What would Isaac Asimov say?


Robots are entering our everyday lives. An obvious example is the self-driving car that is fast becoming a reality on our streets and highways. There is little doubt, both from analysis and actual tests, that robotic drivers are superior to humans in almost every way. They think faster, are never distracted, have immeasurably better situation awareness and – most importantly – know the current capabilities of the machine they are controlling far better than even a professional driver. But wait, did you notice that tiny proviso, “almost”? The problem involves situations in which an ethical decision must be made.

Let me cite an actual example. Suppose the robotic car is driving on a two-lane road where there is traffic in the opposite direction and pedestrians walking on the right hand side. Suddenly, a young child leaps onto the road to retrieve her ball. The robot instantly knows that there is not enough time to brake and avoid the child. But swerving to the right endangers the pedestrians and possibly the car’s occupants. While swerving to the left is even more dangerous to everyone involved. What should be done? More specifically, how should the designers of the robot’s software prepare for such a situation?

The general principles for the ethical robot are popularly attributed to science fiction author Isaac Asimov, where they appeared in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, although earlier provenance has been alleged. He quoted them from the “Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2056 A.D. as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

So, how might they be adjusted to account for the above dilemma? One idea is to add a corollary to the first law. When an intrinsic conflict arises in applying the first law, employ the principle of “The Greater Good (TGG)”. In other words, seek to minimize harm. That might certainly be what an ethical human might do, isn’t it? However, as usual, the devil is in the details. Everyone evaluates situations both from a personal and a social perspective. Someone might quite plausibly give greater weight to the survival of himself or his family than he would for random strangers. And in the case of the child foolishly chasing her ball, if my family were in the car, my strong reaction would be, “Run over the stupid little bugger!

If robotic cars are to become a significant reality, both the manufacturers and government regulators must understand and account for the reaction of the public to this fundamental change. This has been the subject of a fascinating peer-reviewed academic study that you can read here. The results are probably unsurprising. Participants in the study approved autonomous vehicles that follow the TGG principle, even those which sacrifice their passengers to save others. However, they preponderantly wouldn’t buy such a vehicle for themselves. Consequently, as the study notes, adopting this principle will likely meet strong consumer resistance and will thereby actually increase casualties by postponing adoption of this safer technology.

Auftritt1I am unable to resist commenting on the methodology of this study, which employed the Amazon Mechanical Turk. When I read that my interest perked up. I did know about the original Mechanical Turk, which was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. It appeared to perform wondrous feats until it was exposed as a fraud, with a concealed all-too-human chess master inside. The Amazon tool is a marketplace for work requiring human intelligence on simple tasks that a computer cannot effectively perform. Thus a sufficiently large group of humans can simulate a computer but with greater efficiency. You can read about it here, or perhaps even volunteer to earn some spare change. It is surprising how many such tasks exist, and scientific and academic studies such as this one are prime candidates.

Another resolution for the dilemma is to employ a fail-safe option. If a robot has a situation where any course of action, including doing nothing, threatens harm to humans, it just exclaims, “Oh shit! I give up. Human, you have the con.” For this to work, a full-time, attentive human monitor is needed and much of the promise of this automation will not be achieved. Practically speaking, if you take the situation I cited originally, it is unlikely that the human would even be able to respond effectively. More likely a random result would occur, perhaps even worse than if the human had been in charge all the time. And some personal injury lawyers will get rich.

In subtle ways accommodating these real-world constraints limits the whole concept of robot autonomy. The way that robots develop and learn to deal with situations that their designers cannot completely anticipate is to employ artificial neural networks. These are decision-making systems that learn from example rather than only obeying predefined rules. The problem involves a technical aspect called node-weighting. I won’t try to explain it here but it is comparable to the ways humans learn to apply ethical and practical principles. Either we permit this technology, thereby gaining the full advantage of robotics, or we constrain or discard it, essentially eliminating much of the usefulness of robotics.


“Sooner” or “Later”?

Oklahoma is crazy Republican territory. Before we had political parties it was just crazy territory so perhaps it is unfair to blame the GOP.

