A Philosopher's Blog

Automated Trucking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2016

Having grown up in the golden age of the CB radio, I have many fond memories of movies about truck driving heroes played by the likes of Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood. While such movies seem to have been a passing phase, real truck drivers are heroes of the American economy. In addition to moving stuff across this great nation, they also earn solid wages and thus also contribute as taxpayers and consumers.

While most of the media attention is on self-driving cars, there are also plans underway to develop self-driving trucks. The steps towards automation will initially be a boon to truck drivers as these technological advances manifest as safety features. This progress will most likely lead to a truck with a human riding in the can as a backup (more for the psychological need of the public than any actual safety increase) and eventually to a fully automated truck.

Looked at in terms of the consequences of full automation, there will be many positive impacts. While the automated trucks will probably be more expensive than manned vehicles initially, not need to pay drivers will result in considerable savings for the companies. Some of this might even be passed on to consumers, resulting in a tiny decrease in some prices. There is also the fact that automated trucks, unlike human drivers, would not get tired, bored or distracted. While there will still be accidents involving these trucks, it would be reasonable to expect a very significant decrease. Such trucks would also be able to operate around the clock, stopping only to load/unload cargo, to refuel and for maintenance. This could increase the speed of deliveries. One can even imagine an automated truck with its own drones that fly away from the truck as it cruises the highway, making deliveries for companies like Amazon. While these will be good things, there will also be negative consequences.

The most obvious negative consequence of full automation is the elimination of trucker jobs. Currently, there are about 3.5 million drivers in the United States. There are also about 8.7 million other people employed in the trucking industry who do not drive. One must also remember all the people indirectly associated with trucking, ranging from people cooking meals for truckers to folks manufacturing or selling products for truckers. Finally, there are also the other economic impacts from the loss of these jobs, ranging from the loss of tax revenues to lost business. After all, truckers do not just buy truck related goods and services.

While the loss of jobs will be a negative impact, it should be noted that the transition from manned trucks to robot rigs will not occur overnight. There will be a slow transition as the technology is adopted and it is certain that there will be several years in which human truckers and robotruckers share the roads. This can allow for a planned transition that will mitigate the economic shock. That said, there will presumably come a day when drivers are given their pink slips in large numbers and lose their jobs to the rolling robots. Since economic transitions resulting from technological changes are nothing new, it could be hoped that this transition would be managed in a way that mitigated the harm to those impacted.

It is also worth considering that the switch to automated trucking will, as technological changes almost always do, create new jobs and modify old ones. The trucks will still need to be manufactured, managed and maintained. As such, new economic opportunities will be created. That said, it is easy to imagine these jobs also becoming automated as well: fleets of robotic trucks cruising America, loaded, unloaded, managed and maintained by robots. To close, I will engage in a bit of sci-fi style speculation.

Oversimplifying things, the automation of jobs could lead to a utopian future in which humans are finally freed from the jobs that are fraught with danger and drudgery. The massive automated productivity could mean plenty for all; thus bringing about the bright future of optimistic fiction. That said, this path could also lead into a dystopia: a world in which everything is done for humans and they settle into a vacuous idleness they attempt to fill with empty calories and frivolous amusements.

There are, of course, many dystopian paths leading away from automation. Laying aside the usual machine takeover in which Google kills us all, it is easy to imagine a new “robo-planation” style economy in which a few elite owners control their robot slaves, while the masses have little or no employment. A rather more radical thought is to imagine a world in which humans are almost completely replaced—the automated economy hums along, generating numbers that are duly noted by the money machines and the few remaining money masters. The ultimate end might be a single computer that contains a virtual economy; clicking away to itself in electronic joy over its amassing of digital dollars while around it the ruins of  human civilization decay and the world awaits the evolution of the next intelligent species to start the game anew.

 

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Don’t Say the C Words

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2016

While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.

Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.

To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.

If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”

As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.

As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.

It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.

It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.

 

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Hillary, Secrecy & Pneumonia

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2016

While attending a 9/11 event, Hillary Clinton seemed to succumb to the heat. It was later revealed that she had been suffering from pneumonia, something her campaign had failed to disclose. As would be expected, her critics rushed to claim that this is yet another example of her problematic obsession with secrecy. As should also be expected, those who have long been advancing the narrative of her ill health were given a fresh magazine of ammunition. Her supporters mostly responded by downplaying the incident.

Assuming she really does have pneumonia, her illness is not really a big deal. After all, if getting sick disqualified a person from being president, then there would be no one to fill the office. The real concern was, of course, about the failure to announce in a timely manner that she was sick. This ties into the damaging narrative that Hillary is needlessly and problematically secretive.

