Robot Cops

There’s an interesting debate underway in San Francisco about the use of robots to assist the police. The police want to use seven remote-controlled robots in certain situations, such as to check out and if necessary defuse apparent bombs, or to provide video surveillance of a standoff situation. The issue that has raised concern is whether, and if so under what circumstances, the police could use the robots to apply deadly force.

The police have said that they don’t have plans to create “killer robots” carrying guns, but they don’t want to rule out the possibility of using the robots to carry explosives in extreme situations, where there is imminent risk of loss of life to police officers or the public that outweighs any other options. Critics say that those standards are too vague, and that allowing the use of robots in deadly force situations further militarizes the police and creates unacceptable risks for poor and minority communities, where there is already significant distrust of police activities.

Last night the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which had voted last week to allow the police to use the robots in limited deadly force situations, reversed course and banned such use of the robots for now. The Supervisors referred the issue to a committee for further study, and some Supervisors said that they wanted to give the public additional time to understand and react to the robot issue. The robot issue surfaced in the first place because of a recently enacted California law that requires police departments to inventory and seek approval for the use of military-grade equipment in law enforcement activities–a process that obviously contemplates public engagement with policing issues.

American police departments clearly have grown increasingly militarized over the past few decades, and the use of technology in police activities–whether it is helicopters, or drones, or armored vehicles, or advanced SWAT team equipment–is common. Most Americans, presumably, would have no objection to using robots to neutralize bombs, so that human lives are not put at risk. But using robots to apply lethal force raises different issues. Would using robotic delivery systems, thereby removing human beings from direct and immediate involvement, make the police more likely to use deadly force in the first place? Will police departments be tempted to increase their use of what they may consider to be cool new toys? And, more fundamentally, is it a good idea for police to use robots as a kind of technological interface with the public at large, increasing the perception that the police are divorced from the communities they serve and taking us farther and farther away from the cop on the beat of days gone by, who was part of the neighborhood?

These are tough issues that deserve some careful thought. I think the San Francisco supervisors are wise to take their time and let the public weigh in before deploying a force of “killer robots.”

Not The Next Big Thing

Economic theory teaches that stock prices usually are brutally honest. When investors are deciding whether to put money into a company or venture, social niceties typically go out the window, and investors–particularly the professional money managers–take a hard look at the company’s products and business plan and make an unvarnished judgment about whether they will succeed or fail. If the product line looks like a winner, buy decisions will follow; if products and sales are disappointing, the sell sign flashes.

The stock market’s honest judgment is saying something is wrong at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp that is trying to introduce us to the “metaverse”–the virtual world pictured above. And the consequences have indeed been brutal: Meta closed at $323 a share on February 2, 2022 and $97.94 yesterday. Yesterday alone, the stock price fell $31.88 a share, losing 24.56 percent of its value, and the stock information page linked above says Meta’s “technicals” put the stock down into the “strong sell” category. In short, if you’re a shareholder in Meta, you’ve had a bad year, and apparently some investors have decided enough is enough.

Why has this happened? Some observers believe that Mark Zuckerberg, the Meta kingpin whose metaverse avatar is seen above, has unwisely focused all of the company’s attention on the metaverse, rather than protecting and nurturing the company’s core assets, like Facebook, which are facing their own problems. And the effort to summon the future in the form of the metaverse hasn’t gone well. So far, at least, people haven’t jumped at the chance to don virtual reality headsets, create an avatar of themselves, and interact with other people in interactive virtual spaces. The fact that the headsets are expensive–Zuckerberg recently introduced a new headset that goes for $1,500 a pop–and the virtual reality graphics don’t look all that compelling isn’t helping. One of the recent developments announced by the company, that metaverse characters will now have legs, sounds like a funny parody of a bad TV commercial. “Metaverse characters–now with legs!”

Meta’s struggles reveal a basic truth about technology companies: sometimes the tech product is a huge hit, but many times it isn’t. For every smartphone or personal computer that are wild successes, there are other devices or concepts that crash and burn. And it looks like the metaverse that Meta had invested billions in developing might just fall into the latter category. A recent article in Forbes expressed the point this way: “The entire problem with Mark Zuckerberg’s fascination with the metaverse is that he’s trying to force a sci-fi reality to happen long before the rest of the society wants or needs it to actually exist.” 

