What I'm Talking About

"Is the Tech Boom about to Bust?" Jason Benlevi & David Talbot on KALW

Offering a "Radical Idea" on KALW - Open Source Social Networking

RetroFuture - Robocars - view from 2008

Slow Democracy: Fighting Digitized-Privatized Elections

Occupy: The Power of Physical Presence in a Digital World

The Winter of Arab Discontent & The Internet Kill Switch

Slow Democracy: Fighting Digitized-Privatized Elections

Paper Over the Black Box to Take Back Our Vote

As with many things in the recent past, the process of conducting elections has been changed by two trends that appear to be joined at the hip: digitization and privatization. Since the 1960s (and the appearance of the Votomatic machine with its IBM punch cards) we have steadily increased our reliance on computing to speed the vote-counting process and, by necessity, the use of private companies to provide that technology to public agencies.

Although political campaigns have extended into multiyear, billion-dollar media marathons, on Election Night we have come to insist that time must collapse to deliver results within hours after casting our ballots. We have been told that the only way we can accurately speed the count is to apply more technology to the process.

As we learned in Florida in 2000, however, even the simplest technology can be flawed. Complex systems, such as touch-screen direct-record electronic (DRE) voting machines, are even more problematic because their design frailties and other surrounding circumstances make them highly unreliable. The claim that digital voting is more accurate than paper balloting is preposterous because there’s no way to verify a single vote when no physical evidence exists. With no paper trail against which to check the electronic vote tabulations, accuracy can never be claimed. Certainly speed is increased — but whom does a speedy inaccurate count benefit? Not the general voting public.

The fundamental problem of digital voting is that it requires intermediators — outside private companies — to provide the machines and software for conducting the vote. Unlike the past, with its paper ballots and human counters, officials today can’t conduct elections without going to a technology provider. In effect, civic officials are outsourcing and privatizing elections; after registering voters and preparing ballots, they retain only nominal control. This follows the trend (alarmingly demonstrated by the Wall Street-brokered privatization of Chicago’s curbside parking) of U.S. governmental agencies abrogating their civic responsibilities and selling off our public assets.

So why does it matter if the voting process is private or public? Because voting is a fundamental public activity for citizens. It’s bad enough our politicians are often for sale, do we need to sell off our election process too? There is also a huge trust issue with e-voting, and it’s not just about technology.

If you are old enough, you remember a time when many people had a trust issue with ATM machines. Now, you may ask yourself, if ATMs seem to work fine, why shouldn’t voting machines work fine, as well? It is an apt comparison considering that a company called Diebold at one time made both types of machines. However, there are two reasons why ATMs and voting machines have nothing more in common than a screen.

1. Technical: ATMs are designed for rigorous and secure operations. They are dedicated computers installed on private networks with an extensive infrastructure of backed servers that cost tens of millions of dollars. They are expensive, rugged, and difficult to hack. In short, they inspire trust. Voting machines on the other hand are stripped-down, basic PCs — cheap little boxes sold or rented at an inflated price for the proprietary voting software they contain, but with not one whit of physical or electronic security. An ATM is an armored truck. A voting machine is a Yugo. The proprietary (and therefore secret) software gives the polling official no idea of what is happening inside (or outside) this cheap little device during (or after) the voting.

2. Social: There is a social contract that you enter into with a bank when you use an ATM. You deposit your money and the bank has a stake in giving it back to you. If you didn’t trust the machine, you wouldn’t use the ATM, and the bank would have to spend more money on tellers. If the ATMs of a particular bank didn’t work properly, you wouldn’t deposit money in that bank. Customers and banks keep each other honest (at least when it comes to ATMs). That’s not to say that ATMs are never hacked, but when they are the bank guarantees that any loss will not be your responsibility. In this case the banking institution works hard to protect your interests because they are identical to the bank’s. That’s the social contract.

When it comes to electronic voting what social contract is in place to keep these cheap little insecure boxes honest? None. You can’t check that your vote has been tabulated correctly. Even the person in charge of the vote can’t check it because there’s no mechanism with which to do so. It’s like pushing the button for the “walk” sign at a signaled crosswalk — you have no idea whether you are actually effecting a change. You have to trust a private company that is not only unaccountable but also purposely opaque.

Earlier I asked why it matters if voting is “public” or “private.” See what you think about these following incidents:

• In Nebraska, 2002 Chuck Hagel just happened to win a landslide victory of 83% in the state where he also happened to have had a financial stake in the voting machine company.