It could be countered that the decision was not based in this desire for secrecy but was a calculated move in response to Trump’s strategy of claiming Hillary is unwell. While everyone gets sick at some point, there was no doubt concern that Trump would exploit such an announcement and ratchet up his attacks. Hillary and her handlers probably thought they could bluff their way through the illness; something that might have worked.

While that approach has some appeal, there is the very reasonable concern that the failure to disclose this illness was, as noted above, just another example of Hillary’s problematic obsession with secrecy. Hillary also recently faced the backlash from Bill’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch. This was rightly presented as an example of an approach so often taken by the Clintons. After all, while any sensible person would expect that Bill would use his influence to help Hillary, doing this in such a blatant and clumsy manner did considerable damage. Given that Hillary is supposed to be such a savvy politician, it is interesting to consider why she engages in what seem to be so many self-damaging actions. While the discussion focuses on Hillary, it also applies to people in general. Poor decision making is a common affliction.

One possibility is that such behavior is in her nature—she is what she is, so she does what she does even when it harms her efforts to fulfill her ambition to be president. This is illustrated by the classic story of the fox (or frog) and the scorpion.

A fox was about to start his swim across a river when a scorpion called out to him, asking for a ride across. The fox, being good natured, wanted to help. But, he was worried that the scorpion would sting him. The scorpion assured him that he would be in no danger. After all, if he stung the fox, they would both drown and he certainly would not do something so foolish.

The fox agreed and the scorpion climbed up on his back. When the pair was half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. When the fox asked the scorpion why, he replied “it’s my nature” and they both died. Each thing is what it is and does what it does because of what it is. So, perhaps it is simply Hillary’s nature to engage in such behavior—she simply cannot do otherwise. This does raise many interesting questions about whether people have a nature or not and it certainly ties into the endless philosophical battle over free choice.

An alternative that avoids metaphysics is to take the view that Hillary is habituated into doing as she does. While habits can be very powerful, they are obviously weaker than having a nature. This is because, as Aristotle discussed at length, habits can be made and broken. But, habits can be rather hard to break, especially bad ones and it is quite obvious that people will stick with detrimental habits even in the face of continuous negative results. For example, most people have the habits of eating poorly and exercising too little or not at all. As such, they suffer needless and easily avoidable health problems. As another example, many people form habits involving damaging substances ranging from sugar to opioids. These do considerable harm, yet people persist in their habits. Hillary seems have learned the habit of secrecy and, like many habits, she seems unwilling or unable to break it.

A third alternative is that Hillary has consciously adopted secrecy as a strategy. People do often stick with failing strategies for various reasons. It is also worth considering that she actually has a winning strategy. While the revelations about her email and her pneumonia have cost her politically, it could well be that she has other secrets that have been effectively kept and that doing so has proven very advantageous for her. To use a sports analogy, a team that has a good strategy does not win every time. However, they win enough to make it rational to stick to that strategy. One interesting thing about the strategy of secrecy is that the public only knows about cases in which the strategy failed, not the situations in which it worked very well. So, what seems to be a bad strategy because of a few very visible failures might actually be very effective—who knows what secrets remain hidden and what damage they would do if they were revealed?

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Political Parties & Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2016

While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.

My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.

While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.

Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).

While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians:  a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.

One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.

Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.

Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.

This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).

As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.

This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.

I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.

 

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Policebot Profiling

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2016

In 2016 the Dallas police used a remotely operated robot to kill a suspect with a bomb. While this marked a new use for robots in the realm of domestic policing, the decision making process was entirely conventional. That is, humans decided to use the machine and then a human operator controlled it for the attack. As such a true policebot is still a thing of science fiction. That said, considering policebots provides an interesting way to discuss police profiling in a speculative setting. While it might be objected that the discussion should focus on real police profiling, there are advantages to discussing controversial matters within a speculative context. One important advantage is that such a setting can help dampen emotional responses and enable a more rational discussion. The speculative context helps make the discussion less threatening to some who might react with greater hostility to discussions focused on the actual world. Star Trek’s discussion of issues of race in the 1960s through the use of science fiction is an excellent example of this sort of approach. Now, to the matter of policebots.

The policebots under consideration are those that would be capable of a high degree of autonomous operation. At the low end of autonomy, they could be deployed to handle traffic laws on their own. On the higher end, they could operate autonomously to conduct arrests of suspects who might resist arrest violently. Near the highest end would be robotic police at least as capable as human beings.