Robot Dog Delivery, At Your Service

The world is moving with increasing speed toward greater integration of robots into our daily lives, and we’d better begin to prepare ourselves. Next year, in Austin, Texas, a fleet of robot dogs, like the one pictured above, will begin making deliveries on the University of Texas campus. The robots, built by Boston Dynamics and Unitree, will deliver items to faculty, staff, and students pursuant to a network accessible via a smartphone app. Those who frequent the UT campus will have to get used to the sight of the robot dogs speeding down sidewalks and leaping up stairways as they make their appointed delivery rounds.

The robot dogs not only will make deliveries, they will be part of a five-year research program that will examine human-robot interpersonal (or, perhaps, intertechnological) dynamics. The idea is to study, and then modify, the behavior of the robots “to determine how to operate safe and useful networks of robots that are meant to adjust their behavior to integrate with human populations.” The project leader for the study states: “In addition to programming robots to perform a realistic task such as delivering supplies, we will be able to gather observations to help develop standards for safety, communication, and behavior to allow these future systems to be useful and safe in our community.”

It’s not clear exactly what the robot dogs will be delivering and under what circumstances, which I think will make a big difference in assessing the human-robot interactions. If the dogs will be making pizza and beer runs to dorms and off-campus apartments, I predict that students who have imbibed in a few adult beverages and perhaps some mood-altering substances will get a bit of a shock when they open the door and find a bright yellow robot dog that moves like the herky-jerky devil dogs on Ghostbusters bringing their pizza with everything and six-pack of Lone Star.

I also predict that the people who are part of the “keep Austin weird” movement will really like this development.

Virtual Tact

The Harvard Business Review recently carried an article on how to tactfully interject in a virtual meeting. “Tact” is a quality that you don’t see often associated with computer-based communications. On social media, for example, the full frontal attack often seems to be the preferred method of making a point, and one of the problems with email is that it’s far too easy to fire off a blast that you regret almost as soon as you hit the send button.

Virtual meetings, though, are a setting where trying to avoid offending colleagues and coming across as a rude jerk makes proceeding with tact an important consideration. At the same time, however, the virtuality can make it difficult to politely interject and make your point (particularly if you forget you are on mute). In-person meetings always seem to present an opportunity to have your say before the meeting breaks up and people leave the conference room, but the virtual context can be a barrier to participation. Sometimes, acting with tact seems to be at war with the need to contribute to the discussion, even if it means interrupting the flow.

So, what to do? Obviously, the first step is to self-edit a bit, and consider whether your point is really all that important. But if you conclude that it is, the HBR article suggests “signaling your interest” by using the “raise hand” feature, unmuting, using the chat feature to indicate you’d like to say something, or “gently rais[ing] your physical hand if you’re on video.” (The “gentle” means you shouldn’t make a ridiculous spectacle out of raising your hand, like Horschack on Welcome Back Kotter.) Other tactful techniques include reviewing the agenda in advance and letting the presenter know that you’d like to address some of the topics, or waiting until a natural break in the presentation to interject. The article even suggests some tactful phrases you can use as you are breaking in.

The last point in the article, however, is “be assertive when necessary.” Sometimes, visual signals don’t work–this is especially true when a PowerPoint is being presented, and the visual of you has been shrunk down to postage stamp size–and there simply might not be an obvious break where you can step in with your trenchant point. Tact is a valued quality, but you don’t want to have the meeting end without making your contribution, which could affect the next steps to be taken. Sometimes, tact and doing your job just don’t mix.

Battery Quest

The other day we needed AAA batteries for one of our TV remotes (we’ve got three of them, which raises its own set of questions). Could our household actually have two fully charged AAA batteries that we could use? There was only one way to tell. I set my jaw, adopted a look of grim determination, and moved cautiously yet deliberately to the “messy drawer” in our kitchen–which also could be called the battery graveyard.

