Monday, February 28, 2011

"Surrounded by Machines"

This article, published in the March 2011 edition of Communications of the ACM (pp. 29-31).

Although the article was authored by yours truly, it owes its title to Keith Miller and its publication to Rachelle Hollander, editor of CACM's ethics column, to both of whom my thanks. It briefly describes three of the presentations at the 2010 PAIT workshop.
The funding period for the project officially ends tomorrow (March 1, 2011).

In the same issue, "Catch me if you can" by Gregory Benford (pp. 112-111)1 traces the evolution of computer viruses and other malware, including Stuxnet. Benford claims that he wrote the first virus. I thank him for the article, but not for his invention.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

1This isn't a typo; the article begins on page 112 and ends on 111.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Location Privacy: Is Privacy in Public a Contradiction in Terms?"

This entry by Robert Gellman on the GeoData Policy blog (Feb. 21, 2011) is an intelligent, but far from exhaustive, discussion of issues related to privacy in public places and changing technologies. I learned a number of things from it; the one that surprised me the most was Gellman's summary of a Supreme Court finding.
In United States v. Knotts, a 1983 Supreme Court decision, the police surreptitiously attached an electronic beeper to an item purchased by a suspect. They used the beeper to track the movements of the suspect’s car. The Court held that a person traveling in a car on public streets has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements. The Court didn’t care if the police watched or used technology. It found no Fourth Amendment violation either way.
I hadn't known about this decision, and it gave me food for thought. Gellman doesn't say whether the police had a warrant; if they did, the decision is in line with my understanding of police procedures. If they didn't, the decision strikes me as a serious escalation of police powers and degradation of civil rights. Furthermore, since the beeper was attached to an "item" and not to the car, it could have been used to track the suspect in relatively private spaces.

I found this a worthwhile read; you might also. Thanks to Francis Harvey for bringing it to my attention.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson, Facebook, and IP numbers

I go out of town for a couple of days and one of my favorite sources, the New York Times, publishes four articles relevant to this blog. Rather than wait until I have time to summarize and comment on each of them (which won't be soon), I'm going the cheap-and-easy way - three bullet points for four articles.
  • Watson, IBM's Jeopardy!-playing computer, gets two articles, both by John Markoff: A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans (Feb. 14, 2011), a thoughtful, wide-ranging reflection on how Watson's language facility might (and might not) change economies and cultures; and Computer Wins on 'Jeopardy!;" Trivial, it's Not (Feb. 16) is more narrowly focused on describing Watson's performance on the TV show.
  • Facebook Officials Keep Quiet on Its Role in Revolts by Jennifer Preston (Feb. 14) highlights the critical role Facebook and other technologies have played in the recent (and ongoing) uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. Facebook and Twitter, at least, take the stand that they are providers of social and communication services, not king-makers (the only safe stand they can take, of course).
  • I suppose it calls my nerd credentials into question that I didn't know that we were running out of IP numbers until I read Drumming Up More Addresses on the Internet by Laurie J. Flynn (Feb. 14). The 4.3 billion numbers that were created in 1977 are almost all used up; but a fix, IPv6, is in the bag, but like Y2K, there are a lot of entities that need to be fixed individually. Some people scoff at the Y2K problem - "The world didn't end!" - but only because they don't realize that the problems were averted by thousands of people working hard to make it a triumph rather than a disaster. Let's hope we do as well with this transition.
Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Malware Aimed at Iran Hit Five Sites, Report Says"

This article from the New York Times by John Markoff (February 11, 2011) summarizes a report from computer security software firm Symantec analyzing the Stuxnet worm. They found that there were "three waves of attacks."
Liam O Murchu, a security researcher at the firm, said his team was able to chart the path of the infection because of an unusual feature of the malware: Stuxnet recorded information on the location and type of each computer it infected.
Symantec analyzed samples of the worm from "various" computers and "determined that 12,000 infections could be traced back to just five initial infection points."

The tracking information was apparently intended to allow the attackers to learn whether the target computers became infected.

Sophisticated malware meets sophisticated analysis.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

Friday, February 11, 2011

Robots on stage

The New York Times reports that "Heddatron," a play by Elizabeth Meriwether, will open in Chicago today. The cast includes ten robots.
Five large robots are controlled remotely by cast members sitting offstage, and the remaining five are very small, autonomous "critter-bots," which basically just zip around the stage for the last five minutes of the play. 
I'd love to see this play and write a review for this blog. Anyone want to give me a travel grant?

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Call for papers: Fourth Workshop on Roboethics

Fourth Workshop on Roboethics
May 13, 2011


Important dates:
  • February 28, 2011: Paper submission deadline
  • March 7, 2011: Notification of Acceptance/Rejection
  • March 14, 2011: Camera-Ready Submission Deadline
Organizers: IEEE RAS Technical Committee on Roboethics
  • Gianmarco Veruggio, CNR-¬‐IEIIT, Italy (corresponding co-chair)
  • Jorge Solis, Waseda University, Japan (co-chair)
  • Matthias Scheutz, Indiana University, USA (co-chair)
Scope: The proposed Full Day Workshop on Roboethics is the fourth biennial event, organized by the Technical Committee on Roboethics as part of the ICRA conference (previous workshops took place in 2005, 2007 and 2009). Roboethics is ethics applied to robotics, i.e., the human-centered ethics guiding the design, construction and use of robots. It deals with the study of the ethical, legal and social aspects of the introduction and use of robots in our daily lives. Progress in the field of computer science and telecommunications allows us to endow machines with enough intelligence so that they already can act autonomously (to some degree). However, as the application domains for robots are increasing and robots are coming out of the factory halls, robotics research is increasingly raising ethical implications, related to the emerging interactions between robots and human beings.