While there are legitimate worries that policebots could be used as unquestioning servants of the state to oppress and control elements of the population (something we will certainly see), there are also good reasons for using suitably advanced policebots. One obvious advantage is that policebots would be more resilient and easier to repair than human officers. Policebots that are not people would also be far more expendable and thus could save human lives by taking on the dangerous tasks of policing (such as engaging armed suspects). Another advantage is that robots will probably not get tired or bored, thus allowing them to patrol around the clock with maximum efficiency. Robots are also unlikely to be subject to the corrupting factors that influence humans or suffer from personal issues. There is also the possibility that policebots could be far more objective than human officers—this is, in fact, the main concern of this essay.

Like a human office, policbots would need to identify criminal behavior. In some cases this would be fairly easy. For example, an autonomous police drone could easily spot and ticket most traffic violations. In other cases, this would be incredibly complicated. For example, a policebot patrolling a neighborhood would need to discern between children playing at cops & robbers and people engaged in actual violence. As another example, a policebot on patrol would need to be able to sort out the difference between a couple having a public argument and an assault in progress.

In addition to sorting out criminal behavior from non-criminal behavior, policebots would also need to decide on how to focus their attention. For example, a policebot would need to determine who gets special attention in a neighborhood because they are acting suspicious or seem to be out of place. Assuming that policebots would be programed, the decision making process would be explicitly laid out in the code. Such focusing decisions would seem to be, by definition, based in profiling and this gives rise to important moral concerns.

Profiling that is based on behavior would seem to be generally acceptable, provided that such behavior is clearly linked to criminal activities and not to, as an example, ethnicity. For example, it would seem perfectly reasonable to focus attention on a person who makes an effort to stick to the shadows around houses while paying undue attention to houses that seem to be unoccupied at the time. While such a person might be a shy fellow who likes staring at unlit houses as a pastime, there is a reasonable chance he is casing the area for a robbery. As such, the policebot would be warranted in focusing on him.

The most obviously controversial area would be using certain demographic data for profiles. Young men tend to commit more crimes than middle-aged women. On the one hand, this would seem to be relevant data for programing a policebot. On the other hand, it could be argued that this would give the policebot a gender and age bias that would be morally wrong despite being factually accurate. It becomes vastly more controversial when data about such things as ethnicity, economic class and religion are considered. If accurate and objective data links such factors to a person being more likely to engage in crime, then a rather important moral concern arises. Obviously enough, if such data were not accurate, then it should not be included.

Sorting out the accuracy of such data can be problematic and there are sometimes circular appeals. For example, someone might defend the higher arrest rate of blacks by claiming that blacks commit more crimes than whites. When it is objected that the higher arrest right could be partially due to bias in policing, the reply is often that blacks commit more crimes and the proof is that blacks are arrested more than whites. That is, the justification runs in a circle.

But suppose that objective and accurate data showed links between the controversial demographic categories and crime. In that case, leaving it out of the programing could make policebots less effective. This could have the consequence of allowing more crimes to occur. This harm would need to be weighed against the harm of having the policebots programmed to profile based on such factors. One area of concern is public perception of the policebots and their use of profiling. This could have negative consequences that could outweigh the harm of having less efficient policebots.

Another area of potential harm is that even if the policebots operated on accurate data, they would still end up arresting people disproportionally, thus potentially causing harm that would exceed the harm done by the loss of effectiveness. This also ties into higher level moral concerns about the reasons why specific groups might commit more crimes than others and these reasons often include social injustice and economic inequality. As such, even “properly” programmed policebots could actually be arresting the victims of social and economic crimes. This suggests an interesting idea for a science fiction story: policebots that decide to reduce crime by going after the social and economic causes of crime rather than arresting people to enforce an unjust social order.

 

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CSI Overconfidence

Posted in Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2016

Television shows and movies about CSI often seem to present a science fiction version of investigation that involves amazing technology and incredible inferences. While people do get that the almost magical solving of crimes is fiction, there is still considerable overconfidence in many methods used in real investigations. This overconfidence plays a significant role in some of the problems infecting the criminal justice system.

The history of criminal investigation is replete with debunked methods, such as the use of phrenology to diagnose criminal tendencies. There are also technologies that have little or no validity and are not admitted in court, yet enjoy some public confidence (such as lie detectors). There are also methods that might have some value in investigations, yet are the subject of unwarranted overconfidence in their efficacy. These include such things as bite mark analysis and fiber analysis. Other methods are reasonable useful, such as fingerprints, yet are still often accepted with an unwarranted level of confidence—especially in situations where the defendant has an ill-prepared and overworked public defender. Defendants of means or fame can, of course, purchase a better sort of justice.

