Friday, December 29, 2017

Artificial Intelligence at the End of 2017: Three Large Questions and Answers

The idea of nonhuman intellectual capability has been around since at least the 98 years ago that author Karel Capek introduced a now-familiar word in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).  Since then, it has often gone under the name “artificial intelligence.”  As I have written before, that has been a misnomer, as everything being accomplished in it had been simply algorithmic, or limited to situations where something can be programmed to execute an “if a happens, then do b” sequence, which is not what we mean by intelligence. 

Over the past few years, though, the field has become more prominent, and its developments have reached many ordinary consumers.  People have published articles about “machine learning,” which, according to one definition, “is an application of artificial intelligence (AI) that provides systems the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed.”  That technology has been credited for, among other things, reaching world-class status in go, a game which, along with bridge, poker, and chess, the most skilled and motivated humans can spend a lifetime learning without coming close to comprehensively solving.  We have also seen a variety of non-fundamental but large incremental improvements in home management devices and children’s friendship-robot toys.  Classic questions, such as “Will Artificial Intelligence Become Conscious?” (Subhash Kak, Live Science, December 10) and “A.I. Will Transform the Economy.  But How Much, and How Soon?” (Steve Lohr, The New York Times, November 30) have returned to the press, and salient concerns about the latest playthings have been raised by, among others, MIT professor Sherry Turkle, after decades still the leading figure on the social side of technology, whose “Why these friendly robots can’t be good friends to our kids” (The Washington Post, December 7th) was released almost simultaneously with “Should Children Form Emotional Bonds With Robots?” (Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic, December). 

All of this, though, is preliminary to three higher-level questions.  Is artificial intelligence still algorithmic?  What effect, beyond the established factors of globalization and efficiency and what we have already been able to project about automation, will it have on American and world employment?  And based on where it is actually going, is it dangerous?

The first question’s answer is yes.  Getting computers to program themselves is revolutionary, and cutting out the slowest and least effective parts, the people, will prove to be a huge improvement, and has already got us unquestionably fundamental gains, with many more to follow in the next months, years, and decades.  It can also be so fast and complex that many such systems cannot explain their results in forms succinct enough for human understanding.  However, machine learning itself is still limited to computational procedures, with nothing else under the surface.

On the second issue, we have five different responses.  In the October 29th Salon “Will the AI jobs revolution bring about human revolt, too?,” Kentaro Toyama saw more to artificial intelligence than actually there, and interpreted author Ray Kurzweil’s old Singularity prediction as meaning that “by 2045, computer intelligence will match or exceed human abilities in every way.”  While it may be true that even now a product can come up with “eerie, dream-like images that seem genuinely creative and uncomfortably human,” that does not mean that such things are truly either, and employment requiring authenticity there will not go away.  In ”Who’s afraid of the A.I. wolf?” in the same publication seven days later, Crystal Point gave us the opposite view, saying correctly that “scientists still haven’t pinpointed the actual brain processes that make up awareness, and philosophers have not reached a consensus on the nature of this baffling state.”  In the November 9th Motley Fool, Chris Neiger went back to the first position in “Artificial Intelligence Is Already Common – and It’s About to Take Over,” naming a study claiming that 38% of American jobs could go away to automation by 2030, a valid prediction in any event, and that artificial intelligence could “be capable of performing any task currently done by humans,” if not up and running in all of them, by 2060.  Lohr’s article above presented both sides, and a set of specific timelines, with 25% and 75% chances of success polled from “hundreds of attendees at two well-regarded AI conferences,” turned up in “Human obsolescence” in The Economist’s December The World in 2018 issue.  A few of the capabilities rated included “fold laundry” (25th percentile of probability 2018, 50th in 2022, 75th in 2031), “retail salesperson” (25th in 2022, 50th in 2029, and 75th in 2048), ending with “full automation of labor” (25th percentile 2071, 50th percentile 2141, and 75th percentile 2241).  Despite the conference connection these chances also include existing forms of automation, but are enough to tell us that even those in the field do not think any kind of “singularity” is likely within anything like 28 years. 

On the third question, it is still a real concern that such machines will program themselves with systems that take living beings to be unnecessary, redundant, or even detrimental to their purposes.  The movie The Terminator may now be 33 years old, but its premise of “autonomous goal-seeking programs” failing to incorporate basic human assumptions is as current as today’s news.  Those involved with artificial intelligence must take a line from another 1980s popular culture work, Donald Fagen’s song “I.G.Y.,” and ensure that if we have “a just machine to make big decisions,” it is “programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.”  That is true whatever the eventual effects of artificial intelligence.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Driverless Cars – Wrap-Up, The New York Times Magazine Issue, and Ten Things to Understand

Since and including October 13th, when I said I could write a weekly blog on this topic alone, I have done almost that.  Except for two monthly issues on the AJSN and the jobs numbers, this source has provided nothing but eight topical installments.  Now, finally, it’s time to summarize, in preparation for moving on to other issues, this jobs-and-way-beyond area.

First, here is a glancing mention of nine remaining articles.  In “Waymo’s Human Problem” (Forbes, November 8th), Chinka Mui addressed yet another quandary, that of how to deal with shared-driverless-car users leaving behind a mess, which, as any current or former cabdriver (present company included) will tell you, is hardly rare.  We learned that “Optimus Ride will provide self-driving vehicles to Boston community residents” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, November 30), another example of the advantage of introducing autonomous cars and buses in agreeable subdivisions.  The tech-happy Russians are showing their skill in “Yandex takes its self-driving test cars out for a spin in the snow” (Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch, November 28th) – where could anyone better learn about that?  Unsurprisingly, “Intel wants to make your autonomous car rides more entertaining” (Andrew Tarantole, Engadget, November 29th), with “in-cabin, immersive experiences,” which will be a great growth area within this larger one.  We can expect “GM to launch self-driving vehicles in big US cities in 2019” (Fox Business, November 30th), if that company, which seems behind the curve, can get there.  We saw more specificity by one of the leaders in “Ford details plans for all-new autonomous vehicle” (Jeff Flock, Fox Business, December 6th), which will, quite appropriately in my view, be “shifting its focus from a new electric car driven by traditional buyers to hybrids driven by no one at all,” and will strive to “enable the vehicles to be in constant use.”  Central Beantown’s chaotic driving will improve, as “Lyft’s self-driving pilot with nuTonomy begins rolling out in Boston” (Matthew Lynley, TechCrunch, December 6th), with that firm seeming soberer and more measured than Uber.  The chance of a large computer internals maker, called “Chipzilla” without irony here, to appear in competing consortia now seems strong, as described in “Mobileye’s Latest Moves Will Strengthen Intel’s Clout in Autonomous Cars” (Motley Fool in Fox Business, December 9th), and, as to another behemoth, “Apple AI chief reveals more progress on self-driving car tech” (Jon Fingas, Engadget, December 10th).  Christina Anderson and Neal E. Boudette wrote that Volvo, the most famous-for-safety automaker, is “Trying to Bypass Anxiety on the Road to Driverless Cars” (The New York Times, December 12th), a fine thing for the industry, and one reason why political-liberal concern has significantly dropped in the past few months.

Second, I have not reviewed the year’s largest event in autonomous-vehicle press, the November 12th New York Times Magazine number, titled “Life After Driving.”  The entire section, except for the ads and puzzles, was given over to five articles on driverless cars, some with multiple parts, on what is happening, what will probably happen, what may or may not happen, and their myriad potential effects on our lives.  Given that lead times for books are simply too long, this remarkably current 82-page compendium will need to stand in, and it does that superbly.  The Sunday Times may cost $7 per issue here, but this thoughtful and prophetic compendium alone, which ended with a full-page drawing of “the museum of driving,” at which our descendants will be able to experience, among other things, drag racing, sitting in traffic jams, pumping gas, parallel parking, and even finding their cars in parking lots, was easily worth three times that.  If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth getting a copy.

Third, here are ten things we should all understand about autonomous vehicles and their associated revolution.

Number one, despite many efforts to tether the two together, driverless does not mean electric.  Hybrids would be well-suited, but after 50-plus years of government promotion and optimistic forecasts, only 2% of United States cars are electric-only, and that share, even if it goes up, will have its figurative doors blown in early next decade by the share of autonomous ones.

Number two, rural and urban considerations will be different.  Here in the rural Catskills, it will not be expedient for me to take a shared car one mile to the town center, 15 miles to the nearest McDonald’s, or 35 to the closest major retail center.  On the other hand, most city residents will join those in Manhattan by finding that owning a car is unjustified.

