Driverless Cars: Moral and Legal Considerations

09 Aug

Driverless cars are no longer a fantasy. Despite being far from general purpose use, this technology is evolving leaps and bounds, thanks to players like Google and Tesla making steady progress on this technology. As the technology evolves and enters into public life, several legal and moral issues are going to crop up.

The recent issue of Communications of the ACM carries a nice article describing the moral challenges of driverless cars. In this thought provoking article, the author brings up scenarios that bring up ethical and moral questions. To quote from the article,

However, should an unavoidable crash situation arise, a driverless car’s method of seeing and identifying potential objects or hazards is different and less precise than the human eye-brain connection, which likely will introduce moral dilemmas with respect to how an autonomous vehicle should react …

Driverless cars have potential to fare better than humans in 90% (or better) of the times. But the other small percentage of times usually bring in more ethical and legal dilemmas where humans would fare vast better than the technologies used in driverless cars. In these situations, human drivers are usually faced with multiple choices that vary in terms of amount of impact or destruction to property or humans. The senors and algorithms used in driverless cars (as they stand for the next few years) may have limitations in identifying the course that leads to least impact or least destruction. When the system operating a driverless car takes a non-optimum decision, there could be several legal and ethical ramifications.

As discussed in the above mentioned article, handing over control to a human driver in emergency situations is far from reality, given the response times needed by a disengaged human. Even the automation around a fully engaged driver’s action is being subjected to several legal questions around responsibility. For example, this article on WSJ discusses how Tesla’s autonomous car-passing feature intends to pass on the responsibility to the driver, by making it a driver initiated (e.g. turn on the signal) automation. Given that the same action of the driver in a car with and without these autonomous features results in drastically different ramifications, states like CA, NV and FL are mandating special registrations for drivers of autonomous vehicles. The registration is based on the level of autonomous features of the vehicle.

Beyond the responsibility question that touches the legal aspects, driverless cars technology needs to continually improve upon the ethical questions that come up during an emergency situation. For example, is it okay to crash the car in the next line to avoid a bicyclist who is jumping a pedestrian signal?

Then comes the integrity question around the autonomous features. What is the possibility of these features getting tampered or outdated? Is Tesla’s Over-the-air update going to be a typical standard for automakers across the globe?

In a nutshell, the legal aspects of driverless cars can be best handled by training the drivers for those specific features. However, the ethical aspects require more maturity of the technology. Add the complexity of changes in driving rules across multiple geographic regions (states, countries) and we are going to see a lot of technology evolution in this space.

Here are a few lingering thoughts that I have regarding driverless cars. I am more anxious to find the answers sooner.

  • What happens if the road sign standards change across borders? E.g. colors and sizes of signs across states, speed limits posted in miles vs. kms across countries. We may soon see a few settings on your dashboard to let the car know (or confirm) that you are driving in New Jersey or Maine or Canada.
  • Cars may be certified to run autonomously in certain areas only. Like “This car can use the autonomous features in CA and NV only, but not in AZ.”
  • Cars would be able to identify the speed limit on a signpost and ignore a similar looking sign on a billboard next to a freeway. Do they do it by improving their sensors or depend on a networked repository (say Google Maps) of speed limits in that area.
  • Visual congestion identification and taking alternate routes. Pretty simple given the current advances in maps technology.
  • In situations where disengaged drivers don’t have awareness of circumstances that led to an accident, cars may require legally acceptable sensor information logs. In other words, the cars would have scaled down versions of blackboxes like in aircrafts.
  • What if someone hacks the “car stack”? How does one get to know? Do we get to do a periodic (smog-check like) stack-check and certification? If this looks like a fantasy, please checkout the Tesla hack and fix a couple of days ago.

And here is an extreme one:

  • If it turns out that the damages caused in an accident by an autonomous car with a disengaged driver are much higher than the damages if an engaged driver were operating the car without autonomous features, what are the insurance ramifications? Would insurance companies track maturity levels of the autonomous features and charge accordingly for insurance?

I do live in interesting times.

Swachh Bharat Campaign: My Thoughts

31 Oct

Now that (apparently) the initial euphoria around the Swachh Bharat initiative has died down and people are settling back to their normal course of action, here are my thoughts on this great initiative.

The Swachh Bharat initiative is my long term wish for India come true. The moment I set my foot on western hemisphere almost a couple of decades ago, I realized how different surroundings can be made to look like. After relocating back to India a while ago, lack of cleanliness has been one of my big pain points that I have been trying fix across the board.

