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Sunday, 1 April 2018

Open response to scientist Chris Verhoeven of the Delft Institute of Technology: a robot is not a pet animal. In spite of its million lines of code, it still lacks the natural ability to give affection and to love and be loved. And it doesn’t fear death or pain, as it is not aware of being alive.

big brown beastie,
big brown face,
I'd rather be with you,
than flying through space...

In 2001 – the last year as a single as I did not come to know my wife yet – I went on a group holiday to Costa Rica. It was a very special holiday that I will remember for the rest of my life. One of the dearest memories to me was riding on a horse during this holiday.

With the group we received an hour of riding instruction on a small and gentle Costarican “Rent-a-Horse” as part of an excursion. It was a life-changing event. In spite of the fact that I had not more than two minutes(!) of horse riding experience at the time, I felt an immediate click with my animal. We understood each other and I was so impressed with the own will and own decision making of my horse.

Before riding on a horse, I had a lot of driving experience on mopeds and motor bikes: the moped did everything that I wanted and if I drove it masterfully, the moped never stopped me from going where I wanted to go. Driving my moped made me very happy and alive as a sixteen year old boy!

Yet, this horse was so different. It was so much alive and aware of its own being! On narrow and slippery paths (it was rainy at the time – EL) and dry levies, it watched for the most safe and sensible way to go, as it did not want to fall itself. If the animal did not want to go where I wanted it to go, it simply refused to walk. It seemed on a journey by itself to make this ‘one off’ jockey have a nice and safe ride. And I did!

The next day I was still so full of my ride, that a few group members and I decided to rent a horse for almost a day and ride through the beautiful Costarican landscape. It was a ride I will never forget and even though it was not exactly ‘safe’ to gallop on the slippery paths in the pouring rain with virtually no experience, I was so happy that I did it. My horse pulled me through that they and I loved it ever since! Even while my bottom hurt for a week or more after this ride.

I reflected upon this dear memory, when I read an article in Het Financieele Dagblad containing an interview with a scientist in robotics of the Delft Institute of Technology (TU Delft), Chris Verhoeven.

He argued that people should look at robots and robotized vehicles as a kind of animals. Then the initial fear and reluctance of using them would vanish, to be replaced for a relation based on trust and confidence. Here are the pertinent snips of this must-read interview:

“Yes, also with a self-driving vehicle something can go wrong. But in earlier years this could also happen with the equally autonomous horse and we never abolished that”, states Chris Verhoeven of the TU Delft Robotics Institute. To build up a ‘bond of confidence with your robot, that is the point.

Verhoeven is a very popular speaker about what he calls, ‘the robotic trinity’. In that he sees the robot as the physical manifestation of the information that is available via the ‘Internet of Things’ and Big Data.

A conversation with Verhoeven leads to surprising insights. He calls the difference between science and religion ‘fragile’, talks about ‘little drones fluttering around on Schiphol’, looking for drugs in your luggage. And he talks about ‘believing in your robot’, which is – by the way – an ‘electric animal’.

I always start to tell that robots are animals. I specifically say ‘are’, not ‘are akin to’. A very important characteristic of an animal – look at a dog or a horse – is that it is autonomous. When you look at a farmer, ploughing a piece of land with a horse, then the horse is autonomous, but it listens to the farmer.

At this moment we have the feeling that we need to be in control. But ‘in command’ means that the autonomous system listens to you. There is a situation of ordination, a relation based on trust.

The farmer and his ploughing horse, in which the horse knew very well what it should do, that was an autonomous system.

[Consequently - EL] It is very good to realize that we have been there before. An autonomous truck is like horse and carriage. An autonomous car is a horse. You can step on a horse drunk and it will bring you home safely anyway”.

I totally dig what Chris Verhoeven states here and I fully understand where he comes from.

Yet, I utterly disagree with what Verhoeven has to say and I even think that especially the red and bold parts are quite dangerous. I want to write my response to Verhoeven with the image of my beloved ‘Rent-a-horse’ in mind.

Yes, my horse is autonomous and so is the robot. 

My horse was born and grown as an animal and it had to find his way through life from being a young foal to the old, retired horse that he one day will have become.

So the autonomy is what Verhoeven’s robot and my horse had in common. But that is where the similarities end, as far as I’m concerned.

My horse is alive. It knows and understands that it is alive, even though it probably can’t grasp the impact of this notion. My horse feels pain and fear and it wants to protect itself from experiencing pain and fear. In order to do so, it must not only protect itself from it, but also the horseman on his back.

Further, some horses are genuine heroes and other horses are a little more cowardice, when it comes to what they (don’t) dare to do. That is what makes every horse one of a kind.

Even though the trust in their horsemen is nearly endless, there can always be a moment that the horse says “No way, José!”. Everybody who saw a jockey fly through the air in front of a barrier during a horse show, knows that his horse pulled the ‘emergency brake’. At that moment the twenty-odd years of riding experience of the jockey suddenly don’t count anymore for the horse.

Almost certainly the horse feels affection and perhaps even love for his master or mistress, which gives them a bond for a lifetime. When one of those two must have to go, both feel the pain and sorrow of loss and grief. That is not autonomy, that is being alive.