Yes, there are batteries in the messy drawer. Unfortunately, they are the kind that are not used to power any known modern devices. Helpfully, we’ve got a pristine pack of four C batteries that were copyrighted in 2007, or an unopened 9-volt battery, copyright 2013. Those dates mean we’ve lugged them from place to place as we’ve moved, for no rational reason other than the feeling that you shouldn’t throw out an unused pack of batteries, even if you have no earthly idea how they might be used or whether you will ever, for the remainder of your natural life, own something that might conceivably be powered by them.

Then there are the rogue batteries that are rolling around in the kitchen messy drawer. Typically, they are AA batteries, which are the most used type in our household. Are they good or are they bad? That is the question. The only certainty about a battery charge comes if the battery remains in its original packaging. Once a AA battery starts roaming free in the drawer, you just don’t know for sure. And the impulse to not throw away batteries until you are certain they are bad–typically, when they’ve exploded and start leaking that white, powdery crud–means that some of the rogue batteries might be bad. As a result, you’ll be doing the battery shuffle, using your fingernails as functional tools and putting in and removing random batteries until you find a combination that actually powers the device.

Of course, my search for working AAA batteries came up empty, and I ended up going to the nearby convenience store for a pack of 5 AAA batteries to add to the collection in the messy drawer. That’s the seemingly inevitable result of any battery quest.

Another Empty Spot On The Desk

Our IT staff came and took away my old office land-line phone recently, as I have now fully transitioned to communication through my computer. It leaves the empty spot on my desk shown above. That gleaming empty spot now joins other empty spots that have been created over the years, as once-essential workplace items have been pitched into the dustbin, their functionality entirely absorbed into the mighty, all-purpose desktop computer.

Once my desk held a dictaphone, a telephone, a speakerphone attachment, a hole punch gizmo, and a stapler. All are now gone. The flip-top calendar that I have had for years won’t be far behind; I’ve stopped using it in lieu of total calendaring reliance on my computer. And the other essential purpose of a desk–to hold the piles of papers that I’m working on–also is falling by the wayside. I’m old school and still print out some documents to review in hard copy form, but the amount of paper in my office is a small fraction of what it once was, with most of the reviewing and editing work being done entirely on the computer. In short, there are a lot of empty spots on my desk these days.

Thanks to technology, I am finally within reach of “clean desk” status.

What’s the purpose of a desk, in an era when the computer reigns supreme? It’s a convenient place to stash the legal pads and pens that I still use, and I need its writing surface when I’m making a note. It’s a great platform for my collection of aging family photos, kid art, and things like little clocks or fancy penholders. And when people come into my office they can be pretty sure that it’s me sitting behind the desk, staring at the computer and tapping away at the keyboard.

But all of those empty spaces make you wonder how much longer people will be using large, impressive wooden desks. In the computer era, they’ve become almost an affectation, a power device, and a prop, and you wonder if they will be part of the office of the future–that is, if offices as we know them will even exist.

In Search Of . . . Keys And Cellphones

Are you one of those people who constantly misplaces your keys, your cell phone, or other items, and then spends a lot of time searching for them? Do you regularly call your own cell phone, hoping that the ring or buzz will help you to find it? Are you to the point where you feel like the quest for your keys and cell phone should be featured on an episode of In Search Of . . . , as if they were as tantalizing as the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs?

An article from the U.K. offers some tips from a psychologist and well-being practitioner about how to stop the constant searching. (You’ll know the article is from the U.K. because it uses delightfully weird U.K.isms like “causing aggro” and “flatmates.”) The expert makes a lot of suggestions, from the very fundamental (get more sleep, because lack of sleep contributes to forgetfulness) to the very specific (consider putting a brightly colored ribbon on your keys to make it easier to find them) to the very technical (use key tags and find my phone apps), coupled with some reassurance (just because you regularly misplace your keys and your cellphone doesn’t mean you’re on the verge of dementia).