• In 2004, the CEO of Diebold’s election systems wrote a letter stating that he’d do everything in his power to see President Bush reelected. We know what happened: the CEO’s state, Ohio, delivered the election.

• In 2010, the South Carolina electoral system managed to give the Democratic senatorial nomination to a man who probably couldn’t spell senator, rather than to a popular and well-known Democratic leader. The results were a drubbing by the GOP in the general election.

Can I prove any of this was dishonest? Of course not, and that’s the problem. No one can prove anything with electronic voting. The company that owns the voting mechanism is the party in control of your vote. It becomes their ball: “Candidate B wins because we say so.”

It is technically possible to do e-voting with some level of integrity, but it would be expensive since it requires security at least as good as that used by banks. And that’s the rub: cash strapped local governments don’t have that sort of money — even though billions of dollars are spent on campaigns by politicians and their backers. It makes no sense for registrars to keep buying cheap machines from private companies when every major academic computing lab says that hacking the results is a minor task.

What do we actually gain from electronic voting, apart from speed? Since elections take place several months before anyone is sworn in — and our legislative process is glacial at best — what’s the rush to have results on election night?

So here’s a really radical idea. We’ve seen a Slow Food movement. Maybe it is time for a Slow Democracy movement. It’s as simple as this: paper, pens, ballot boxes, and fellow citizens counting the votes. The citizens could be paid, volunteer, or perform a day of election duty in lieu of jury duty. If you can be compelled to serve on a jury where two billionaire companies are suing each other, you should be allowed to serve the democratic process itself.

As we approach 2012 elections, anyone who proclaims “I want to take my country back” no matter what his or her political stripe, has to quite literally start at the ballot. CEOs and 1% types might be able to buy politicians and send our means of production overseas, but we should make sure that We the People still own our own means of voting.

Occupy: The Power Of Physical Presence in a Digital World

A Generation Moves from Preoccupied to Occupy

Preoccupied by 24/7 entertainment and inhabiting a world surrounded by LCD screens on a variety of devices, the millennial generation was on its way to becoming completely virtualized, digitized, and distracted. But then something caught their attention — reality. They realized that the power of physical presence is a more potent force than adding your name to an online petition or making a one-click donation. The power of the Occupy movement is its persistent, dramatic, and effective presence.

The news media promotes the “narrative” that the Occupy movement is the product of social media, and the self-congratulating digerati predictably take credit where no credit is due. Social media were also assigned exaggerated credit for the uprisings in the Arab world, a claim that I have previously disputed.

I hold the contrarian view that the Occupy movement actually results from the shortcomings of and dissatisfaction with digital culture. Occupy participants are proving that only by crossing over from a screen-centric digital cocoon back into the physical world can their discontent with political reality attain the critical mass necessary to achieve change.

Political activists have been using digital/social media for a decade as a method of organizing and disseminating information with growing success. The 2004, 2006, and 2008 elections were increasingly affected by Internet blogs shared among growing circles of the public. Barack Obama owes his 2008 victory almost entirely to fundraising and organizing on the Net.

Although the Obama campaign flourished in the digital ether, it is his “ethereal” nature as a leader that has shown to be his greatest weakness. Delivering a great speech is not action. Saying is not doing. Obama has been, in some ways, a virtual president, a projection in which people have seen the leader they wanted to see, rather than the man who was actually there.

Net-based activists launched Obama into the White House, but the virtual ghost in the machine of social networking and digital media quickly lost out to the more tangible and hardened forces on the ground — the perennial lobbyists, think-tankers, and cocktail-circuit pundits who run the “ground war” of public opinion in this country.

In warfare, technologies such as airpower can cause disruption, but only boots on the ground can control and hold territory. Airpower is akin to the blogs and social networks; it’s modern, clean, distant, and disengaged. Real governmental power requires the presence of political boots on the ground.

Although Obama ostensibly stood for “change,” his troops on the ground have been the usual veterans of Wall Street and K Street for whom change is not a desirable outcome. Even though directly responsible for the crashing and burning of Wall Street, these folks — many of whom also had the ear of Bush Jr. — have been charter members of Obama’s White House power circle. The “professional left” of bloggers and net activists, on the other hand, have been told to “send contributions and shut up.”

(The conventional wisdom of this decade is that media is now a two-way experience. Less noted is that the two-way experience is overwhelmingly asymmetrical.)

