Driverless cars aren’t without ethical quandaries

While driving home the other day I was thinking about the new Google Driverless car stuff that I’ve seen. It’s an interesting looking vehicle, see it below. Apparently, one of the reasons why Google went fully autonomous was that people would be first hyper vigilant, then so lazy that they completely trusted the car in any and every situation.

Google’s fully automated driverless car

I believe it’s likely that the first round of driverless cars won’t be fully automated. Data will eventually show that the fully automated cars are perfectly safe, but we’re a paranoid lot when it comes to new technology. I also think that there are definitely risks with a fully autonomous car in regard to hacking and spoofing the system. I have a feeling that will become a game with hackers to try to trick the car into thinking that a direction is safe when it is actually not. To continually combat these risks Google will have to make it very easy to update the software, possibly while driving, as well as the hardware. I believe this is one of the many reasons why Google just announced their 180 internet satellites that they will be launching soon.

However, I think that the best of intentions will likely lead to some serious issues for Google and law makers in the next few years. For some of them an author at the Guardian wrote a few of them. That being said, I think that the first cars will not be fully automatic until enough data comes into show they are safe going highway speeds consistently. I think that this will lead to issues for Google.

One of the things that is missed in the Guardian article above is that if you’re an Android user, those very things could happen already. Your phone already tracks not just GPS but also nearby cell towers, so you could very easily subpoena either Google or your cell provider for records of your whereabouts. However, the interesting thing that Google talks about in regard to safety, is that drunk driving will be a think of the past.

As I mentioned before I think that there will be a manual mode and I think there will have to be one for a while because of definite hacker threats. You’d need to override. I also think that this would require a mechanical switch that literally overrides the system. The system would still run, but would not be able to override the human driver. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I don’t think that anyone can create a truly secure vehicle like this and if one is compromised then all of them would be under the exact same risk.

Now, let’s say a guy goes out drinking. Google knows where he is. Google knows that he took pictures of his shots Instagraming “#drinktilyoublackout!”. Google also knows that he texted a few friends through Hangouts fully integrated texting capability. Furthermore, he tweets to @Google “Getting Black out drunk no #DD #DriverlessFTW”. This guy then gets into the car, switches it to manual override for whatever reason gets in an accident, who is at fault here? Clearly the guy that’s driving right? Well, if he had a fully automated car with no other option he’d not hurt anyone. Google knows everything he’s doing. Google knows everywhere you go already because of how their devices work. The difference is now that they can control where you’re going and how you get there.

Is Google responsible for building a car with a manual override that could save people’s lives in other instances? Is the State responsible for mandating that Google put in that switch? Should Google have built in safety measures that make the user go through a series of actions or prove the driver is capable of overriding the car?

I think that we need to hash out all of these before these cars are allowed on the road. I also think it’s going to be vitally important that we understand what happens with that data from all our cars, who can access it, and if we really have any privacy in a fully automated car like that. Simply by participating in our culture with a cell phone we’ve already eroded our privacy a great deal in both the public and private realm. Driverless cars will further impact that and will likely end up being a highly political issue over the next several years. Taxis, Lyft, and Uber will be out of business – the Car2Go model will beat them out any day of the week if the cars are autonomous. Direct to customers, like Tesla is pretty obvious. Lots of changes are going to happen through these cars.

We can’t just let this happen to us, we need to make decisions about how we want to include driverless cars in our lives. They aren’t inevitable and definitely not in their current incarnation.

Minimum Wage, labor, and economics

Last night on the twittars I had an invigorating discussion related to minimum wage, the mobility of labor, and the economics. The basics of the argument started over the fact that in MA minimum wage will be slowly going up from around $8/hour to $11/hour. $8/hour already is pretty good for the US where the federal minimum wage is closer to $7.25/hour – which is an annual salary of $15,080 (poverty line for an individual is $11,490/year). Obama is proposing to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10/hour or $21,008/year and MA’s eventual minimum wage at $11,440/year. If minimum wage had kept up with productivity gains seen throughout the economy a study argues that the minimum wage should actually be $22/hour or $45,760.

The unfortunate thing about minimum wage jobs is that you typically don’t work 40 hours per week, in fact places like Wal-Mart try to keep employees under 30 hours per week to avoid the requirement of paying any healthcare benefits (at least 1/3 of Walmart employees are limited to 28 hours/week). This requires minimum wage employees to have two or three jobs which creates an extra layer of uncertainty for scheduling of work and getting from one location to another using public transportation. (as a side note WalMart is holding a food drive for their employees)

Why don’t they move to another location that pays better for a job though? There are a couple reasons, first moving is expensive. Even if you’re renting on both ends a cross country move costs several thousand dollars. You have to put money up front for a deposit, go without pay for some period of time as you transition between jobs, you need to move your stuff, and finally, many places won’t hire you if you don’t live there, but you can’t rent unless you have a job. It’s even worse if you own a house, and the worst case is a house that’s underwater.