The best suggestion, in my view, is to give your cellphone and your keys a designated “home” and make sure that you always put them there, until you’ve formed an ingrained habit that becomes second nature. I always put my phone and my keys in the same place and never have to worry about searching for them. Of course, being such a creature of habit might make you worry about becoming too anal–but that’s better than fruitlessly searching for your keys and phone every morning.

End Of The Stick

When I took drivers’ ed in high school, the classes themselves (taught by the phys ed teacher, of course) provided basic instruction on the rules of the road and touched on the existence of both manual and automatic transmission cars. That’s when I first was introduced to the mysterious functioning of something called a “clutch”–which, when you think about it, is an odd yet evocative name for an automobile part. In those days during the early ’70s, most cars came in manual and automatic options.

My in-car drivers’ ed classes, though, were taught in an automatic transmission car, so the mysteries of the “clutch” and the “stick shift” were left unexplored. And during my driving career, which is now approaching the 50-year mark, I think I’ve driven a manual transmission vehicle twice–once when I drove out west in a van, and once when I used a rental truck to move from city to city. Each time, I muddled through the stick shift process without really getting the hang of it, and was pretty much glad when the adventures ended and I could go back to the automatic world.

In the battle between automatic and manual, automatic transmissions have triumphed, and manual transmissions are increasingly rare–and soon will be no more, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. A sign of the decline of the stick shift is that in 2000, 15 percent of the new and used cars offered by CarMax were manual transmission vehicles; in 2020, that figure was 2.4 percent. Only about 30 of the hundreds of new vehicles for sale in the U.S. have a manual transmission option, and there are reports that even more manufacturers will be dropping that option in the near future. Even with sports cars that you associate with stick shift driving, automatic transmissions have had their way; in every year since 1970, for example, sales of the automatic versions of the Corvette have surpassed the manual option. After the last manual transmission car rolls off the assembly line, stick-shift aficionados will have to find their clutching pleasures in the used car market–but don’t be surprised if they buy up the last brand-new manual transmission vehicles first.

If you talk to a manual transmission driver, you’ll find there is a deep attachment between them and their stick shift. People drive a stick only by choice these days, and when they explain why they sound like the faithful trying to convert you to their religion. A manual allows you to really be in control of your car, they’ll say, or they will argue that manual drivers are better and safer than automatic drivers, because the need to constantly clutch and shift makes them much more attentive to traffic and road conditions. Really, though, you get the idea that they really just like fiddling around with the stick shift and that weird extra pedal, and for them driving their car is just like playing with a fun toy every morning.

It’s curious that manual transmissions have hung on as long as they have; after all, other throwbacks to the dawn of the automotive era–like hand-cranking the engine–have long since been tossed to the side of the road. The staying power of the stick shift is a testament to the true believers. It will be tough for them when we reach the end of the stick.

Spinning The Shortest Day Ever

When you said–as everyone who is truthful about it must admit they did say–that it seemed like August got here faster than ever this summer. . . well, it turns out you were right. August literally arrived more quickly than ever before because the Earth is spinning faster than ever, producing shorter days. In fact, scientists have determined that June 29, 2022 was the shortest day ever, clocking in at 1.59 millisecond shorter than the average day.

Our planet apparently started to rotate more quickly in 2016, and the quicker spinning seems to be accelerating, with 2022 seeing a speedier spin that 2020 and 2021. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why the quicker cycles began, but think it might have something to do with the tides.

The shorter days may require that atomic clocks and other devices be recalibrated to keep precise time. Because all of those lost milliseconds will add up, scientists have floated the idea of a “negative leap second” to account for the reduction in the length of days, employing the same concept that causes us to add a leap day to the calendar every four years. Engineers hate the idea and raise the possibility that messing with the clocks could have a devastating impact on technology and cause massive outages. Their position may remind some of the dire “Y2K” forecasts of what might happen when we hit the year 2000 that didn’t materialize, but I’m with the engineers on this one: if attempting a “negative leap second” could cause mass failures, panic, and the end of the civilization as we know it, I’d rather live with the fact that our clocks are off by a few milliseconds.