We know now that the so-called “Tea Party” is largely the creation of right-wing Washington lobbyists. It was devised as a means to sideline Obama’s vague legislative program of mild changes. It was designed to paint any change that might somehow emerge as part of a “radical leftist agenda.” While the blogosphere on the left was foaming with anger on blogs about Obama’s inaction, the so-called “Tea Party” discontents were out in public making noise. They demonstrated that physical presence — real bodies showing up en masse in real locations — trumped people sitting at their laptop screen, blogging away to a finite circle of like-minded souls.

The reason the media believed the Tea Party was the force to be reckoned with is simply because they bothered to show up and literally get in the faces of politicians. For decades demonstrations had been composed of young ragtag antiwar marchers. But now we had frumpy retirees with crazy racist pictures and misspelled signs, and the media ate it up. Aided and abetted by these lazy and compliant journalists, the political center of gravity seemed to shift dramatically rightward, and media pundits proclaimed the U.S. as a "center-right nation."

In the 2010 election the power of physical presence won the day when the right actually showed up at the polls, while many progressives sat home. So, the national legislative agenda became about cutting taxes, a position only benefiting the richest 1% of the population.

Yet, despite the synthetic nature of the Tea Party, they had just enough resonance on two points of common outrage in America to appear genuine. Ironically, these are the same points expressed by those in the Occupy movement:

One: Investment banks made colossal amounts of money by commoditizing and then crashing the mortgage market. Banks were bailed out, while the idea of negotiating with homeowners that were underwater was called a “moral hazard” by the failed, yet well-rewarded bankers.
Two: Outrage at the giant sucking sound of of jobs been leaving the U.S. for China and India for no reason other than to fatten the profit margins and CEO pay. Both the experienced and young talent able to do the work in the U.S. either found themselves in unemployment lines or just graduating from college and already deeply in debt.

In both cases, these outrages were only possible because of networked digital technologies. As I state in my book, Too Much Magic:

“The core properties of commonality and connectivity that make digital life seem so appealing are exactly the same ones that make it so destructive, invasive, and subject to abuse.”

It was the digital paradox. The financial games that brought down the economy for regular folks and exported jobs were the dark side of the same digital technology that swaddled the millennial generation in a cocoon of free entertainment, gameplay, and a virtualized social life. Digitalization now had devalued them in the workforce. The jobs that might have been theirs had been outsourced to countries via the Internet. Even young law graduates learned that entry-level legal work had been electronically outsourced to India.

Sitting on top of this virtualized heap, the lucky and/or malignantly crafty 1%. The dissatisfaction of the other 99% was no longer going to be quenched with a one-click donation to Obama for America or Moveon.org. More would be required.

The Luddite tea party types, going old school won…just by showing up at the polls and in public squares. Like Woody Allen has said, “80% of success is just showing up”…and to win an election, you only need 50% plus one.

Jump to Madison, Wisconsin, January 2011. The newly installed Tea Party-blessed governor Scott Walker set upon the task of dismantling a century’s worth of home-grown progressive legislation. Outraged by this move, tens of thousands of angry protesters descended on the state capitol. Unlike the Tea Partiers, they were not a fabricated entity, nor were they chauffeured home in chartered buses at the end of the “event.” Instead, they occupied the state capital for weeks.

As proposed by Adbusters Magazine, it was time to take this mass-protest concept and place it at the scene of the crime: Wall Street. A small group rose to the challenge. At first they looked like the typical contingent of protestors. Unlike in years past, however, they did not go away at the end of the day. They set up camp, they held their ground, and, as this is written, have done so for more than two months. Each day the story grows — as well as the numbers of people joining in around the country and around the world. A populist movement needs a populace to show up in order to make the point. To paraphrase Gil Scott Heron, “the revolution will not be Tweeted.”

I don’t want to diminish the role of digital media as an organizing tool. Blogging and tweeting are okay, but for protest it is ineffectual. It can be ignored. It can be switched off. And as satisfying as it is to vent, it is only a proxy for doing something in the physical world. At a certain point in political life — as in sexual life — it’s better not to be doing it alone in your room. Protest isn’t really protest until you have landed on the territory of those who you have targeted and make them feel the heat.

Dissent is nothing without presence. Occupy is presence coupled with amazing persistence. The digital world has no substitute for people marching in the street making authority figures sweat. The parents of many young protestors could have told them that. Out into the streets and parks is how civil rights were won and the Vietnam War was ended. From recently revealed tapes, even iceman Richard Nixon was touched by the thousands marching in the street against the war.

