Weighing Desert: Justice for Kings, Justice for New Yorkers

One man is on trial for murder under the threat of the death penalty, and a jury must decide his fate; he lives. This is the basic outline of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides and Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, except one courtroom is in ancient Athens, while the other is in 1960s New York City. In The Eumenides, protagonist and Mycenaean prince Orestes is on trial for the killing of his mother, Clytemnestra, who herself murdered her husband Orestes’ father Agamemnon. The Greek gods Apollo and the Furies cannot agree on whether Orestes’ murder was just, so Athena conjures up a court of ten jurors she intends to become the model for justice in Athens. The jury is tied, but Athena has already cast her own vote in favor of Orestes, so he goes free. In Twelve Angry Men, a working-class boy is accused of murdering his own father. The prosecution’s case is strong; a mountain of evidence suggests the accused did the deed. But one juror believes there is room for reasonable doubt, and as he untangles the facts of the case and dismantles the prejudices of the others, he gradually convinces the entire jury to return the verdict “not guilty.” Continue reading “Weighing Desert: Justice for Kings, Justice for New Yorkers”

A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars

Feet-first into fire! This short essay was written in response to the 2016 Report of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) for CS 343H, Artificial Intelligence Honors.

Although I am ostensibly a student of computer science, I am also an urban studies minor, transportation geek, and public transit advocate. Thus, the One Hundred Year Study is of special interest to me, and its analysis of urban transportation doubly so. Continue reading “A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars”

Self-Driving Cars: a Reality Check

Today, the media is awash with buzz about the inevitable arrival of autonomous automobiles, personal vehicles that could transport passengers under complete computer control. Writing for Forbes, David Galland predicts that ten million autonomous cars will be on American streets by 2020 (Galland). He expects the adoption of autonomous cars to have profound, transformative effects on our society, by “reducing the number of traffic accidents by upward of 90%,” offering new mobility options for seniors and people with disabilities, eliminating the need for expensive and scarce downtown parking, and “[banishing] the whole idea of rush hour … to the history books” (Galland). Ford plans to sell “true self-driving cars” without controls for human drivers such as pedals or steering wheels by 2021 (Isidore). Not to be left behind, US Senators Gary Peters and John Thune have announced they plan to introduce new legislation to foster the development of autonomous vehicles that will “[leave] room for innovators to reach their full potential” (“Joint Effort”). They believe that autonomous cars “have the potential to dramatically reduce the … lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around” (“Joint Effort”).

But before we speculate on the long-term impacts of autonomous cars, and especially before we formulate sweeping national policies concerning them, we ought to consider just how soon they will become reality. There are difficult ethical, technical, and human interface challenges that the industry has not yet addressed and hard questions that our society has not yet answered. Should autonomous vehicles favor the survival of passengers or pedestrians in the event of an accident? How will we produce and maintain high-resolution maps of every road on which autonomous vehicles will be expected to operate? How will we keep passengers alert and prepared to retake control in the event of an emergency? We are not five years away from autonomous cars, as Ford claims, much less six months away from “full self-driving” Tesla vehicles, as CEO Elon Musk claims (@elonmusk). The barriers to designing safe and reliable autonomous cars are so massive that they will preclude their mainstream introduction for many decades, if not indefinitely. Continue reading “Self-Driving Cars: a Reality Check”

Obergefell v. Hodges: Whose Liberty?

In its sweeping ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court overturned all state laws prohibiting same-sex marriages. Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee had argued that allowing same-sex couples to marry would denigrate marriage as an institution expressly for the purpose of procreation. The majority of the Court responded that it was illogical to suggest that opposite-sex couples would choose not to marry merely because same-sex couples could, and that marriage between same-sex couples could not harm the partners or any other members of society. Thus, this was not a basis to prohibit the marriage of same-sex couples.1

In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts recognized the majority’s logic as an application of John Stuart Mill’s so-called “harm principle”: the idea that the only legitimate sphere of government is to prevent an individual from harming others. Roberts claims that the harm principle is nowhere to be found in the Constitution and therefore not a legitimate criterion for constitutionality. The right to enact a social doctrine like the harm principle belongs to Congress and the people, not the judges of the Supreme Court:

But a Justice’s commission does not confer any special moral, philosophical, or social insight sufficient to justify imposing these perceptions on fellow citizens under the pretense of “due process.” There is indeed a process due the people on issues of this sort–the democratic process. Respecting that understanding requires the Court to be guided by law, not any particular school of social thought.2

Justice Roberts is right to rebuke the majority for overturning state marriage laws on the presumption of a constitutional principle that doesn’t exist. The majority opinion claims that the Constitution promises “a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”3 But while the Constitution mentions “liberty” in several passages, it does not enshrine any specific form or interpretation of it; neither the harm principle nor any other notion of liberty is present. Rather, Americans are free to make laws and institutions based upon their perception of liberty, be it Mill’s harm principle or some other understanding of it. By conflating its concept of liberty with the harm principle, the majority overstepped its proper bounds. Continue reading “Obergefell v. Hodges: Whose Liberty?”

The Case for Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment

The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution shifted the responsibility of selecting Congressional senators from the state legislatures to the people through direct elections. Proponents of the amendment asserted that this change was more consistent with the American principles of democracy and popular sovereignty, and would curtail corruption in Congress and make it more responsive to the people’s concerns. This significant change to the construction of Congress introduced by the Seventeenth Amendment is inconsistent with the principles of the Constitution as expressed by the framers. The direct representation of the state legislatures in Congress was considered an essential defense against possible encroachments by the national government, and the Senate was envisioned as that branch of Congress distinct from and not susceptible to the pitfalls of the democratically elected House. A balanced American republic that adequately administers the local sphere requires a representation of the states at the federal level and a bicameral Congress with a check on popular sovereignty. Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment would achieve this. Continue reading “The Case for Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment”

The Technology Gap

As written in an application for the East Bakersfield Rotary Scholarship:

The greatest enigma that we face today is that people do not understand how technology works.

While we are quick to admit that our elders have trouble using computers, the younger generation gets a pass on technology education. We don’t usually think of Internet hipsters using Facebook on the latest iPhone as “technologically challenged.” But in reality, we are all in the same boat. We do not really understand the devices that we use everyday.

The average person knows how to use a web browser to open websites and type a document using Microsoft Word. That is all. He can barely navigate files and folders, he cannot solve computer problems by himself, and he almost certainly cannot maintain the machine properly. Good security practices will stop nearly any computer virus, but he runs out to buy the latest copy of his favorite anti-virus software. Computers are modular and can be progressively upgraded, but he purchases a new system every year. And the mere thought of the average man being able to program a computer is simply ludicrous.

This lack of comprehension is disturbing because it can be so easily exploited. TV infomercials advertise miracle virus-removal programs that actually scam ignorant computer users out of their money; shady websites and tech startups offer low-quality software that over-promises and fails to deliver, frustrating customers who didn’t know any better; people buy the latest and greatest models every year because their old devices, thanks to neglected maintenance, have become “too slow.” It’s almost as if the tech industry profits from our lack of computer education.

But the most concerning development has been the rise of cloud computing: services that entice computer users to upload their data onto Internet servers. Google, Microsoft, and Apple tempt consumers by marketing these services as easy to use and safe. What most people don’t realize is that there is a hidden cost. Companies make money on their cloud services by selling the data to advertisers – and government agencies such as the NSA can also snoop through it.

If American youth expect to get ahead in the 21st century, they must be able to use technology to its fullest potential. Today, computer education is stuck in the 1990’s. Students are only taught how to write documents and, occasionally, create presentations. We need to change this! Computer classes should expand their curricula with lessons about keyboard shortcuts, installing new software, using files and folders, and maintaining operating systems. And of course, schools must embrace the exciting new field of computer science! Teaching basic programming logic could benefit all students by giving them new insights into science and mathematics. And for those who want to dive deeper, low-cost minicomputers like the Raspberry Pi could allow schools to create truly innovative robotics and electronics courses.

We have been taught how to use computers, not how to understand them. Today’s children deserve better.