Here are a few scary facts, for Sooners anyway. In 2007, Oklahoma had one earthquake of magnitude 3, the lowest level that can be generally felt. Last year there were 890. Of the 12 largest recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma history, 10 have occurred since 2011. And it has been 300 million years since this seismic zone was last active. Move over California, in December 2014, Oklahoma won the dubious honor of becoming the state with the most earthquakes.

Now here are some possibly related facts. Last year the state finally acknowledged that water injection involving in fracking might conceivably play some role in these geological occurrences. But not certainly, you understand. If you want to know more about fracking and its consequences, check this discussion. The fracking technique has been in use for decades, but it has only been since the end of the Great Recession that it really surged. Note when earthquakes also surged in Oklahoma in the chart below. At the current rate, they are well on their way to setting new records in 2016. Not incidentally, the proportion of jobs in Oklahoma related to the oil and gas industry is 20%. Oh, and by the way, the number of seismologists currently employed by the state is zero.


This is yet another of a long line of misbegotten policies of wantonly disregarding scientific data when the consequences might conflict with business goals or threaten jobs. Are we really sure that sucking tubes of lit tobacco causes cancer? I know several people who lived to ripe old ages while smoking two packs a day. And isn’t the evidence of global warming pretty flimsy. After all, in many parts of the country, today’s weather is actually colder than yesterday’s was. And it could just be coincidence that the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases has occurred in conjunction with an increase in human industrial activity. As I’ve often noted, the plural of anecdote is not data, but there seems to be no upper limit to our human capacity for self-deception.

594c6bd7a010544790f24a740bc7a51bThe Oklahoma state bird is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and a beautiful little creature it is. But I suggest that a more appropriate choice would be Struthio camelus, the common ostrich. To be fair, the state government does seem to be belatedly paying attention to this looming threat, but past history suggests that this might be largely window-dressing.

There is a perfectly logical reason that Oklahomans are called Sooners. The name derives from the “sooner clause” of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889. This stated that anyone occupying the territory that became Oklahoma before its opening for settlement could be denied the right to claim land. In the event, this rule was widely ignored by eager settlers. Perhaps now a better name might be Laters.

The Next Revolution

A technology revolution is occurring, but few seem to recognize how important it is and what the consequences will be. I’ll bet you have heard about it but haven’t appreciated what it will mean to you. And it is happening rapidly. I would put it in a class almost with the internet. Some people are going to make fabulous fortunes from it.

excitementThe technology is virtual reality (VR). Yes, I know that the current talk is mostly only about computer gaming applications or use in training simulators, but the potential scope is vastly wider than that. Use of VR displays will create entirely new paradigms for education, entertainment, sports, sales and marketing, technical support and virtually any activity involving collaboration. Current limitations due to hardware size, cost and comfort are fast disappearing.

Zeiss Cinemizer

Take education for example. Teachers in VR-equipped classrooms, like this one using the Zeiss Cinemizer, can lead students on digital field trips to the Amazonian rain forest or they can walk the Great Wall of China. Students can fly weightlessly through the International Space Station or stroll leisurely through the Louvre. Medical students can get close-up views of actual operating procedures, at their own pace and desired viewpoint. In thousands of ways, students can put themselves in completely realistic situations as they watch professionals in the field. Some of this will be simulated, but eventually most will be reality. In other words, students will actually be there, seeing things as they truly are, not just as they are pictured or described. Personally, I would like to wander around and watch scientists at work at the Large Hadron Collider.

In entertainment, the revolution is well underway. At the most recent Sundance Festival, eleven VR films were shown. Everyone in the audience watched 3-D movies on their own simulated big screen, each with the best seat in the house so to speak. And it wasn’t actually necessary to be there at all. It would have worked equally well in your living room. Everyone can have court side seats for basketball games, not just in terms of viewing but with a reality that will give the feeling that you could walk right onto the court. mountainbikingThe same is true for every sport. Would you like the thrill of mountain biking without the cost or risk? Quite likely this technology will cut into attendance figures at sporting events, but nothing new is cost-free.

