The Ethical Knob: ethically-customisable automated vehicles and the law (new study)

October 15th, 2017

Vehicles could be fitted with what they call an ‘Ethical Knob’, under a proposal by Giuseppe Contissa, Francesca Lagioia, and Giovanni Sartor of CIRSFID, at the University of Bologna,  Italy. The device might help clarify ethical/legal issues with Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). What for example, should a self-driving car do when it ‘realizes’ (in an impending crash situation) that it could swerve to avoid a large group of pedestrians but in the process kill the driver and passengers?

Before a journey starts, the driver could set the knob to Altruist | Impartial | Egoist (or anywhere in between) and the AV would take the appropriately-weighted action in the case of an emergency.

The authors point out that the idea of the Ethical Knob can be viewed either from a Utiliarian or a Rawlsian perspective:

“The Rawlsian approach could appear more acceptable if we assume that the disutilities being considered represent personal injuries having the same probability, but different gravity. For example, assume that 0,6l is the quantification of the damage from paraplegia (the loss of the use of both legs) and that 0,3l corresponds to the loss of the use of one leg. Assume that by proceeding the AV would cause with certainty the pedestrian to become paraplegic, while by swerving it would cause with certainty each one of three passers-by to lose one leg each. Then it might be argued—though this conclusion is very debatable—that swerving is preferable to proceeding, on grounds of equity/equality.”

See: The Ethical Knob: ethically-customisable automated vehicles and the law Artificial Intelligence and Law, September 2017, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 365–378.

Also see: from Giovanni Sartor : Why Lawyers Are Nice (or Nasty)

Pseudo-profound bullshit commemorated: The Laffer Curve

October 14th, 2017

Today the New York Times celebrates, deadpan, a fake relic of a historically influential example of pseudo-profound bullshit. Under the headline “This Is Not Arthur Laffer’s Famous Napkin,The Times says:

It is one of the iconic moments in modern economics: A young professor named Arthur Laffer sketched a curve on a bar napkin in 1974 to show an aide to President Gerald R. Ford why the federal government should cut taxes.

The Laffer Curve became famous; the Republican Party became the party of tax cuts; and, in 2015, the Smithsonian announced that it was putting the napkin on display.

But the napkin now celebrated for starting a tax revolt is not, in fact, the original napkin….

Although some politicians claimed to take the Laffer Curve seriously (thus leading to their claimed reverence for a replica napkin), mathematicians, economists, and the world in general delighted in pointing out that it was nonsense.

Martin Gardner, the Scientific American columnist, destroyed the Laffer curve illusion, in one of his final columns. Martin also is the person whose advice started me on my writing career. I wrote this about that, when Martin died:

My own favorite of Martin’s works is the final column he wrote for Scientific American — a deadly, hilariously efficient dissection of a gold-plated piece of nonsense. That final column was called “The Laffer curve and other laughs in current economics” [Scientific American, December, 1981, vol. 245, pp. 18-31]. It drew wrathful, spittle-flecked letters from  people who bought their intellectual fashion items at The Emperor’s New Clothes shop. “No economist has the foggiest notion of what a Laffer curve really looks like except in the neighborhood of its endpoints,” the column says. One of that column’s lovely technical drawings is reproduced below (thanks to Wikipedia).

That final column itself  [you can read it online] is reproduced in the book The Night Is Large, a collection of many of Martin’s best writings.

In celebrating anew the Laffer curve, pretending that it corresponds to reality, some politicians (and perhaps the New York Times?) unintendedly also celebrate the 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize.

The 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Gordon PennycookJames Allan CheyneNathaniel BarrDerek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.” [That paper was published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 10, no. 6, November 2015, pp. 549–563.]


Downstream reactions from the 4-legged periodic table table

October 13th, 2017

From Mark Peplow’s review, in the journal Nature, of the new book by Ig Nobel Prize-winner Theo Gray:

Gray’s career as a chemical evangelist began in 2002, when he misread a line in Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten (Knopf, 2001) and imagined the periodic table of elements as a literal table. A skilled woodworker, Gray decided to build it and stock cavities beneath each symbol with samples of the elements.

Then, he recalls, “things really got out of hand” ( The table won the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and spawned a cottage industry: Gray now sells periodic-table posters, books and quilts, and makes museum displays. With photographer Nick Mann, he has amassed a gallery of element photos, showcased in his 2009 book The Elements. Its sequel, Molecules, followed in 2014; Reactions is the final part of the trilogy (all published by Black Dog & Leventhal)….

Coffee Intake and Incidence of Erectile Dysfunction [research study]

October 12th, 2017

A new study about erectile dysfunction suggests — and also does not suggest — that drinking decaffeinated coffee ups a person’s risk of having erectile dysfunction, especially if the person is a male. The study is:

Coffee Intake and Incidence of Erectile Dysfunction,” David S. Lopez, Lydia Liu, Eric B. Rimm, Konstantinos K. Tsilidis, Marcia de Oliveira Otto, Run Wang, Steven Canfield, and Edward Giovannucci [pictured here], American Journal of Epidemiology, epub 2017).

The authors explain: “We investigated the association of coffee intake with incidence of ED [erectile dysfunction].”

The authors tell how they did that: “A prospective analysis of 21,403 men aged 40-75 years old was conducted… Total coffee, regular and decaffeinated coffee intakes were self-reported on food-frequency questionnaires. ED was assessed by means of questionnaires in 2000, 2004 and 2008….”

Then the authors tell what they identified: “No significant differences were identified for incident ED after comparing highest (≥ 4 cups/day) with lowest category (0 cups/day) of total and regular- coffee intakes.”

The study includes, also, an observation that non-expert readers might find disturbing:  “For decaffeinated coffee intake, after comparing the highest category with lowest category, we found a 37% increased risk of ED…”

But those same non-expert readers, if they have taken worry, might find some comfort in a sentence that occurs farther down in the paper: “Overall, long-term coffee intake was not associated with risk of ED in a prospective cohort study.”

CAUTION: One should remember the maxim that “correlation does not imply causation.” In the case of this study, it is possible to conclude, if one is incautious, that erectile dysfunction causes men to drink decaffeinated coffee.


TV commercial ‘zapping’ – its driving factors (study)

October 12th, 2017

If you’re in the business of advertising – especially TV advertising – you might be keen to identify the driving factors behind so-called ‘zapping’ (viewers changing channels with the specific intent of avoiding commercial breaks) A 2017 study in the Journal of Advertising Research presents an extensive analysis of the subject and pinpoints a ‘significant driver’ in such behaviour :

“The use of remote controls emerged as a significant driver of observed commercial zapping.”

More specific details can be found in the lead author’s (Dr Steve Dix) extensive thesis on the subject :

“Although this study does not attempt to identify the underlying motivation for using the remote control device, [RCD] results do confirm the importance of the RCD in driving channel switching. Notably this study confirms the findings of Danaher (1995) that the RCD is one of the most important factors influencing channel switching activity.“

What then, from the advertisers’ point of view, might be done to mitigate this behaviour – which has been going on for more than 40 years?

” Advertisers can restrict commercial zapping by limiting levels of irritation and repetition in their creative strategy and by restraining exposure in their scheduling strategy.”

See: ‘Predictors of Commercial Zapping During Live Prime-Time Television : An Observation-Based Study Identifies Factors That Drive TV Channel Switching’ by Stephen Richard Dix and Ian Phau in the Journal of Advertising Research, March 2017; volume 57, issue 1.