of buying, storing, and consuming music.

The push towards greater efficiency (and the agreement to make certain trade-offs to achieve it) has been around since the founding of the first cities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The unspoken principle (or doctrine) that drives this push is that getting the most possible output for the minimal required amount of input is always best. Few would argue that this is a sensible, pragmatic point of view. Every new innovation from Silicon Valley is based on this belief. It’s a guaranteed formula for financial success. It’s a core tenant of mass production, and capitalism.

The advent of the microprocessor and Moore’s Law has switched the push for efficiency into hyper-drive. In the past 5-10 years, we as a society have faced with a tidal wave of new services, gadgets, and technologies guaranteeing to let us do more with less required of us. By and large, we have signed up for this trade-off, choosing to go the route of increased efficiency. And when applied to the correct circumstances, the Doctrine of Efficiency works. When it comes to selecting a new water heater, it works. When it comes to selecting a new car, it (arguably) works. But does it work just as well in selecting friends? In selecting a mate?

With the increased spread of the digital world into previously “analog” portions of our lives, we cannot help but be pushed into looking at the world through the “least in for the most out” formula. More and more of our activities are taking place in online environments. More and more of our decisions are being made with the help of computer-based tools, be they search engines or recommendations from websites or social media. These digital tools are being designed with the Doctrine of Efficiency at their core. As we increasingly use tools that prioritize efficiency above all else, then we in turn may begin to prioritize efficiency over all other considerations. What might this look like in practice?

– The best friends for me are those people who visit the sites I visit, buy where I buy, and live where I live.
– The best answer to my question is at the top of the search results.
The best use of government education funding is to spend more on those students most likely to do well.

While all these points of view may win the efficiency prize, they may also severely limit ones perspective, and produce some downright scary outcomes. How could the Doctrine of Efficiency impact a person’s understanding of the Christian message? How does one evaluate the actions of God relative to the this doctrine? That question brings to mind this passage from Matthew (18:10-14):

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. [11] [a]

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Risking the loss of 99 sheep for the sake of a single sheep may not be an efficient use of resources, but it is an example of the love God has for us. If society values pragmatism and efficiency above all else, the God described in Matthew will increasingly look irrational and unrealistic. How can one be the Creator of all things and think like that?

As we increasingly look at the world through the eyes of data and analytics, our doctrine will determine how we interpret that data. It will also determine if we look beyond what’s on a spreadsheet to make decisions. The Doctrine of Efficiency, while sometimes helpful, is not the rule to live by.

Disagree? Sound off in the comments…

Your Privacy, the Internet, and What’s at Stake…

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“Gmail reads all my email. Why should I care?”
“Facebook tracks what I do online. So what?”
“My iPhone tracks my location – big deal. I don’t have anything to hide.”

These are typical responses that people give when they are told that their privacy is at risk when they are online. This might indeed be the attitude of many reading this post. People have a hard time seeing what the big deal is when it comes to sharing (what seems like) insignificant details of their lives with corporations. These corporations are providing them a valuable service for free, so its seems like a fair trade, right?

Worst caseI’m forced to sit through advertisements that are selected “just for me”

This new article on Scientific American’s site The Rich See a Different Internet Than the Poor gives the most clear, succinct explanation I’ve ever seen of what is at stake when it comes to internet privacy. In layman’s terms, they explain how the massive amounts of data that’s being collected by these services is being used to shape everything we (and don’t see) in both the virtual world and real world. I can go on about it, but I doubt if I could explain it as clearly.

Regardless of where you sit on the issue of internet privacy, we all need a clear understanding of what’s at stake. This article is a must-read.

Want to talk more about it? Sound off in the comments!

The Creator’s Burden

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I was talking to a software engineer at an industry event a couple of weeks ago. The conversation drifted to what happens to a product after it’s released. I asked:

“Do you ever think about how the products we create will impact the people who use it?”
“Definitely. At (fill in company name here), our top priority is meeting our customer’s needs. We have whole departments who focus on that.”
“Okay – I hear you, but do you think about it personally? I mean, as engineers, it is our hands that do the work, so aren’t we ultimately responsible for what we design and the effect it has on others?”
“Well, you could say that. It’s just that at (fill in company name here), we are always trying to out-innovate our competitors. That’s what we hear from management, so that’s what we focus on.”

That last statement stuck with me well beyond the end of the event. I know (from first hand experience) that the continual message any engineer receives from his employer is “Innovate!”. “Add new features.” “Make it bigger/smaller, faster/lighter/cheaper.” “Beat the competitor.”. Even in college, engineers are regularly pitted against their classmates to design a better solution. The pressure can be pretty intense. On top of that, engineers tend to judge themselves by their ability to come up with the “best” solution. There is an innate drive among many engineers to one-up each other. The combination of the external pressure to outdo other companies and internal pressure to outdo each other tends to leave many engineers with a sense of short-sightedness. We frequently don’t do in-depth thinking about what happens to our creations beyond the final release date. Knowing this, I think its fair to ask:
What impact does all this “innovation” have on the end-user?
On communities?
On societies?
How will my creation impact the relationships between the people who use it?
Within families?

