The Future of Plague

I came down with a cold yesterday, and used one of the COVID testing kits I have on my desk to make sure I wasn’t a threat to others. Yeah, that’s a thing now. And while they aren’t that common yet (I don’t think they are, anyway, but I could be wrong), it’s easy to imagine them becoming common as this whole pandemic thing drags on.

I write Science Fiction stories, but now is there any future that does not include tests like this as a part of everyday life? Will the kids born today ever know a time without ready tests for the latest plague?


Robots and Safety

Earlier this month I mentioned that the streets of San Jose are awash with robot cars (five out of a sample of several thousand along a particular high-robot-volume street qualifies as “awash”).

I mentioned that one of the cars was a test vehicle for an outfit called Nuro, and I further mentioned that almost all the content on their Web site is a big treatise on safety. I went on to say that I had not read that document.

Well, today I was thinking more about it, and I went back to Nuro’s site to poke into their safety information. First impression: A document for non-experts that tackles very complex technical issues, but it seemed pretty legit.

Final impression: Nuro must have some pretty serious cash behind it, to take this long and winding road to achieve public trust.

The safety paper opens with the observation that 20% of car trips in the United States are people going shopping, and another 20% are people running errands. For many of those trips, the human is there simply to ferry stuff around. If robots can accomplish that task, that directly reduces the exposure of people to injury in automobile accidents — they’re not in their cars at all! Instead they are home moving the American economy forward by playing Candy Crush.

Nuro also mentions near the start of the document that 94% of all traffic accidents are due to human error. Remember that number when someone someday says, “30% of all robot-car crashes are due to software failure!

Nuro is creating a vehicle that doesn’t have people inside it. That gives it some very interesting advantages in the safety realm — the vehicle can choose to crash into a light post rather than hit the idiot that ran out in front of it. Self-sacrifice is an option for a vehicle without people in it. And the vehicle itself can be squishy, since it doesn’t have to protect occupants. The “windscreen” is a shiny panel on the front of the vehicle designed to give humans visual cues about the behavior of the car, but it doesn’t have to be layered tempered glass. It’s just shiny bouncy plastic.

Not having an impatient human to appease means the robot can putter along at a speed that increases decision time and shortens stopping distance. I think that’s important… but 25 mph max might be a little too slow for the streets around here, until we can get rid of all the impatient humans.

There are many, many words used in the document about when the robot decides it can’t operate safely and will pull out of traffic until a remote human operator can take over. While I see the necessity of that short-term, I expect with a few improvements to civil traffic control (flagman signs that can interact directly with robot cars springs to mind), that before too long the robots will learn to outperform the human backup.

I chose the word “learn” because there is a sort of cyber-attack I had not heard of before. You have probably heard of machine learning, although it’s frequently (and incorrectly) labeled artificial intelligence. Many companies have developed sophisticated systems that, after exposure to countless examples, are able to generalize information. It’s super-slick.

Nuro’s cars work that way. They are constantly gathering data from the environment and using that to refine their behaviors, and they share that information with the rest of the fleet.

But when your data comes from the environment around you, assholes can manipulate that environment to teach the machines falsehoods. Sometimes yield signs are octagonal and red, things like that. (Although to be successful the false data would have to be about something subtler, I suspect. I can easily imagine college-me arranging traffic cones differently every time a Nuro vehicle passed by. It’s an obvious parallel to my “yeeech” experiment, which shall not be documented in this episode.)

Of course there’s all the other usual stuff to keep the vehicles from being hacked, and one advantage of “safety as a priority before the first line of code is written” is that security also can be built in at the ground level.

Also mentioned more than once: the “whole widget” concept. If the software and the hardware are developed together for a single focussed purpose, it will work better and be safer. Steve Jobs would be proud.

And if you consider air quality to be a safety concern, then something like this makes everyone safer.

Nuro recognizes that the biggest obstacle to their success is social. Will people seeing Nuro’s placid robot cars poking along through the neighborhood think good thoughts or bad thoughts? Will appreciation of reduced traffic congestion, better air quality, and a more convenient life outweigh the fear of a robot uprising, and perhaps even worse, the fuming rage of being stuck behind a little robot car doing 25 in a 35 zone?

Just Another Commute in Silicon Valley

Today as I used public transportation to go to work, I saw five robotic cars, operated by three different companies.

Three of the five cars were Urban Automated Driving vehicles operated by Bosh and Daimler, running (human monitored) robot taxi service along the same corridor my bus takes. The Mercedes c-class vehicles are equipped head-to-toe in lidar units (lidar is like radar… with lasers!) and if I loaded the app I could ride in one. Which… is tempting, for purely journalistic reasons. My biggest question: How bored is the human monitor? Super-bored means things are going smoothly; super-bored also means that the human will never spot the emergency in time.

