Category Archives: ethics

Crap Detection is a Critical Digital Literacy

Abraham Lincoln famously said in the 1860’s “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.“, and he’s right of course. George Washington already warned us a century earlier that “the greatest thing about Facebook is that you can quote something and totally make up the source.” Add to it the filter bubbles that algorithms create around you on Facebook, fake news and the influencing that third parties try to do, and you can be certain that the trustworthiness of internet is now even worse than it was in the 19th or 18th century.

Sidewalk Stencil: Abraham Lincoln
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”, Abraham Lincoln hit the nail on the head in 1864 already.

Dealing with crap on the internet however sometimes seems something only for professionals. Facebook should filter better, or be more transparent. Online forensic research like Bellingcat does is the only way to disprove online deception. The problem is that it absolves you and me way too easily of our own responsibility in detecting crap. If something seems too funny, coincidental or too conveniently fitting into your own believe framework, it should trigger us into taking a step back. To take time to determine for ourselves whether Lincoln really said that, whether a picture was really taken where and when it is claimed, and if a source really exists or can be determined as trustworthy.

To be able to detect crap on the internet, you need crap detection tools. My Brainstorms-friend Howard Rheingold and others have put together a useful list of crap detection tools (of which I very often use the reverse image search tools like Tineye, to verify the actual origin of a photo). The list is well maintained and growing. The listed tools help you quickly check-up on things before you share something and reinforce a vicious cycle making more and more social media platforms toxic.

Not spreading dubious material is a civic duty, just like cleaning up after yourself in a public space. This makes crap detection a critical digital information skill. Download or bookmark the list of crap detection tools, add some of the mentioned tools as plugins to your browser, and use it to your advantage.


Mailchimp Meets GDPR

Last week I received an e-mail from Mailchimp saying

Starting October 31, single opt-in will become the default setting for all MailChimp hosted, embedded, and pop-up signup forms. This change will impact all MailChimp users

When I read it, I thought it odd, as in the EU the double opt-in is needed, especially with the new General Data Protection Regulation coming next year.

Today I received another e-mail from Mailchimp that they were rolling their plans back for EU customers.

…because your primary contact address is in the EU, your existing forms will remain double opt-in. We made this decision after receiving a lot of feedback from EU customers who told us that single opt-in does not align with their business needs in light of the upcoming GDPR and other local requirements. We heard you, and we’re sorry that we caused confusion.

Now I am curious to see if they will send out another e-mail in the coming week also reinstating double opt-in for everyone else. Because as they already say in their own e-mail:

Double opt-in provides additional proof of consent, and we suggest you continue using double opt-in if your business will be subject to the GDPR.

That includes any non-EU business that has clients or indeed mailing list subscribers in the EU, as the rules follow the personal data of EU citizens. All those companies are subject to the GDPR as well.

Sunday Serendipity Reading Links

Every day I save a bunch of links from my explorations over the interwebs. Stuff that passes my radar, may become fodder for my writing at some point, but often gets piled and forgotten.I thought maybe it is good to share some of the unsought links I encounter, and some of the notions why I bookmarked it. Blogging of course used to be linklogging, sharing links to your blog neighbourhood, so let’s say it’s returning to a respected tradition. Here are a fistful of links from this week.

    Distributed web

  • IPFS, a distributed way of delivering webpages and files. Pointed out to me in the context of my postings on distributedness and agency. Napsterizing/torrenting everything. Also seems to want to preserve everything on the web better.
  • Steem is a blockchain based social media platform. Aims to ‘pay’ you for contributing, and do the bookkeeping in a blockchain ledger. Not sure that may work, nor that permanent records of each social media utterance are desirable. Like with IPFS mentioned above, ’not forgetting’ may not be a feature but a very concerning social bug. My friend Boris Mann is trying it out, looking forward to reading more of his reflections. I may not understand, I never understood the purpose of Medium either, which superficially seems to be the same thing but without the bookkeeping.
  • Anil Dash reflects on the lost infrastructure of social media. This resonates strongly with me in terms of what made blogging so exciting 10-15 years ago, as well as with my recent writings about agency. Part of the picture is weaving a tapestry of functionality across different services and tools that together are a potent mix. It needs plumbing like RSS, trackback and discoverability over the lines of conversations distributed over the individual blogs of the participants. My friend Lilia did her Phd on those distributed conversations. And as Hoder wrote seeing the web again after six years in an Iranian prison: much of our web now, such as Facebook, is just TV, not coffee house interaction.