In contrast with the above methods, DNA identification strikes many as a silver bullet. After all, aside from identical twins (or clones), no two people have the same DNA. This would seem to make the presence of a person’s DNA at a crime scene extremely good evidence for their involvement.

While such evidence is valuable, it is rather important to consider the limitations of and problems with this method. Contamination and transference should always be given due consideration because DNA can travel quite far. This can be illustrated with an example involving my husky.

Like all huskies, my husky generates an incredible amount of fur and this fur gets onto everything and everyone. The fur is thus transported from my house to various points around the world—I know for a fact that her fur is now in at least five states—although she has not left Florida. As such, if fur sampling was used to determine what dogs had been present, she could show up as being present in many, many locations that she did not visit. The same also holds true for humans. While humans do not shed like huskies, humans do shed hair and this can get onto people and objects that could end up in crime scenes. For example, if Sally wears a hat and it ends up in someone else’s possession, that hat will almost certainly still have Sally’s DNA on it. So, if the hat is found at a crime scene, Sally’s DNA will be found there as well, which could be trouble for Sally.

These concerns do not show that DNA testing should not be used; rather they show that is wise to maintain a degree of healthy skepticism in the face of such evidence. It also shows the importance of informing law enforcement, judges, juries and lawyers about the limitations of methods This assumes, of course, that those involved (have the time to) care about justice—which is not always the case in the criminal justice system. There is also the concern, as noted above, that the quality of a person’s defense is a function of their available resources (be they money or fame). These are, of course, concerns that go far beyond worries about particular methods.

It can be objected that educating people about the limits of such methods could create a skepticism that might undermine convictions. For example, that the possibility of “wandering DNA” could be used to create unwarranted doubt, thus allowing the guilty to go free. A skilled and well paid lawyer could exploit such doubts quite effectively and allow a lawbreaker to go free—thus preventing justice from being done.

This concern is reasonable; while overconfidence is problematic, so is under-confidence. However, the United States’ criminal justice system is supposed to operate on a presumption of innocence: it is better to err on allowing the guilty to go free than to err towards punishing the innocent. As such, the greater mistake would be overconfidence in a method. However, there is the concern that these doubts would be exploited by those who have the resources to purchase an effective defense, while the less fortunate would not benefit from them. But, as has been noted, this is a general problem with America’s pay-to-play legal system.

 

 

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Virtual Vacations

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2016

In Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” Rekal, Incorporated offers its clients a form of virtual vacation: for a modest fee, memories of an amazing vacation are implanted. The company also provides relevant mementos and “evidence” of the trip. In the story (and the movie, Total Recall, based on it) things go terribly wrong.

While the technology of the story does not yet exist, a very limited form of virtual reality has finally become something of a reality. Because of this, it is worth considering the matter of virtual vacations. Interestingly, philosophers have long envisioned a form of virtual reality; but they have usually presented it as a problem in epistemology (the study or theory of knowledge). This is the problem of the external world: how do I know that what I think is real is actually real? In the case of the virtual vacation, there is no such problem: the vacation is virtual and not real. Perhaps some philosopher will be inspired to try to solve the problem of the virtual vacation: how does one know that it is not real?

Philosophers have also considered virtual reality in the context of ethics. One of the best known cases is Robert Nozick’s experience machine. Nozick envisioned a machine that would allow the user to have any experience they desired. Some philosophers have made use of this sort of a machine as a high-tech version of the “pig objection.” This objection, which was used by Aristotle and others, is against taking pleasure to be the highest good. The objection is often presented as a choice: you must pick between continuing your current life or living as an animal—but with the greatest pleasures of that beast guaranteed.  The objector, of course, expects that people will choose to remain people, thus showing that mere pleasure is not the highest good. In the case of the experience machine variant, the choice is between living a real life with all its troubles and a life of ultimate pleasure in the experience machine. The objector hopes, of course, that our intuitions will still favor valuing the real over the virtual.

Since the objection is generally presented as a choice of life (you either live life entirely outside the machine or entirely inside of it) it worth considering there might be a meaningful difference if people take virtual vacations rather than living virtual lives.

On the face of it, there would seem to be no real problem with virtual vacations in which a person either spends their vacation time in a virtual world or has the memories implanted. The reason for this is that people already take virtual vacations of a sort—they play immersive video games and watch movies. Before this, people took “virtual vacations” in books, plays and in their own imagination. That said, a true virtual vacation might be sufficiently different to require arguments in its favor. I now turn to these arguments.