The Swachh Bharat initiative by our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi is right on spot and we all should thrive to see a clean and green India. However, just like many of the good initiatives, this one might make people get carried away in executing it the wrong way.

For an initiative to get popularity, we either need to document widespread participation or measurable results. Some popular initiatives get their popularity due to participation and others get popularity due to socializing of sustained results. Often, people take the first route and document the participation. Three hundred people posting their pictures on a social networking site for an event gets an event more popularity than documenting the fact that three thousand people actually participated in it.

People seem to be more inclined to post their participation in Swachh Bharat by clicking a few pictures while cleaning up a road or premises. I haven’t seen anyone posting a picture of a road or premises that stayed clean over a period of time.

In other words, instead of fixing the symptoms, we should fix the root cause and make sure that the symptoms don’t show up time and again. That is the best sustainable path to success.

For Swachh Bharat to become a lifestyle (not just an initiative), we need to focus on the following:

  • Reducing the opportunities to make any road or premises unclean. For example, Indian Railways came a long way in keeping many platforms and stations in clean state when compared to 15 years ago. The train tracks, compartments and some stations are not clean enough yet, but we have seen a good improvement recently. All they did is to force every vendor to keep a trash bin next to the stall and increased the number of general purpose trash bins. This led people to eventually get to the habit of using the trash bins than platforms to dump the waste. We need to take similar approach to ensure that people participate more in keeping things clean than making things clean.
  • Ensuring that people understand the importance of keeping things clean. We need to slowly, but surely, eradicate the “not my job” attitude when it comes to keeping public and common places clean. Some part of it comes from forced legislation (I like the positive impact of “No smoking in public places” rule) and rest of it should come from people’s belief and passion. This is where politicians and celebrities can help by taking the message to masses. I like a celebrity’s picture of cleaning a road, but that should somehow translate to a message that keep things clean first.
  • Clean up – This is how the initiative is currently being perceived in mass media. Even though it is a good start, it should slowly get to the back stage and give room to the other two focus points mentioned above. Clean ups should be regular, can even be voluntary by people who are no way in that role, but shouldn’t be just momentary.

In summary, I want to see Swachh Bharat to become a lifestyle than an being an initiative by our Prime Minister. We all should focus on keeping places clean than cleaning up places as an aftereffect. That way, we can head to seeing a sustainable Swachh Bharat.

Business unIntelligence

17 Jun

Dr. Barry Devlin ( @BarryDevlin ) presented a webinar this morning on ACM Learning Center ( @acmeducation ). This talk titled “The Marriage of BI and Big Data” is based on Barry’s book – Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation beyond Analytics and Big Data. Business unIntelligence discusses how the trends in Analytics and Big Data are changing the way People, Process and Information are to be looked at by businesses.

The moment I looked at Dr. Barry’s book, it reminded me of this talk by Reed Hastings. In that talk, Reed made a good point that the data will never impact creative. Businesses need to look at data in a contextual and meaningful way than using it for statistical substantiation when decisions related to creativity are involved.

Business unIntelligence presents ways to look at data differently while extracting meaningful information from Analytics (legacy) and Big Data (emerging) information stores. Concepts of m3 (Modern meaning model) to give meaning and context to data are good takeouts from this book. Giving the right context and appropriate meaning to data, in my opinion, is what Netflix did when it made the House of Cards series. Netflix made a series for a specific set of viewers than making a series for all age groups and viewer segments.

I recommend this book to anyone who is dealing with Business Intelligence and Big Data. Not just to users of these, but also to people who gather, maintain and operate on.


29 Mar

Hyderabad Bicycling Club (HBC) and World Wildlife Fund organized Bicyclone-3, the eco-friendly cycle ride today. The response was awesome. Good to see so many school kids turning up for this event.

I opted to rent a bike for this 20km ride, so that I could avoid the 30km commute to/from the venue. That turned out to be a bad decision, both for the time it took and the height of the bike I got. However, I am very lucky to get hold of a basic bike for the ride. I switched to the 10km path of the ride, given the low height of the bike.

Met my niece Manu and my co-worker Kalyan at the ride. Managed to click a few pics before and after the ride.


It is a great experience to see people of all ages turn up in good numbers for such a good cause. Congratulations to all the participants and thanks to HBC.