  • Free private cities. Sign up to live in one, so you have an ‘equal’ position based on contracted service provision. Because tinkering with democracy and the fact that others have different needs is bothersome, or such. Apparantly the social contract isn’t good enough. This has high overtones of Snowcrash Burbclaves, and the micro-democracy states (100.000 people each, and with every election there is freedom of movement globally to pick the government (corporate, value or ethnicity based) of your choice in the very entertaining near-future SF book Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older. These private city contracts don’t seem to account for the cost of leaving if you cancel your contract, as it is still territory bound, so finding a new service provider means physically moving. With all the social and monetary cost of doing that. Also seems to me that the Principality of Monaco held up as a good practice example, incorporated US towns, or the City of London for that matter provide ample demonstration of why this may not be the way forward to a more inclusive global society.

  • The Ribbon Farm, a blog by Venkatesh Rao, newly added to my feed-reader. His recent newsletter edition on premature synchronization as a cause of problems, chimes with a lot of my experience. Converging too early (because there are just 10 minutes left in the meeting), or forcing convergence in a group doesn’t help much usually. The leading example in the link being military reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about “the world championship of armies” where the US military units were failing because they waited or tried to confirm orders continuously, and the Dutch fared better because they upon receiving others did what seemed worth doing based on context and observation, not seeking further orders and disregarding the literal meaning of orders in the process. Desyncing, as a practice seems valuable advice, and similar to making stuff distributed by design, or probe-based evolution. Seek out new perspectives and let yourself be challenged as part of your routines.

On Agency: Summary and My Manifesto

Now that I’ve formulated my overall perspective on Agency (part 1 on distributedness, part 2 on defining networked agency, part 3 on technology needs), this is a summary of the key points and their consequences. Half of these are general insights, condensed from what I’ve been exposed to and absorbed in the past 10-15 years or so. These points are why it matters. The novel combinations I think I contribute (marked in bold) provide the ‘how’ to that ‘why’ by delivering the agency towards increasing our agency. These points form my manifesto to act upon.

The key points in summary are:

  1. The agency deficit and potential.
    There are many issues where many people recognize they need or should find different solutions, because existing structures are failing, but do not see a viable path towards action for themselves. This is the current agency deficit. At the same time many existing tools and instruments are underused because of barriers to entry or the form in which they are currently available. This is the agency potential.
  2. The potential of distributedness.
    Distributed digital networks are similarly structured to human networks. Hierarchies and hubs superimposed on a distributed network are rigid edge cases that don’t fully use the flexibility distributed networks can provide. Human networks can more successfully use technology when the same type of flexibility and fluidity is present in the technology used. This is the path to agency.
  3. The relevant unit of agency is a person plus related group in context
    The unit of agency to consider is not the individual on her own, nor a general ‘target’ group, but the combination of a person and the subset of meaningful relationships for a real and given context. Agency is networked. That way both the individual’s capabilities and perspectives as well as those of the relationships involved can be leveraged. This means that to discuss agency it needs to be done for specific contexts, and with knowledge of the relationships involved. No generic answers are possible, although examples are.
  4. Networked agency is the sum of striking power, resilience and agility
    Because your context does not exist in a vacuum but in a global network of other contexts and connections, agency is not merely about what you can do in your context (striking power), but also how you can mitigate (resilience) or leverage (agility) the consequences of things propagating to you from outside of it
  5. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ technology need to be always used in combination
    Methods and processes that take human networks as a given in how we act, organize and learn (community building, networking, complexity management etc), in combination with distributed hard technology / science is the relevant scope of technology to consider. Not just ‘real’ tech. This combination is how you create the needed bridge and conduit between the digital and us humans, out of the combinations agency emerges.
  6. Technologies need to be ‘smaller‘ than us, barriers lowered
    We need to seek out, recombine, or create expressions of that technology that allows the context specific user group involved to deploy, alter, and trust or control it, without barriers to entry based on money, expert knowledge, or time consumption. This often means making the technology truly distributed, such that local expressions of it are independently possible in an interdependent global network. There is a range of promising technologies on this path that however need an extra push.
  7. Reasoning from a desired specific impact, not from technology features
    It is necessary to reason from the desired impact. Issues that cannot be solved by a single individual, nor on a general level by a group or mass, but only with the active involvement of the group of people it concerns are the ones to focus on. Issues are context specific, so is impact.
  8. Making it specific creates a design aid
    Putting a (list of) specific contexts (person plus meaningful relations) at one end, and a (list of possibly) desired impact on a specific issue at the other, with the lists of potential hard and soft technologies in between, such as in the image below, can be used as thinking aid and design aid.
    It allows you to explore possibilities based on selecting varying combinations of certain technologies, or specific combinations of technologies already available in the involved context, to see how to provide agency to contexts/groups towards desired impacts. This provides agency towards creating agency.