The first reason in favor of virtual vacations is their potential affordability. If virtual vacations eventually become budget alternatives to real vacations as in the story), they would allow people to have the experience of a high priced vacation for a modest cost. For example, a person might take a virtual luxury cruise in a stateroom that, if real, might cost $100,000.

The second reason in support of virtual vacations is that they could be used to virtually visit places where the access is limited (such as public parks that can only handle so many people), where access would be difficult (such as very remote locations), or places where access would be damaging (such as environmentally sensitive areas).

A third reason is that virtual vacations could allow people to have vacations they could not really have, such as visiting Mars, adventuring in Middle Earth, or spending a weekend as a dolphin.

A fourth reason is that virtual vacations could be much safer than real vacations—no travel accidents, no terrorist attacks, no disease, and so on for the various dangers that can be encountered in the real world. Those familiar with science fiction might point to the dangers of virtual worlds, using Sword Art Online and the very lethal holodecks of Star Trek as examples. However, it would seem easy enough to make the technology so that it cannot actually kill people. It was always a bit unclear why the holodecks had the option of turning off the safety systems—that is rather like having an option for your Xbox One or PS4 to explode and kill you when you lose a game.

A fifth reason is convenience—going on a virtual vacation would generally be far easier than going on a real vacation. There are other reasons that could be considered, but I now turn to an objection and some concerns.

The most obvious objection against virtual vacations is that they are, by definition, not real.

The idea is that the pig objection would apply not just to an entire life in a virtual world, but to a vacation. Since the virtual vacation is not real, it lacks value and hence it would be wrong for people to take them in place of real vacations. Fortunately, there seems to be an easy reply to this objection.

The pig objection does seem to have bite in cases in which a person is supposed to be doing significant things. For example, a person who spends a weekend in virtual reality treating virtual patients with virtual Ebola would certainly not merit praise and would not be acting in a virtuous way. However, the point of a vacation is amusement and restoration rather than engaging in significant actions. If virtual vacations are to be criticized because they merely entertain, then the same would apply to real vacations. After all, their purpose is also to entertain. This is not to say that people cannot do significant things while on vacation, but to focus on the point of a vacation as vacation. As such, the pig objection does not seem to have much bite here.

It could be objected that virtual vacations would fail to be as satisfying as actual vacations because they are not real. This is certainly an objection worth considering—if a virtual vacation fails as a vacation, then there would be a very practical reason not to take one. However, this is something that remains to be seen. Now, to the concerns.

One concern, which has been developed in science fiction, is that virtual vacations might prove addicting. Video games have already proven to be addicting to some people; there are even a very few cases of people literally gaming to death. While this is a legitimate concern and there will no doubt be a Virtual Reality Addicts Anonymous in the future, this is not a special objection against virtual reality—unless, of course, it proves to be destructively addicting on a significant scale. Even if it were addictive, it would presumably do far less damage than drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, this could be another point in its favor—if people who would otherwise be addicted to drugs or alcohol self-medicated with virtual reality instead, there could be a reduction in social woes and costs arising from addiction.

A second concern is that virtual vacations would have a negative impact on real tourist economies. My home state of Maine and adopted state of Florida both have tourism based economies and if people stopped real vacations in favor of virtual vacations, their economies would suffer greatly. One stock reply is that when technology kills one industry, it creates a new one. In this case, the economic loss to real tourism would be offset to some degree by the economic gain in virtual tourism. States and countries could even create or license their own virtual vacation experiences. Another reply is that there will presumably still be plenty of people who will prefer the real vacations to the virtual vacations. Even now people could spend their vacations playing video games; but most who have the money and time still chose to go on a real vacation.

A third concern is that having wondrous virtual vacations will increase peoples’ dissatisfaction with the tedious grind that is life for most under the economic lash of capitalism. An obvious reply is that most are already dissatisfied. Another reply is that this is more of an objection against the emptiness of capitalism for the many than an objection against virtual vacations. In any case, amusements eventually wear thin and most people actually want to return to work.

In light of the above, virtual vacations seem like a good idea. That said, many disasters are later explained by saying “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

 

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Am I my Own Demon?

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2016

The problem of the external world is a classic challenge in epistemology (the theory of knowledge). This challenge, which was first presented by the ancient skeptics, is met by proving that what I seem to be experiencing is actually real. As an example, it would require proving that the computer I seem to be typing this on exists outside of my mind.