The second company was Nuro. The vehicle was a Toyota or whatever with sensors all over it, but what the company is actually developing is an autonomous vehicle that doesn’t have seats in it at all. Their dream: order your groceries and have the robot bring them to you. The vehicles are electric and since there is no need to account for human comfort, they could theoretically be much, much cheaper. It is easy to imagine that many companies that sell stuff would be interested in having something like that. Nuro’s Web site doesn’t have a lot of information, except for a pdf with a major discussion of safety (that I didn’t read).

There was a third, but my most humble apologies, dear readers, I don’t remember the company name painted on the car. It was not Google; I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Apple, should they even still have experimental cars, would keep them anonymous (which, as I think about it, would be just as definitive as putting a neon logo on the side — no other company would operate vehicles with a bunch of extra gear strapped on without missing the chance to brag about it).

As cities go, San Jose and the rest of the unplanned, disorganized sprawl that is Silicon Valley is… meh. And the cost to live in meh is staggering. But one thing I do enjoy is that it feels like we are just a little bit closer to the future here. And there’s nothing like Bay Area traffic to make you really, really, look forward to the day when people are not in control of giant deadly machines.

Getting Over the Hump

Now, I didn’t get my degree in futurology from a major university, but writing that last episode about one specific medical breakthrough made me sit back and think about the larger picture.

Here’s the thing: There’s some bad shit coming down the pike, but there are also some good things. Let’s start with the bad:

There are more and more people on the planet, and they have to eat. While the human population shoots upward, our ability to produce food is under stress on several different fronts.

  • Nitrogen burn — a huge chunk of farmland is at risk of becoming sterile as a result of modern agricultural practices. The nitrogen in fertilizer comes from the atmosphere and doesn’t go back. It’s building up all over the place, and is starting to affect things.
  • Running out of phosphorus — this critical mineral is in short supply. This article put the timer at 50 years. We might find more in the meantime, but China is buying all it can now.
  • Water — some of the most productive farmland in the world gets its water from the ground. The supply is finite.
  • Water, part II — changing climate patterns are likely to put too much water in some places, and not enough in others.

I had a few more, but you get the idea. Keeping everyone fed for the next few decades is going to be tough. War and pestilence will follow where food is a problem.

2050 could be pretty ugly. If sea levels rise, there will be a lot of displaced people. (I say save San Diego and kiss Miami goodbye. Topologically, it makes sense.) Agriculture will be maximally stressed. It’s going to take everything we have to get past that hump.

But it is a hump. This is just number-crunching, but so far every group of humans that has reached a certain average lifespan has stopped reproducing so much. There’s good reason to believe that after around 2050, the human population will start to decline for the first time in history.

This leads to some new problems — or at least adjustments. Consider the American Social Security system as an example of something that happens all over the place (although, most times there’s less lying about what’s actually going on). Young folks pitch in to support the older folks. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. (Although with Social Security we’re told we’re saving for the future, and that’s patently false.) Young folks looking after the ones who came before is admirable. The problem comes when there aren’t enough young folks to carry the load anymore.

Answer: redefine “old”. By 2050, working 75-year-olds will be typical (I originally used a bigger number, but pulled back). If I were king, I’d start sliding the retirement age three months each year, starting now. I’m not king, however, and it will probably require a few major nations to default and a million pensioners to die of starvation or exposure before it is politically possible to start this adjustment. Naturally, the pension hump comes at the same time the food supply is at maximum stress. But it’s a hump, and on the other side is the recognition that people will be productive for a lot longer. There’ll still be young’uns, they’ll just be sixty years old.

And come on, young at sixty? That’s not a bad thing. You might have to delay retirement a decade or two, but you’ll still have a better retirement than folks did in 1935, when retirement age was set at 65, and the average lifespan was 62.

So, that’s two humps we have to get over. There are others. We will have to make a pretty big transition on our energy sources in the future. Bad people will have access to some really scary shit. Robots might take over (they will do this by making us so fat and lazy we don’t bother to reproduce).

But on the other side of the hump is a population gently shrinking to what the planet can comfortably support, humans productive and healthy far beyond original design parameters, and a world that does not, as ours does now, run at a deficit. Once everything runs out, we’ll have to learn to live on a budget. There will still be strife, and greed, and misunderstanding, but just get us to the year 2100 without an abrupt population correction, and I think we’ll be all right.

(Note to readers digging this episode up on Our Benign Overlord Google (may it always reign in peace) in the 23rd century: get your bitch ass in your time machine and tell me if I was right.)