Agency by Ton Zylstra

On Agency pt. 2: The Elements of Networked Agency

Earlier this year I wrote a 1st posting of 3 about Agency, and I started with describing how a key affordance is the distributedness that internet and digitisation brings. A key affordance we don’t really fully use or realize yet.
I am convinced that embracing distributed technology and distributed methods and processes allows for an enormous increase in agency. A slightly different agency though: networked agency.

Lack of agency as poverty and powerlesness
Many people currently feel deprived of agency or even powerless in the face of the fall-out of issues originating in systems or institutions over which they have no influence. Things like the financial system and pensions, climate change impact, affordable urban housing, technology pushing the less skilled out of jobs etc. Many vaguely feel there are many things wrong or close to failing, but without an apparant personal path of action in the face of it.

In response to this feeling of being powerless or without any options to act, there is fertile ground for reactionary and populist movements, that promise a lot but are as always incapable of delivering at best and a downright con or powerplay at worst. Lashing out that way at least brings a temporary emotional relief, but beyond that is only making things worse.

In that sense creating agency is the primary radical political standpoint one can take.
Lack of agency I view as a form of poverty. It has never been easier to create contacts outside of your regular environment, it has never been easier to tap into knowledge from elsewhere. There are all kinds of technologies, initiatives and emerging groups that can provide new agency, based on those new connections and knowledge resources. But they’re often invisible, have a barrier to entry, or don’t know how to scale. It means that many suffering from agency poverty actually have a variety of options at their fingertips, but without realizing it, or without the resources (albeit time, tools, or money) to embrace it. That makes us poor, and poor people make poor choices, because other pathways are unattainable. We’re thirsty for agency, and luckily that agency is within our grasp.

Agency in the networked age is different in two ways
The agency within our grasp is however slightly different in two ways from what I think agency looked like before.

Different in what the relevant unit of agency is
The first way in which it is different is what the relevant unit of agency is.
Agency in our networked age, enabling us to confront the complexity of the issues we face, isn’t just individual agency, nor does it mean mass political mobilisation to change our institutions. Agency in a distributed and networked complex world comes from the combination of individuals and the social contexts and groupings they are part of, their meaningful relations in a context.

It sees both groups and small scale networks as well as each individual that is a node in them as the relevant units to look at. Individuals can’t address complexity, mass movements can’t address it either. But you and I within the context of our meaningful relationships around us can. Not: how can I improve my quality of life? Not: how can I change city government to improve my neighborhood? But: what can I do with my neighbours to improve my neighborhood, and through that my own quality of life?
There are many contexts imaginable where this notion of me & my relevant group simultaneously as the appropiate unit of scale to look at agency exists:

  • Me and my colleagues, me and my team
  • Me and my remote colleagues
  • Me on my street, on my block
  • Me in my part of town
  • Me and the association I am a member of
  • Me and the local exchange trading group
  • Me and my production coop
  • Me and my trading or buying coop
  • Me and my peer network(s)
  • Me and my coworking space
  • Me in an event space
  • Me and my home
  • Me in my car on the road
  • Me traveling multi-modal
  • Me and my communities of interest
  • Me and my nuclear family
  • Me and my extended (geographically distributed) family
  • Me and my dearest
  • Me and my closest friends

agency comes from both the individual and immediate group level (photo JD Hancock, CC-BY)

For each of these social contexts you can think about which impact on which issues is of value, what can be done to create that impact in a way that is ‘local’ to you and the specific social context concerned.