None of this should affect the proud reaction of those who admittedly did say (as I did) that August got here earlier this year. Isn’t it nice to know that your finely honed internal chronometer is working more reliably than our atomic clocks?

Real People, Real Politeness

For the past month or so, I’ve been getting very persistent emails in the same person’s name. The emails say they desperately want to help me to be better at my job. “Please,” they implore, “can’t we just schedule a short call to discuss our fantastic capabilities?” And then, when I delete those emails, I’ll get follow-up emails saying I must have missed the earlier emails, and asking to set up a call all over again. And when I delete those emails, yet another round will hit my inbox. It’s maddening that the putative person just won’t give up.

I’m fairly confident that I’m dealing with a robot here. There’s no way that a real person would be reaching out to some stranger, getting no response, and continuing to beat their head into the proverbial email wall. And yet, all of my upbringing teaches that when I see a person’s name, there’s a real person attached to that name, and the proper thing to do is to treat them with appropriate politeness. In this case, since sending any acknowledgement email is just going to provoke yet another totally unwanted email–and confirm that my email address leads to a real person, besides–“appropriate” politeness means just deleting the repeated emails without sending a fire-breathing response saying that I don’t need or want his help and please, for the love of God, leave me alone and stop clogging up my inbox!

I wonder if this reaction and assumption of a real person who deserves real politeness is due entirely to coming of age before the era of email and the internet. In those days, human beings were, in fact, on the other end of phone calls or mailed solicitations, and there weren’t bots blasting out millions of emails in hopes of getting one or two responses. But if you grew up instead when spam and bots were just part of the landscape, you wouldn’t hear that Mom’s voice in your head reminding you to mind your manners and could respond to unwanted emails as you saw fit, without worry or guilt.

It’s just another way in which Millennials and Generation Z have a leg up on the codgers these days.

Tom Brady’s Parenting, And Other Clickbait Curiosities

If clickbait is consciously geared to attract the most clicks from the most people–which is what you would expect, right?–it’s become increasingly clear that I am totally out of step with the mainstream of computer users. I say this because not only am I personally not enticed by the vast majority of clickbait, I can’t even understand why anyone would be tempted to click on this stuff. That is a pretty sure sign of “Old Fart” status.

This reality was crystallized for me when I went to the Google search page on my phone, which features an ever-changing roster of clickbait pieces, and the lead item just below the Google search bar was “Tom Brady Opens Up About Parenting: NFL World Reacts.” This article captured two of the leading clickbait concepts that I’ve identified: it involved a leading sports figure, and the notion of “reaction” to some statement that presumably must have been controversial or otherwise worthy of note. In fact, the only clickbait concepts it was lacking was (1) some celebrity who is unknown to me wearing a bikini or body paint, (2) a strange crime or odd random incident, (3) a “weird trick” to address some health issue, and (4) how the story of a celebrity who has dropped out of public view “keeps getting sadder.”

But, really, who would care about Tom Brady’s views on parenting? The guy is a leading contender for Greatest Quarterback of All Time, of course, but is there something about his family life that makes it particularly compelling stuff? And why would we care about how other people associated with the NFL are “reacting” to whatever Tom Brady had to say? For that matter, why does anyone, other than politicians who are up for election, care about how people are “reacting” to anything? The “reactions” typically just consist of tweets, which always seem to strive to be sarcastic and don’t have much to do with real life.

It would be interesting to know whether the piece about Tom Brady’s parenting thoughts (which I didn’t read, of course) has been a successful clickbait effort, or a failure. If it has garnered a sufficient number of clicks, be prepared for a piece about how Tom Brady has bared his soul about being a dutiful son, or the sports world’s reaction to Lebron James’ thoughts about the importance of eating a good breakfast.

The Headset Question

We’ve got a transition underway at our workplace. The phones on our desks are being removed, after decades of faithful service, and now we’ll be doing all of our calling through our computers. I’m okay with that. In the modern world, any technology that has been around for decades has done its job but almost certainly can be replaced by an improved approach. And getting rid of the desktop phone also means eliminating the annoying need to constantly untangle the cord connecting the handset to the rest of the phone.