As the young get away from their screens and enter real city environments to share stories, sing songs, hear the pulse of the drums, and feel the camaraderie at Zucotti Park and other Occupy zones, they give hope that the Cult of Tech has not yet turned this generation into digital drones.

There is a growing frustration about screenlife from young people. They want to be more than a username and a profile picture. Maybe that is why Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture is growing in the hipper regions of the world. People crave doing real things like baking bread, making pickles, growing gardens, and putting hands on tools and materials beyond touchscreens and keyboards.

Since the Occupy movement is low-tech by necessity, and no microphones were permitted in the OWS site by law, the group devised what is called the “Human Microphone.” In this method a single speaker speaks one phrase at time, which is then immediately repeated by others in full-voice unison. The cue is simple: the speaker yells “Mic Check.”

This stunning technique has moved from OWS at Zucotti Park to other locations. It is even finding its way into corporate-friendly forums, business roundtables, press ops that showcase the talking heads too often heard on Sunday talk shows. The bewildered looks on the faces of the politicians and rent-a-cops is just priceless as the process begins. Whom to arrest? Whom to squelch when widely dispersed human microphones are doing their thing in a room full of people? Impolite? Compare this to the raving threats of Tea Partiers heard at the town hall meetings in 2010.

It’s good that people are coming up with work-arounds to technology because those controlling the Net are not just the 1% — they are the .01%.

Just as financial institutions have devolved into a handful of megabanks, communications and Internet service providers, too, are consolidating. What’s more, they have an admitted history of directly and illegally colluding with the government, as well as an agenda to end the Net as an open and free forum.

We learned from Iran, China, and Egypt that when push comes to shove, the authorities will track people, filter information, and blackout access. What we haven’t seen yet, but probably will, is massive disinformation campaigns conducted on social-media channels. Even if it never comes to that, young occupiers and citizen journalists are uploading lots of images of fellow demonstrators — and they are being captured. Who knows how they will be used, perhaps even decades from now, and by whom?

The Cult of Tech tells us that electrons (media) are more powerful than atoms (stuff). However, you can’t live on audio and video. Atoms constitute reality: a place to live and food to eat. Atoms form human beings showing up to reach the critical mass needed for real change. We don’t know how Occupy will play out, but the lessons are clear, boots on the ground are more powerful that fingers on touch screens.


The Winter of Arab Discontent
& The “Internet Kill Switch”

Although the northern hemisphere was suffering through one of coldest winters on record, in the warmer climes of the Arabic-speaking nations, the political situation was simmering to a boil in the Winter of 2011. The governments’ of Tunisia and Egypt were festering with the sort of excessive authoritarian corruption so often found in the region. The wealth was headed to those at the top and the game was stacked against those who were not connected to the ruling oligarchies. Those who were young, ambitious, and well-educated felt deprived of the opportunities and freedoms that they knew existed in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Unlike their parents, they had a global cultural awareness garnered through media that came to them via the Net and over satellite TV.

The “Arab-street” led collapse of the Tunisian government became a signal to many in Egypt that change was possible from the ground up. The seeds sown by Tunisian people-power spread instantly in Arabic social media circles. A young, globalized and urban population did not hesitate to seize on the social network application Facebook, as well as Twitter, to voice their discontent for being underemployed and culturally thwarted. Soon their unrest and frustration spilled into the streets, and then on to the screens of the global media beast.

One face, one Facebook page, set the spark. Wael Ghonim put up a Facebook group to protest against the government of Hosni Mubarak. For his efforts he was spirited away by the not-so-secret police and disappeared for more than a week. His worried family and Facebook friends sounded the alarm to the global media.

Experience tells us, that there is a tendency for news media to create a “narrative” or “package” a story to make it more appealing. When it involves a nexus of technology and politics, the media will often double-down on creating linkages. No matter how tenuous the connection, the media will stamp the movement with the “brand” of the “next big thing” in technology. The failed uprising in Iran was called “The Twitter Revolution.” The Winter 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were quickly branded “The Facebook Revolution” by the media. In this case, the branding may have gotten out ahead of the reality.

During that first week of February 2011, Tahir Square became the focal point for the overwhelming discontent of a generation. Facebook became the brand name instantly associated with this movement. It was an easy connection for the media to make since graffiti and protest signs clearly heralded “Facebook.” They had the pictures…and it played well on TV. Facebook had become a global media darling with a big movie about its youthful billionaire founders and bubble-valuation. However, it is still not exactly clear what the impact of social media might have been in the larger scheme of what transpired February 2011.