Different in how agency is constituted based on type of impact
Impact can come in different shades and varieties, and that is the second way in which my working definition of agency is different. Impact can be the result of striking power, where you and your social context create something constructively. Impact can take the form of resilience, where you and your social context find ways to mitigate the fall-out of events or emergencies propagating from beyond that social context. Impact can be agility, where you and your social context are able to detect, assess and anticipate emerging change and respond to it.

So agency becomes the aggregate of striking power, resilience and agility that you and your social context individually and collectively can deliver to yourself, by making use of the potential that distributedness and being networked creates.
Whether that is to strengthen local community, acting locally on global concerns, increasing resilience, leverage and share group assets, cooperatively create infrastructure, create mutual support structures, scaffold new systems, shield against broken or failing systems, in short build your own distributed and networked living.

Designing for agency
For each of those contexts and desired impacts you can think about and design the (virtual and real) spaces you need to create, the value you seek, the levels of engagement you can/should accommodate, the balancing of safety and excitement you desire, the balance you need between local network density and long distance connections for exposure to other knowledge and perspectives, the ways you want to increase the likelihood of serendipity or make space for multiple parallel experimenting, the way you deal with evolution in the social context concerned, and the rhythms you keep and facilitate.

The tools that enable agency
To be able to organize and mobilise for this, we need to tap into two types of enabling technology, that help us embrace the distributedness and connectedness I described in part 1. The ‘techie’ technology, which is comprised of hard- and software tools, and the ‘soft’ technology which consists of social processes, methods and attitudes.
What types of technologies fit that description, and what those technologies need to be like to have low enough adoption thresholds to be conducive to increased agency, is the topic of part 3.

Near Future SF Reading List: Explore Emerging Future Together

Gogbot 2015: Google's AI DreamsThe dreams of Google’s artificial intelligence

I read lots of science fiction, because it allows exploring the impact of science and technology on our society, and the impact of our societies on technology development in ways and forms that philosophy of technology usually doesn’t. Or rather SF (when the SF is not just the backdrop for some other story) is a more entertaining and accessible form of hermeneutic exercise, that weaves rich tapestries that include emotions, psychology and social complexity. Reading SF wasn’t always more than entertainment like that for me, but at some point I caught up with SF, or it caught up with me, when SF started to be about technologies I have some working knowledge of.

Bryan Alexander, a long time online peer and friend for well over a decade, likewise sees SF, especially near future SF, as a good way to explore emerging future that already seem almost possible. He writes “In a recent talk at the New Media Consortium’s 2016 conference, I recommended that education and technology professionals pay strong attention to science fiction, and folks got excited, wanting recommendations. So I’ve assembled some (below)“. His list contains a group sourced overview of recent near future SF books, with some 25 titles.

I know and read half of the books on the list, and last night loaded up my e-reader with the other half.

If you want to discuss those books keep an eye on Bryan’s blog, as you’re sure to get some good conversations around these books there.

Gogbot 2015: Google's AI Dreams Gogbot 2015: Google's AI Dreams
The dreams of Google’s artificial intelligence

(photos made during the 2015 Gogbot Festival, the yearly mash up of art, music and technology into a cyberpunk festival in my home town Enschede.)

Related: Enjoying Indie SF, March 2016

Arsonists Walk Among Us

Playing politically on base emotions has consequences. Choice of words has consequences. It does not make the fear mongers and populists directly or criminally responsible, but it does come with moral responsibilities. If you consistently fan emotional flames you do bear moral responsibility for the resulting sparks and ‘singular unconnected’ fires. What British radio host James O’Brien says in the fragment embedded above about the UK, is as much true in Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Austria etc. I share his deep frustration.

The arsonists walk among us pretending to bring common sense and empathy, because “one should be allowed to say this after all, and high-time too”. They don’t go by the names of Schmitz or Eisenring, but it doesn’t take Max Frisch to point them out. The arsonists walk among us pretending it is some mythical Other that will take “what is Ours” and who will burn our house and institutions down. The arsonists walk among us, luring us with reactionary nostalgia for a country and a time that has never existed. It will be those arsonists however that end up setting things alight, not any ‘Other’.

The question is how much of a Herr Biedermann I will be, you will be, we will be, before we learn to send the arsonists packing.

Do we even know anymore how to do that?

