“Death, Denial and Self-Driving Cars” (NYT)

Mike Isaac:

All of tech, and really much of the automotive industry, speaks of driverless cars with the gravitas of inevitability: In the future, driving yourself will be more foreign than you think.

That’s why something like this isn’t just bad for Tesla, it’s bad for everyone betting on this future. Go listen to the leaders at Lyft, Uber or General Motors talk about driverless. Things like this inhibit this vision.

What I sort of question is the response from Tesla on this one. The company blog post started out sympathetic, but then flooded us with a bunch of numbers and statistics. I’m not sure that strikes the right tone after a guy just died.

Anyway, how does the industry recover from this? Just keep marching toward inevitability?

[No doubt: yes.]

Source: Farhad’s and Mike’s Week in Tech: Death, Denial and Self-Driving Cars

I agree with Illah Nourbakhsh, as he says in his thoughtful post on the topic. Excerpt:

There is much, much more to this than statistics or bug-tweaking. There are underlying questions about interaction design: do we design autonomy to replace people in such ways that new forms of error surface, or do we empower people to become incrementally safer, even if it means our technological trajectory is slower and more intentional? You know where I stand.

Source: Layers of Autonomy.

Don Norman on Tesla’s “reckless” autopilot feature

Forbes interviewed Don Norman about Tesla’s partially autonomous “autopilot” feature. Quote:

Tesla is being reckless. From what I can tell, Tesla has no understanding of how real drivers operate and they do not understand the need for careful testing. So they release, and then they have to pull back.

Source: Is Tesla Racing Recklessly Towards Driverless Cars? — Forbes

See the article for some terrifying videos taken by Tesla pseudo-drivers that capture autopilot oops moments.

Don Norman has added more comments on the story at his blog here: http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/interview_is_tesla_.html. And Tesla CEO Elon Musk says don’t worry, it’s all good. So who are you going to believe — the charismatic billionaire Tony Stark guy, or the nerdy design professor?

Our images of software developers

This is an excellent article by Birgitta Böckeler on the history of software developers and our images of them.

The stereotype of the socially-awkward, white, male programmer has been around for a long time. Although “diversity in tech” is a much discussed topic, the numbers have not been getting any better. On the contrary, a lot of people inside and outside of the IT industry still take it for granted that this stereotype is the natural norm, and this perception is one of the things that is standing in our way to make the profession more inclusive and inviting. So where does this image come from? Did the demographics of the world’s programmer population really evolve naturally, because “boys just like computers more”? What shaped our perception of programmers? This text is about some possible explanations I found when reading about the history of computing.

Read it for the history and insights on what to do about it.

Stop acting so surprised!

Whenever you hear yourself or somebody else saying things like “You don’t look like a programmer”, or “What? You don’t know ___?” — stop right there. It might be an innocent little comment that you don’t mean anything by, but the person you are saying it to might be hearing this for the 500th time, and your comment might be the last straw to make them think that they indeed do not belong. This is why such comments are often called “microaggressions”. Each one is small, too small to really be aggressive, but when they appear every week they have a significant cumulative effect.

Learn more about microaggressions to increase your awareness of this, for example by reading this excellent article about how microaggressions enforce stereotypes in tech.

Source: Born for it: How the image of software developers came about (via Pat Kua)

The Internet Intellectual (Morozov on Jarvis)

A fairly devastating takedown of Jeff Jarvis's new book Public Parts by Evgeny Morozov (author of The Net Delusion):

http://www.tnr.com/print/article/books/magazine/96116/the-internet-intellectual (print version – should not require sign-in).

I almost feel bad for Jarvis. It seems like a solid critique, and tackles not only Jarvis but other Internet utopians (e.g. Clay Shirky), but it's perhaps a little mean-spirited.

Fukushima

A good article from the Guardian: Quiet voices must be heard to avert a future Fukushima. Some excerpts:

Japan's part-natural, part-human disaster is an extraordinary event. As well as dealing with the consequences of an earthquake and tsunami, rescuers are having to evacuate thousands of people from the danger zone around Fukushima. In addition, the country is blighted by blackouts from the shutting of 10 or more nuclear plants. It is a textbook case of how technology can increase our vulnerability through unintended side-effects.

Yet there had been early warnings from analysts. In 2006, the Japanese professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi resigned from a nuclear power advisory panel, saying that the policy of building in earthquake zones could lead to catastrophe, and that design standards for proofing them against damage were too lax. Further back, the seminal study of accidents in complex technologies was Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents, published in 1984.

Perrow, a Yale professor, analysed accidents in chemical plants, air traffic control, shipping and dams, as well as his main focus: the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Things can go wrong with design, equipment, procedures, operators, supplies and the environment. Occasionally two or more will have problems simultaneously; in a complex technology such as a nuclear plant, the potential for this is ever-present. Perrow took five pages to sketch what went wrong in the first 13 seconds of the incident. He concluded that in complex systems, "no matter how effective conventional safety devices are, there is a form of accident that is inevitable" – hence "normal accidents".

Unfortunately, such events are often made worse by the way the nuclear industry and governments handle the early stages of disasters, as they reassure us that all is fine. Some statements are well intentioned. But as things get worse, people wonder why early reassurances were issued when it is apparent that there was no basis for them. It is simply too early to say what precisely went wrong at Fukushima, and it has been surprising to see commentators speak with such speed and certainty. Most people accept that they will only ever have a rough understanding of the facts. But they instinctively ask if they can trust those in charge and wonder why governments support particular technologies so strongly.

Industry and governments need to be more straightforward with the public. The pretence of knowledge is deeply unscientific; a more humble approach where officials are frank about the unknowns would paradoxically engender greater trust. Likewise, nuclear's opponents need to adopt a measured approach. We need a fuller democratic debate about the choices we are making. Catastrophic potential needs to be a central criterion in decisions about technology. Advice from experts is useful, but the most significant questions are ethical in character.

I've had Normal Accidents on the shelf for a while and figured now was a good time to finally read it. Perrow also published a sequel that just came out in paperback last month: The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our vulnerabilities to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.

Alone Together

I just finished reading Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other (book website, Amazon) and I can’t recommend it highly enough. She reports on her research into how people experience social media and social robots, and asks many important questions about where we’re headed. I found the second half of the book, on social media, more compelling than the first, on robots, though Turkle’s analysis does bring the two topics together nicely.