Science & Technology

New A.I. Traffic Signals Could Be a Game Changer

IEEE Spectrum: “Traffic congestion costs the U.S. economy $121 billion a year, mostly due to lost productivity, and produces about 25 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, Carnegie Mellon University professor of robotics Stephen Smith told the audience at a White House Frontiers Conference last week. In urban areas, drivers spend 40 percent of their time idling in traffic, he added.”

“The big reason is that today’s traffic signals are dumb. Smith is developing smart artificial-intelligence-fueled traffic signals that adapt to changing traffic conditions on the fly. His startup Surtrac is commercializing the technology.”

“In pilot tests in Pittsburgh, the smart traffic-management system has gotten impressive results. It reduced travel time by 25 percent and idling time by over 40 percent.”

Successful Companies Don’t Adapt, They Prepare

Harvard Business Review: “In 1960, Harvard professor Theodore Levitt published a landmark paper in Harvard Business Review that urged executives to adapt by asking themselves, ‘What business are we really in?’ He offered the both the railroad companies and Hollywood studios as examples of industries that failed to adapt because they defined their business incorrectly.”

“Yet today, the railroads don’t seem to be doing too badly. Union Pacific, the leading railroad company has a market capitalization of over $80 billion, about 60% more than Ford or GM. Disney, the leading movie studio company, has a market capitalization of about $150 billion. That doesn’t seem too shabby either.”

“While nimble startups chasing the next trend are exciting, the truth is that companies rarely succeed by adapting to market events. Rather, successful firms prevail by shaping the future. That can’t be done through agility alone, but takes years of preparation to achieve. The truth is that once you find yourself in a position where you need to adapt, it’s usually too late.”

America’s Innovation Crisis

Danny Vinik: “…what if it turns out that America isn’t as entrepreneurial as our leaders like to believe? And that the smaller U.S. safety net, which reflects a national belief in self-reliance, is one reason?”

“By many measures of innovation, other countries come out ahead of us. South Korea has the most patent applications per million people. On the World Intellectual Property Organization’s annual innovation index, Switzerland takes the top spot. Measuring innovation is inherently difficult, so different metrics produce different results. But by most measures, the U.S. comes in around fifth.”

“That’s no surprise to economists, who have been sounding the alarm that the U.S. is facing an ‘innovation crisis’ that threatens America’s future economic prosperity. Fewer startups are opening their doors and older firms increasingly employ a larger percentage of Americans. Instead of a dynamic economy driven by the frequent birth and death of firms, the U.S. economy is instead filled with aging behemoths—less creative destruction and more old stagnation.”

President Obama Explains Why You Can’t Run the U.S. Like a Startup

Tech Crunch: “Last week, the White House held its Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, with a focus on what the U.S. Government is doing for the future, in areas including space exploration, smart cities and more effective police accountability. President Obama ended the conference with a speech that included some real talk for startup founders and others in Silicon Valley who might think the White House and government in general could stand to borrow more heavily from the tech industry’s modus operandi.”

Obama: “The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley run because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

So sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and they start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things. And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences – setting aside my Syria and Yemen portfolio – then I think those suggestions are terrific. That’s not, by the way, to say that there aren’t huge efficiencies and improvements that have to be made.”

Bitcoin-Style Security May Soon Guard US Nukes and Satellites

Defense One: “DARPA, the storied research unit of the US Department of Defense, is currently funding efforts to find out if blockchains could help secure highly sensitive data, with potential applications for everything from nuclear weapons to military satellites.”

“The case for using a blockchain boils down to a concept in computer security known as ‘information integrity.’ That’s basically being able to track when a system or piece of data has been viewed or modified. DARPA’s program manager behind the blockchain effort, Timothy Booher, offers this analogy: Instead of trying to make the walls of a castle as tall as possible to prevent an intruder from getting in, it’s more important to know if anyone has been inside the castle, and what they’re doing there.”

“The prospect of the US military using a blockchain to secure critical data could spark a boom in uses of the technology outside finance… In an age of mega-hacks on corporations and political organizations, an indelible record that detects tampering has its attractions.”

The Coming Human-Machine Partnership in Creativity

Sam Arbesman: “Awash in the many tools of our technological society, we are seeing a new type of tool on the horizon, one which is similar in some ways to what has come before and in other ways quite different. These are tools that augment human creativity. We are increasingly, as a society, building tools to help assist human creativity, whether in art, design, or even scientific discovery.”

“Here is a small sampling of what is increasingly possible:”

Poetry from pictures

“Creativity has always been a collaborative act. We can now increasingly count machines as members of our team as well.”

Why the Military Should Set Up a “Digital ROTC”

Defense Tech: “The military should consider setting up a ‘Digital ROTC’ to attract cyber experts and also try harder to appear ‘cool’ to a new generation of potential recruits, a defense panel said.”

“Board member Marne Levine, chief operating officer of Instagram, said the Defense Department should consider offering tuition payments for students who commit to joining a ‘Digital ROTC’ to pursue high-tech positions in the military. Students in those programs would focus on cyber operations and cyber defense.”