The Burning of the houses of Parliament, October 16, 1834 by Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Oct 16 1834, by J M W Turner. Image by Pete Jelliffe, CC-BY-SA

On Open Data and the Panama Papers

Two questions I was asked

In the past days people asked me questions about the Panama Papers and how it is connected to open data. Is a leak like the Panama Papers helpful or not to the cause of open data? Is it reasonable that the journalists don’t plan to publish all leaked files?
Before answering those questions, I will explore aspects of the data we’re talking about, the content of the leak, and the legality and morality of it all.

The core concept at stake: beneficial ownership

First let’s look at the data that we are interested in here, and why that data needs to be fully transparant.
There are two elements of importance. One is that in a transaction you need to be able to verify that you are dealing with the right person: can your counterpart deliver, and is your counterpart legally able to enter into a transaction? If you buy my house you need to verify it is mine to sell, and therefore cadastral ownership information is a public register. Similarly if you deal with my company, you need to verify who is allowed to enter into a contract on behalf of that company, and who ultimately owns it. That last bit is called beneficial ownership: cui bono? This information is registered in public company registers.

This means that for my company (The Green Land), you can find out through the Dutch company register (searching by name, or by the company number we provide on our website and letter head) that there are 4 owners with power of signature. Those four are all other companies. One of those owning companies is Interdependent Holding, and if you check that one, you’ll find out that I’m the sole owner (the other three are owned by my partners). This way you can trace that I am the ultimate owner of part of The Green Land. This is relevant information if you do business with my company, and it is important information for the tax office, who want to know when to tax me for what. These sort of checks, which should be possible, means beneficial ownership should be completely transparant. You are thus able to find out personal information about me through the company register.

That is the trade-off I make as an entrepreneur with you and the rest of society. You all allow me, by creating a company, to shield myself personally from several risks: a bankruptcy of my company will mostly not touch me personally (unless it is due to my negligence or misconduct). The overall benefit to society is that more people will feel opportunity to start something new that way. In exchange I need to give up some of my anonymity, so that it is always clear who ultimately owns something.

Shell companies break that trade-off when beneficial ownership is purposefully obscured, especially when it is the primary reason that company was created in the first place. It allows me to make myself invisible to you in a deal, and it allows me to evade taxes without much chance of that becoming easy to spot.

What is in the Panama Papers?

The Panama Papers are a collection of over 11 million of documents and some structured data, about the creation of a wide range of shell companies (210.000!) in the past 40 years. All the documents come from one law firm in Panama, that has assisted in creating companies in jurisdictions where beneficial ownership is not fully recorded. Those jurisdictions don’t record that information because they don’t need it for taxation. The leaked documents contain the correspondence and other material, such as copies of passports, that was used to keep client records at the law firm, and to establish firms. So the leak is not a list of companies and beneficial ownership like you could get from e.g. the Dutch company register. But from the leaked documents that information about beneficial ownership can be derived. Even if it is ultimately not recorded in the company registers of the jurisdictions these companies are established in (such as the British Virgin Islands). And that is what some 400 journalists in 80 countries did this past year: derive the beneficial ownership information from the leaked documents. And then write stories about it. The law firm in Panama involved is just one of many law firms offering these services. It is not the biggest either, though it is in the top 5, it just is a law firm that seems to have had crappy data security.

On legality and morality

It is perfectly legal to create a company in the British Virgin Islands or any other similar jurisdiction, and using a Panama law firm to help you do that. It is also normal in those jurisdictions that beneficial ownership is not always recorded, simply as it is not needed by the local tax office and they have therefore no reason to collect it.
It is however illegal to not disclose such ownership when asked to do so by the tax office in your country of residence.
When beneficial ownership is hidden, and when the law firm you asked to help you do that is also somewhere hard to get at, it becomes easy to not disclose such ownership to your local tax authority and not be found out though.

This leak now ends that purposefully created obscurity for a large amount of companies and the people who have the beneficial ownership of those companies.
Some of that will until now have been undisclosed to tax authorities elsewhere, and thus illegal. This is what is now prompting government investigations in Australia, Peru, Netherlands etc.