Keep in mind – I’m not talking about meeting regulatory, environmental, or safety requirements. I’m talking about other factors that are just as important, but harder to quantify.

Are today’s software engineers, hardware engineers, product designers, and computer scientists responsible for what they create?

From a Christian standpoint, the answer to this question can be found in Scripture. While there are multiple relevant passages, a key example for this discussion is Jeremiah 18:1-10. Here, God sends His prophet Jeremiah to a pottery workshop, and tells him to await His message. While at the workshop, Jeremiah observes the potter shaping and re-shaping clay on the pottery wheel (v. 1-5). At this point God, speaks to Jeremiah:

(v.6) He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”

Ever since Genesis 12:1-3 when God first spoke to Abraham, the descendants of Abraham have been known as God’s Chosen People. From Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob (Israel), He was continually involved in their lives. God did not start the ball rolling with Abraham and walk away. In verse 6, God reminds Jeremiah that the future of the people of Israel is still in His capable hands. He is still actively involved in He started with Abraham.

God’s actions here are very instructive for engineers. We cannot simply stop paying attention to the products we create after the project ends. As people who bring ideas into reality, we must stay informed about the impact of our creations are having on the world.

The lesson continues in the remaining verses:

(v.7) If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

In verses 7-10, God explains to Jeremiah how He evaluates and responds to a nation He has created. If a sinful nation repents of its evil, God will not dispense punishment on it. Conversely, God states that He will reconsider the good planned for a nation if the people sin and do not obey Him. Here – God shows that He does not simply stay informed about the things he creates. He acts based on what He sees. If His creation is not fulfilling its intended purpose, He responds. In the same way, we engineers must not only know the impact our creations are having on the world. We must act on what we learn. If we see that the products we create are having a negative impact on society, we must act.

This leads to what I call the Creator’s Burden. With both the advanced tools and intellectual gifts we have been given, we designers, engineers, and programmers are free to create anything our minds can conceive. And as a result of this freedom, there has been an explosion of new technologies, devices, and services in the past 20 years that has literally changed the world. But with that freedom, we must also accept the burden of keeping watch over our creations and their impact on the world around us. And if we learn that something we have created is having a negative impact on the world, then it’s our job to fix it.

It’s not Marketing’s job.
It’s not the job of the Sales Department.
It’s not your boss’s job.
The responsibility rests with us – the creators.

Let me know if you agree (or disagree) in the comments!!!

Book Review: “Race Against the Machines” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

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The book, while surprisingly brief, can be a bit obtuse for those who have a limited tolerance for acronyms. Despite this fact, the authors do a good job of describing the many facets of this complicated problem. They walk us through the economic downturns of the past 50 years, pointing out technology’s increasing involvement in each. The authors also explain the conspicuous absence of dialog about role of technology’s advance in the sluggish job growth of today’s economy.

Things get interesting when they begin to drive home the point that we have less time to solve this problem that we think. This is due to the exponential rate at which computing power is advancing. Everyone who has seen a science fiction movie like “The Matrix” or “The Terminator” has considered the possibility (however briefly) that people and computers may be in direct competition one day. Most people tend to dismiss those thoughts with the idea that these problems will take place in a distant future – preferably long after we’re gone. In Chapter 2 the authors, using Moore’s law as their foundation, dispel this belief. For those unfamiliar, Moore’s Law states that computing power doubles every 12-18 months. Since it was first introduced in 1965, Moore’s Law has been proven to be correct. This means that the capability of computers to perform complex tasks improves exponentially. To put it differently, this means the improvement in capability of the best processor of 1966 (after the start of Moore’s Law) would be double that of the best processor of 1965. Seeing that the amount of computing power of available in 1965 was small, doubling it in 1966 doesn’t mean much. Remember – the 1960s was still the era of punch cards and room-sized computers. As time progresses however, the incremental increase in computing power becomes staggering. The doubling in performance of a complex and powerful 2011 processor for example, means that the best processor in 2012 is profoundly more capable. This has a major impact on what a computer can do.

What does all this mean? It means that human tasks we thought a computer wouldn’t be able to for decades, like driving a car, are quickly within its grasp. Google was able to develop fully autonomous vehicle within 6 years. The authors point to IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which soundly beat human grand champions on the game show Jeopardy in 2011, as another example of computers being able to comprehend and reason in ways previously thought impossible.

Computers, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out, are a General Purpose Technology (GPT). GPTs are important because not only do they themselves improve over time, but they also cause other (previously unrelated) industries to improve as well. Think of it this way – a farmer in 1770 using a horse and buggy could bring his crop to market only so fast and so far. That same farmer in 1870, using a steam-engine powered locomotive, could both bring his crops to market faster and to markets further away. The steam engine improved not only the transportation industry, but the farming and food industry as well.