Some of the early skeptics generated the problem by noting that what seems real could be just a dream, generated in the mind of the dreamer. Descartes added a new element to the problem by considering that an evil demon might be causing him to have experiences of a world that does not actually exist outside of his mind. While the evil demon was said to be devoted to deception, little is said about its motive in this matter. After Descartes there was a move from supernatural to technological deceivers: the classic brain-in-a-vat scenarios that are precursors to the more recent notion of virtual reality. In these philosophical scenarios little is said about the motivation or purpose of the deceit, beyond the desire to epistemically mess with someone. Movies and TV shows do sometimes explore the motives of the deceit. The Matrix trilogy, for example, endeavors to present something of a backstory for the Matrix. While considering the motivation behind the alleged deceit might not bear on the epistemic problem, it does seem a matter worth considering.

The only viable approach to sorting out a possible motivation for the deceit is to consider the nature of the world that is experienced. As various philosophers, such as David Hume, have laid out in their formulations of the problem of evil (the challenge of reconciling God’s perfection with the existence of evil) the world seems to be an awful place. As Hume has noted, it is infested with disease, suffused with suffering, and awash in annoying things. While there are some positive things, there is an overabundance of bad, thus indicating that whatever lies behind the appearances is either not benign or not very competent. This, of course, assumes some purpose behind the deceit. But, perhaps there is deceit without a deceiver and there is no malice. This would make the unreal like what atheists claim about the allegedly real: it is purposeless. However, deceit (like design) seems to suggest an intentional agent and this implies a purpose. This purpose, if there is one, must be consistent with the apparent awfulness of the world.

One approach is to follow Descartes and go with a malicious supernatural deceiver. This being might be acting from mere malice—inflicting both deceit and suffering. Or it might be acting as an agent of punishment for past transgressions on my part. The supernatural hypothesis does have some problems, the main one being that it involves postulating a supernatural entity. Following Occam’s Razor, if I do not need to postulate a supernatural being, then I should not do so.

Another possibility is that I am in technologically created unreal world. In terms of motives consistent with the nature of the world, there are numerous alternatives. One is punishment for some crime or transgression. A problem with this hypothesis is that I have no recollection of a crime or indication that I am serving a sentence. But, it is easy to imagine a system of justice that does not inform prisoners of their crimes during the punishment and that someday I will awaken in the real world, having served my virtual time. It is also easy to imagine that this is merely a system of torment, not a system of punishment. There could be endless speculation about the motives behind such torment. For example, it could be an act of revenge or simple madness. Or even a complete accident. There could be other people here with me; but I have no way of solving the problem of other minds—no way of knowing if those I encounter are fellow prisoners or mere empty constructs. This ignorance does seem to ground a moral approach—since they could be fellow prisoners, I should treat them as such.

A second possibility is that the world is an experiment or simulation of an awful world and I am a construct within that world. Perhaps those conducting it have no idea the inhabitants are suffering; perhaps they do not care; or perhaps the suffering is the experiment. I might even be a researcher, trapped in my own experiment. Given how scientists in the allegedly real world have treated subjects, the idea that this is a simulation of suffering has considerable appeal.

A third possibility is that the world is a game or educational system of some sort. Perhaps I am playing a very lame game of Assessment & Income Tax; perhaps I am in a simulation learning to develop character in the face of an awful world; or perhaps I am just part of the game someone else is playing. All of these are consistent with how the world seems to be.

It is also worth considering the possibility of solipsism: that I am the only being that exists. It could be countered that if I were creating the world, it would be much better for me and far more awesome. After all, I actually write adventures for games and can easily visually a far more enjoyable and fun world. The easy and obvious counter is to point out that when I dream (or, more accurately have nightmares), I experience unpleasant things on a fairly regular basis and have little control. Since my dreams presumably come from me and are often awful, it makes perfect sense that if the world came from me, it would be comparable in its awfulness. The waking world would be more vivid and consistent because I am awake; the dream world less so because of mental fatigue. In this case, I would be my own demon.

 

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Engineering Astronauts

Posted in Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2016

If humanity remains a single planet species, our extinction is all but assured—there are so many ways the world could end. The mundane self-inflicted apocalypses include such things as war and environmental devastation. There are also more exotic dooms suitable for speculative science fiction, such as a robot apocalypse or a bioengineered plague. And, of course, there is the classic big rock from space scenario. While we will certainly bring our problems with us into space, getting off world would dramatically increase our chances of survival as a species.

While species do endeavor to survive, there is the moral question of whether or not we should do so. While I can easily imagine humanity reaching a state where it would be best if we did not continue, I think that our existence generates more positive value than negative value—thus providing the foundation for a utilitarian argument for our continued existence and endeavors to survive. This approach can also be countered on utilitarian grounds by contending that the evil we do outweighs the good, thus showing that the universe would be morally better without us. But, for the sake of the discussion that follows, I will assume that we should (or at least will) endeavor to survive.