Number three, expected job losses are no reason to stop or deter technological progress, even if thoughts that other positions will replace them are unjustified.

Number four, in life quality and even expectancy, autonomous vehicles will prove to be a great boon.  Half a century from now, we will wonder how we lived without them.

Number five, consumer acceptance of driverless cars will grow, though not necessarily quickly.  Once people ride in them, see they are not scary, and understand their rapid improvement pace, few will stand against their proliferation.

Number six, the effects will be extremely broad-based.  Did Gottlieb Daimler know that by putting a lawnmower-sized engine on a four-wheeled bicycle, he would be kicking off changes ranging from romance and sex practices to city layouts? 

Number seven, despite some wonderfully creative thinking, autonomous vehicles will have many consequences which we cannot now predict.  We just can’t see it all from here.

Number eight, the cars’ interiors will have a gigantic range of possibilities.  They will provide some badly needed diversity in auto design, and it is quite likely that customers will be able to choose between ones made up as offices, shopping malls, reading spaces, card clubs, or even, of course, bedrooms.

Number nine, the 2020s will be the transitional decade during which drivered and driverless vehicles, both in great numbers, will share the roads.  The challenges of minimizing accidents and maximizing efficiency will be greatest then, and, eventually, most Americans will look forward to the almost-driverless-only 2030s and beyond.

Number ten, it IS happening.  It will not turn out like artificial hearts or air-and-road vehicles, which, although they exist in niches now, failed to gain widespread use.  It will be more like email or the Internet, with autonomous cars permanently entering one life after another.  That is the most important point here.  We all need to accept that cars will soon be driverless, so we can best deal with their expected, unexpected, and potential shortcomings.  We have no other choice.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – VIII

Another good move by the industry leader came forth in “Waymo inches closer to driverless car launch with repair deal” (Steve Dent, Engadget, November 2nd).  The partner is AutoNation, cited as “America’s largest auto retailer,” which will use its skill at maintaining massive numbers of cars to meet the expectation that, as their CEO put it, the autos will “be in service for hundreds of thousands of miles, much more than personal-use vehicles, to make them economically viable.”  Will they or won’t they?  Their chances would be best if they were diesel, but we know by now that won’t be the case.

Pedestrians can usually cross streets wherever they want, laws or not, so it would be mostly a formality if “Self-driving cars could make jaywalking legal” (Matt McFarland,, November 3rd).  This “crime,” which the article points out was invented with the coming of cars with drivers, may go out with their replacements, which will be able to stop more consistently.  In any event, it would be good riddance to lose this infraction so small that few police even care about it.

In Gizmodo on November 3rd, Kate Conger addressed an attitude change in “We Need To Be Okay With Self-Driving Cars That Crash, Researchers Say.”  She rightfully contrasted the attention given Joshua Brown’s death, which involved driverless technology, with 37,000 annual others which did not, and publicized someone else’s question of just how safe autonomous vehicles need to be for them to be legal, concluding that if they are “just a little bit” less dangerous, they could save massive numbers of lives.  It’s now clear, though, that there will be no great cutover, but phased in a city and state at a time, which will provide plenty of data encouraging other places to accept them.  Conger’s view was more or less echoed by Aarian Marshall in Wired’s November 7th “To Save the Most Lives, Deploy (Imperfect) Self-Driving Cars ASAP,” in which the author points out that “today, autonomous vehicles are about as good as a standard crappy driver.”  Of course, though, unlike the latter they will improve, month by month.   

Michelle Chavez, writing in Fox News on the same date, told us about more progress from a beleaguered company in “Uber prepares next generation of self-driving cars.”  They may be overstating a bit, though, to say that their vehicles “could be on the road as early as the end of this year,” with so little time remaining, but it still looks like a good development for a firm that badly needs to get rid of its human drivers.  That company started off two more promising headlines later, in CNBC’s November 20th “Uber has an idea to keep you from getting sick when you read in self-driving cars” (seasickness, which is genetic, may well need attention here), and “Uber Strikes Deal With Volvo To Bring Self-Driving Cars to Its Network” (Mike Isaac in The New York Times among many other sources, also November 20th).  On November 7th, Megan Rose Dickey’s TechCrunch “Renault shows off self-driving car that can avoid obstacles as well as pro test drivers” highlighted more real improvements.   

Three days later, though, wasn’t too late to see that “Las Vegas expands its self-driving shuttle tests this week” (Jon Fingas, Engadget) – the full-year trial was scheduled to start November 8th, and did.  The debut made the news, but not for anything good, as within an hour the bus collided, though at only a couple of miles per hour, with a truck that backed improperly, getting its driver a ticket.  Jeff Zurschmeide, who got his account, “I was on the self-driving bus that crashed in Las Vegas. Here’s what really happened,” published by Digital Trends on November 9th, called it “the result of human error,” but pointed out that the truck driver may have been misled, as the shuttle did not stop and give him more space, or even sound its horn.  Is this another situation calling for different programming, or just one telling us that we need to realize that autonomous vehicles will, indeed, drive with great caution but no imagination?  It’s a good real-life case to study. 

In Forbes, Bernard Marr took a loftier view in the November 6th “The Future Of The Transport Industry – IoT, Big Data, AI and Autonomous Vehicles.”  He offered two reasonable predictions for 2020, that there will be 10 million driverless autos sharing the roads with 250 million “smart cars,” a phrase he uses not to describe tiny German vehicles but “cars connected to high-tech networks.”  We will depend on that grid, which is in its infancy now, to get us through the rough times when large numbers of both meatmobiles and self-driving vehicles will be out there.  

A worthwhile summary of an area addressed little in the popular print was Yahoo Finance’s November 9th “The ‘Driverless’ Car Era:  Liability Considerations.”  We don’t know who or what will pay when autonomous vehicles do damage from negligence, but we will resolve that issue somehow.  Meanwhile, Detroit Free Press paid attention to even more difficult issues with Todd Spangler’s November 23rd “Self-driving cars programmed to decide who dies in a crash.”  Disasters will happen, people will argue about them, and ethicists and philosophers are starting to weigh in.  It won’t be easy for them.  As computer programming demanded that we be specific about our instructions, driverless vehicles will require that we be explicit, as well as standardized, about our ethics.  In the over 2,500 years this field has been around, we haven’t come close to that – but we will, ultimately, have no alternative.

We finish today’s post, and the last regular installment of this series, with three positive pieces.  In the November 12th New York Times “Where Self-Driving Cars Go to Learn,” Cecilia Kang showed us how Arizona’s relatively laissez-faire legal stance has helped the state as well as the industry.  Washington Post’s “Driverless cars may help disabled, elderly,” reprinted in the November 24th Times Herald-Record, asked questions about wheelchair accessibility, which, if required for all autonomous taxis, could massively increase their cost and even their sizes, but acknowledged that such vehicles, even with less expensive accommodations, will be flexible and greatly beneficial for people with other disabilities.  Joe Rinzel got “Driverless cars can transport lives – if we change the rules and let them” on the November 21st USA Today editorial page – the article, as well as announcing that Central Florida has joined Michigan, California, and the state above in the front line of the technology, made a case for friendlier laws nationwide. 

Next week, I will address the New York Times November 12th magazine issue, which was dedicated to the subject of this series, and wrap up, for now, with some conclusions.  While I now need to allow room for other subjects, there will be much more here on driverless cars in the years to come.  

Friday, December 8, 2017

November’s Employment Data: A Good Jobs Gain, Few Other Changes, AJSN Effectively Identical

This may be the closest our nation’s employment situation has ever come to being unchanged by a Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.

The good news, and almost all the news for that matter, was the creation of 228,000 net new nonfarm positions, almost 100,000 more than population growth and about what some analysts projected.  Otherwise, little happened.  Adjusted and unadjusted unemployment were unchanged at 4.1% and 3.9% respectively.  There are still 1.6 million people officially jobless and without work for 27 weeks or longer.  The labor force participation rate held at 62.7%, and the number of Americans working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time propositions while looking beyond that level, stayed at 4.8 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings, after a downward 3-cent October adjustment, went up 5 cents per hour to $26.55, the closest rounding-to-the-nearest-penny figure to inflation.  Two major metrics had one-increment worsenings, as the employment-population ratio decreased 0.1% to 60.1% and the number of unemployed went up 100,000 to 6.6 million.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the Royal Flush Press statistic showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if getting one were known to be easy, got into the breakeven act with distinction, down from October’s 16,169,554 to 16,169,313 for an improvement of 242, or .0015%.  That, while humorous, is of course statistically insignificant – in fact, the same would be true for a gain or loss of 100 times that amount – so we can safely say the metric in November was unchanged.  For the sake of completeness, here is the latest breakdown:

The latent demand effect of none of the above categories changed more than 49,500, that coming from a drop in the number of discouraged workers from 524,000 to 469,000.  The share of jobs that would go to those officially unemployed is still a hair short of 35%. 

