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Archive for the category “law”

No, the robots aren’t killing us…yet

Let’s go back to July 7, 2015, when this tragic event occurred in Michigan:

An employee of Ventra Ionia Main, an automotive stamping facility, died after being caught in a robotic machine, police said.

The accident happened about 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, July 7 at Ventra, 14 N. Beardsley St., Ionia Public Safety Department officers said.

More details were revealed this month, when the inevitable lawsuit was filed.

[Wanda] Holbrook, a journeyman technician, was performing routine maintenance on one of the robots on the trailer hitch assembly line when the unit unexpectedly activated and attempted to load a part into the unit being repaired, crushing Holbrook’s head.

By the time this filtered through several sources, the press was referring to a rogue robot, conjuring an image of a sentient being taking out its vengeance on an unfortunate carbon-based life form.

The lawyers don’t go that far, but they interpret this as a machine that was improperly programmed by a host of companies named in the lawsuit.

In this respect, it’s no different than any piece of machinery – or, frankly, any manufactured item. No one accuses a shovel of being a sentient rogue being, but it can kill also.

Studies published in the Lancet and the American Journal of Cardiology, among other outlets, show that the incidence of heart failure goes up in the week after a blizzard. The Lancet study, based on death certificates in eastern Massachusetts after six blizzards from 1974-78, demonstrated that ischemic heart disease deaths rose by 22 percent during the blizzard week and stayed elevated for the subsequent eight days, suggesting that the effect was related to storm-related activities, like shoveling, rather than the storm itself. Similarly, the AJC article, based on medical examiner records from three Michigan counties, found that there were more exertion-related sudden cardiac deaths in the weeks during and after blizzards, and that 36 of the 43 total exertion-related deaths occurred during or shortly after snow removal.

Perhaps some day we will have a true rogue robot, with independent decision-making capability, that performs an action that results in a death. But we’re not there yet.

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Can robots issue citations? More importantly, can people issue citations?

Let’s start with the big disclosure – this post discusses red light camera systems, and the parent company (Morpho) of my employer (MorphoTrak) sells such systems. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that every city in the country has red light cameras at every intersection.

But let’s start with an even bigger disclosure – as the linked article notes, the city of Montclair, California used to have a red light camera system (not from Morpho). Back when this system was operational, it cited me for a red light violation. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that no city in the country has red light cameras at any intersection.

And let me also add that these opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any present or past employer or association with which I have been…um, associated.

Done with the disclosures. Now let’s move forward by moving back to my previous post about automated procurement. Within that post, I went off on a little tangent about self-driving cars.

Initial reactions to the idea [of self-driving cars] were – well, they were emotional. “You’re going to let an uncontrolled car just drive around on the streets where it may hit somebody?” Yet people began to reconsider this when they realized just how bad human drivers are, and how good the self-driving cars perform.

But in the same way that a self-driving car is an automated replacement for a human driver, a red light camera system is an automated replacement for a human police officer or traffic officer. In essence, the systems are programmed to track the locations of the automobiles and compare them against the status of the traffic light. In the case of my citation, I was provided with a set of pictures that showed that the light was red when my car entered the intersection.

Generally, such a system is programmed in the simplest way possible. Was the car violating traffic law, or was it in compliance with traffic law? Shades of gray are usually not programmed into the system.

Which brings us to San Mateo, California and what The Newspaper had to say about San Mateo’s contract with Redflex. The people who write The Newspaper do not like red light cameras – The Newspaper consistently publishes posts about people who vandalize red light cameras and speed cameras. But if The Newspaper doesn’t like red light cameras in general, it REALLY doesn’t like Redflex, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who tracks the red light camera industry in the United States. (Since the parent of my employer is a competitor of Redflex, I’ll just leave it at that.)

But if you boil away these impassioned feelings, and some of the issues surrounding traffic enforcement, there’s a really interesting issue buried within the arguments.

Last year, Redflex issued 4462 tickets worth $2.4 million. Sixty-three percent of these tickets went to drivers who made slow, rolling right hand turns.

Now opponents to red light cameras will look at this and say that advocates keep on talking about how traffic accidents result in death and dismemberment…and in actually, the majority of things caught by red light cameras involve right hand turns without stopping?

(ANOTHER DISCLOSURE: when I first moved to California, I was pulled over by Upland Police one night. The police officer said that I had made a “California stop.” He saw my puzzled expression, and explained that a “California stop” is one in which the car is supposed to stop, but doesn’t stop completely. That human police officer DIDN’T give me a ticket that time.)

Back to San Mateo. One member of the City Council was not bothered at all by the rolling right hand turn infractions.

Councilman David Lim was vocal in his support for each and every one of those citations.

“One area that I’m not convinced is this whole notion that we should not be enforcing these California roll stops,” Lim said. “You know, I’m not here to debate… It’s not worth it. All the emails I’ve received about ‘Woe is us, we’re more important than the law. We should be able to make slower stops and not be punished for it…’ I feel so strongly about this that I had to put that on the record.”

In essence, Lim is saying the following: the law states that this particular action is a traffic violation. It is not up to me, or to an individual driver, to say whether this is truly a violation. If it’s against the law, then the law should be enforced. Therefore, the automated red light system is working properly.

Going back to the previous post, opponents of red light cameras would claim that automation lacks an emotional element. A human police officer would never stop someone for something that silly.