The naïve optimists of the digerati profess that the Net is an unstoppable force for freedom, yet the case is not nearly so clear-cut because control of the Net was still within the grasp of the autocrats. As previously stated, we know with certainty that Twitter and texting eventually worked against those who rose up in Iran.

So here are some factors worth considering as to whether the Winter of Arabic Discontent was indeed a social media-based uprising:

Although the Net has an open architecture and multiple pathways for information to transit, the Egyptian authorities had a choke point that connected the national parts of the Net to the rest of the world. (They also made the Net inaccessible by using a scheme to interrupt the DNS system which actually directs Internet traffic.) This may be the first time that the term “Internet Kill Switch” was discussed in public media. A term that is self-explanatory.

The mobile phone network was deployed and managed by European and U.S. companies. Although the Egyptian government ordered a shutdown of the mobile network, and succeeded for a while to shut down it down, Western governments were interested in the success of the uprising and encouraged wireless phone companies, based in Europe, to not comply with the government order. The U.S. State Department worked with Twitter directly during the Iranian uprising.

Only a small percentage of people in Egypt were Net-savvy. Less than 20% of the people used computers. More pervasive in spreading the word, was satellite TV, the medium that 99% of the Arab world had within view.

Although the spark may have been set on the Net, it was TV – uncensored and uncontrolled by government – that fuelled the flames. There is no discounting the notion that Wael Ghonim using Facebook to dissent, and his unjust arrest, was a compelling story. However, it was his face on TV, in an impassioned appearance after being freed from custody that re-stirred the action in Tahir Square. He was the face of the revolution. While only a few saw his Facebook posting, the whole Arab world saw him on TV.

Here’s where the story starts to take a twist. After his release, and grateful that he didn’t get fired by Google for his absence, Wael wanted to meet with Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook to thank him. However, the leadership of Facebook took great pains to distance itself from this democratic yearning. Why? Perhaps Facebook didn’t want to jeopardize business relationships with other countries that were under authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, “Do No Evil” Google expressed pride in their employee Ghonim for fighting the good fight. The question becomes, what is more important to the world’s leading social networking company, fundamental human rights or business relationships? We’ll get to that answer later in this book.

Mubarak was forced out of office by protestors in the streets and other forces that were not readily apparent. The Egyptian Army was largely supplied and funded by the U.S. Government. The Obama administration was increasingly uncomfortable in the position of backing the faltering and corrupt regime. We can pretty much bet that high-level U.S. diplomatic and military officers were in communication with the Egyptian military and short-circuited any attempts to attack peaceful protestors in the square – a case easily made since the Egyptian Army regularly received over a billion dollars a year in U.S. aid.

The fall of the government may have been sparked by social networking, but it took Egyptians willing to put their bodies on the line in concert with diplomatic actions occurring out of public view to bring down Mubarak.

The social network-rooster crowing made a lot of noise, but did not actually make the democracy-sun rise. Many digerati will attempt to sell that impression. Had Mubarak been given the green light by the U.S. to clamp down on the demonstrators, shut down the Net, use the phone network to track down dissidents the results would have looked more like the long suffering Iranians. No amount of “friending” or “liking” on Facebook could have prevented it.

We can expect that authoritarian governments will prepare counter-measures to stymie future expressions of discontent from their citizens over the Net. They will spread disinformation on social media and they will deploy “Internet Kill Switch” capabilities – most likely developed and deployed by U.S. and European companies, as has been the case in China. The euphoric claim that the Net, a social network, was the power that brought down a dictator may be so much digerati magical thinking. Many of the these same freedom-espousing digerati will wax poetic about new products from the very same companies that will also supply that autocrat-empowering Internet Kill Switch.

Leave the Driving to Rosie

Your Robot Will Have 4 Wheels

How long have we been promised robots? Wasn’t that supposed to be part of our inevitable future? From the mechanical men from 1930’s science fiction to the gleaming marvels at world’s fairs anchored to the floor, they seem to be missing. I saw The Jetsons, I saw Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space. What happened to Robby and Rosie? We thought surely, by now, there would be metal marvels that looked like us, would talk with us and be our intelligent and obedient servants. Instead we see wacky Japanese garage projects and some servo-bound metallic cannibals pulverizing each other in televised robot wars.