There were greater differences between last month and November 2016.  The largest change in our job shortage came from official unemployment’s fall from 7,066,000, which, with a latent demand drop of 702,000, was very close to the AJSN’s 714,000 one-year decline. 

Was November, then, good?  The best thing about it, aside from the gain in jobs, is that we are camping at some good levels – those unemployment rates, the decline in those out for half a year or more, and undistinguished but off-recent-low working and participation rates.  Worst was that we really went nowhere, meaning our low jobless figures are still heavily dependent on people leaving the labor force.  Our monthly job gain did not seem to help the other numbers at all.  The turtle, then, stayed right where he was.  

Friday, December 1, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – VII

An American government organization wanting, apparently by its own choice, to regulate less!  That’s the subject of “NHTSA seeks to remove old obstacles to clear the way for self-driving cars” (Eric Brackett, Yahoo News, October 28th).  
Yes indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “was seeking input on how it could remove regulations that are slowing down the production and deployment of self-driving cars.”  These rules haven’t stopped much so far, but if unchanged they will soon.  It’s time for discussion, negotiation, and official recognition that the nature of vehicles is changing, and hats off to this rare federal agency for seeing that.  Meanwhile, in the same source and on the same date, per author Trevor Mogg, “Waymo tootles into Detroit with its self-driving car project,” where, at its proving ground actually in Novi, it will learn more about driverless ice and snow coping.  

It’s better for any vehicle to make its mistakes in cyberspace instead of in bricks-and-mortarland.  On October 29th in The New York Times’s “What Virtual Reality Can Teach a Driverless Car,” Cade Metz recapped the state of this art, including how much faster such “learning” can be at computer speeds, the “complete control” researchers can use, and the problems of checking up on what machines are ready to implement.  The best use for this tool seems to be along with human perceptions and direction, especially in developing subsystems, such as determining braking speed and intensity, where theory may be insufficient. 

There are many reasons why first-world cities will adopt autonomous vehicles the earliest.  One is how the humans drive there.  In’s “Prepping Self-Driving Cars for the World’s Most Chaotic Cities,” also on October 29th, Kaveh Waddell contrasted the most disordered American cities, properly using Boston as an example, with those in “developing countries” with “huge, anarchic intersections” and “drivers who have little to zero respect for lanes, traffic signals, warning signs, and speed limits.”  There is a gap between programming the possibility of vehicles going through red lights a second or two late and dealing with those disregarding all laws.  There is also a difference between stricter enforcement of traffic regulations all drivers understand and the need to create order where there is none.  This problem will keep much of the world’s autonomous vehicle saturation and even significant introduction well behind.

China presents its own problems, such as the previous article’s note that different regions there have sharply differing traffic signs and customs.  Yet its own driverless company is at least trying to forge ahead.  John Fingas’s Yahoo Finance “Baidu teams with ride-hailing service to fast track self-driving cars,” still from October 29th, told us how that firm is working with national ride-hailing company Shouqi and its extensive mapping knowledge to offer self-driving vehicles themselves along with trips in them.  In the United States, “Toyota will test autonomous cars at California’s GoMentum station” (Darrell Etherington, also Yahoo Finance, October 30th), that location a proving ground in Walnut Creek.  Related activity from the same source on this paragraph’s third continent is planned for December 4th and 5th, featuring the CEO of one European startup.  To learn more about what’s planned for this conference, see “The race for the autonomous car is on, and hear Five AI attack plan at Disrupt Berlin,” by Mike Butcher, also on October 30th.

The farthest-reaching October 30th driverless vehicle story, though, came from Wired.  In “How to Design Streets for Humans – And Self-Driving Cars,” Aarian Marshall took an urban-planning view on how cities might change once human vehicle operators go away, using a National Association of City Transportation Officials’ “50-page blueprint” – for example, with thinner travel lanes, “tiny parks” instead of parking meters, crosswalk removal, paved areas used for both rush-hour travel lanes and delivery vans, and “at night, street space next to bars could be dedicated to picking up and dropping off carousers from driverless taxicabs.”  All are reasonable possibilities.

Consumer Reports, a source of hitherto unbridled skepticism about self-driving technology, looked “Inside Waymo’s Self-Driving Car Castle” (October 31), and found “a mock community” with that company’s employees, termed ““Fauxes,” who ride bikes, jaywalk and drive cars erratically in a bid to get the self-driving software to understand how to drive in the real world.”  The article described excellent results coping with such things as “a Faux with car trouble… walking around a disabled vehicle holding his head, talking on a cell phone” and “a group of four Fauxes pretend(ing) to be a sloppy moving crew,” who “spill boxes out onto the road in front of a Waymo test car.”  This work is one of the exact things on which driverless vehicle consortia need to focus, and their ability to deal with these problems, already, should ease concerns of Consumer Reports readers and others not believing they can do that.  Related, “Waymo’s CEO says self-driving cars are ‘really close’ to being ready for the road – but plenty of challenges remain” (Troy Wolverton, Yahoo Finance, also October 31st.)  This company leader, John Krafcik, talked forthrightly with reporters about its strengths and current weaknesses, the latter including a self-driving vehicle, that if faced with “a moving van that was double-parked,” might never move without human intervention.  On the other Halloween-published issue about that company, “Waymo’s self-driving car challenge:  Making it easier to pick up passengers” in CNBC, the solution seems simple:  Ask a taxi driver!  Cabdrivers become experts at judging where their customers will get into and out of their vehicles, and most if not all of that thinking can be quantified and programmed.

We end Installment 7 with a famous author and “avowed car buff” who would do well to read this blog.  When “Malcolm Gladwell looks at the future of self-driving cars” (CBS News, once more October 31st), he apparently sees things that have been in the press for months if not years:  that “a host of issues must be resolved before self-driving cars hit the streets en masse,” the need for “a social calculation” when deciding what to collide with, the hacking problem, and losing “the pleasure that many people get from driving.”  These Gladwell might be publishing now, if he had just released a book with content put to bed six months or more ago.  Yet developments in this field are too rapid for that; a book on the subject, even if researched and written impeccably, would be obsolete on release.  Accordingly, let’s hope that Gladwell doesn’t write one soon. 


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – VI

To start out, “Daimler shows off what its automated Mercedes-Benz Arocs trucks can do” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, October 17th).  That isn’t shabby.  Like good soldiers, these German-made “industrial vehicles” gather in formations, can each take the lead, and follow “a strictly laid out and mapped path to coordinate their efforts.” 

They’re also taking Manhattan, or five square miles of it anyway, now that we can expect “GM to Test Fleet of Self-Driving Cars in New York” (Mike Colias and Tim Higgins, The Wall Street Journal, also October 17th).  We don’t have an expected date, but we do get the Boston Consulting Group projection that 25% of American-traversed miles could be provided by “shared, self-driving vehicles” in 2030, the insight that “hard-earned city driving is more useful for the car to learn how to handle unusual situations that human drivers take for granted, such as how to handle broken traffic lights at an intersection,” and Cruise Automation CEO Kyle Vogt’s view that this city will “present some unique challenges.”  The latter is exaggerated, but autonomous vehicles will indeed need to learn how to handle aggressive human drivers, and New York is almost as good an American place as any to do that. 

One thing hawked by developers of driverless vehicles has been their projected effect on road congestion.  “Self-driving cars could ease traffic, but increase sprawl” (Fox Business, still October 17th) reported on another Boston Consulting Group finding, that the technology could “likely add vehicles to roads while simultaneously reducing traffic time.”  Indeed, both should happen, though it may be nearer the end of the driverless revolution than the beginning.

We discovered another joint venture in “LG, Qualcomm join hands for autonomous driving” (Fox Business again, October 19th).  This one brings in another Korean behemoth company, this time working with an American chip manufacturer to develop “fifth-generation wireless technology known as 5G,” which “is seen as crucial for autonomous vehicles.”  The work will be done in Seoul, a good idea since South Korea, with its compact size and high connectivity standards, could quickly find itself on this forefront. 