With the elimination of the old phone, we’re being offered options. Apparently the sound qualify if you simply talk into your computer on a phone call isn’t ideal for the person on the other end of the conversation. (And, in any event, you probably don’t want to encourage people to shout at their computers, anyway.) So we need to make a choice: do you go with a headset, or a speakerphone attachment?

Headsets probably make the most sense, but unfortunately I associate them with Ernestine, the snorting, cackling busybody character Lily Tomlin introduced on Laugh-In. There’s also a clear techno vibe to a headset, with a one-ear headset edging out the two-ear headset in the hip, technocool ranking. I frankly question whether I’m well-suited to either. So, I’m going for the speakerphone attachment as my first option, with one of the headsets a distant second in case the supply of speakerphones isn’t sufficient to meet demand.

It will be interesting to see whether speakerphones are a popular option, or whether my colleagues will go all-in on the headsets. I’m guessing that the choices will vary by age group, with the older set being more amenable to speakerphones–if only so they won’t hear “one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy” in that sniveling Ernestine voice whenever they use the headset to place a call.

Routinizing Spaceflight, And The Cislunar Void

In case you’ve missed it, there’s been some interesting recent news on the space front, in several different areas. It indicates that real progress has been made in “routinizing” spaceflight–that is, getting to the point where spaceflights have become a normal, expected occurrence, rather than a once-ever-six-months national TV phenomenon–as we get ready to tackle the next step in the development of our extraterrestrial neighborhood.

For now, the routinizing news is all about SpaceX. Today, that company is set to complete its 32nd launch of 2022, which will break the record the company set in 2021, even though the year is barely more than half over. With its fleet of reusable and reliable Falcon 9 rockets and tested launch systems, SpaceX has carried crew members and cargo to the international space station, seeded a bunch of Starlink satellites into Earth orbit, performed missions for the Department of Defense, and made forays into space so commonplace that they don’t get much attention, except from the space nerds (like me) among us.

Here are some interesting statistics: in 2022, SpaceX has launched a vehicle, on average, every 6.4 days and has taken 300,000 kg of material and people into low Earth orbit, which means that SpaceX has done more than all other countries and companies in the world, combined. SpaceX plans to make about 50 launches this year and is basically leading the way to routinized spaceflight, all by itself. That means spaceflight will become even more routine–and, by definition, cheaper–as SpaceX’s competitors ramp up their launches and activities in the coming months, as they plan to do.

This is good news, and an important platform on which to build as space development moves to the logical next step, when we venture beyond low-Earth orbit into cislunar space, which is the area beyond geosynchronous orbit out to the surface of the Moon. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently issued a request for information about developing U.S. strategy for development of cislunar space, and some responses have urged that commercial entities should lead the way. That is, the governmental role shouldn’t be to do everything, as it did in the ’60s space program, but instead should be to clear the way for commercial companies like SpaceX to apply their creativity, engineering prowess, technological savvy, and venture capital to lead the development effort. With many companies focusing on cislunar space, and the government helping to coordinate their efforts, development and further routinizing of spaceflight is much more likely to happen quickly. That will set the stage for an early return to the lunar surface and the Moon bases that were forecast in 2001.

Those of us who are creatures of habit know the value of the routine. That is true for spaceflight as well, and will continue to be true when cislunar space is the focus. What SpaceX has done is impressive, but it also allows us to glimpse the possibilities.

Overcoming The Charging Factor

I don’t own an electric car, although I haven’t ruled out the idea that, at some point in the future, we might buy one rather than another gas guzzler. One reason we haven’t done it already is a lingering concern about the ease of charging up the car’s battery.

That shouldn’t be a problem in most cases, because a homeowner can install a charging unit that should keep the car charged to the point of being able to handle the standard, daily, in-town driving that is the bread-and-butter use of many American cars. No, the real question is: how do electric vehicles do on road trips? If, like me, you like driving long distances every once in a while, can you find charging stations that allow you to do so without significant hassle–which would defeat the basic concept of a carefree road trip?