Roboethics shares many "sensitive areas" with computer ethics, information ethics, bioethics and not only roboticists, but also sociologists, psychologists and philosophers are discussing the potentialities and limits of robotics to help building a better human society.

This workshop will increase robotics researchers' ethical awareness, in the context of the ever growing interdisciplinarity that characterizes the new generation of robotics research.

Goal: The theme of the ICRA 2011 conference is "Better Robots, Better Life", an expectation that robot technology will help build a better human society. But achieving this goal is not only a technical problem. Robotics applications raise ethical questions, related to emerging interactions between robots and humans. The application of ethics to machines, including robots and computer programs, has been typically limited the questions of whether designers and operators should take full responsibility of machines' actions. However, in the near future, the robotics is already developing machines with more open-ended behaviors and the ability to acquire new behaviors as a results of online learning during task execution. This kind of adaptation will likely limit the predictability of robot behaviors. Moreover, the types of interactions and the physical integrations of humans and robots are increasing rapidly. The social, economic, psychological, philosophical, and emotional impacts of this research are still unclear, however, and require careful analysis and attention by the research community. Among the objectives of the workshop is the opportunity of developing rules for roboethical quality insurance, aimed at preventing unethical uses of robotics research products. Long-term objectives include the increase of robotics researchers' ethical awareness, in the context of the ever growing interdisciplinarity that will characterize the new generation of robotics research.

Topics: Contributions are welcome on (but not limited to) the ethical, legal and societal aspects of the following topics:
  • robot ethics (decision procedures/algorithms for moral behavior)
  • technical dependability (availability; reliability; safety; security)
  • military application of robotics (acceptability, advantages and risks, codes)
  • health (robotics in surgery; robotics in health care, assistance, prosthetics and therapy)
  • service (social robotics, personal assistants, companions)
  • economy (replacing humans in the workplace; robotics and the job market)
  • psychology (position of humans in the control hierarchy; robots and children)
  • law (robots and liability; deployment of autonomously acting robots)
  • environment (sustainable exploitation of resources; cleaning nuclear and toxic waste)
For more information, please see the web page at

Interested authors are encouraged to send their original contributions in the above or related areas to the organizers at

Extended abstracts (of two pages) or full papers of up to 6 pages (using the ICRA conference publication format) are welcome.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"'Death by GPS' in desert"

I've written about the unintended downside of relying too heavily on GPS, mobile telephones, and similar locational technologies in two earlier posts, the first about simply getting lost and the second describing several ways people visiting U.S. national parks have managed to get themselves into trouble using these devices.

This article by Tom Knudsen, published in The Sacramento Bee (Jan 30, 2011) describes the grim stories of people who have died in Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park after they entered these rugged areas unprepared for 120 degree (F) temperatures and wound up on impassable roads.
These are not just stories of unimaginable suffering. They are reminders that even with a growing suite of digital devices at our side, technology cannot guarantee survival in the wild. Worse, it is giving many a false sense of security and luring some into danger and death.
According to Charlie Callagan, Death Valley wilderness coordinator, "Some of the databases on the GPS units are showing old roads that haven't been open in 40 years." He's been "working with technology companies to remove closed and hazardous roads from their navigation databases – but with only partial success."

There has been a huge increase in summertime visitors to Death Valley, "from 97,000 in 1985 to 257,500 in 2009," an increase of 165%. It would be interesting to know the causes of the increase and whether locational technologies have played a large role. There's no way to tell from the article whether the per-visitor death rate has increased proportional to, slower than, or faster than the rate of increase in visitors. Whatever the case, clearly the providers of GPS services have a heavy responsibility to make their devices safer, at least by removing abandoned roads in dangerous areas, perhaps by removing places like Death Valley from their systems entirely.

Thanks to Don Searing for bringing this article to my attention.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Smart Meters Draw Fire From Left and Right in California"

According to a January 31, 2011, article in the New York Times,
Pacific Gas and Electric’s campaign to introduce wireless smart meters in Northern California is facing fierce opposition from an eclectic mix of Tea Party conservatives and left-leaning individualists who say the meters threaten their liberties and their health.
I discussed the "liberties" angle in an earlier post, but the "health" concern caught me by surprise. The key is not the meters themselves, but the wireless technology they use to transmit data to power plants. It turns out that some people believe they are sensitive to radiation from mobile devices, WiFi, and smart meters, causing "dizziness, fatigue, headaches, sleeplessness or heart palpitations." It's called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” or E.H.S.

The article mentions that no health risks from such radiation have been confirmed. My impulse is to be skeptical of unconfirmed exotic conditions brought on by new technology, but lack of evidence  is not proof that there's no effect. At any rate, the power company in question - Pacific Gas & Electric - is exploring the possibility of offering the option of hard-wiring the smart grids.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director