Currency recalls in a note folding economy

23 Mar

The Reserve Bank of India issued a notice to recall currency notes prior to 2005 in an effort to curb black money in the country. It first issued a notice in January 2014 on modalities of the recall. Then it extended the deadline for recall till January 01st, 2015.

While the intent and rationale behind the recall is very good, recall of notes based on the year of issuance of currency notes has potential to be a pain in the long run. The reason? It is the way RBI prints the year on the currency.

Note that India has lot of cash flow in its economy in the form of notes exchange (as opposed to card or cheque transactions in lot of countries.) Most transactions happen in rural and neighborhood micro economies (as opposed to franchise driven stores.) Most people have wallets in which notes are folded. The currency in small economy stores also is kept in folded form.

Now, lets take a look at how RBI prints the year on currency notes. The year is printed in small font, spreading on either side of the fold in the middle , closer to the bottom edge of the note, and more importantly, on the outer side of the note when folded. Due to this, the area at which the year is printed goes thru lot of rupture during transactions.

Just to validate this thought process, I skimmed around for notes with low readability of the date. I did this among a pool of about Rs 2000 of the cash I have and bingo, I could find two notes each in four low end denominations of the currency. As a bonus, I could find notes that are printed either in 2010 or 2011, that means these notes are 3-4 years in transaction at the most.

Here is a Rs 10 note printed in 2010. See the year in lower middle section of the note and you realize how soiled the area is within 3-4 years of use.

Here is a Rs 10 note printed in 2011.

Here is a Rs 20 note printed in 2010. The date is barely legible.

Here is a Rs 20 note printed in 2011. The date is barely legible here too.

Here is a Rs 50 note printed in 2010.

Here is a Rs 50 note printed in 2011.

Here is a Rs 100 note printed in 2010.

Here is a Rs 100 note printed in 2011.

Going by the above images, we know how difficult it is for rural and small sized economies to use the printed date as a way to enforce the life of currency notes. One consoling factor might be (at least temporarily) that RBI started printing year on the currency notes starting in 2005. So for now, people can use any note with a year printed on it in their transactions. But a year or two down the line, we might have challenges enforcing the rule, if the starting year is different from 2005.

What should RBI ideally do? Here is my take. RBI should start printing the year on the currency notes at a different place (say, somewhere close to the watermark) and with a larger font. The year should be legible in low light conditions and on notes that are heavily used/soiled. Once RBI delivers notes with new standards for a year or two, enforcement becomes easier, because the instrument for enforcement would be more apt.

Enforcing the recall in the current standards of notes (and printed year) would lead to more confusion, especially in poor and uneducated sector. Note that India is one of the countries that uses currencies of different sizes and colors, given the low literacy rates. So enforcement of age of notes should be thought thru more carefully, with strong consideration towards challenges in rural, poor and uneducated sectors.

Better yet, RBI should find more ways to encourage transactions that are trackable – card and cheque transactions. Now-a-days, these kind of transactions are time consuming, come with lot of direct/indirect charges, and in general perceived as an inconvenience. Any innovations in encouraging these transactions would help the economy a lot.

Hope RBI comes up with a better way out of this situation.

Do you want to supersize that drug?

21 Feb

I am a big ibuprofen fan for all sprains and related inflammations. The ibuprofen strips in our medical cabinet usually expire before they get consumed and we throw it away, just like we threw away that strip of 200mg dose of ibuprofen last month. Having a backup of a strip of 400mg dose, I didn’t backfill the one I threw away.

Well, then a back muscle spasm hits me early this week. My typical dose pattern is to take 400mg dose on the day a sprain hits and use 200mg dose for a couple of more days. So I was happy with a day of my booster drug of 400mg and then I scout for my normal dose of 200mg. Went to three pharmacies in the neighborhood that morning and couldn’t find the 200mg dose (with the specific brand I use.) The last two pharmacists told me that people are hardly buying that dose. The last pharmacist religiously checked over-the-shelf stocks and then went to the back of the pharmacy to check the reserves. When he came back, he claims that he doesn’t remember refilling his stocks for that dose recently. As a nice salesman, he said he can get that for me in the next 24 hours, but that was a different story.

About 30 years ago, people are prescribed a 200mg dose for about a week and if the pain doesn’t go away, then only they are prescribed a 400mg dose. One should be hosting a monster level pain to consume 400mg dose regularly to start with. But as per the pharmacists I talked to, people use 400mg dose now-a-days as the default over the shelf medication.