Since getting off world is an excellent way of improving our survival odds, it is somewhat ironic that we are poorly suited for survival in space and on other worlds such as Mars. Obviously enough, naked exposure to the void would prove fatal very quickly; but even with technological protection our species copes poorly with the challenges of space travel—even those presented by the very short trip to our own moon. We would do somewhat better on other planets or on moons; but these also present significant survival challenges.

While there are many challenges, there are some of special concern. These include the danger presented by radiation, the health impact of living in gravity significantly different from earth, the resource (food, water and air) challenge, and (for space travel) the time problem. Any and all of these can prove to be fatal and must be addressed if humanity is to expand beyond earth.

Our current approach is to use our technology to recreate as closely as possible our home environment. For example, our manned space vessels are designed to provide some degree of radiation shielding, they are filled with air and are stocked with food and water. One advantage of this approach is that it does not require any modification to humans; we simply recreate our home in space or on another planet. There are, of course, many problems with this approach. One is that our technology is still very limited and cannot properly address some challenges. For example, while artificial gravity is standard in science fiction, we currently rely on rather ineffective means of addressing the gravity problem. As another example, while we know how to block radiation, there is the challenge of being able to do this effectively on the journey from earth to Mars. A second problem is that recreating our home environment can be difficult and costly. But, it can be worth the cost to allow unmodified humans to survive in space or on other worlds. This approach points towards a Star Trek style future: normal humans operating within a bubble of technology. There are, however, alternatives.

Another approach is also based in technology, but aims at either modifying humans or replacing them entirely. There are two main paths here. One is that of machine technology in which humans are augmented in order to endure conditions that differ radically from that of earth. The scanners of Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” are one example of this—they are modified and have implants to enable them to survive the challenges of operating interstellar vessels. Another example is Man Plus, Frederik Pohl’s novel about a human transformed into a cyborg in order to survive on Mars. The ultimate end of this path is the complete replacement of humans by intelligent machines, machines designed to match their environments and free of human vulnerabilities and short life spans.

The other is the path of biological technology. On this path, humans are modified biologically in order to better cope with non-earth environments. These modifications would presumably start fairly modestly, such as genetic modifications to make humans more resistant to radiation damage and better adapted to lower gravity. As science progressed, the modifications could become far more radical, with a complete re-engineering of humans to make them ideally match their new environments. This path, unnaturally enough, would lead to the complete replacement of humans with new species.

These approaches do have advantages. While there would be an initial cost in modifying humans to better fit their new environments, the better the adaptations, the less need there would be to recreate earth-like conditions. This could presumably result in considerable cost-savings and there is also the fact that the efficiency and comfort of the modified humans would be greater the better they matched their new environments. There are, however, the usual ethical concerns about such modifications.

Replacing homo sapiens with intelligent machines or customized organisms would also have a high initial startup cost, but these beings would presumably be far more effective than humans in the new environments. For example, an intelligent machine would be more resistant to radiation, could sustain itself with solar power, and could be effectively immortal as long as it is repaired. Such a being would be ideal to crew (or be) a deep space mission vessel. As another example, custom created organisms or fully converted humans could ideally match an environment, living and working in radical conditions as easily as standard humans work on earth. Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” discusses such an approach; albeit one that has unexpected results on Jupiter.

In addition to the usual moral concerns about such things, there is also the concern that such creations would not preserve the human race. On the one hand, it is obvious that such beings would not be homo sapiens. If the entire species was converted or gradually phased out in favor of the new beings, that would be the end of the species—the biological human race would be no more. The voice of humanity would fall silent. On the other hand, it could be argued that the transition could suffice to preserve the identity of the species—a likely way to argue this would be to re-purpose the arguments commonly used to argue for the persistence of personal identity across time. It could also be argued that while the biological species homo sapiens could cease to be, the identity of humanity is not set by biology but by things such as values and culture. As such, if our replacements retained the relevant connection to human culture and values (they sing human songs and remember the old, old places where once we walked), they would still be human—although not homo-sapiens.

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Birkini Ban

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2016

In response to terrorist attacks, some French politicians sprang into action and imposed ordinances aimed at banning the burkini. For those who are not theological fashionistas, a burkini is essentially a more fashionable wet suit intended primarily for Moslem women who want to swim in public while remaining modestly dressed. The burkini is in some ways reminiscent of women’s swimwear of the early 1900s, but far less likely to result in death by drowning. The burkini is also popular with women who want to swim but would prefer to lower their chances of getting skin cancer.