Now, under utility theory all that won’t matter because it’s a sunk cost. It’s the cost of doing business, all that matters is the amount of money you’ll gain on the other side. Now, if we were all perfectly rational “Econs” that would work, however we’re Human and we don’t think that way. According to Prospect Theory we are extremely loss adverse and would much rather have a small chance at a with with a worse downside than a guaranteed downside. For example, we’d rather have a 10% of winning $0, but 90% of losing $1,000 than automatically losing $900. From Utility theory or expected value they are the same, but from Prospect theory they are very different. This drives our behavior when it comes to relocating for jobs, and is especially true when you’re unemployed. Because your baseline is set at your previous salary, you’d rather wait and risk making no money than taking a job that’s more than 10% less than your previous salary. From an “Econs” perspective this is irrational as you should take any job that’s offered to you, because it’s more than $0. This theory can be applied to corporations as well. They are risk adverse in many cases. In one way this manifests is through the controllable costs of employees salaries. In many cases managers will let employees go or hire employees at a lower salary than deal with something that’s a sunk cost.

Prospect Theory FourFold, Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman

Furthermore, corporations are under pressure do to short term requirements of the market to continually beat the previous quarters. This pushes activities in to the lower right quadrant, which also negatively impacts innovation and employee salary.

Based on the rationality here, should we increase minimum wage? Based on both Utility theory and Prospect theory companies would dramatically reduce the number of employees they have to avoid a sudden massive loss. Companies should move or relocate elsewhere, however, many studies have shown this simply isn’t the case. I think that this can be explained by something else that’s unexpected, unemployment benefits help the economy grow. According to a Moody’s study several years ago and another talk a single dollar of unemployment benefits creates between $1.64 – $2.00 of economic activity. This is because it creates demand that otherwise would have been missing. It’s likely that the higher salary of people that are making minimum wage generates additional demand for goods and services that otherwise would have been unable to be fulfilled.

I believe, this is why Switzerland is looking into providing a living wage of $2,800/month or $33,600/year. It’s a way of being both moral (not allowing citizens to starve and live on the street), but also stimulate the economy to continually grow. The idea of lower taxes is to put more money into the economy so people will spend more money. However, there are a lot of people out there that don’t benefit from this all that much because they already pay little to no taxes (40% before 2007). Providing tax relief doesn’t help this portion of the economy. Providing a higher minimum wage would provide relief for them, but a tax on corporations, but would be recouped through additional demand. A living wage provides relief, but a tax on the broader public, but would be recouped through additional demand.

In the first case, people are working and providing a service to a corporation for the salary they earn. In the second case, there’s a higher chance of free loading – however I see no reason why you can’t put requirements on accepting the money such as community service, using the money for education and training, or volunteering somewhere.

Do these thoughts address every issues we’ve seen regarding minimum wage? No, but it’s helps frame the discussion a little bit and hopefully addresses some of the concerns. I believe that much of debate comes from non-rational sources, such as the economic theory you fully support. Prospect theory, Behavioral Economics, and Evolutionary Economics are disdained or unknown by Libertarians and Conservatives which paint a very different picture on the economic policies we should enact than neo-classical economics. Which puts this to something closer of a religious battle than a logical rational debate, because these theories are incommensurate with each other in the same way that Newtonian Physics and Relativistic Physics were to each other. It’s either one or the other not both.

Edit: I miscalculated on the salaries for minimum wages. I have corrected them.

The Philosopher CEO

In my group at work, we have been accused of having a group of philosophers and a group of doers. This is typically mentioned with some serious disgust. As if having a group of people thinking about how the business is run is a bad thing. I think part of it stems from the idea that this means that they aren’t doing anything productive or value added for the company. The perception is incorrect of course. The “philosophers” are actually a process improvement methodology team that provides course development, course training, mentoring for Lean Six Sigma certification, continual guidance for projects in flight and manages projects themselves. There are only two of them. That’s a tall order to be honest.

But the idea of a philosophy group really got me thinking. Would it be a bad thing to have a group that looks at the ethical, moral or sustainable behavior of the company? I lump sustainability in with the morality and ethical question, because in a lot of ways sustainability is not looking to be a social issue and is another way of looking at the ethics of recycling and energy usage. I’ve talked about morality and MBA’s specifically in my last post. Singling out the MBA crowd might not have been the fair as there is no reason why engineers couldn’t behave in unethical ways, there’s no requirement for engineers to take ethics courses.

Why does this matter? Well, we’ve seen a huge number of seemingly unethical choices coming out of companies. In some cases they may have been selected in a harmless way. For example the new MacBook Pros have a glued on battery, the choice may have been made to reduce the amount of time it takes to secure the battery. Putting a fast acting glue on the battery may have accomplished this, while screwing in the battery would take more time. This selection could have been made without the consideration of the repairability or replacability for components within the laptop. However, since this is Apple I’m talking about here, I find this unlikely. The next question would be, was this choice unethical? From a sustainability perspective it could be construed in that manner, which iFixit does do just that. The computer also lost its environmental certification by using the glue and some of the other design characteristics. This design also continues with Apple’s decisions to make it more difficult to upgrade or do anything with their product once you’ve bought. This increases the number of times you have to purchase their products and exasperates the throwaway culture of many other products.

