AI and Thanksgiving Traffic

Traveling home on the Sunday after Thanksgiving provided an interesting insight into the future of AI and autonomous vehicles.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the annual I-35 post-Tday traffic jam. It’s something of a tradition as everyone simultaneously returns home. You never know precisely when or where it will happen or how bad it will be, but you know the traffic will drop from 80 mph to 0. In years past, you’d hit the slowdown and everyone would have to make a decision based on what little they could see ahead of them: Get off or stay on. Getting off the interstate and taking the parallel access road might be quicker by bypassing an accident. Or it might not. It was a gamble either way. And everyone had to make that decision independently. Hence, some got off and some stayed on.

This year, we happened to have our Google maps navigation up on one of our iPhones so that we could see ahead where the problems were and how bad they’d be (so that we could time when stops for the kids). As we approached what turned out to be an over-turned semi-trailer, Google maps said to get off the highway because that route was quicker. So we started trying to get off. But so did a surprising amount of other drivers too. I’m betting that most of them also had a GPS navigation system telling them the same thing at the same time. The problem is that the access road next to the interstate isn’t capable of handling the volume of traffic that hit it; it’s only 1 or 2 lanes in most places. So traffic on the access road suddenly slowed significantly. Then, before we could actually reach the exit ramp, Google maps had detected the slower traffic on the access roads and now told us to stay on the interstate as that route was now faster.

The irony of it amused me enough to alleviate some of the traffic stress. But it pointed to a larger looming problem with AIs and autonomous vehicles. The traffic system is designed to accommodate thousands of drivers operating a independent decision makers. Not everyone will do the same thing. GPS navigation systems are already eliminating some of that independence and creating new traffic problems. Autonomous vehicles will take that to the next step.

If you ask two locals (especially in smaller towns) what’s the best route to a nearby city or town, you’ll often get 2 different answers. Each of them has their preferred route. If, in the future, all the cars drive themselves and use the same navigation algorithms and traffic updates, they’ll all take the same routes, thereby clogging that route and leaving alternate routes open and faster. It’s quite plausible then that they’ll all receive a traffic update simultaneously and re-route, clogging the second route and opening up the first.

All this is to say that if all (weak) AIs solve the same problems in the same ways, then a sort of groupthink will emerge. We humans will then be along for the groupthink ride. As another example, if we increasingly allow search algorithms not only to answer questions for us, but tell us which questions to ask, we will increasingly groupthink our way to the same (potentially highly objectionable) conclusions. Except it’s not really groupthink. We’ll have automated that the job of groupthink to our new AIs driving us around and teaching us about the world.

Strength of a Democracy

democracyChurchill did warn us, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Plato warned us, too: “So tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.”

Something I take away from these thoughts is that necessarily democracies have a non-zero chance of producing a demagogue. Any democracy, given a long enough time will produce a leader that rises to power by whipping up the base fears and prejudices of the mob. It will eventually happen.

There are, therefore, two tests of a democracy: (1) How often does any particular democracy allow such a demagogue to rise to the heights of power? (2) How does the state/society respond when (1) occurs? Together, these questions ask how well a democracy does at preserving itself, at prevent itself from devolving into any of “those other forms” of government.  Continue reading

Character, Caricature, and Gossip

My  article “Character, Caricature, and Gossip” is now available in the new edition of The Monist. Here’s the abstract:

Gossip is rarely praised. There seems little virtuous that is about talking behind someone’s back. Whether there is anything virtuous about gossip, however, depends on the kind of gossip. Some gossip is idle, but some evaluative gossip promulgates and enforces norms. When properly motivated, such gossip effects positive change in society and counts as gossiping well. The virtue of gossiping well even includes some kinds of false gossip, namely the sort that exaggerates a pre-existing trait, thereby creating a caricature of a person’s character in order to establish a moral exemplar (or anti-exemplar).

New Job: Texas A&M University-Kingsville

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve accepted a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, starting this fall. I’ll be joining Jeff Glick and Emil Badici as the philosophers in the Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy.

New publication: Virtues and Psychology

Though it’s taken awhile, my chapter “Virtues and Psychology: Do We Have Virtues and How Can We Know?” is now available (somewhat) online. It is part of the Handbook of Virtue Ethics in Business and Management (Alejo José G. Sison, ed.). It is currently preview only, but your library may have access. Either way, here’s the abstract:

Attribution of virtues and vices is commonplace. Saying someone has a virtue helps us explain her behavior and form expectations about how she will behave in the future. Built on the universality of these attributions, virtue ethics has had a long tradition in philosophy, with Aristotle standing at the pinnacle, as well as a modern resurgence. Recently, however, empirical evidence has cast doubt on the existence of virtues and vices. People’s behavior, it seems, is governed more by morally irrelevant situational factors than by robust, internal dispositions like virtues. Yet a new line of argument is beginning to emerge that virtue ethics is still relevant even if virtues do not exist.