What you don’t know is that your most powerful computer doesn’t have a screen or keyboard…and it may wind up becoming your first personal robot too. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

I acknowledge that there are robots in the real world that do a great job at welding car parts together or disarming bombs. Yet industrial robots, no matter what size or form, just aren’t what we had in mind when we saw these movies and envisioned the future. CP30 and R2D2 are more like it.

Where are our robots? Ones that can really serve us. Closer than you may think, though you will be surprised at the form they are going to take.

Personal Robotics is still a set of technologies in search of a mission. There are few real implementations except for that sneaky pet-frightening vacuum that you could spend 300 dollars for, only to have the pleasure of tripping over it.

Technology in search of a mission is something we’ve seen before. The personal computer was a hard sell to consumers in the 70’s and even into the 80’s and 90’s. Consumers wondered “Why would anyone ever need a computer in the house?

I remember working on a research project when I was a student in the late seventies. We did telephone interviews asking regular people to gauge their interest in personal computers. It was zero. We began by asking if they had a personal computer. The answer was almost always “no.”

When we suggested that it could help balancing a checkbook, storing recipes, playing solitaire…it was not exactly a big motivation toward plunking down the hefty price of several thousand dollars. I did come across one fellow who was using a personal computer to calculate commodity options right from his home in Berkeley, Ca. An early adopter, he was a rare exception and prototype of daytraders to come. He had found a unique usage model that fit his life.

No doubt about it, the case for a personal computer was a hard sell for almost two decades. In a home/personal context, it was basically a technology in search of a compelling utilization. You could run a small business, replace a typewriter…but for most people the computer was something best left in the office. Once multimedia and gaming came to personal computers, they started to become commonplace in ordinary homes.

In fact, starting in the 90’s the most powerful personal computers were destined for homes, not offices. Once the network became widely available, a personal computer morphed into a basic utility much as a telephone or TV had. It was filling a human need for communications and entertainment unlike any method we had seen before. It was visual and it was two-way. It was life changing, but you already know that.

You can hardly book a flight or have your kids get through school without having a computer at home. It took more than a decade for people to find the justification for having a computer. It was a matter of finding the right applications and usage model.

Personal Robotics has yet to find a useful niche. It would be only slightly speculative to propose that its path seems analogous to the evolution of the PC. As of today, there are no reasons for people to have personal robots. Yet among college and younger students, robotics is the hottest thing to be involved in. So some of the best and youngest minds in the tech world are thinking about this. The Robotics Generation is at work in universities and maybe in your kid’s bedroom. The technology is promising; what is missing is the reason to be.What human problem could personal robotics solve?

Before we try to answer that, let’s define in simple terms what a robot is.

Basically a robot is a machine that has sensors that help it perceive what is going on around it - sensors for sight, sound, scent or touch in any combination. A brain of some sort that can process information that it already knows or combines with what it gathers from its sensors. It must have locomotion, some sort of ability to move, at least a part of itself. A true robot is autonomous, that is, it should be able to operate without direct human interaction commanding it. (So some of Robot Wars’ tin soldiers don’t qualify because they are really just remote control operated vehicles….even if they wield buzz saw blades and sledge hammers.)

So, sensors + processor + locomotion = robot.

Here’s the surprise, you already have a device like this! Some clues?

It weighs more than a ton, has four wheels and guzzles gasoline. That’s right, your car. Most people are not aware that their cars have more computing power than is found in the average Mac or PC. Your most powerful computer is not in your shoulder bag or desktop. Nope. It is parked at the curb.

The modern, safer, less polluting car has computers that run your ignition system, anti-theft system, GPS, radio, ABS brakes. Each of these systems has sensors that help your car intelligently adjust to conditions it encounters. Your car knows that it is at a higher elevation and adjusts the air/fuel mix. It knows when you are away from you car and it senses when someone is trying to break in. It may also know how heavy or large the person is on each individual seat so it can deploy airbags with the proper force. The other requirement for a robot is that it needs some ability to move…well duh, that’s easy, it’s a car!

Your car is not all the way there in its evolution toward being your first robot. It is still evolving. What is going to drive that evolution is a compelling human need. You don’t have to look too far to see the necessity. Just look out your car window and you’ll see the problem…other drivers.

They are chatting on the phone, reading the newspaper, putting on eye makeup…all while going 80 MPH on the freeway. In terms of actual driving skills, look around you, obviously it doesn’t take much to pass a driving test these days. With all the computing power in modern cars… the truth is that the car is often smarter than the driver.