One story, published only days later in the same place as a doubting editorial, may have offset, if you want to call it that, its damage.  A firsthand report from David Leonhardt, an established columnist there, The New York Times’s October 22nd “Driverless Cars Made Me Nervous.  Then I Tried One,” related his experience going through suburban Washington in a “semi-driverless” Volvo S90.  Leonhardt related how, even though “we don’t want computers to be in charge,” this sedan surprisingly, to him anyway, behaved itself.  Judging by his inserting talking points such as the 30,000+ toll of American driver errors, the strongly positive effect of “automation” on reducing airline crashes, and the already-established tendency of driverless accidents to be “sensationalized… while we ignore tens of thousands of deaths from human crashes,” David Leonhardt has been won over, and we can expect many more to follow.

Also on October 22nd, The Motley Fool stepped away from its usual investment emphasis to opine that “Google’s Strategy to Educate the Public About Self-Driving Cars is Brilliant.”  Author Danny Vena reminded us about Waymo’s huge-for-the-industry eight years of autonomous vehicle development, and told us some bits and pieces about its “public education campaign,” which, with the amount of concern growing about the technology, is a necessary part.

“I Just Drove The Car Of The Future – And It Wasn’t A Tesla.”  So reported Thomas Koulopoulos in on the same date.  He identified himself as having a “lifetime love of driving,” a sentiment not usually consistent with enthusiasm about autonomous cars, but he seems sold on the technology.  Among his intriguing views were that, instead of 90% of it, “the entire fleet of global transport will switch over to driverless with(in) 25 years,” that “gateway innovations” such as cruise control and lane departure warnings are “slowly weaning us off driving,” that in order to “acclimate drivers to being passengers” the companies will need to make “many incremental changes,” and that people will someday react to our early-21st-century driving experiences comparably to those today seeing “an old stagecoach or horse drawn wagon” and wondering “how in the world did people ride in those things for more than a few miles without having their teeth shaken loose from the jarring of wooden wheels on unpaved roads littered with rocks and ditches?”, when those traveling thusly knew that method was, in their time, “advanced.” 

Another piece part, one of many that may turn out to be invaluable for driverless vehicles, was acclaimed in “Comma AI’s dash cams are a stepping-stone to autonomous driving” (Roberto Baldwin, Engadget, October 24th).  Though these devices may seem unrevolutionary, as they are only OnePlus 3 Android phones with other things added, they still provide video records of trips, including any accidents.  Also worthy technology is the subject of the same author’s and source’s October 26th “Baidu updates its open-source autonomous driving platform,” which this Chinese driverless company expects to “be powerful enough for a Level 3 car on the road by 2019, and primed for (a) Level 4 vehicle in 2021.”  All from a firm not only “not even building cars,” and located in a country where mapping problems make it unlikely to achieve its autonomous-vehicle potential.  Yes, it is a worldwide industry, and one where United States companies will need to continue to work hard to maintain their lead, which they, and others, seem thoroughly willing to do.  That will prove to be an excellent thing.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – V

In this series I’ve been writing about how Ford’s autonomous vehicle progress has been better than General Motors’s.  Now that “GM Enhances Self-Driving Car Effort With Deal for Strobe” (Mike Colias, The Wall Street Journal, October 9th), is that still true?  Strobe made lidar, a critical driverless technology that allows such vehicles to see what is around them, but was small enough to have only 11 employees.  Will this corporate behemoth effectively manage this entrepreneurial startup without crushing it?  Or does it just want the know-how Strobe has already accumulated?  In any event, even if Ford and GM end up having a seesaw battle, this acquisition isn’t enough to turn the latter company around. 

In partnerships of another sort, “Waymo teams with MADD, the NSC and more on self-driving education” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, October 9th), the forerunning driverless nameplate has not only joined the National Safety Council, but has found common cause with three social organizations, the Foundation for Blind Children and the Foundation for Senior Living as well as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  All three are natural supporters of autonomous vehicles, and can help Waymo in getting political support, something they may end up needing a great deal.  Another winner for them, as was its release three days later of its “Safety Report” (same author and source); the 42-page piece for public consumption explains how autonomous vehicles work, their current cybersecurity defenses, and “what happens after a crash should there be one.” 

Speaking of winners and good progress, the online ink was barely dry on The Motley Fool’s recommendation of this company’s stock, when “NVIDIA introduces a computer for level 5 autonomous cars” (Roberto Baldwin, Engadget, October 10th).  The device, “the size of a license plate,” “delivers 320 trillion operations per second, 10 times more than its predecessor,” but even NVIDIA admitted that it won’t be put into service soon, and then maybe only for “robotaxis,” on which “over 25 of its partners are already working.”  When it powers an NVIDIA “pilot fleet” next year, we will know more.   

Yes, it is a certainty that “Now is the time to plan for the autonomous vehicle future” (Tom Alberg and Craig Mundle, TechCrunch, October 11th).  We learn herein that Audi, from whom we have heard little, now plans on “selling, in 2018, a production car with Level 3 authority (meaning it requires no human attention to the road at speeds under 37 miles per hour).”  That just might be the first one available for general purchase.  Alberg and Mundle also stated that a proposal has been made to the Seattle government to convert Interstate 5, which runs to the Canadian border on the way to Vancouver, to driverless-car-only use, with an intermediate stage of changing high-density vehicle lanes into autonomous-vehicle ones.  Although many of the authors’ talking points are weak – it’s not clear that driverless cars will lead to “less congestion, reduced emissions, ...fewer new roads, reclaimed parking space,” or “lower transportation costs for all” – we must agree with the article’s ending, that “it is time to get going.”  

Also, “California will allow self-driving cars with no human driver on public roads next year” (Sean Szymkowski, MotorAuthority, October 12th).  The door is now open for more space in that state than Silicon Valley.  Three years out, “Baidu plans to mass-produce Level 4 self-driving cars with BAIC by 2021” (Darrell Etherington in TechCrunch again, October 13th).  Baidu, a huge Chinese company expanding from their Internet-providing core business to driverless technology, will find its most formidable adversary to be its country’s government, which has hampered other companies by impeding map updates, so we’re not sure if they will stay on schedule at all.

With all the positive news above, we were probably due to see a cold-water-splashing major-newspaper editorial, and we got one on October 14thThe New York Times Editorial Board spent its main Sunday space on “Would You Buy a Self-Driving Future From These Guys?”.  It has present/future confusion, with “87 percent favored requiring that a person always be behind the wheel, ready to take control if something goes wrong” (fine for 2017, but that number will be way down by 2020 and we’ll laugh about that viewpoint in 2050), yet more mention of the May 2016 fatal Florida accident (since then, over 45,000 Americans have died in driver-caused crashes, which the Florida one was determined to be also), attempted talking points of “mass unemployment for taxi drivers” and “greatly reduce(d) car sales” (veterinarians and blacksmiths lost jobs also, in the course of the last major round of ground-transportation progress and almost immeasurable prosperity enhancement).  True, auto safety standards should remain, but those connected with driverless vehicles are not, as the headline implies, generally malevolent, and assuming they are would in this case be wicked and destructive in itself.

By the time these cars are in general use they will be safer than they are now.  But for the time being, there is, as with everything else in this area, a lot of work needed.  One good thing about “Low-speed accidents frequent among driverless cars” (Ryan Beene, Bloomberg News, October 15th), is the hyphen-connected words starting its headline.  The root cause of most of these crashes is that, per Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey in the article, autonomous vehicles “don’t drive like people.  They drive like robots.”  We, though, will be prepared for that, through everything from new driver’s-education teaching through almost certain changes in our own driving behavior, and will adjust.  Also, as above, the cars do indeed need more development time, and are getting it.

Eventually, this series will end.  But in the meantime, expect yet more next week.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – IV

One area of autonomous vehicle research much noted over the past two months is their proving facilities.  The country’s second-largest automaker returned to the self-driving headlines therein with “Ford invests in Michigan’s autonomous car testing grounds” (Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget, September 15), showing that it will likely not be behind General Motors in this next huge phase, and that the state of Michigan, for similar reasons, will also make a comeback.   

Another thread in this area has been consumer reactions.  In Salon’s September 16th “Lots of love for driverless cars, just not from drivers,” Paul Feldman recapped survey results showing “that most motorists don’t want to drive, ride in or be on the road anywhere near” autonomous vehicles.  With their current technology that is appropriate, and indeed it is not even possible yet for ordinary people to use them outside of a few free-ride programs.  With reporters seeing firsthand and later publicizing how well such cars fared with impediments last month, that confidence level has since improved and will continue to rise.