I would enjoy a driver’s view of a few turns around Le Mans or the full experience of climbing Mt. Everest. Yes, you can see a film of such events but it is nothing remotely like a VR experience. Everyone can be there, essentially in person, when great events are transpiring. And also those that are not great. Would enthusiasm for military adventures be as high if people could live the experience of combat and see its horrific consequences?

Use of VR for training purposes has actually been underway for a long time. Pilots learn procedures for handling emergencies, soldiers practice battle tactics, and astronauts familiarize themselves with planned space walks as in this actual NASA VR trainer. Extension to more commonplace activities is fairly obvious.


Curiously, one of the problems yet to be solved is that the VR experience is too realistic! Some users experience disorientation or nausea due to “living” in two environments at once. Fortunately some innovative research is underway involving scanning the user and projecting his lifelike presence into the scenes so that one source of these issues will diminish.

In a few years, no one would think of booking at a resort without poking around your accommodations and checking the view or walking the grounds and inspecting the amenities. And similarly, considering almost any purchase can be far better accomplished in VR than just looking at advertising pictures as is now done. Trying clothes on using a VR screen is faster and can give viewpoints unattainable in the clothing store mirror.


Psychologists are already using VR to implement virtual body swapping so that subjects can experience racial bias first hand. This could be “Total Recall” in its infancy.

Some VR headsets incorporate a camera that can transmit the wearer’s view as a VR scene to a remote observer. You don’t have to be very imaginative to see how this can be used to help, guide, or instruct remotely. If this became ubiquitous, I can foresee entirely different and more effective ways that technical support could be supplied. Perhaps a plumber could offer remote hands-on guidance for household maintenance at a fraction of the price of a professional visit.

This commentary barely scratches the surface of the coming revolution. Some of what I have described may never come to pass, but the future will no doubt hold untold surprises.


The Real Science of Jurassic Park

Throughout my life I have periodically binged on some particular author’s works, devouring everything he wrote. As a child, my targets included Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. In high school, as I recall, there was Aldous Huxley and in college both Nathaniel West and the mysterious B. Traven. Much more recently I zeroed in on the hard science fiction of Michael Crichton, many of whose novels spawned popular movies, amongst which is Jurassic Park.

With this meandering introduction, I come to the topic at hand, the science of Jurassic Park. You could hardly have avoided seeing one or more of this series of movies and now there is a fourth coming out in a few days. The original ones base their science on the plausible use of DNA extracted from dinosaur blood in amber-entrapped mosquitoes. The idea is theoretically sound but it would really only work on a more recently extinct animal, like the wooly mammoth, since DNA degrades over time. The latest movie is updated with the real progress in transgenic science using recombinant DNA technology. This produces modified organisms that combine the DNA from different genomes and has recently had remarkable success. For better or worse, this science really works.


For example, inheritors of the Frankenstein mantle have created a chickodile (chicken with crocodile teeth), a spoat (goat whose milk contains spider silk), a fluorescent glofish (zebrafish crossed with a jellyfish), a dolion (dog/lion combination), and my favorite, the pouse (pig/mouse combo that is less polluting, if you know what I mean). The possibilities are endless. These examples have some practical or scientific value, but I foresee many more doing this just to see what happens. The required knowledge and equipment is not much more complicated than that found in any well-equipped college biology lab. And note that, as the spoat example shows, it isn’t even necessary that the combined animal sequences be genetically related.

It is almost certain that these hybrids are sterile, so that nightmares of new and perhaps dangerous breeds flooding the world are extremely unlikely. But then one recalls the prophetic comment by mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm in the first Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” So don’t be so sure.

The technical adviser on all of these movies, paleontologist Jack Horner, has written a scientific paper speculating on reverse engineering chickens into real dinosaurs using latent gene sequences actually present in the chicken genome. Most now believe that birds and dinosaurs are fairly closely related and probably share a common ancestor. At one time, in fact, it was thought that birds were simply evolved dinosaurs, which certainly made one look at our cute songbirds a little differently. However problems arose when this was examined in detail.

This science can lead to very useful results for mankind, meanwhile generating fodder for entertaining movies. However many fear unintended consequences. In fact, some labs have temporarily halted their efforts until safe protocols have been developed and tested. But the genie is out of the bottle and a new world is upon us.