Turning moral decisions into computer code

Current Affairs / SOSc

Nicholas Evans, a philosophy professor in Massachusetts, is part of a group tackling the classic moral dilemma called the “Trolley Problem” as part of the development of autonomous cars.

Evans is not currently taking a stand on which moral theory is right. Instead, he hopes the results from his algorithms will allow others to make an informed decision, whether that’s by car consumers or manufacturers. Evans isn’t currently collaborating with any of the companies working to create autonomous cars, but hopes to do so once he has results.

Perhaps Evans’s algorithms will show that one moral theory will lead to more lives saved than another, or perhaps the results will be more complicated. “It’s not just about how many people die but which people die or whose lives are saved,” says Evans. It’s possible that two scenarios will save equal numbers of lives, but not of the same people.

“The difference between theory A and theory B is that the people who die in the first theory are mostly over 50 and the people who die in the second theory are mostly under 30,” Evans said. “Then we have to have a discussion as a society about not just how much risk we’re willing to take but who we’re willing to expose to risk.”

via Self-driving cars’ Trolley Problem: Philosophers are building ethical algorithms to solve the problem — Quartz

I’ve argued in other places that Physics, like Theology, is applied Philosophy. (In the same way that you can claim Engineering is related to Physics.) I find it fascinating to see how this is being explicitly managed in this case.

The article goes on to suggest that this particular problem might serve as a testbed for a sort of experimental moral theology someday.

Like I said: fascinating.

If it can go wrong, it will. Facebook, privacy and Murphy’s Law.

Religion / Web/Tech

Human experience is that technology is born filled with promise and usually quickly subverted to less than honorable ends. Wired reports on the way big tech, specifically Facebook, recognized what it had done, and what it thinks it can do to respond:

This is the story of those two years [before and after the 2016 election], as they played out inside and around the company. WIRED spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees for this article, many of whom did not want their names used, for reasons anyone familiar with the story of Fearnow and Villarreal would surely understand. (One current employee asked that a WIRED reporter turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.)

The stories varied, but most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds. And—in the tale’s final chapters—of the company’s earnest attempt to redeem itself.

via Inside Facebook’s Hellish Two Years—and Mark Zuckerberg’s Struggle to Fix it All | WIRED

Original Sin. It doesn’t go out of date apparently.

Ash Wednesday: Not a time to be cute – Andrew Gerns

Current Affairs / Religion

Valentines Day or Ash Wednesday? Is it reasonable to try to honor both?

One must tread carefully on Ash Wednesday, because what is called up on this day most centered on penance is at once deeply personal and at the very core to our being and identity. We are acknowledging that we can’t go it alone. We recognize our limitedness. Together we will stare into our mortality. We will face the fact that we are broken. We will recall, I hope, with sadness and chagrin how we mistreat each other and the evil that we do. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.

There. I said it. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.

There is nothing cute about it. But it is very necessary.

And if it feels hard or scary to enter into, it’s because the process we are invited into is both. What we are dealing with is both immediate and eternal, a grace that we don’t earn but always learning to live.

via Fun’n’games in the Kingdom of God: This is no time to be cute.

I’ve been a huge fan of Canon Gern’s writing for years. By fan, I mean something along the lines of quiet jealousy at how well he writes…

And here he’s making an important point about how we’ll deal with the collision of an essentially secular feast day and a profound and sacred fast day. For those of us in the church world, this is not an uncommon experience – but it’s also not something I think we manage to negotiate terribly well. Look at the conflict over Advent vs Christmas to see a prime example.

Andrew makes the point here that we can proactively choose to transfer a feast and this year that’s probably the best choice. But don’t miss his larger point. There are times when we have to be careful to not let our unwillingness to name our communal discomfort with the sacred vs secular conflict cause us to diminish the value of things of infinite importance.

Could Self-Driving Trucks lead to more jobs? – The Atlantic

Futurism / Science

“We’ve been disappointed over the last year to see a lot of stories about how self-driving trucks are going to be this huge problem for truck drivers,” says Alden Woodrow, the product lead for self-driving trucks at Uber. “That’s not at all what we think the outcome is going to be.”

For one, Uber does not believe that self-driving trucks will be doing “dock to dock” runs for a very long time. They see a future in which self-driving trucks drive highway miles between what they call transfer hubs, where human drivers will take over for the last miles through complex urban and industrial terrain.

via Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers? – The Atlantic

The essay by Madrigal linked above goes on to point out that another consequence would be that drivers would stay closer to home rather than do long hauls. I guess the model would be that truckers would become more like harbor pilots. (I knew some harbor pilots when I lived in Delaware. Those were good jobs that were highly sought after in the region.)

I had a conversation with some colleagues earlier this week about possible futures for human/machine work. An interesting observation was that for the foreseeable future, the most likely scenario is going to be human assisted artificial intelligence rather than autonomous artificial intelligence workers.

There’s a growing trend in the chess world that the best players aren’t human and aren’t computers. The best players these days in absolute terms are humans that are working with computer assistants. Apparently, it’s a whole new competitive space emerging. Perhaps it’s a peek into what might be coming more broadly.

Automation to take 1 in 3 jobs in northern UK according to report

Current Affairs

Although some workers will lose their jobs, the rise of automated work could help boost flagging productivity levels in Britain, which have held back pay growth over the past decade since the financial crisis. While new roles will emerge, trade unions have warned that more spending will be required to support retraining for those displaced by machines.

via Automation to take 1 in 3 jobs in UK’s northern centres, report finds | Technology | The Guardian

The Guardian article rightly points out that while some will be losing existing jobs, others will be taking on new jobs.