One more driverless domain has been the completed and expected 
implementation of their ever-improving features in meatmobiles.  As Lee Vinsel put it in the September 23rd “The best parts about autonomous vehicles are already here,” also in Salon, “elements of self-driving car systems, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings and head-on collision-avoidance systems, could reduce road deaths by up to one-third.”  That would be over 11,000 in the United States alone, without any benefit from the vehicles for which these technologies are eventually intended.  This article also included the historical insight that the federal National Research Council “became interested in a self-driving car” in 1953, and that Vladimir Zworykin, often credited as the inventor of television, was doing much of the research. 

“Could You Form an Emotional Bond With a Self-Driving Car?”  My response to Doug Newcomb’s September 23rd PC Magazine article is, well, maybe, but nowhere near as much as when such connections, probably in the 1950s or 1960s, reached their peaks.  Personal intensity about vehicles has been falling ever since then, is either a cause or an effect of the drop of young people getting driver’s licenses over the past decade or two, and, as interesting as these ideas are, won’t be reversed by synchronizing music with driving speed or installing “a “hunger undulator” that uses vibrating motors to mimic stomach contractions so passengers feel hungry as the car starts to get low on fuel.”  True, people can get attached to machines, from Star Wars droids to copiers, but it’s hard to see how that will reach its former strength.

Back to the business side, with “Ford and Lyft Sign Driverless-Car Agreement” (Greg Bensinger, The Wall Street Journal, September 27th).  Here’s where Lyft, now more respected, could become larger than Uber, as it has also been working with General Motors.  The latter company may or may not be getting anywhere in the area itself, per “GM making ‘rapid progress’ toward self-driving car development: executive” (Reuters, October 3), a piece which, based on GM press releases, offered no real specifics. 

Some retirement-oriented places, in particular Sun City West in Arizona, have allowed golf courts on streets for decades now.  Daisuke Wakabayashi, in The New York Times’s October 4th “Where Driverless Cars Brake for Golf Carts” describes how the Villages Golf and Country Club in San Jose has made its vehicle mix even more diverse, with 15 miles of roads, a 25 MPH speed limit, and a private-property status making it “an ideal proving ground.”  Community management sought a lower-cost way of providing shuttle services, found that residents actively wanted driverless cars, and connected with Udacity, which is now there testing automated vehicles of some sort.  This Villages implementation may go down as the first time driverless technology was sought out, and succeeded, to save money.

On the regulatory side, the Associated Press reported in Fox Business on October 4th that “Senators weigh bill to remove obstacles to self-driving cars.”  We’ve seen the controversy behind regulatory issues before, and it’s the same here, with one side citing a potential end to 94% of car accidents and the other, expressed by a onetime leader of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying that “the public will be the crash dummies in this experiment.”  Both sides need to be heard, but I am confident that, as technology and familiarity both improve, the anti-autonomous faction will become smaller and more of a fringe.

One odd characteristic of driverless vehicles of all kinds is that, opposite to those human-operated, they are less dangerous when more of them are on the road.  In Engadget’s October 4th “Networked self-driving cars are smarter and safer,” Daniel Cooper explained why.  “Two cars in convoy” perforce occupy different spaces with different fields of vision, so if they can combine what they see it will be more than from only one.  That’s progress, as is the subject of the same date’s “General Motors Just Made a Lot More Self-Driving Cars” (Reuters).  Though “a lot” is only 100, and though as before we get few hard facts about GM’s work, it’s still movement in the right direction.

Clearly, the headline of Srikanth Saripalli’s October 8th Salon piece “Are self-driving cars the future of mobility for disabled people?” deserves a three-letter answer.  And the same is true for drinkers.  The article correctly points out that there will be logistical issues to resolve, such as “identifying curb cuts that let wheelchairs and walkers pass easily as well as noting potential obstacles, like trash cans out for collection,” but, indeed, driverless vehicles “have the potential to change neighborhoods and individuals’ lives – including people who are disabled and often both literally and figuratively left behind.”  That should serve as an offset to those pessimistic about safety. 

We wrap up this week with a heady philosophical issue, in “The Breakthrough We Need for Self-Driving Cars to Become a Reality” (Lily Elefteriadou, Popular Mechanics, also October 8th).  We need not care about the main point of the article, which is publicizing the University of Florida’s good but elsewhere-duplicated research, but is it true that “no consumer wants to buy a self-driving car that’s programmed, even in the most remote of circumstances, to kill its (occupant)”?  Either fortunately or unfortunately, when algorithms are developed to make life-or-death decisions when only destructive actions are possible, it may be the law for automated vehicles to crash instead of hitting a crowd of pedestrians.  That would be an intriguing premise for a science-fiction story, with, as so many have, real-life application, involving illicit reprogramming counterhacked by federal forces.  Yet it is nonfiction that the cars themselves are on the way.

More to follow next week.

Friday, November 3, 2017

October’s Mixed Jobs Report: American Job Shortage Number (AJSN) Drops 500,000 to 16.2 Million

I was surprised by this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment figures.  Were you?

I wrote last month that September’s data was mangled by the storms, giving us strange results such as the loss of 33,000 net new jobs.  Accordingly, we would need to combine it with October’s to get a fairer view of how our working economy is really doing.  So, what happened?

In October, we gained 261,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions.  That would normally be outstanding, but when we combine it with the last set and divide it by two we get 114,000 per month.  With population increase consuming over 130,000, that’s a slowdown.  Also on the down side, the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, erased and more than erased respectively their September improvements, going off 0.2% and a steep 0.4% to reach 60.2% and 62.7%.  Average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings gave up a little of its large September improvement, down 2 cents per hour to $26.53. 

Many of the other numbers were unexpectedly good.  The adjusted unemployment rate fell 0.1% to reach another post-Great-Recession low of 4.1%.  The unadjusted variety, lower since October is typically an above-average working month, achieved the same, shedding 0.2% to get to 3.9%.  These two numbers were also down, 0.2% and 0.4%, in September.  Those officially jobless and out for 27 weeks or longer cut another 100,000 to reach 1.6 million, and the count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or seeking full-time work while holding on to shorter-hours employment, plunged over 300,000 to 4.8 million.  In September the former number stayed the same, but the latter one, which usually changes half that amount or not at all, improved 200,000. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one figure how many more positions could quickly be filled, dropped an unexpected half-million to reach another post-recession low, as follows:

The AJSN’s drop was only partially caused by lower unemployment, which accounted for 282,000 of the difference.  More significant was a cut of almost 400,000 in those wanting to work but not looking for it in the previous year.  Both were offset slightly by increases in those calling themselves discouraged and a surprising 1.2 million gain, precipitating a 60,000 AJSN difference, in the count of those claiming no interest in employment. 

Compared with a year before, important since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, it has dropped over 1.1 million, with almost that amount from lower official unemployment, and over 300,000 from the did-not-search-in-previous-year category partially neutralized by 1.2 million growth in those in the armed forces, in institutions, or off the grid, and by a 700,000 gain in the number of American-citizen expatriates now overseas.  The share of the AJSN coming from those officially jobless, now under 35%, reached another post-recession low, and means that almost two-thirds of those taking new positions would not be expected to be counted as unemployed.

Overall, how good was the data for the past two months?  Lukewarm.  Fewer people are unemployed, unemployed for six months or longer, or struggling with part-time positions instead of the full-time ones they want.  Wages are ahead of inflation.  Yet jobs growth and labor force participation are on the wane.  We’re only one number, specifically “did not search for work in previous year,” away from saying we’re going nowhere, and that work in America is continuing to depart, however slowly, from being the norm – and with that metric’s tendency to fluctuate without a long-term trend, that isn’t enough.  The turtle stayed put.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – III

On August 22nd, we got a reminder of the need for not only consortia in the autonomous vehicle realm, but for a more comprehensive cooperative mentality.  As Daisuke Wakabayashi documented in The New York Times’s “Apple Scales Back Its Ambitions for a Self-Driving Car,” this gigantic company found out that, for once, it couldn’t go it alone, and that, contrary to what it often has found, there was serious competition out there.  Accordingly, it has “put off any notion of an Apple-branded autonomous vehicle,” most likely since “it was a do-it-all approach typical of Apple, which prefers to control every aspect of a product” that failed here.  Horses for courses.

That same day, one of the myriad areas under investigation got Salon journalistic attention in “Making driverless cars safe for people on foot.”  Author Michael Clamann named some concerns, such as the need for pedestrians and cars to communicate and the value of a “standard nontext symbol” to indicate an autonomous vehicle.  Everything in this category, though, rates to be resolved along the way.