Recent Publication in Cogent Arts and Humanities

I have a new publication, “Human values and the value of humanities in interdisciplinary research,” recently published in Cogent Arts & Humanities. It’s open access, so check it out!

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Forthcoming publications

Two articles of mine are set to come out in the next month or three. I’m excited and proud of both and will share more when they actually become available. In the meantime, here’s a brief overview (or teaser) of what’s to come:

Character, Caricature, and GossipThe Monist – Gossip doesn’t get much attention and has traditionally been regarded as universally bad. (Just call someone a gossip and see how they react.) In this paper, I focused on trait-based gossip, specifically gossip that attributes virtues or vices. In that context, I argue that there is such as thing as gossiping well. It can rightly be considered a virtue, even though such gossip often creates a caricature of the person gossiped about; typically they are not as villainous or vicious as the gossip makes them out to be.

Human Values and the Value of Humanities in Interdisciplinary Research, Cogent Arts & Humanities (lead author, with S. E. Vasko, C. Gonnerman, M. Christen, and M. O’Rourke) – Research integrating the perspectives of different disciplines, or interdisciplinary research, has become increasingly common in academia and is considered important for its ability to address complex questions and problems. This mode of research aims to leverage differences among disciplines in generating a more complex understanding of the research landscape. To interact successfully with other disciplines, researchers must appreciate their differences, and this requires recognizing how the research landscape looks from the perspective of other disciplines. One central aspect of these disciplinary perspectives involves values, and more specifically, the roles that values do, may, and should play in research practice. It is reasonable to think that disciplines differ in part because of the different views that their practitioners have on these roles. This paper represents a step in the direction of evaluating this thought. Operating at the level of academic branches, which comprise relevantly similar disciplines (e.g., social and behavioral sciences), this paper uses quantitative techniques to investigate whether academic branches differ in terms views on the impact of values on research. Somewhat surprisingly, we find very little relation between differences in these views and differences in academic branch. We discuss these findings from a philosophical perspective to conclude the paper.

Publication in Clinical and Translational Science

In January, Michael O’Rourke and I traveled to Columbia University to conduct Toolbox workshops with graduate students in the College of Nursing taking the Building Interdisciplinary Research Models. We partnered with Amanda Hessels, Elaine Larson, and Melissa Begg, who continued to use the Toolbox Health Science Instrument in the course for the remainder of the term. We collectively wrote up how the Toolbox was deployed in that course and our findings from the student’s responses, which has just been published in Clinical and Translational ScienceWood burn

Cleese, Confusion, and the Toolbox Project

As Daily Nous and Open Culture both reported, the great John Cleese (of Monty Python and Faulty Towers fame, and so much more) recently recorded a series of public service announcements proclaiming the value of philosophy.

Daily Nous also included this video of Cleese acting as a philosopher in terrific bit of comedy. While funny in its own right, the clip brought to mind one other way that philosophy can be of value. And it’s something we do at the Toolbox Project. But first,  watch the video:

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Research Institute for Humanity and Nature

RIHN-posterMichael O’Rourke and I just returned from Kyoto, Japan, where we spoke and conducted Toolbox workshops with the environmental researchers at the national Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN).

On the first day, we spoke on problems of communication and collaboration in cross-disciplinary research. As a way of introducing the problem, I compared inter- and transdisciplinary research (collectively cross-disciplinary research, CDR) to the game Double Cranko, which comes from an old episode of M*A*S*H. The game is a cross between chess, checker, poker, and gin (both the drink and the rummy).RIHN2There are no rules; players make them up as they go along. The problem for CDR is much worse. Imagine 2 scientists from different disciplines working on a research project and 2 non-research stakeholders in that project (say one from government and another from business). Each knows one game only, and all the rules, terms, and objectives of that game. In collaborating on this project, they have to develop a way to integrate 4 different games (chess, checker, poker, and gin) into one game. But they don’t even speak the same game language. A point we emphasized over the two days with the RIHN researchers is the need for a co-creation of meaning of ambiguous terms or concepts for effective collaboration.

In the morning workshop of the first day, we facilitated dialogues among the researchers to begin that process of co-creation of meaning. They had to negotiate various ambiguous terms that we gave them in a set of prompts. In the afternoon session, the researchers broke into their research teams to produce a concept map of their projects from which to find project-specific ambiguous terms or concepts that will have to be negotiated with their projects’ non-research stakeholders.

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