Next to legality, there are also issues of morality at play. And this mostly is where the journalistic interest is.
The morality of having a company in a jurisdiction where you do not do any business, but where you happen to be able to obscure your beneficial ownership can be called into question.
Why would a board member of a Chilean transparency organisation need one? Why would a prime minister who demands austerity from all citizens have one? Citizens that cannot use the options the prime minister apparantly does have access to (or draw immediate attention if they do, such as the shop owners of a Welsh village)
Why would an advisory board member of a Dutch bank, that is currently government owned after a bail-out have one? Why would an NGO have one and send public money and donations to them? Why would family and friends of heads of state need them, coinciding with their rise to power? Why would such obscurity be important to art dealers?

The people it concerns apparantly feel those morality issues themselves as well when confronted, though some have above board explanations, such as the NGO mentioned. Why else would a prime minister walk out of an interview about it and later resign? Why else would another prime minister provide 4 different explanations in 4 different days before coming clean?
Why else would a banker give up his position when challenged? Why else would a country whose powerful figures are named have reporting on it censored and firewalled. Why else would a government denounce it as smear campaign even before the Panama Papers were first published?
Why else would a leading transparency activist immediately resign? A FIFA official resign from his organisation’s Ethics Panel? And a minister from another austerity-focussed government? Why else try damage control, while pleading innocence without denying the facts presented, but because of being caught with your hands in the cookie jar?

The full list will come out

One of the defenses out there for those finding themselves cornered in this moral quandary is that only they are targeted. Trying to raise suspicion about the fact not all companies and their owners are yet published. That is attacking the messenger when you don’t really have anything to counter the message. Of course the journalists involved lead with the juiciest stories, so heads of state and prime ministers find themselves first exposed.
The list of shell companies and their owners is of course much longer, 210.000 companies long, and as I said beneficial ownership is the key concept here. So it is needed that that list will come out in full. It will. The ICIJ has announced that the full list will be published early May (last sentence at that link), after the stories prepared in the past year have been published. So we will soon be able to see for ourselves who else we are dealing with.

Getting back to the questions

So should the entire leak be made public? All those 11 million documents or so? I don’t think so. The beneficial ownership information definitely should be. This is the stuff you can get from most company registers around the world. Beneficial ownership being public is part of the deal a company owner makes with society. That is however only the information derived from the leak and not the content of most of the documents leaked. Copies of passports used to register the company are not ours to see. You don’t post yours either, nor is it public through company registers normally. So no, the entire leak does not need to be public I think.
Once you will see the full list of 210.000 shell companies and their owners, you will realize how many people not of public interest are on it. And you’ll realize that disclosing material other than beneficial ownership is a breach of privacy that doesn’t add anything to further challenge the legality or morality of the situation.

Does this help open data? That is uncertain to me. Maybe it helps to put beneficial ownership information at the heart of current discussions of opening up company registers in Europe further. Many of these European registers are public (you can check the records, for a fee), but not open. Only Denmark has a fully open company register. In other words: for you as an individual, Panama isn’t very far away in a certain sense, Panama is right in your own capital. Maybe it helps European governments to understand that they should lead by example in opening up beneficial ownership to the public pro-actively, and that their tax-offices have something to gain by it (because then data across multiple European jurisdictions will be routinely available).
Maybe it shows owners of shell companies that geographical distance and obscurity are much less of a protection than before digitisation, and lead at least some to make different choices. Or maybe it shows that full global transparency of company registers is unavoidable over time: if not voluntarily then forced.

Why False Dilemmas Must Be Killed to Program Self-driving Cars

MIT Technology Review: Why self driving cars must be programmed to kill
An article popped up multiple times in my Facebook-stream in the past days, titled “Why self driving cars must be programmed to kill.”, published in the MIT Technology Review. I think the “impossible ethical dilemma” the article says it posits is false. I think saying that it needs to be solved “before they can become widespread” is even more wrong as the problems will be in the transition much more than in the new normal.

Google’s self-driving car
photo Saad Faruque

Autonomous cars will not become mainstream because they know what is the ‘morally right’ thing to do in screwed-up situations. They will be mainstream because they will not allow those screwed-up situations to arise. Unlike us. That is the point of self-driving cars: not to be like us drivers, but to be unlike us.

In fact self-driving cars will not be autonomous at all in the literal sense. They will be networked-driving. They will be autonomous only relative to the passenger formerly known as driver, but in synchronisation and negotiation with everything else.

