Monthly Archives: July 2016

2016 Census

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Automation can leave us complacent, and that can have dangerous consequences

The Conversation

David Lyell

The recent fatal accident involving a Tesla car while self-driving using the car’s Autopilot feature has raised questions about whether this technology is ready for consumer use.

But more importantly, it highlights the need to reconsider the relationship between human behaviour and technology. Self-driving cars change the way we drive, and we need scrutinise the impact of this on safety.

Tesla’s Autopilot does not make the car truly autonomous and self-driving. Rather, it automates driving functions, such as steering, speed, braking and hazard avoidance. This is an important distinction. The Autopilot provides supplemental assistance to, but is not a replacement for, the driver.

In a statement following the accident, Tesla reiterated that Autopilot is still in beta. The statement emphasised that drivers must maintain responsibility for the vehicle and be prepared to take over manual control at any time.

Tesla says Autopilot improves safety, helps to avoid hazards and reduces driver workload. But with reduced workload, the question is whether the driver allocates freed-up cognitive resources to maintain supervisory control over Autopilot.

Automation bias

There is evidence to suggest that humans have trouble recognising when automation has failed and manual intervention is required. Research shows we are poor supervisors of trusted automation, with a tendency towards over-reliance.

Known as automation bias, when people use automation such as autopilot, they may delegate full responsibility to automation rather than continue to be vigilant. This reduces our workload, but it also reduces our ability to recognise when automation has failed, signalling the need to take back manual control.

Automation bias can occur anytime when automation is over-relied on and gets it wrong. This can happen because automation was not set properly.

An incorrectly set GPS navigation will lead you astray. This happened to one driver who followed an incorrectly set GPS across several European countries.

More tragically, Korean Airlines flight 007 was shot down when it strayed into Soviet airspace in 1983, killing all 269 on board. Unknown to the pilots, the aircraft deviated from its intended course due to an incorrectly set autopilot.

Autocorrect is not always correct

Automation will work exactly as programmed. Reliance on a spell checker to identify typing errors will not reveal the wrong words used that were spelt correctly. For example, mistyping “from” as “form”.

Likewise, automation isn’t aware of our intentions and will sometimes act contrary to them. This frequently occurs with predictive text and autocorrect on mobile devices. Here over-reliance can result in miscommunication with some hilarious consequences as documented on the website Damn You Autocorrect.

Sometimes automation will encounter circumstances that it can’t handle, as could have occurred in the Tesla crash.

GPS navigation has led drivers down a dead-end road when a highway was rerouted but the maps not updated.

Over-reliance on automation can exacerbate problems by reducing situational awareness. This is especially dangerous as it limits our ability to take back manual control when things go wrong.

The captain of China Airlines flight 006 left autopilot engaged while attending to an engine failure. The loss of power from one engine caused the plane to start banking to one side.

Unknown to the pilots, the autopilot was compensating by steering as far as it could in the opposite direction. It was doing exactly what it had been programmed to do, keeping the plane as level as possible.

But this masked the extent of the problem. In an attempt to level the plane, the captain disengaged the autopilot. The result was a complete loss of control, the plane rolled sharply and entered a steep descent. Fortunately, the pilots were able to regain control, but only after falling 30,000 feet.

Humans vs automation

When automation gets it right, it can improve performance. But research findings show that when automation gets it wrong, performance is worse than if there had been no automation at all.

And tasks we find difficult are also often difficult for automation.

In medicine, computers can assist radiologists detect cancers in screening mammograms by placing prompts over suspicious features. These systems are very sensitive, identifying the majority of cancers.

But in cases where the system missed cancers, human readers with computer-aided detection missed more than readers with no automated assistance. Researchers noted cancers that were difficult for humans to detect were also difficult for computers to detect.

Technology developers need to consider more than their automation technologies. They need to understand how automation changes human behaviour. While automation is generally highly reliable, it has the potential to fail.

Automation developers try to combat this risk by placing humans in a supervisory role with final authority. But automation bias research shows that relying on humans as a backup to automation is fraught with danger and a task for which they are poorly suited.

Developers and regulators must not only assess the automation technology itself, but also the way in which humans interact with it, especially in situations when automation fails. And as users of automation, we must remain ever vigilant, ready to take back control at the first sign of trouble.

The ConversationDavid Lyell, PhD Candidate in Health Informatics

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Trump just lost any chance he had to be President

Why Evolution Is True

Donald Trump has recovered from many missteps, but he’s just made one that, I think, is fatal. I refer, of course, to his call that Russia should get hold of Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails and give them to the United States press. See below:

This is, of course, a call for either espionage or the handing over of material obtained already by espionage. And it’s unprecedented.

Now Trump, clueless and ignorant as he is, may be conflating Clinton’s personal-server emails with the Democratic National Committee emails released by Wikileaks, which were probably obtained by Russian hackers and perhaps by Russian government hackers. As his erstwhile ghostwriter says, Trump has zero attention span and may simply be confused.

Regardless, this is an extraordinarily stupid thing to say, and of course the Democrats will make bales of hay out of it tonight.  Even Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-presidential pick, said that releasing illegally obtained emails…

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Moon crosses Earth: a remarkable sequence

Why Evolution Is True

There will be no readers’ wildlife today: I’m saving up the photos for when I’m in Poland. Instead, have a gander at this photo:

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 6.57.58 AM

This still photo of the moon interposed between a satellite and Earth was going around yesterday, and some who saw it automatically cried “Photoshop!” (I don’t think I’ve ever posted an amazing photo that hasn’t aroused that cry.) Now, it’s okay to say, “I’m dubious,” but a proper skeptic should say, “I better investigate further.” And if you did, you’d see that this photo was genuine, as described by NASA.