Along with the grocery service mentioned two weeks ago, “There’s a Pizza Delivery in Ford’s Future, By Driverless Car.”  This August 29th Neal E. Boudette New York Times piece addressed Domino’s’ efforts, to start testing that week in automated-vehicle hub Ann Arbor.  Boudette properly asked “will people mind coming out of their house?”, which they well might in nearby Detroit, and noted that these vehicles will of course start with “safety drivers” behind the wheel but not operating them continuously.  This one should succeed, especially since the compartments from which customers will take their orders will be heated.

Perhaps “self-driving Smart wants to set you up” (Gary Gastely, Fox News, August 30), but it can’t quite do that now.  Befitting the size of their meatmobiles, that company’s Fortwo “electric autonomous urban people moving pod” concept car looks like a bulge with wheels.  It’s ahead of its time, even more than others; if they would be as cheap to make and run as they look, there could be tens of millions on our 2040 roads. 

On September 10th, The Motley Fool in Fox Business issued “3 Top Driverless Car Stocks to Buy Now,” and came up with three excellent choices.  It called for Tesla, which is reaching farther than the immediate future by making vehicles capable of full automation, integrating them with their front-line electric-power innovations, and planning on a way for “owners to rent out their autonomous vehicles when they’re not using them.”  It also recommended Ford, which is continuing its rivalry with GM to even more success in this area, and NVIDIA, as strong a component maker as exists.  There may be a Duesenberg or a Cord in these companies, but more likely they will last much longer, and could make their shareholders quite wealthy.    

We got a look at internal autonomous-vehicle software in “Waymo simulation is teaching self-driving cars invaluable skills” (Saqib Shah, Yahoo Finance, September 11).  The product contains “a replica of every real-world mile the autonomous cars have driven,” which must take up a staggering amount of memory, and allows practicing dealing with conditions that weren’t actually present, determination of strategies, and propagation of them to other vehicles.  A fine, unobtrusive, and ultimately quick and less expensive way of gaining capabilities.

As for the other huge American automaker, Daily Sabah told us, on that same day, “GM ready to mass produce self-driving cars once regulations allow.”  There’s more to it than that, and it seems too early for anyone to build more than about 1,000 copies of any model – so we’ll believe that when we see it.

To autonomous vehicles, a year has been an eternity.  So how much does it mean that “Tesla Self-Driving System Faulted by Safety Agency in Crash” (Neal E. Boudette and Bill Vlasic, The New York Times, September 12th)?  Not much, especially when we see that the National Transportation Safety Board’s judgment was not a technical finding.  That Florida accident, caused by driver inattention more than anything inherent to the car, since which there have been over 50,000 dead due to less publicized operator errors, should now be put to rest. 

On that day, the federal “Department of Transportation releases new self-driving vehicle guidelines” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch).  This classic “living document” runs 36 pages and is more a set of recommendations than a group of new laws.  It, generally, continues our government’s appropriately loose control here.  You can read it at  That has more to recommend it than “Teamsters chief fears U.S. self-driving trucks may be unsafe, hit jobs” (David Shepardson, Reuters), which is as self-serving and devoid of credibility as we might think.  Union chief James P. Hoffa “said the union was not trying to hold back technological advancements,” but, according to this report, that’s exactly what he wants to do.  I sympathize with anyone heading an organization within a decade or two of vast shrinkage, but see no real merit to his complaints.

We finish this installation with documentation of two more business moves, “Intel just added another automaker to its self-driving project” (Harsh Chauhan, The Motley Fool in Business Insider, September 12), and “Samsung steps up push into autonomous driving technology (Associated Press in Fox Business, September 14th).  The car manufacturer is Fiat Chrysler, which joins BMW, Mobileye, and Delphi Automotive under the chipmaker’s umbrella, which will begin testing Level 4-capable vehicles later this year.  The Korean juggernaut seems to be starting a consortium of its own, since it acquired navigation and other technology company Harman earlier this year, and looks perfectly suited for heading up driverless efforts on the southern half of its peninsula. 

Another three weeks down.  We take a break from autonomous vehicles next week, in favor of the October jobs report, but you can expect more November 10th.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – II

Here’s the next chunk.

When my parents bought a Volvo in 1969, that company had a well-established reputation for safety.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them in the news for anything other than being acquired by Ford, but here they are again.  Carol Glines’s July 21st Fox News “Safety first!  Volvo’s intelligent drive and sensing technologies work to mitigate accidents” showed how that company is still there, adding cameras, radar sensors, and systems emitting sound warnings and dashboard red lights when they see objects ahead with crash-causing potential.  These schemes, suitable for meatmobiles as well as autonomous vehicles, will not stop cars but will only warn drivers, which, at this early point in their development, is best.  In the meantime, here in the Catskills I’d be glad to have Volvo’s new capability, mentioned in the article, to detect deer.

Legality of driverless cars on public roads has understandably been a patchwork.  That may change.  As described in “House advances bill to clear road for self-driving cars” (Keith Laing, Detroit News, July 27), this Washington legislative body showed foresight, and excellent restraint, by clearing a bill which would allow both the public use of 100,000 self-driving vehicles and prevention of overriding that with state laws.  Per Laing, “lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the compromise legislation represented a rare bipartisan consensus,” and while it did not please everyone, the House seems to have seen the wisdom of taking risks to reduce our 35,000 annual highway dead.  Kudos to all involved.

Given creeping consumer concern, it was a nice surprise to see “Study:  Majority Of Drivers Say Next Vehicle Will Be Autonomous” (Denisse Moreno, International Business Times, July 28).  Some of the valuable research Moreno cited showed that women, as well as younger people, were more positive about that technology, but were still concerned about driverless safety, and another study found that 72% had no interest in self-driving public transportation.  She also gave us an early glimpse of perceived brand perceptions, with a slim plurality of 19% of respondents saying Tesla seemed the best, and “nearly half” of respondents unable to name a single company doing driverless manufacturing.  General Motors, Ford, and the others have some public relations work to do. 

Popular Mechanics magazine was embarrassed about predicting, on one of its 1957 covers, an “aerial sedan” for 1967, and now we have heard from them again, in July 29th’s “Who’s Afraid of the Self-Driving Car?”.   Author Johanna Zmud, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute senior research scientist, made good statements and raised good questions, such as “the number of highly automated cars as a share of everything on the road will grow over time, but only relatively slowly,” and “how will they handle changing conditions on unpaved roads, which make up nearly half of the country’s 4 million miles of road?”.  She also said that “any argument that self-driving cars will be an antidote for congestion may be, at best, uninformed and specious” (I’d go for ‘overly speculative’), “what is certain is that we’re experiencing the most pivotal time in transportation history since we started building interstate highways,” and, perfectly articulated, “they’re not quite ready yet – and we’re not either – but it won’t be long.”  A fine, fresh voice.

Electronic hacking is a huge potential driverless issue, but that’s not the only kind.  In the August 4th “Researchers Find a Malicious Way to Meddle with Autonomous Cars” (Car and Driver), Mark Harris described “an attack algorithm” which, ostensibly knowing the internal workings of sign-interpretation software, involved stickers or apparent graffiti put on road signs to fool the systems into construing, say, stop signs as saying Speed Limit 45.  The University of Michigan scholars who developed and tested this destructive technology have done well to pinpoint it as a true possible problem, which, I hope, can be solved through protection of proprietary code and stronger penalties for road sign defacement.

Going back to the business side, we have “Driverless-Car Outlook Shifts as Intel Takes Over Mobileye” (Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, August 8).  The chip manufacturer, as Boudette said, has jumped into the middle of the self-driving world by spending $15.3 billion on one of the largest and most successful driverless component makers, which is now producing “cameras, sensors and software that enable cars to detect what is ahead.”  Intel now plans to build 100 self-driving cars and will test them in, among other places, Jerusalem, with its extreme pedestrian chaos; per Mobileye co-founder Amnon Shashua, “if you can successfully drive autonomously in Jerusalem, you can drive almost anywhere in the world.”  Intel is now established as a competitor for Nvidia, which, per Boudette, “offers chips with more raw processing power.”  But we will see.

I end with the combined technical and philosophical big-picture August 11th Salon “Self-driving cars are coming – but are we ready?”.  Johanna Zmud and her co-worker Paul Carlson combined on more clear observations and queries.  On one, “how might our nation’s roads and highways, and the driving done by we humans ourselves, need to change as autonomous vehicles become more ubiquitous?”, I have maintained that the burden must fall on the cars and trucks themselves.  Indeed we “won’t likely find many in a dealer showroom for at least 10 years,” cities will see many more of them before they appear in any numbers on highways and in rural areas, and probably if not certainly “self-driving cars will be ready for the open road long before the open road is ready for them.”  Although we can and should expect that use of driverless vehicles will decimate American and world highway casualties, there will be problems during the long transition period, during which there will be a mixture of meatmobiles and what will, by the end of this century, just be called “cars.”  And, as correct as anything cited here, “we can expect it to be an eventful ride, no matter who’s in the driver’s seat.” 