Here are the economics – a 10 dose strip of (branded) 400mg costs INR 10.41, that is about USD 0.18. At such a low price, the packaging costs would have forced a 200mg strip to be priced almost the same or at least very close. Given the “more is better” consumer psychology, people might as well be using a 400mg dose when they could have comfortably used a 200mg dose.

In essence, are we super-sizing our drugs, knowingly or unknowingly? Keeping the scale of economics aside, we might as well be going for faster pain relief than containing the level of pain. That might be leading to super-sizing our drugs eventually. The fact that the manufacturer has a 600mg dose now (I found that while searching on my laptop for dosage levels that people use, I admit that I haven’t seen it in the pharmacy, may be because I haven’t asked for it) is an indication that we might as well be super-sizing our drugs.

Copenhagen Wheel

06 Dec

What happens when a premier academic institution teams up with the City of cyclists? You see one of the best inventions getting now into mass production.

MIT’s SENSEable City Lab and City of Copenhagen bring us a pedal assist electric system called the Copenhagen Wheel. The wheel can be retrofitted almost on any bicycle. Superpedestrian, the startup that has exclusive production rights for the technology, is now accepting back orders for the wheel. The wheel comes both in single speed and multi-speed variants. The wheel itself may cost lot more than an average bike, but I think the wheel is really worth it.

How does it work? The prime factor of the wheel is its regenerating braking capability. The rider can use the exercise mode, pedaling against the motor and charging the battery in this process. Or the rider can use the motor assist mode, in which case the battery power is used to help the rider pedal easily thru, say, slopes. Each of these modes will have 3 levels and the modes/levels can be selected using a smart phone that communicates to the wheel wirelessly. Not sure if the modes switch automatically using the torque sensors in the system (my guess is it would be so, but we need to wait for more details and see.)

The wheel may be a costly affair in the initial days (the wheel is much costlier than average bike on streets) but offers a great potential for bicycling adoption. Excitedly waiting for mass production and global availability of this wheel.

Independence Day Fireworks

05 Jul

This year, I am in Bay Area during US Independence Day and it is fireworks time.

RK, Chaitanya and myself headed out to the Santa Clara City Community Center’s fire works show on Independence Day. The weather is warm and nice. We got decent parking at El Camino and Kiely. About half-a-mile’s walk from there is not bad at all. The crowd is huge for the fireworks. The music band at the community center did a very good job in entertaining the huge crowd till that hour.

I don’t have a DSLR with me today, but have a point-and-shoot (Nikon Coolpix L-810) with me. Probably that worked to my advantage. Here are the pictures shot from the day.




House Of Cards

10 Feb

I am not a big fan of watching TV series, except for random watching of shows like AFV or special interest shows like National Geographic. However, when Netflix announced House Of Cards (here), I got a little more curious than usual. Part of the reason is the presence of Kevin Spacey, the actor who left a very strong impression on me when I watched the The Usual Suspects (1995). After watching the first 3.5 minutes of the first episode and liking the next 1 minute of the titles, I am completely sold.

The storyline is very focused; never intends to be a “feel good” one, but tries to give a vivid description of the dark side of politics and its ecosystem (like political journalism). The characters go darker as their inner selves and motives are exposed, yet maintain the political correctness in formal situations. Its an amazing script, from that point of view.

The cast played their roles to the perfection. Kevin Spacey needs no special mention. Whenever he looks into the camera and annotates on the situation and his ruthless next move, he is at his best. Robin Wright is very impressive, especially in situations where the character demands stubbornness. Corey Stoll is surprisingly effective, Michael Kelly plays shroud with ease and Kate Mara plays her complex character with ease. I love the background score and the title sequence – never fast forwarded the title sequence while watching these thirteen episodes.

Friday night happened to be the perfect time to complete the series. Looking back, I couldn’t believe that I completed the entire series in less than one week, given my really hectic work schedules. Credit goes to the gripping series and captivating cast. Waiting for the second series – they left that bait for me!

Replublic Day 2013

26 Jan

My Republic Day morning is spent at SA Palm Meadows. After a brief session of Squash, I headed to the flag hoisting ceremony organized by the community. This short and sweet function is attended by residents of our community – from all age groups.

The sequence of events included flag hoisting, message by the President of the community and views by a few co-residents. Here are the events captured in photographs.




Snacks served at the end of the ceremony are delicious!