Actually, some police officers wouldn’t make the stop, while others would. And some imperfect police officers would use all sorts of emotional criteria to decide whether this is truly a violation or not. Maybe the driver is a really pretty woman. Maybe the driver is the son of the mayor.

Some police officers enforce the law no matter what. Some of you may have known the late Jim Conley of the Anaheim Police Department. Jim let everyone know that if you were cited for something, and if you said that you know Jim Conley…you’d still be cited for that violation.

An automated system usually employs a boolean system – traffic violation, or no traffic violation. Human beings are more complex, and their decisions have a non-boolean outcome – traffic violation, no traffic violation, or “well, but….”

One of the complaints about red light traffic systems is that they appear to be mainly revenue generators. Perhaps human traffic enforcement, which is more inclined to let people off the hook – the California newbie who doesn’t know what a “California stop” is, the pretty flirtatious woman, the person who is the son of the mayor – isn’t generating ENOUGH revenue.

When mandatory police cams become public entertainment

“Excuse me,” Steve said to the waitress. “I specifically asked that you substitute bacon for the ground beef in my triple bacon burger.”

Steve and Kim were enjoying – well, Kim was enjoying – a brief lunch break from work.

As the waitress corrected Steve’s order, he turned to Kim. “So, what are you doing tonight after work?”

“I’m going to watch the police webcams,” she replied.

“What, the ones in New York City?” asked Steve.

“No, our local police department has them now. If you go to the Cams page at their website, you can see streaming video from every police officer who is on duty.”

It was true. While police webcams became more popular way back in 2014 after the Ferguson incident and the Ray Rice case, some people still felt that the police were hiding something. As the years went on, more and more police departments adopted transparency rules, and by the time that Kim and Steve were enjoying their bacon-infused lunch, several police departments were not only equipping every police officer and police car with a webcam, but were also providing real-time public access to these feeds. The goal in providing these feeds was to not only provide complete transparency into police operations, but also to educate the public on the dangers that police officers faced every day as they patrolled their communities.

As with any technological advance, however, the lofty goals of the originators were soon replaced by other goals. The streams themselves became revenue sources for the police agencies, as anyone who accessed the feeds had to sit through commercials for bail bond companies, defense attorneys, and Progressive Insurance. And the audience, rather than consisting of civil libertarians monitoring police activity, ended up as a bunch of teens watching voyeuristically.

Even Kim, who worked for a public safety software provider, found herself addicted to the feeds. She especially liked them when officers Jim and Pat (no last names used) were on patrol on Saturday nights. While most of the shift work was frankly boring, there was always the chance that Jim and Pat would run into some drug-crazed citizen who was trying to get to Disneyland via Frisbee. She still retained the video in which one citizen boldly shouted, “You can’t touch me! I know Officer Jim,” only to receive the reply, “I am Officer Jim. And I’m taking you to the station to get booked.”

As she was telling all of this to Steve, Kim noticed two officers walking into the restaurant – and then immediately noticed a young teenage boy running toward the officers, his face pointing directly at the camera on one of the officers’ chests.

“18th Street rules!” the teen shouted at the camera. Then looking at the officers’ faces, he shouted, “And what are you going to do – shoot me? You’re being watched! 18th Street!”

As the teen raced out of the restaurant, Kim heard one of the officers say something.

“Too bad for him that we were off duty and our cameras were turned off.”

Remember when people used to own cars?

When I have the choice, I usually prefer to purchase things rather than rent or lease them. With some notable exceptions (mobile phones being one of them), I outright own just about everything in my personal possession. Now perhaps I’m paying off the purchase price via a loan, but at the end of the day I will own these items, and not have to worry about infringing the rights of the actual owner. I can paint my living room purple if I want. I can rip the sleeves off of my long sleeve shirt. I can drive my car for 16,000 miles if I want.

Well, ownership of cars may go away.

Yes, I know that car leasing has been around for decades. But I’m talking about something even more restrictive. Let’s welcome Digital Rights Management (DRM) to automobiles. From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Forget extra cupholders or power windows: the new Renault Zoe comes with a “feature” that absolutely nobody wants. Instead of selling consumers a complete car that they can use, repair, and upgrade as they see fit, Renault has opted to lock purchasers into a rental contract with a battery manufacturer and enforce that contract with digital rights management (DRM) restrictions that can remotely prevent the battery from charging at all.

Also see Boing Boing and Dave Hill, and you’ll see discussions about “rooting” your car.

But if you’re comfortable with the idea of renting your car battery, remember that at least in the UK, you rent by the mile. (Which seems odd, when you consider that the United Kingdom is a metric country, and Renault is a French firm.) For example, on a 36 month contract with 7,500 miles per year, you pay £70 per month. On the other hand, a 12 month contract with 12,000 miles results in a £113 monthly payment. You can’t sign a contract with over 12,000 miles per year; like your usual lease setup, you pay for extra miles.

Renault justifies its practice as follows:

You wouldn’t pay for a lifetime’s worth of fuel in one go when you buy your car, so why should you buy your battery in one hit? Most electric vehicles are more expensive to buy initially than their petrol or diesel counterparts, because of the cost of the battery. At Renault, we spread the cost of the battery out over the lifetime of the car, not just the time when you own it. So you don’t have pay for it all at once. This makes the car less expensive than you might think.

Refreshing, eh?

I assume that Renault doesn’t own its headquarters building.

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