“The Digital ROTC would be one way for the Defense Department to compete with the private sector for cyber talent, Levine said.”

Self-Driving Cars Are Going to Beat Up on Trains, Too

City Lab: “A new report released Monday from the Boston Consulting Group concentrates on the potential impact AVs will have on an older, globally popular form of transportation: passenger rail. ‘Will Autonomous Vehicles Derail Trains?’ the report asks. Short answer: Oh yes.”

From the report: “Trains will remain the least expensive mode of transportation during peak times in urban areas. But during off-peak hours and in rural environments, they will lose riders to AVs. Rail companies may even end up in a downward spiral: with reduced overall ridership, rail companies’ overall unit costs for all remaining passengers will escalate because of the inherently high proportion of fixed costs in operating a train network. This could trigger price increases or reduced schedules, which would result in a further reduction in ridership. The off-peak impacts of declining demand in rural areas could reverberate throughout the entire rail network, since it’s difficult to operate fewer off-peak trains without affecting the costs of peak trains.”

The United Nations Will Launch Its First Space Mission in 2021

Motherboard: “Considering that the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has been around for over half a century, it might seem a bit strange that the organization has never launched its own space mission. This is finally slated to change in 2021, when the UN plans to send a spacecraft into orbit.”

“As detailed for a small crowd at the International Astronautical Congress yesterday, the goal of the 2021 UN mission is to make space accessible to developing member states that lack the resources to develop a standalone, national space program.”

“‘While these experiments may seem small to us, if you go to these countries you realize this is perhaps one of the biggest things they’ve ever done,’ said Mark Sirangelo, the corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems. ‘The young researchers that will be working on this [mission] all around the world will be able to say that they are part of the space community.'”

How to Do Infrastructure Spending the Right Way

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: “In many ways, Washington, D.C., is like a fantasy land. Sometimes there are seemingly magic words that, when spoken, yield a magical effect. One example? ‘Infrastructure spending.'”

“So, what should we do? Here are a few pointers.”

“The internets! The one place where America’s infrastructure most inexcusably lags is high speed internet.”

“Nukes! Nuclear power is the best form of power there is. It’s clean. It’s safe. It’s long-lasting. It just works.”

“Research innovative infrastructure ideas. A lot of people, including Hillary Clinton, talk about an ‘infrastructure investment bank,’ which sounds kind of appealing, kind of business-y, kind of national-y, but always ends up being cronyist nonsense. If I’m going to use a buzzword, how about this: a ‘DARPA of infrastructure.'”

How Artificial Intelligence Is Replacing Human Decision Making on the Battle Field

Defense One: “The Pentagon’s oft-repeated line on artificial intelligence is this: we need much more of it, and quickly, in order to help humans and machines work better alongside one another. But a survey of existing weapons finds that the U.S. military more commonly uses AI not to help but to replace human operators, and, increasingly, human decision making.”

“The report from the Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute does not forecast Terminators capable of high-level reasoning. At their smartest, our most advanced artificially intelligent weapons are still operating at the level of insects … armed with very real and dangerous stingers.”

“So where does AI exist most commonly on military weapons? The study, which looked at weapons in military arsenals around the world, found 284 current systems that include some degree of it, primarily standoff weapons that can find their own way to a target from miles away. Another example would be Aegis warships that can automatically fire defensive missiles at incoming threats.”

How the New Driverless Car Rules Could Cost Lives

Real Clear Policy: “Three numbers: 35,200 people were killed in auto accidents last year; 94 percent of car crashes are due to human error; 613,501 lives have been saved by advances in auto safety over the past 50 years. These numbers form the basis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head’s argument for autonomous vehicles and a friendly regulatory environment.”

“In a speech on Monday at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said that his agency’s goal is to create ‘a framework that will speed the development and deployment of technologies with significant lifesaving potential.’ However, the very next day, his agency released the long-promised NHTSA guidelines for autonomous vehicles, proposing two new authorities that would do the exact opposite.”

“The problem is that approving every single model for every single manufacturer would be a monumental task — and a slow one. Do we really want an FDA-style premarket approval process when delays could cost lives?”

“‘If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting for a very, very long time,’ Rosekind said of autonomous vehicle technology in general. ‘How many lives might we be losing while we wait?”

More Gig Economy Workers Can Now Get Paid on Demand

Bloomberg Tech: “The gig economy is built on people offering their services on demand. Now more of them will have the option of getting paid just as quickly.”

“Care.com Inc., Instacart Inc., Postmates Inc. and several other marketplace providers will soon start giving workers the chance to cash out their earnings immediately, instead of waiting for the usual weekly deposit. That’s because Stripe Inc., the payment processing service that underpins many of the on-demand companies, will introduce the feature to all customers for a fee.”

“Quick cash is a big draw for workers. Stripe originally built a version of instant payouts at the request of Lyft Inc., the largest U.S. ride-hailing app behind Uber. Lyft began offering same-day pay to its drivers in December. Since then, Stripe has processed $500 million in instant payments for Lyft, and half of all driver payouts now go through that feature, the companies said.”