Let’s look at the false dilemma first
The premise of the article is that a car ends up heading towards a group of ten people in the road and no time to stop. It then has to choose: run over those 10 people, killing them. Or drive into the wall on the side, killing the driver. Or alternatively driving into the same wall on the side, killing a child or a granny standing there on the sidewalk.

The first question here is not what the car software should do to figure out ‘the right thing’, as the article says however. The first question is, how on earth did a self driving car end up in a situation where it was ‘too late to stop’ at all? The article lamely explains how such a situation came up: “One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time.” The solution however is in that lead-up that is not described.

The two key elements here that cars need to solve, so the ethical choice above need not be made at all, are:
1) preventing ‘unfortunate sets of events’ to arise in the first place
2) preventing it is ever ‘too late to stop’ by erring on the side of caution

Autonomous cars will not go where there is no data

The last one is a good example of how self-driving cars already are different from human drivers. If a human has insufficient data he will keep going on (I assume there are likely no obstacles on my road until I see otherwise). If a car has insufficient data it will slow down or stop (It won’t move until data tells it there is no obstacle to moving). Autonomous cars will not go where there is no data.

The first one, preventing an ‘unfortunate set of events’ requires more attention therefore, as it contains some assumptions to unpack. But the short answer is: it’s not just the car.

The car is not the sole unit of sensing, nor the sole source of data
There seems to be an underlying assumption in these discussions that the car is the only unit with sensors. There is no reason why that would be the case when autonomous traffic is widespread, or even before. Everything will have sensors.

Sensors are cheap or getting cheap fast. All cars have them, all phones have them, buildings have them, and realistically every road sign, lamp post, piece of road surface, piece of clothing can have them too. If they don’t already.

A self-driving car will be able, and needs to be able, to take in data from external data sources, to get a better understanding of its environment. Those external data sources can be anything and are already growing up in parallel to the self-driving car, ready to be used.

Lamp posts in the inner city of Eindhoven (Living Lab Stratumseind, link in Dutch) already monitor noise levels, crowd movement, and detect altercations. They can change light levels and color to influence passers-by. These lamp posts already are registering the 10 people from the dilemma above and their overall behaviour, and are able to tell your car before you come around the corner, allowing a car to reduce speed anticipating they will suddenly cross the road if their behaviour indicates such a thing. So it will stop in time, or avoid needing to stop at all.

All main roads in the Netherlands already know the number of vehicles passing by in each lane and their speed at any given time, and all that data is published on-line in real time. Those sensors already now are able to tell you whether you should be slowing down because traffic in front of you is denser or slower than you, well before you see their tail lights. Parking spaces along roads in various cities already know if they are occupied or in the process of being vacated. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) in general are blanketing the EU road system in sensors.

Data pheromones, just like ants, will keep us from bumping into each other

The cars themselves will also be communicating and sharing sensor data. Allowing your car to ‘smell’ unexpected crowds of pedestrians blocks away, and navigate around it, with ‘data pheromones’.

Tesla cars already compare notes amongst eachother, and “work as a network“. Your own car already takes in satellite data every journey. Your own navigation software already shares your car’s behaviour with every other user of that software, to help detect detours, traffic speed changes, route changes, roadblocks and traffic jams. Beyond sharing descriptive data, any other machine actor could just as easily share intentions (“I will turn left in 250 meters, and slow down for it starting in 90 meters / 5 seconds”), allowing others to pre-emptively respond.

The omnipresence of data sources will only increase. The road surface can tell if it is covered in oil, water or ice, and slippery, and let the world know. Traffic lights already can tell what speed of approach will allow you to get through fastest and could let your car know. Where a human driver would try to run an orange light, an autonomous car would stop if it knows it would not influence the overall speed of its journey or that stopping would allow a ‘green wave’ in subsequent lights.
Even the phones of those 10 pedestrians in the original dilemma are able to detect and signal sudden changes in speed and direction, and soon sensors in their clothing or shoes might too.

When the roadsurface, lamp posts, phones and clothing, every car, or every other vehicle (bike, skateboard, moped) around you are part of the eyes and ears of your car, all to better navigate and negotiate passage, there will be no surprises. Surprises happen when you have just one range-limited sensor: the eyes of the driver.