Cell phones are a huge distraction and increasingly pervasive. Studies have shown that drivers talking on cell phones have vehicle piloting skills that are on par with drunk drivers and very, very senior citizens. Personal injury attorneys enthusiastically take cases when the other driver was on the phone at the time of the accident, especially since there is a record of the exact time of the accident.

Some states have enacted “hands free” cell phone laws that require drivers to use a speakerphone instead of a handset. As of yet, it seems to be having have no major positive impact on safety. The real problem isn’t busy hands; it is distracted minds. Talking on the phone is a primitive form of telepresence. When we are on the phone we are not 100% mentally in the physical space we inhabit.

Just the task of piloting a car in a crowded environment is a fairly good load on your hand eye coordination and demands constant attention. Remember our brains were designed to be moving through space at 5 MPH. Instead we are moving at 80 MPH, and we are sending our mind elsewhere through telepresence. See anything wrong here?

Okay. So let’s make it worse. Let’s add some entertainment to fill that driving time. Music or talk radio makes the trip seem more pleasant and might even keep you alert. Motorola was pretty smart putting pushbuttons on radios decades ago. Without diverting attention from the road a driver could easily change channels, easily and quickly. With satellite radio the task is more complex than pushing one of six buttons. Choosing from among hundred of stations requires your eyes to move to the radio’s display and away the road, for just a second or two. How far will you travel blindly in that time?

There is a physical challenge due to the nature of human eyesight. Looking at the road, the view may be extremely bright and your focus is to distance. Your radio display is closer and darker. Your eyes have two adjustments to make, quickly. How long will it take your eyes to adjust properly when you move your glance from the radio screen back to the road? It is a problem both of multitasking and physical limitations. Combine that with the speed at which things happen on the road and the potential for disaster is huge.

If you have been following trends in consumer electronics, you can see that there are marketeers who want to load up cars with even more gadgetry. With increased bandwidth in wireless communications, you can have satellite TV and Internet access in your car. Already manufacturers are building car PCs. Not that many people are buying them, but at some point people are going to decide they must have the Net in their car. It will probably start with mobile workers, such as sales people, just like mobile phones did, and then sweep into the general population.

Do you really want people to be watching Seinfeld or creating a PowerPoint presentation while they are driving? Worse yet…they could be playing games. (Would they choose a shooter or driving game, or are they almost the same genre now?)

We are certainly not going to be very successful at extracting cell phones from drivers’ mobile lives. Entertainment is very compelling to long distance commuters. Soon PC-like computers with keyboards, and screens will be in cars. It’s just matter of how soon. So what‘s the solution?

Here we have framed a human perfect storm for personal robots. Let people do what they would rather be doing, talking to friends, and turn the car over to an automaton. That doesn’t mean you get an android chauffeur. It means that the car itself is the robot.

Automation has always been good at removing repetitive, mind numbing tasks. People may enjoy driving but do they really enjoy an everyday, multi-hour commute? On vacation wouldn’t it be more fun to watch the scenary rather than the white line and the road signs.

We have been making baby steps toward automating cars with feature like automatic shifts and cruise control, but it would be a good time to start accelerating the effort.

The human need is apparent and automating cars could save lives and give people back hours of useful time that has been absorbed watching the road ahead and watching out for a bunch of idiot motorists with death wishes who learned to drive on a Sony Playstation. In life, there is no reset button.

There have been proposals going back decades toward creating automated cars. In most visions of automated cars, there are sensors and wires that must be embedded in the roadways to guide vehicles. Most of these proposals are overly grand. Given that our tax-averse nation is letting bridges decay and crumble at this point, a build out of infrastructure is a non-starter. If that were to happen, it we be a chicken or egg dilemma. Which would come first, the automated cars or the roadway?

There is an incremental approach that is more realistic. It more or less follows a familiar model. It is possible to use existing technologies to add automated features to individual cars. As an example, begin by widely implementing collision avoidance systems. Use simple radar or infrared devices embedded in your bumper that are connected to your breaking system. If you are closing in fast on a non-moving, or slow moving object, your brakes start to activate. This is not a huge technological leap. These sensors are found in every cheap digital camera you have been throwing away for years. ABS brakes are already computer controlled. This combination would put a stop to rear-ending collisions.

These rear-endings cause damage to both cars, but usually it is the driver in the rear that has some ‘splainin’ to do to the insurance company. Add this simple system to every car and the incremental cost increase of the new feature will be offset by lowering insurance premiums.