But either way, the study quoted in the article points to a season of major disruption in the workforce. And that is going to raise all sorts of pastoral care issues for the churches in the region as well as economic challenges in the short term.

It’s worth thinking about what the implications will be for the US as well.

The spiritual message hidden in ‘Star Wars’ – CNN

Current Affairs / Film

[The Last Jedi]  hints that Luke might not be the “last Jedi,” after all. Even without his help, Rey is remarkably skilled at connecting with the Force, the mysterious energy that pervades the galaxy.

This is where some cultural commentators see an argument against organized religion. In previous “Star Wars” films, using the Force required joining the Jedis and spending years learning the “old ways” from established masters.
Luke seems to say that none of that matters anymore.

“He is making a very modern case for spirituality over organized religion,” argues Hannah Long in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. “If all roads lead to the Force, then the dusty tradition and doctrine doesn’t really matter.”

via The spiritual message hidden in ‘Star Wars’ – CNN

Interesting that people are once again trying to mine the Star Wars saga for deeper spiritual meaning. It’s not surprising to me given that Lucas and subsequent writers intentionally structured the stories on the Hero’s Journey model common in Mythic writing according to Joseph Campell.

But I’m not convinced that there’s an intentional formal connection between the movies and a critique of modern organized religion. This seems to me to be more of a projection by the writer of the article onto the open-ended narrative of the film, which is a consequence of the use of mythic structure to create the plot.

But it is an interesting article nonetheless. Certainly worth a read.

The Internet is morphing again…


There’s an old description of the Internet as a network that, because of its inherent distributed nature, has the ability to route around damage in a way that maintains connection.

In the last decade the corporate voices on the network have managed to push most of the interesting and thoughtful voices to the fringe and replaced them with outrage and click-bait that plays to an advertising based economic model. But perhaps the protean nature of the Internet is allowing the network to shift again – going back to its early mode of creating smaller more manageable community rather than seeking viral-ity as the best possible outcome of sharing.

At least that’s the point of this article. It’s worth thinking about as we prepare to enter a new year, and perhaps a particularly important mid-term election year.

The old promise of the internet — niche communities, human connection, people exchanging ideas, maybe even paying each other for the work they’d made — never really lost its appeal, but this year it came back with a miniature vengeance.

We can see this longing for community — and specifically, the sort of small, weird communities that populated and defined the early internet — everywhere. There’s Amino, the Tumblr-inspired app that lets fandoms build online spaces that are essentially club houses, then coordinate the creation of elaborate works of fan art, fiction, cosplay, and fandom lore. At the request of its largely teenage audience, the platform released its first cosplay yearbook this December, and doled out honors to the best writing, photography, and tutorials around cosplay. The thousands of fandom-specific rooms are lively and strange, each with their own moderators and byzantine rules.

Perhaps the network is returning to its past – routing around the damage that has been done and allowing us to create the small communities of connected people that charmed us into using it in the first place.


I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Reconciliation / Religion

This poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is on my heart this Christmas season. He published it during the last year of the American Civil War:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

From here

The last stanza reminds me of the words of the Prophet Habakkuk. May the words of the prophet peal loud and deep and true again in our day.

Merry Christmas!


Look for God in the quiet still moments of Christmas

nativitySome years I find myself in the Christmas spirit early in December, some years it doesn’t seem to arrive for me until Christmas Eve is nearly upon us. This year it’s been the latter case. I know Christmas is nearly here and for the most part I’m ready, but I’m still in an Advent frame of mind.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been spending our last few months following the big stories dominating the news. Stories about national health care, tax code, diplomacy, politics and so much more. It can be overwhelming. And it all feels and sounds so important. I wake up in the morning wondering what important development has taken place overnight. I find myself looking outward and not inward, looking at the big picture and not paying attention to the little things.

But if you spend time with the scriptures, you might notice that they don’t seem to focus on such big stories at all – other than how they affect the people that we meet in the Bible. The focus instead is on the people and how they live with each other, how they treat one another. What the Bible seems to think is important is how two brothers get along, how willing people are to care for their neighbors, how we care for the stranger in our midst. The big stories, the accounts of the great kings and their empires mostly serve as a backdrop for the more intimate family stories that make up most of the Bible.

This all comes to the forefront when we get to the second chapter of Luke. We start with a passing mention of the greatest empire the west has ever known and quickly we find ourselves hearing not about palaces and fabulous wealth but about two people expecting a child and a small band of shepherds watching their flock in a rocky field outside a village in Palestine.

St. Francis of Assisi once noted that on Christmas night, that the Universe itself was found in the small stable where the Christ Child was born and swaddled. C.S. Lewis used that observation as inspiration for placing his wondrous world of Narnia in a wardrobe found in an empty room in an old house. God seems to see things differently than we might expect. Our God who upholds the cosmos and knows all of time and space in an instant, enters our small world in the intimate moments of our daily lives.

And just as God was known in the birth of the Christ Child and for a moment contained in a small space as the child was worshiped and loved by his parents, so too we probably have our most authentic experience of the Holy when we gather together as friends and family on Christmas Day. The giving of gifts, the sharing of a meal and warmth of just being together is, in a very homey and profound way, the truest and most intimate communion we have with the God who is Love itself.

My prayer for all of you this year is that in the coming twelve days of the Christmas Season you too will have the opportunity to experience God in the love you share with the people closest to you. May God grant you the quiet moments that will let you recognize the real presence of God – who is always with us but whom we miss because we’re often looking at the wrong things.

This year let us all look at what God thinks is important, the love we share with one another.