The autonomous car software will take advice from anything around it, except your and my brainstem

An autonomous car is not autonomous really, other than freed from the driver’s control. It is driving on tracks just like existing driverless metro trains, except these tracks are made of data. Where those tracks run is continuously shifting based on all traffic actors continuously negotiating passage, and the signalled actions and intentions of every other actor.

The car will not be the sole unit of decision making either
Another faulty assumption I think is to see the car as sole unit of decision making. Just as anything around the car can be providing data, anything can also be an actor itself, forcing a response from ‘my’ car as it sees its environment changing. Every other vehicle, and immobile objects too, will make decisions.

Road surfaces can go beyond merely detecting they are slippery because of ice, so that cars decide to slow down, by actively declaring itself closed for the coming 23 minutes and 42.5 seconds while a salt truck is on its way there. Road signs, taking data from lamp posts about increased pedestrian activity can signal to change the road to one-way traffic or close it off until the crowd has dispersed.

Traffic will ride on tracks. Tracks made of data. Traffic rules will be fluid, and traffic flow emergent.

Sensors are cheap, and adding algorithms to each of them to act on its own sensor data is not much more expensive. Where traffic rides on tracks of data, the rules of traffic can be datafied too. Fluid traffic rules will result, and autonomous cars will obey them (and even if they don’t all other actors will see that in the data streams and adapt accordingly).

Saying the self-driving car is not autonomous other than from the previously needed driver, is not the same however as saying someone else or something else is at the helm. There no longer is a helm to be at. There is just traffic flow, emerging from the negotiated decisions from each actor continuously optimizing its journey by endless series of ‘probe, sense, respond’.

Existing ongoing analog trends will also play a role
Already in many cities around the world various types of traffic are separated into different streams. Separate lanes, or even separate routes altogether. Where that separation is not possible other measures (like speed reduction in residential streets) are usually taken. With all those things also becoming reflected in data, it will be even easier to do. It will also be much easier to locally change the primacy of the car in traffic design on the data level than in physical reality.

False dilemmas shift attention away from getting solutions faster
So the solution to the article’s ‘impossible dilemma’ is to not just look at the system ‘car with sensors and software’ but at both the other similar systems (cars, pedestrians, bicycles) around it, and at the super system it operates in (the road, built up environment, road design, traffic design) as well. The car will stop in time because the lamp posts, grandma’s coat, the road surface and every other sensing object will collaborate with it to there being no urgency at all.

So no ethical dilemma’s then? On the contrary!
While choosing to run over granny or crash into a group of ten other people is a false dilemma, there are many other real ethical dilemma’s to solve.

The article in MIT Technology Review suggested the false dilemma needs to be solved as a precondition of autonomous cars becoming normal. I think the period before those cars are normal will be much more challenging. When only a handful of cars are rational actors because they are autonomous from drivers, they will be experienced as weird and unpredictable by you and me who still have only our eyes to go by.

We’ve got 99 ethical problems, but killing granny ain’t one.

When we do get to mainstream, when traffic has become highly datafied, including street signs, lamp posts, road surfaces etc., there are many ethical dilemma’s as to who gets to influence the algorithms and data streams a car takes as input. Already in the US cars are being remotely shut down if their owners don’t pay their car loans on time. Should that be allowed? Can local government declare an entire neighbourhood a no-go area for specific groups of, or all, cars by having the roads tell the data layer they are closed? Can your insurance company tell my car to not do something? Do we even need insurance? Will individual car ownership still make sense, and if not, who then owns fleets? Can a lamp post be allowed to discriminate who gets to drive down the street (residents only!), or signal the police if it profiles a car as burglars? Can cars even be used by burglars anymore, because the cars know where they’ve been, and the lamp posts know which cars were there?

And right now, can we see, check and change the software in our cars? Can we see what type of algorithmic influences have been programmed in? No, I can’t, nor can I for most other sensing devices around me. Don’t you need to know how your current car, drive-by-wire as it already is, makes autonomous decisions? Already your Volkswagen autonomously decides from sensor data if it is on a test track or out on the road, and changes behaviour accordingly. Already John Deere tractors is ready to sue farmers for checking and altering the software on their tractors, basically arguing your tractor isn’t yours, you’ve only rented a license to an operating system.

So the conclusion of the article I fully share: we need an ethics of algorithms. Just not for deciding when it’s ok to run over granny.