First, a time-lapse taken from the NASA site. You’re seeing here what you never see from Earth: the “dark side” of the moon. The bit below tells you why we never see the moon’s bum, which you need to know:


Part of NASA’s explanation:

A NASA camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite captured a unique view of the…

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BBC: The “Islamic State” isn’t real

Why Evolution Is True

When I read the BBC’s description of the killing of a French priest by “IS soldiers” this morning, the subheader referred to the “So-called Islamic State”.  It’s no longer there now, but you can see it in a Google search:

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 12.22.49 PMNow given that that’s the adopted name of the group of Islamist fighters who are committing terrorist attacks, as well as killing people willy-nilly in Iraq and Syria, I wondered why they used the “so-called” monicker.  I didn’t have to look far, because I found a senior BBC news producer giving the explanation on Quora. Here’s a screenshot of David Waddell’s answer

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 12.21.01 PM
Well, I’ll be.  Waddell’s reasoning, of course, is a post facto exercise in justifying his apologetic prejudices.  The state is certainly Islamic, and whether “the majority of the world’s Muslims want nothing to do with it” is completely irrelevant. Most Baptists probably want little to do with…

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Classic story revised: lichens are fungus + algae + yeast (another fungus)

Why Evolution Is True

One of the classic stories of biology, taught to virtually every student, is the fact that what we call “lichens” are actually a combination of two very distantly related species: a species of alga and a species of fungus. (Sometimes the “alga” is really a species of cyanobacteria, formerly called “blue green algae” but not really algae.) It is offered as the paradigm of a true symbiosis, in which two species living together each provide something for the other. In the case of lichens, the alga provides the products of photosynthesis as nutrients, while the fungus provides structure, protection, nutrients, and moisture.  They’ve coevolved to the extent that while the algal partner can sometimes be found living freely on its own, the fungus is never found on its own. Finally, most (but not all) of the fungal partners in a lichen are ascomycetes (“sac fungi”)—a phylum in the fungal kingdom.


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Cicero on Stoicism

Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC) was a Stoic Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the Roman equestrian order, and was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.

“It is the peculiar characteristic of the [Stoic] wise man that he does nothing which he could regret, nothing against his will, but does everything honorably, consistently, seriously, and rightly, that he anticipates nothing as if it were bound to happen, is shocked by nothing when it does happen under the impression that its happening is unexpected and strange, refers everything to his own judgment, stands by his own decisions. I can conceive nothing which is happier than this. It is an easy conclusion for the Stoics, since they have perceived the final good to be in agreement with nature and living consistently with nature, which is not only the wise man’s proper function, but also in his power. It necessarily follows that the happy life is in the power of the man who has the final good in his power. So the wise man’s life is always happy.” – Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.81–2.


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German bomber pledge allegiance to ISIS

Why Evolution Is True

This is a recent report from Reuters:

The Syrian who blew himself up in southern Germany, wounding 15 people, had pledged allegiance to Islamic State on a video found on his mobile phone, the Bavarian interior minister said on Monday.

“A provisional translation by an interpreter shows that he expressly announces, in the name of Allah, and testifying his allegiance to (Islamic State leader) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi … an act of revenge against the Germans because they’re getting in the way of Islam,” Joachim Herrmann told a news conference.

“I think that after this video there’s no doubt that the attack was a terrorist attack with an Islamist background.”

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Amaq, a news agency that supports Islamic State.

The attack, outside a music festival in Ansbach, a town of 40,000 people southwest of Nuremberg that has a U.S. Army base, was the…

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What’s the difference between sexism and misogyny?

Footnotes to Plato

WordsDonald Trump, the now official Republican candidate for the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States, is often called a misogynist. I have also recently been called a misogynist on that most august locus of intellectual interactions, Twitter. Something doesn’t add up, since I don’t really think I qualify for the appellative, and I’m not completely sure even about Trump…

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Argument from analogy

Analogical reasoning is one of the most common methods by which human beings attempt to understand the world and make decisions.  We seem to have evolved with a propensity to find patterns in things and events, even when no such patterns exist.

Suppose, for example, that I am thinking about buying a new washing machine.  I’m very likely to speak with other people who have recently bought new washing machines, noting their experiences with various makes, models, and dealers.  If I discover that three of my friends have recently bought a particular brand that all three have been delighted with, then I might conclude by analogy that if I buy the same brand, I will be delighted too.  Yet it is possible that some models of the same brand of washing machine are sufficiently different that the analogy is misleading.

The Argument from analogy is a special type of inductive argument, whereby perceived similarities between two or more things are used as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed.  A typical structure or form of the argument is:

Premise 1: P and Q are similar in respect to properties a, b, and c.

Premise 2: P has been observed to have further property x.

Conclusion: Therefore, Q probably has property x also.

Of course, the premises do not claim that P and Q are identical, only that they are similar.  The argument may provide us with good evidence for the conclusion, but the conclusion does not follow as a matter of logical necessity.  Determining the strength of the argument requires that we take into consideration more than just its form – the content of the premises must also come under scrutiny.  An argument from analogy with insufficient inductive strength is fallacious. This fallacy is related to the Faulty generalisation fallacy.

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