Three more weeks down.  We’ll get closer to up-to-date next week.    

Friday, October 13, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – I

Once again, I could probably write a weekly blog on this topic alone.  It’s worthy of it too, as we will see this week and beyond.  So, let’s start to get caught up.
We start with Fox News’s June 30th “Driverless ‘CargoPods’ are delivering groceries to Londoners in new trial.”  That’s a valid autonomous-vehicle proposition, and will move from the manned trucks now in use to unoccupied ones texting or phoning customers when they’re outside, but how much will they charge?  As name recognition and brand establishment would seem less important for a venture both seriously price-competitive and startable on short notice, it seems wrong for any firm to accept losses for years to position themselves for eventual possible profitability, so online grocer Ocado should be expecting positive cash flow soon.

Less substantive is Brent Snavely’s July 2nd Detroit Free Press report that “Ford exec points to ‘great progress’ in driverless cars.”  That company has done better than moving toward “deploying its first fully self-driving car by 2021” which others have achieved already, such as by assembling a consortium including software maker Argo AI.  Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering may have said “we don’t worry too much about where the competitors are,” but we don’t need to take this sort of announcement, clearly for public consumption, seriously.

One area of autonomous vehicles which could go in many ways is the nature of their interiors.  With no need for them to be focused on the needs of drivers, car interiors will be blank canvases.  One of an infinite number of possibilities, described in “Autonomous cars will bring a moveable feast of products and services” (Cyrus Radfar, Yahoo Finance, July 2), is “the mobile mall,” using displays to simulate the interiors of a variety of stores.  Such would coordinate well with the inexorable-seeming trend toward online shopping, post-credit-card point of sale technology, and the preferences of those in the Millennial and Generation Z generations.  For car interiors we can use all the imaginative ideas we can find, and this one is certainly reasonable.  

We’re in the early stages of intercity rivalries in this industry, and one of the most prominent so far is “Michigan’s New Motor City:  Ann Arbor as a Driverless-Car Hub” (Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, July 9).  To the well-established MCity proving grounds, that college town will soon add autonomous buses, as of early July was up to 1,500 vehicles which “radio their speed and direction to each other and to equipment like traffic lights and crosswalk signals,” and soon expects to make good use of all those personally-carried cellphones by having them broadcast pedestrians’ locations to traffic signals and on to cars.  Elsewhere in that state, additional and much larger proving grounds are being built in Ypsilanti and Flint, where, among other things, consortia can aggressively address the problematic issue of autonomous snow driving.

We saw more progress in such business conglomerations in “Waymo and Apple Pick Their Dance Partners for Self-Driving Cars” (The Motley Fool in Fox Business, July 10th.)  We now have Waymo, Google’s driverless vehicle concern, pairing with Avis and Chrysler, and Apple simultaneously announcing its Hertz partnership involving Lexus cars.  It’s well worthwhile for consortia to work with companies knowing about physically managing millions of vehicles, and also benefiting Hertz and Avis is easier entrĂ©e into the future of car rental, which, as the article points out, “will likely become more, not less, relevant in an autonomous world.”  The consortia themselves may include “non-exclusive partnerships,” which, as we will see in this series, are happening already.  These are good positive trends.

It is well worthwhile to keep an eye on how investors, as well as other analysts, see driverless-technology companies.  These same sources published “3 Top Stocks in Self-Driving Cars” on July 12th, a piece, which after suggesting that to some people such vehicles still seem “like a bit of cheesy ‘50s-era science fiction” and citing a well-obsolete Business Insider study suggesting “that there will be 10 million autonomous cars on the roads by 2020” (not that many only three years from now) and overly conservative HIS Automotive forecasts of 600,000 by 2025 (let’s try 10-20 million) and 21 million by 2035 (could be 200 million), then moved on to the merits of Waymo, onboard computer maker NVIDIA, and China’s driverless consortium leader Baidu.  All are potentially great buys, especially for investors with the stomach for risk, as any could also turn out like Stutz or Hupmobile.  

A problem with that huge Asian market is the subject of “China’s Grip on Maps Hinders Self-Driving Car Makers” (Liza Lin and Tim Higgins, The Wall Street Journal, July 13).  China, which we sometimes forget is not a free country, “is limiting the amount of mapping that can be done by foreign companies.”  A bad idea, and one reason why I do not think it will be anywhere near the forefront of self-driving progress.

Moving on to the regulatory side, we found out on July 21st from Kevin Roose in The New York Times that “As Self-Driving Cars Near, Washington Plays Catch-Up.”  Although there is no such thing as “a bill that would speed up the development of self-driving cars,” federal regulatory efforts, thus far mercifully mild, are still small in the proposed Highly Automated Vehicle Testing and Deployment Act of 2017.  That bill may do more to remove obsolete regulations than to create new ones, and, as Roose pointed out, state governments, wanting economic benefits from driverless business activity, have generally been lenient as well.

That’s three weeks’ worth – much more will follow. 


Friday, October 6, 2017

September a Strange Employment Data Month: We Lost Jobs, But Most Numbers Were Better, Including Latent Demand with the AJSN Showing We’re “Only” 16.7 Million Jobs Short

The story going into this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics September report was about our two major mainland-affecting hurricanes, Irma and Harvey, and what their consequence would be.  The numbers turned out worse, in some ways, than expected – instead of the consensus prediction of 90,000 net new nonfarm positions, we had a loss of 33,000 – but otherwise, headed by the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate which instead of breaking even as projected improved from 4.4% to 4.2%, they got better.  September seemed to be a good month, with unadjusted joblessness off from 4.5% to 4.1%, average private nonfarm wages up 12 cents per hour to $26.55, the count of those working part-time for economic reasons or keeping shorter-hours positions while unsuccessfully looking for full-time ones down 200,000 to 5.1 million, and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to actually be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, up 0.2% and 0.3% to 63.1% and 60.4% respectively.  The number of long-term jobless, however, did not improve, holding at 1.7 million. 

The categories of marginal attachment mostly bettered as well.  The number of those wanting work but neither officially unemployed nor looking over the previous year dropped over 300,000 to reach 3.3 million, while that of those claiming to be discouraged and those wishing for employment but momentarily not available for it fell as well.  The counts of those purporting no interest in employment and people wanting work but currently in school or training were exceptions.  Overall, the American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the monthly measure of latent demand for jobs across 11 different employment categories, fell 940,000 to reach its lowest outcome since April, as follows:

Since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, we expected some decrease between relatively jobs-poor August and jobs-rich September, but the drop was more than that.  That was also shown in the difference between last month and a year before, also over 900,000 and almost all due to the almost exactly one million cut in the number of officially unemployed.  Note that according to the BLS, “persons with a job are counted as employed even if they miss work for the entire survey reference week… regardless of whether or not they are paid.”  Although that 7-day-period started the day Irma reached the Florida coast, this BLS rule, unless people knew their jobs were gone with the storm, canceled out most of its September statistical effect. 

It is peculiar indeed that employment data for a month with so few work opportunities added should look so good, not only in spots but otherwise across the board.  Overall, it is now best to judge September’s data as showing potential but not yet solid improvements.  If its gains hold, and October’s new positions reach at least 300,000, we can take credit for an unexpectedly fine month.  If not, we will need to average these two together to see just how well we are doing.  So, although I couldn’t clearly see the turtle through the wind and rain, I think I saw another step forward.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

Guaranteed Income in the Press: Some Understand It, Some Miss the Point, and All Provide Welcome Attention

We’ve had more writing on what I have long considered one of the few possible comprehensive solutions to the jobs crisis, and what thinkers back to at least Thomas Paine have proposed for centuries before that. 

The first piece is from April 25th in Business Insider, “Canada is launching an experiment that will give 4,000 people free money until 2020.”  In the first paragraph, author Chris Weller said “a regular monthly allowance” was “a system known as basic income,” and soon thereafter named the soon-to-begin Ontario Basic Income Pilot as an example of that.  This program would get 4,000 Ontario residents “additional income based on their current salary,” which would be reduced by half of any additional earnings.  Maybe this is a good idea, but it’s not a guaranteed income.  It’s welfare.  It’s akin to some American situations, in which jobless people lose benefits once they find work.  Using that name for this sort of program is destructive to the idea of a true basic income, and will feed into conservatives’ concern that it excessively discourages people from working. 