Global Position System (GPS) is showing up in more cars all the time. Simultaneously, many carmakers are building cars with drive-by-wire steering. In drive-by-wire steering there is no physical connection between the steering wheel and the front (steering) tires. It is like a wired remote control. As you turn the steering wheel, sensors read your movement of the wheel. It sends the front wheels a signal to turn proportionately to the right or left. It’s new in cars, but jetliners and jet fighters have been built this way for years. There is a computer in the steering system that makes this possible.

So what happens when you connect the GPS to this drive by wire system?

You wind up with a car that knows where it is going and has the ability to send signals to the front wheels when it is the right time to turn. As of today, the GPS isn’t precise enough to take a corner accurately. However, if a car is equipped with additional sensors that can sense the relationship between the GPS “image” and what it “sees” on the ground, this can be accomplished. Until then, the GPS is certainly capable of selecting the proper lane for you to be in so you don’t miss the correct turnoff from the freeway. Last minute lane changes are a major cause of freeway accidents…and just make people behind these last minute lanechangers want to smash into them on general principle.

Unlike the old models of a hardwired infrastructure approach to automated driving, we can boost the “awareness” and capability of every individual car one at a time. No chicken or egg problem. Each year the amount of robotic cars will continue to grow. Once there is a critical mass of cars, government agencies could start adding smart road features to assist these cars. Already we see state departments of transportation transmitting real time information about traffic situations that are beamed to GPS systems that are equipped with radio receivers that overlay real time traffic patterns on the GPS drawn map. Drivers can then look for alternative routes suggested by the GPS.

Not to get too geeky here. This model of building smarter cars before building out a network is much like the evolution of personal computing and the Internet. Each car is like a PC; it is a fully functional entity onto itself. Then the network comes along and makes it much more capable. But it took having a critical mass of computers in homes and business to justify the expense of building out the Internet.

One could envision giving each car a local wireless networking capability so cars could be exchanging positional information and avoid collisions. On a commercial note, there could even be car based dating services. It certainly would make for more interesting commutes.

The good news is that there is already some progress on robotic cars. No novice driver has a greater fear than the dreaded parallel parking phase of the driving test. In 2007, Toyota rolled out a significant relief to nervous drivers, the self parking Lexus L460. If you’ve seen it operate you know that is not real fast but you can see the possibilities.

It is also significant that Sony has abandoned Aibo, the robot dog. I’m not sure if there is an ASPCA or rescue organization for Aibo. It probably will be kenneled with Woody Allen’s “Rags the Dog” from “Sleeper”. What is more significant is that Sony has thrown its robotic division into partnership with Toyota. Guess what that is about?

Honda has been showcasing its walking upright, stair climbing robot for a while. This might just be part of the Japanese obsession with robots, but more likely they are planning on robotizing your car.

If that wasn’t enough of an indicator, the group that brought us the Internet, DARPA, has been sponsoring a competition for a number of years where fully autonomous robotic cars are set loose on the Mojave Desert. The results have not been stellar; at the same time the challenge has been overwhelming. The task is too ambitious. It is overkill for the robocars. As demonstrated in the cold war era, the military has had an affinity for overkill.

For passenger cars, the rough terrain and no roads are replaced by speed bumps in the parking lot, and the usual traffic urban traffic problems of an errant mattress occupying a lane of a crowded highway at rush hour.

Here again we see that digital technology can work for good, saving lives on the highway, or for more nefarious ends, creating robotic battle vehicles. For robotics technologists it is an ongoing dilemma, just as it always is for any technology.

Why isn’t it happening faster?

Is your car going to evolve to become your first personal robot? It appears likely, but there are roadblocks. The biggest problem is business. Not viability, but rather insurance. How do you punish a misbehaving automaton? Can you fine it or jail it? Technology issues can and will be resolved, the real problem is legal.

Robotic researchers have told me that the problem is a matter of product liability. What if a computer fails to stop a car, or sends a car into the wrong lane, or down a one-way street and causes an accident? Who sues whom? Is the carmaker responsible, or the owner of the car? Can my car sue your car?

Also, with your car becoming another entity on the network, it would be subject to hacking. Could your car be remotely programmed to steal itself? Could you be carjacked by a 15 year old hacker from his bedroom? Could marketeers employ “spamdriving” - exploit your robocar and direct you to their closest retail location. Perhaps not letting anyone unlock your doors with a credit card scan first?

There are a lot of questions. What we do know is that digital technology is making cars safer. It yielded better design and more reliable systems. We also know that people are reaching sensory overload as they drive. This may be a situation where we can only rescue ourselves from technology by using technology.