Consumers are also starting to become more aware of the unethical behavior of companies. We’ve seen this with the recent banking scandals, we’ve seen this with the investigation into Foxconn and we’re likely to see it moving forward in other sectors. We’re starting to hear about more unethical behavior in the ag industries, in regard to their treatment of animals or in the case of Monsanto basically suing farmers when seeds of their crops land in their field. The increase in consumer awareness through the increased usage of social media and other social networking tools is going to significantly increase both information and disinformation about these topics.

It is likely that there will be an increase in the number of watch dog organizations in existence and more reliance on government agencies, like the Consumer Protection agency in the US now. The banks have argued for a long time that these regulations are unnecessary as they can regulate themselves. We do know that profit pressures can prevent ethical behavior and encourage unethical behavior. Perhaps it’s time that every organization has an Internal Affairs organization similar to what the police have. I do not believe that these organizations are perfect and can become corrupt (or have the appearance of being corrupt), but I think that they can be useful.

Penn State is going to have to set up an organization like this. I think for the University this was going to be required for them to even have a chance at ever regaining their credibility. The records for that group need to be wide open for everyone to view. I think this type of office needs to be in any publicly traded company. It will ensure greater transparency, allow watch dog groups and consumers to choose the actual ethical companies and these groups would be auditable. This could be a certification process similar to ISO9001 (a manufacturing document control quality system), where the members of the team are given ethics training in a wide range of topics including morality and then are expected to train the employees of the company, CEO included.

By creating organizations such as this, companies can greatly clarify how their behavior is ethical and moral. Once several large companies create agencies like this other companies will be shamed into doing it as well. Thus increasing the number of Philosopher CEOs out there.

MBAs, Ethics and Morals

Yesterday on Facebook I started quite the little discussion after posting a discussion about MBA education based on an article on Bloomberg. The author of the article, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Essentially the article argues that the method used to discuss ethics results in amoral education. What this is saying isn’t that they are teaching a lack of morality, it’s that they aren’t teaching the actual moral result of these choices in a way that makes it clear that one option is moral while the other is not.   Without explicitly stating which option is moral or immoral, it can create ambiguity (we know that business people hate uncertainty) and the illusion that either one of the options could be moral.

Why does this cause a problem? First, not many people actually have any education in ethics to begin with. If someone put together a list of 8 must take classes ethics would be somewhere around 100. Ethics courses aren’t easy and they make you really look at how you think about things, figure out why you think that way and try to make you change the way you think. They aren’t always successful, but ethical thinking is like critical thinking, the more exposure you have to it the more you are able to practice it. The second reason why this is a problem, is that many people going into business school may have less scruples, be willing to take advantage of people or are amoral. Not everyone is, but we know from research that business leaders tend to have personality traits of psychopaths. We also know that in games like prisoner’s dilemma business leaders act the most ruthless (same goes for economists). The only question is the direction of causality. Does business school create these types of people, does it exacerbate these personality types or do these people go into business already behaving in these manners? I don’t know the answer to that question.

While I was in the Netherlands I listened to a seminar that discussed the way that ethics is taught within the Dutch military. All new recruits must go through ethics courses and then every so many years they are required to recertify on the ethics course. The goal is to bring in new officers with a sense of ethical norms that can prevent atrocities and allow officers to do the right thing when they need to. Of course the military believes there is a fine line between creating a thinking solider and a solider that ends up in analysis paralysis because they are going through too many ethical situations in their mind. The goal of the education is to ingrain many of these ethical situations so reaction is more instinctual even for the ethical choice.

I believe that there is a similar balance that needs to be considered in business. What are the social norms for ethical behavior in many institutions? Well, I think that this really does depend on the institution and the environment that they are in. I think there are no ethical norms within the big banks, which has been played out over and over again with the sub prime, then LIBOR and now HSBC’s money laundering. Perhaps the ethics are there, it’s just considered ethical to make as much money as you can without getting caught doing something that is obviously screwing someone over. The question becomes, can a truly ethical MBA graduate come into an environment and succeed? I think that they will be able to do well compared to your average person, but they will quickly be out shined by their unethical colleagues.  These are businessmen, they understand incentives well, so they will adjust their behavior based on their incentives. This is a normal and rational thing to do.

Are there ways to instill more ethical behavior at companies? I think there are ways. Some are through legal changes, which lower the bar for what is considered a crime when it comes to fraud and unethical behavior. This would either drive the behavior more underground (likely) or change some of it. Other ways would be through forcing a cultural norm where these companies are punished through lack of investment and loss of business. This one has a coordination issue. Many people have no qualms about ethical issues that would use a service like this. Additionally, the sheer number of firms behaving unethically makes it unrealistic for a person to buy ethically made products. I wrote about this at the Urban Times, noting that Apple is being singled out when the entire industry behaves in this manner.

Ethics needs to be taught at many different levels, it encourages critical thinking and self reflection. Developing ethical leaders in all respects of business and politics should be a goal of all universities. However, ethics courses are being cut and many people just don’t see the value in them.