The same author reported in the same publication on July 5th that “Hawaii just became the first US state to pass a bill supporting basic income.”  Hawaii’s government, though, is not planning to implement it, or even to determine if it would be justified, but to collect preliminary data which could result in another study.  It was not clear if Weller’s view on what guaranteed income is had changed over the intervening two-months-plus, but here he said that the person spearheading the effort, state representative Chris Lee, “had become intrigued by the idea of paying people a salary just for being alive.”   

On August 1 we went back to the definition problem.  “Universal Basic Income Experiment in Finland Not Looking Good,” in CNS News, combined author and Cato Institute economist Daniel Mitchell’s undeveloped and almost reflexive stance against it with Finland’s upcoming effort, which, as it will only consist of giving benefits to out-of-work people, does not match the title.  Perhaps in Finland it would be a bad thing, as Mitchell said, to cut the number of surplus workers, but I doubt it, and that would not be a problem in the United States, where at last count we could easily fill 17.6 million additional jobs.  In any event, Finland’s plan is only a test of generous unemployment benefits, and its success or failure will be irrelevant to the merits of guaranteed income.

After the last piece, I was refreshed to see one which showed better understanding.  In “Top Economists Endorse Universal Basic Income” (Forbes, August 31), contributor Frances Coppola shared proceedings from two economics conferences.  At one in Mainau, two panelists hit the right notes.  Sir Chris Pissarides spoke positively of globalization and automation, while acknowledging their job-reducing effects, and suggested a “universal basic income” as a way “you can trust people to decide for themselves how to spend their money” by letting the market provide social services.  Daniel McFadden “advocated unconditional income transfers.”  Coppola’s conclusion that “universal basic income is a radical policy that requires a radical funding solution” is, also, a point that must be made.

While likewise positive, and mentioning the unconditional nature of such a program executed properly, Ben Schiller’s “A Universal Basic Income Would Do Wonders For The U.S. Economy” (Fast Company, September 13) showed weaknesses around the edges.  Schiller named “a huge jolt” as one of its justification, or at least mitigating factors, citing research showing that a $1,000 monthly stipend for all adults would expand the economy more than 12% over eight years.  That’s not very much, and the article also suffers from references to “benefits not conditional to having a job” and “you don’t have to work… to get a UBI,” when more worrisome is, as above, others’ views that such money should only be distributed to people not working.  I was glad to see, though, a glimpse of why the technical community, which will probably be a necessary constituency in getting one implemented, is increasingly supporting guaranteed income.

Last week we saw an understandably but discouragingly political stance by a major possible 2020 presidential candidate.  In “Joe Biden Is Against a Universal Basic Income – and He’s Right” (The Daily Beast, September 26), the uncredited author heralded the candidate’s September 19th remarks, such as “our children and grandchildren deserve… the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work,” and “a job is… about your dignity… self-respect… your place in your community.”  The writer considered whether “Biden’s comments put him on the wrong side of history,” but soon afterward, unfortunately, disposed of that idea.  It may be a good move for Biden to go after Donald Trump’s base by talking as if he were giving a 1980 small-town stump speech, but we know nothing about he would create anything like 17.6 million new jobs, and the author’s comments that guaranteed income “would just be one more government handout” and would result in “millions of aimless Americans playing video games in their basements” make it clear that he or she, along with Biden, is also out of touch with the issue. 

The best article in this batch, “Let’s not give up on a guaranteed basic income before we’ve tried,” by Chris Hughes, was published on September 21 in The Hill.  Without even needing to show that most proposals and pilot efforts under that and similar names have not been guaranteed basic income,  Hughes made all of the right points – naming and generally refuting Biden’s speech above, proposing $1,000 per month (“for every American,” not only those without jobs) as a possible level, acknowledging that employment opportunities are not yet “disappearing wholesale” and that one who “believes in the dignity of work” need not oppose it, and proposing non-income-tax money sources such as a financial transaction levy.  He clearly understands the major considerations, along with what such a program should and should not be. 

This is not the first time we have heard from Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, and given his current position, co-chair of basic income advocacy group The Economic Security Project, it won’t be the last.  Although I do not support immediate guaranteed income implementation, as an ending I can’t do better than his: “Let’s not give up before we have even tried.”      

Friday, September 22, 2017

Six Updates on Old Jobs Issues

Over the past four months, half a dozen articles on work-related areas I have written about have reached me.  What do they have to say?
One old erroneous but still popular notion was the subject of two of them.  In “How Unskilled Americans Are Creating a ‘Crisis’ for the U.S.” (U.S. News & World Report, June 7th), Andrew Soergel passed along a series of incorrect statements.  There is no “skills gap plaguing the private sector,” only a disconnect between what private employers would like to pay and what their applicants will accept.  We can’t “match those 6.9 million (unemployed Americans to 6 (million job openings),” since many of those allegedly available positions are either bogus or require unreasonable qualifications.  No United States Labor Secretary has any business saying that “education is not focusing on the skills demanded by today’s workforce as well as they could or should,” without mentioning the widespread need for employers to rediscover training.  There are plenty of candidates skilled in “trade professions like welding and mechanical repair,” now that community colleges are teaching those things, but they can’t be had for the likes of $10 per hour.   Robert Samuelson, writing in the June 26th Investor’s Business Daily (“Is the Labor Shortage Here?”), at least questioned mistaken views such as a pending labor shortage in which “the postwar employment model might make a comeback” (not with latent demand for over 17 million jobs), and that a 1% increase in “the labor share of the economy” will mean higher worker demand, as it is “too low” (not when additional copies of ever-increasing proportion of products require virtually no more human involvement). 
The actual future of 3D printing, increasingly labeled “additive manufacturing,” was well assessed by the unbilled Economist authors of “Printing things everywhere” and “The factories of the future,” both in the July 1st issue.  Although we now know that this technology will not be on a par with invention of the automobile, and “will never revolutionize mass production,” it will still be greatly valuable for “producing one-off prototypes, because changes are more easily and cheaply made by tweaking a 3D printer’s software than by resetting lots of tools in a factory.”  It is also on its way to producing replacement body tissue, or “bioprinting,” bringing us ever closer to science fiction author Larry Niven’s “autodoc.” 
With its inferior-good status among ordinary working people, is it true that “the gig economy is a boon for boomer retirees” (Steve Vernon, CBS News, July 3)?  Yes, I think it is.  It facilitates many low-paying but pleasant positions, such as babysitting, providing rides, and dog walking, for those not needing full-time income and therefore more willing to accept its shortcomings.  Expect it to continue being beneficial, with the people over 50 and over 60 to whom Vernon referred including more and more over 70 and 80.
The remaining two articles take us further into the world of science-fiction-meets-reality.  In the first, Maggie Astor’s July 25th New York Times “Microchip Implants for Employees?  One Company Says Yes” told about a Wisconsin technology company allowing its workers to opt into having “a chip the size of a grain of rice injected between their thumb and index finger,” allowing them to effortlessly gain access to company buildings and pay for cafeteria food.  That convenience, and the fun of being in on new technology, have won out for almost two-thirds of Three Square Market’s employees, but others have declined, due to being “a little nervous about implanting something” or perhaps by what a cited business professor pointed out, that “once (the chips) are implanted, it’s very hard to predict or stop a future widening of their usage,” in ways that may not even be shared with workers.  There is, indeed, a gap between one supervisor vaguely suspecting that someone is spending an unusual amount of time in the bathroom, and another receiving periodic reports telling exactly when and for how long.  Therefore, even if nonparticipants have no objection to carrying cell phones with continuous GPS tracking, this idea does not rate to become the American norm.

Another long-held suspicion of mine is that “artificial intelligence” is not intelligent at all, and still ultimately only resembles 60-plus year-old algorithmic computer-code-interpreting capability.  Gary Marcus, writing in the July 29th New York Times (“Artificial Intelligence Is Stuck.  Here’s How to Move It Forward.”), seemed to share that view, saying such things as “computers that can educate themselves – a mark of true intelligence – remain a dream” and “such systems can neither comprehend what is going on in complex visual scenes (“Who is chasing whom and why?”) nor follow simple instructions (“Read this story and summarize what it means.”).”  He suggested that machines be trained, somehow, to use “bottom-up knowledge,” or “the kind of raw information we get directly from our senses,” in huge national facilities.  That seems a long way off, and may never happen without a huge conceptual breakthrough – so for now, please remember that computers still cannot, and are still no threat to, think.  But we can – and, more than ever if anything, we must.