To be a bit more specific about the ban, the ordinances did not name the burkini, but rather forbid bathing attire that is not “appropriate,” that fails to be “respectful of good morals and of secularism,” and does not follow “hygiene and security rules.” There is a certain irony in the fact that being scantily clad on the beach was once considered in the West to be inappropriate and disrespectful of good morals. Now it is claimed that being well covered is not respectful of good morals.

While I am not a legal scholar, the specifications seem rather odd. I would think that appropriate attire that is “respectful of good morals” would be one that covers up the naughty bits—assuming that covering the bits is the right thing to do. While not an expert on hygiene and security, I do not see how a burkini would be any more a threat to hygiene or security than other common swimming attire such as bikinis, speedos, and wet suits. After all, the typically burkini is effectively a wet suit. There is also the fact that Christian nuns who dress conservatively for the beach are not targeted; presumably their attire is in accord with both hygiene and security.

As with France’s 2011 burqa ban, these ordinances seem aimed at creating the impression that a leader is doing something, to distract the masses from real problems and to appeal to religious intolerance and xenophobia. Since women going to swim in a burkini are unlikely to present a threat to public safety, there seems to be no legitimate basis for these ordinances in regards to preventing harm to the public. And this is the only rational moral justification for laws that forbid people from dressing or acting certain ways.

It could be countered that ordinances are actually intended to protect the women from oppression; that it aims to prevent women from being forced to cover up if they do not wish to do so.  While many Westerners probably assume that Moslem women are all forced to cover up, this is not the case. Some women apparently do this by choice and regard the right to do so as protected by the Western notion of freedom. While some might be skeptical about how free the choice is, it is reasonable to think that some women would, in fact, freely decide to cover up in this way. After all, if some women are willing to show lots of skin in public, then it hardly seems unusual that some women would rather show far less. There are certainly women who prefer modest attire and women who willingly embrace religious traditions. For example, some nuns who visit beaches dress very modestly; but they seem to do some from choice. Presumably the same can be true of Moslem women.

Some might argue that women who cover up too much and those that cover up too little are all victims of male oppression and are not really making free choices. While it is reasonable to believe that social and cultural factors impact dressing behavior, it seems unreasonably to claim that all these women are incapable of choice and are mere victims of the patriarchy. In any case, to force someone to dress or not dress a certain way because of some ideology about the patriarchy would also be oppressive.

It might also be argued that just as there are laws against being naked in public, there should also be laws against being improperly over-covered on the beach. After all, a woman would (probably) get in trouble for walking the streets of France with only her face, feet and hands covered, so why should a woman be allowed to go to the beach with only her face, hands and feet exposed? Both, it could be argued, create public distractions and violate the general sense of appropriate dress.

While this might have some appeal, such ordinances would need to applied in a consistent manner. As such, if a Christian woman were spotted walking the beach in jeans and a shirt, she would have to be removed from the beach or forced to strip. The obvious counter is that the ordinances are not used to target anyone but Moslem women in birkinis, although the secular part of the ordinances would allow targeting any attire with a non-secular connection. This would, obviously, ban nuns from the beach if they wore religiously linked attire, such as modest swimsuits.

This sort of ban would be a clear attack on religious freedom, which is problematic. While I am not particularly religious, I do recognize the importance of the freedom of faith and its expression. While there can be legitimate grounds for limiting such expressions (like banning human sacrifices), when a practice does not create harm, then there seems to be no real ground for banning it. As such, the ban in France seems to be completely unjustified and also an infringement of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion.

While some might point out that some Muslim countries do not allow such freedoms, my easy and obvious reply is that these countries are in the wrong and we should certainly not want to be like them. Two wrongs do not, obviously, make a right.

Lastly, it could be argued that the bikini is a very serious matter—the bikini is rejection of French culture and an explicit statement in support of Islam against France. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence that this is the intention behind wearing the bikini. While attire can be used to make a statement, thinking that wearing a birkini must be an attack on France is on par with thinking that a person who eats a Big Mac or hummus in public in France is also attacking France. Even if a person is wearing the birkini as a statement, then it would seem to fall under freedom of expression. While it might offend some, offense is not grounds for imposing on this freedom.

While there is some appeal to the idea that people should assimilate into the culture, there is the obvious question of why one view of the culture should be granted hegemony over everything. That is, why the burkini cannot be as accepted as the bikini, why Islam cannot be as accepted as Methodism. Going back to the food analogy, it would be unreasonable to require French citizens to only eat food that is regarded as properly French and to see people who eat other food as a threat.

In closing, the birkini bans are unwarranted and morally unacceptable.

 

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