Just like the steam engine, computing technology is disrupting many industries, but there’s an important difference. Historically when a new GTP enters the scene, those whose employment is dependent on the previous mode of doing things lose their jobs. This downside is usually remedied by the economic growth resulting from the new technology. Those put out of work are retrained and eventually put to work in the new economy created by the GTP.

What makes the use of computer different from other GTPs, according to the authors, is that the computer is disrupting many different industries at an unprecedented rate. It is, in turn, displacing workers faster than the new digital economy can create opportunities for those who lose their jobs. And as the capability of new technologies increase exponentially (Moore’s Law – remember?), more workers will be displaced.  This leads to the position the US economy is increasingly finding itself in. A condition where there is economic recovery with little to no job growth.

So how do we create an economy with institutions that can allow for the rapid growth of technology and innovation without leaving large segments of the workforce behind? This is the core question posed by Race Against the Machine.

The answers offered by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, after such a solid definition of the problem, are a bit unsatisfying. By and large their recommendations are things we’ve heard before. The authors suggest more entrepreneurship – with a particular focus on small businesses that address niche markets made viable by new technology.  They also recommend increased training for people put out of work, and increased investment in infrastructure and education. The fact that Brynjolfsson and McAfee don’t describe in detail how these recommendations will address the problem of worker displacement points to the complexity of the issue.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both graduates of MIT and members of the faculty at the Sloan School of Management, are far from being members of the Tinfoil Hat Society. In fact, they make a point of being very pro-innovation and pro-technology throughout the book. And it is because of this that their message should be listened to. Their book makes the point that the digital revolution is profoundly changing both the economy and society at a rate never seen before. Race Against the Machine underscores the need to begin a discussion of the potential fallout of these changes. If we don’t, our world may wind up in a predicament that technology won’t be able to help us out of.

Have you read this book?
Please share your thoughts in the comments…

Boy Racer

 

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Growing up, I always had a deep connection with cars. In addition to living in the Midwest, my Dad was a reformed street racer and Corvette fanatic (“All Corvettes are red. The rest are just mistakes”). With all of those things going for me, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

When I was about nine years old, I was lucky enough to receive an electric slot car race set as a gift. In a world before computer gaming, this was the best thing since sliced bread. I, along with my sisters, spent hours racing these small cars around the electrified plastic track. Competitions were intense, and every racer looked for any opportunity to get an advantage. Cleaning the rubber tires for better grip. Wiping the electric contacts for better connections. Learning how to sling-shot out of a turn. Over time, these lessons not only helped us win races, but they indirectly taught us how things like friction, heat, and electricity impact us in the physical world. In a small way, they also helped us build a personal relationship with our surroundings.

Most kids today who have a similar “racing” experience will do so through  computer simulations (racing games). Video game franchises like Gran Turismo and Need for Speed offer incredible simulations of high performance racing, featuring exotic sports cars and Formula 1 racers. The games provide players with as much enjoyment (if not more) as I experienced playing with my slot car set in the basement of my family’s home.

While neither experience will teach a nine year old how to actually drive a race car, there is an important difference between the two experiences. The kid playing a racing simulation video game will undoubtedly have a lot of fun, and will likely get a better understanding of what it’s really like to sit inside a Ferrari. The gamer will not, however get the same object lesson of how elements of the physical world behave. He or she will experience a SIMULATION of it. A theoretical take on how the natural world behaves. This is a simulation in which the game developer has “tweaked” real world physics to enhance the excitement of the game. As exciting and fun as these games are, they do not fully replicate the physics of the real world.

As a result, the gamer’s understanding of the physical world, and his relationship with it, may be more distant and less personal. And if people learn from personal experience, the computer gamer (when it comes to understanding the world around him) will come away from the experience poorer than the kid with the physical world, slot car track. While this is a small point today, more and more of our children’s’ lives are experienced online. Assuming that trend continues, the time children spend experimenting with their surroundings will decrease. Where will they develop their relationship with the physical world? When the virtual world provides a more enjoyable experience than the physical, what will motivate that child to have those critical physical experiences?

And isn’t our connection to the natural world around us part of what makes us human? It’s also part of what helps us define our relationship with God. Many of Jesus’ parables are based on elements in physical world. How relevant will the parable of the Three Soils be if your only understanding of earth and growing things comes from playing Farmville?

Please share your thoughts in the comments…

60 Minutes Report: Robots, AI and Job Growth

On their January 13th episode, 60 Minutes aired this report on the next generation of robots and their growing impact on the US (and World) economy. Most of us may be familiar with the concept of robots being used in factories to build cars and appliances. However, this report showed that, with the increased sophistication of artificial intelligence software (aka A.I.), robots are taking over jobs in hospitals, law offices, and other “safe” positions.

The core dilemma this report raises is that advancing technology is disrupting so many industries, so quickly and the new technologies aren’t creating enough jobs to employ the workers they displace (even with re-training).

Definitely a must-see…