Recently I’ve run across several articles that suggest that there are problems with long-distance driving in an electric car. One article on arstechnica.com made that point with the pungent headline “Electric cars are doomed if fast charger reliability doesn’t get better.” The Wall Street Journal published a story (behind the subscriber pay wall) with the descriptive headline “I Rented an Electric Car for a Four-Day Road Trip. I Spent More Time Charging It Than I Did Sleeping.” And Autoweek chipped in with a piece called “The EV Charging Industry Has A Maintenance Problem” that noted that while most electric vehicle owners love their cars, their anecdotal stories note that fast-charging stations are often operating at suboptimal capacity or are out of order altogether.

The arstechnica.com article gives one writer’s tale about the frustrations involved in driving cross-country in an electric vehicle. Electric vehicle owners seem to generally concede that such trips need careful planning, because fast-charging stations simply aren’t as ubiquitous as gas stations. But this article notes that, even with planning and use of apps to locate such stations along the intended route, a basic road trip from Washington, D.C. to upstate New York was replete with charging problems, in terms of simple delays, issues with getting a “fill ‘er up” charge, non-functional chargers, and other annoyances. And the writer also found that careful planning was thwarted because the electric-charging apps often don’t have accurate information about the actual, functional capability of fast-charging stations.

These kinds of stories are an alien concept for owners of gas-powered vehicles, who don’t have to consult apps or worry about finding functional gas pumps on a long-distance journey. You just hope in your car and go, confident that you can find an ample supply of gas stations wherever your journey might take you. And the apparently standard delays in charging an electric vehicle–the five- and ten-minute waits while the vehicle establishes communications with the charging unit–would drive many road-tripping drivers nuts.

This problem isn’t fatal for the electric vehicle industry, in my view. When cars first were used, there weren’t gas stations on every corner, and yet automobiles still gained a foothold, and as more and more families bought cars gas stations became available from sea to shining sea. The same will happen with electric cars . . . at some point, when some entrepreneur believes there is enough demand for charging stations to justify the investment needed to make reliable fast-charging stations a widespread, no-hassle experience.

Until then, however, it sounds like you might want to keep that gas guzzler around for those road trips.

Technology And Hope

We’ve heard a lot over the past few years about the downsides of technology, about how it has allowed people to track us and accumulate data about us and hack into our computer systems to steal personal information and engage in credit card fraud or identity theft. It’s important to remember, though, that new and advanced technology is just a tool, and in the right hands it can perform almost miraculous positive things, too.

Recently researchers announced one example of such a positive use of technology that allowed a patient with late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)–also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease–to communicate with the outside world. In the late stages of the disease, ALS patients become completely paralyzed and are unable to move, speak. or communicate with their families and doctors. It is hard to imagine the sense of loneliness and hopelessness that such patients must experience as the paralysis progresses, communication becomes impossible, and they are locked in to their own consciousness.

A team in Germany used technology to establish communication with one such patient, using neural implants that read signals from the patient’s brain and allow him to form words and sentences. The process employed neural feedback that allowed the patient to align brain signals to high tones and low tones. Once the patient learned how to control the tones and researchers adjusted the tones to reflect the most responsive neurons, the patient could use the system to say yes or no. When the yes/no options were applied to groups of letters and then individual letters, the patient was able to form complete sentences–through a laborious process that moved at a rate of about one character per minute, to be sure, but communication with the outside world nevertheless.

The patient has since produced dozens of sentences–including thoughts like “I love my cool son.” The system isn’t foolproof; on some days the patient was unable to produce an intelligible sentence, and researchers aren’t sure whether it was because the patient wasn’t focused, or the implants lost contact with the neurons with which they were attuned, or for some other reason. And, of course, the system is expensive, too, and will have to be adapted to allow for communication with other paralyzed patients. But those facts don’t detract from the remarkable accomplishment that technology has allowed: permitting a completely paralyzed person to communicate again.

I’m certain that patient is deeply grateful that the technology permitted him to let his son, and others, know that he is still inside and still capable of the feelings that define us all as human beings. I’ll think of that the next time I’m reminded of the downsides of technology.