The robot, however, is not alive and will never experience what it is to be alive. It will do the things it is programmed to do and it will learn the things that it is capable of learning. But it will never feel emotions like joy, fear, grief, pleasure and love. It will always be an intelligent and self-learning, but further utterly dead tool. Unless things will change dramatically in the next few decades.

Drones fly, because its their raison d'etre. Driving robots and autonomous cars and trucks drive, as that is for which they are designed. Killer robots kill without blinking an eye or thinking about the impact of such a deed, as that is for which THEY are designed. 

But it will never give them joy, pleasure, pain, grief or sorrow. These emotional capabilities are not in their package. Just because they are NOT alive. 

When an autonomous car crashes, because its software, its internet connection or its sensors let it down at a crucial moment, it will crash without experiencing any humane or animal emotion.

It. Just. Crashes! Killing itself and perhaps killing everybody inside it. Without pain or remorse.

And when an autonomous car or truck drives into an adolescent kid, an old lady or a child, killing it at the spot, it will feel no pain, sorrow or grief. It came to the end of its lifecycle without ever realizing what went wrong.

When I feel trust and confidence in an autonomously driving car or truck, it is because I trust its programmers and software testers to do the right thing overtime. And I trust time to have uncovered the most dangerous bugs during the various testing cycles. Just like what happened with the auto-pilots in airplanes.  

Therefore I am quite certain that I will start to have confidence in autonomous vehicles, when they pass me by on the road. Not now at this moment, but in a decade of testing and after painful, sometimes deadly accidents that kill innocent people.

But trust it or love it like an animal, like Verhoeven suggests?! Never! Even the suggestion is ridiculous.

And by the way, roads in the Wild West were littered with cowboys who thought that their horse would bring them home safely, in spite of their drunkenness.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

When your business case is under fire and your stakeholders don’t listen to you the way they used to do, you can always turn to some old-fashioned fearmongering… thinks the Dutch aviation industry

It has been the talk of the town during the last year.
Lelystad Airport, the new to develop airport in the polder of the “self-built” Dutch province Flevoland was designed to function as an overflow valve for Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, in order to relieve this mainport from its “dreaded”, low-budget charter passengers that bring in too little money and sales.

Due to government regulation based upon the maximum allowed hindrance for the Dutch citizens caused by noise pollution and polluted air coming from the national airport, Schiphol has a flight cap of roughly 500,000 slots (i.e. flights)  per year.  And this maximum number of flights per year has been approaching with a bedazzling speed.

By employing Lelystad Airport as the designated charter flight airport, Schiphol would be able to keep the more lucrative transit and business passengers in Amsterdam and still remain within the maximum number of slots per year. The charter passengers would then be banished to the polder where on a “pasture” in the middle-of-nowhere their flight would leave to their sunny destinations.

This was the plan!

Even though the maximally planned 45,000 flights per annum for Lelystad Airport would only be a drop in the ocean for the ever growing, ever slot-hungry airport Schiphol, it was a beginning.

The employment of Lelystad Airport had to be done in combination with the execution of Schiphol’s further plans to bend and massage the maximum number of 500,000 slots per year to a slightly higher number of say 520,000 – 530,000 slots per year.

Schiphol tried to do this via a broad and cunning lobby with direct access to ‘The Hague’, in combination with new arithmetical ways of measuring the noise pollution from the national airport.

As a matter of fact, Schiphol’s measurements of noise pollution were (virtually) never based upon real life checks with microphones and other sensitive measuring equipment on all kinds of locations close to the airport.

No, with the help of computer models and algorithms, the amount of noise pollution was calculated for the different living areas close to Schiphol, based upon weather data, physical data for sound transfer and known physical noise data from existing airplanes.

These calculations were made by research institutes that had traditionally strong ties with Schiphol, such as the National Aviation and Spacetravel centre (i.e. NLR) in The Netherlands. And the results were laid down in a so-called Environmental Effects Report (i.e. MER in Dutch).

Last year, a new MER was produced by Schiphol that “disclosed” that growth of almost 5% in the number of 500,000 slots would be feasible, due to a new way of measuring the noise pollution and due to the fact that the future airplanes would become more silent, fuel efficient and modern in the coming years.

Silent and fuel efficient engines were the panacea that would enable the further necessary growth for Schiphol on both Schiphol itself, as well as on Lelystad Airport.

Everybody happy, right?! Wrong!

Unfortunately for Schiphol, a few people – among which the now “infamous”  ICT engineer Leon Adegeest – ran the gauntlett and started to thoroughly check Schiphol’s Environmental Effect Report for Lelystad Airport. They found it to be laden with calculation errors, deliberate(?) false measurements and perhaps a lot of wishful thinking.

The following snippets are from, from an article of October, 2017:

When an airplane flies on low altitude, this causes more noise pollution than when an airplane flies on high altitude. There is nothing strange about that. Nevertheless, in research from the National Aviation and Spacetravel centre NLR into the environmental effects and the accompanying noise pollution coming from Lelystad Airport, it was quoted totally differently.

In the data that had been used in the research, it was stated that an airplane on 900 meters altitude does not cause noise pollution. Leon Adegeest of the action group HoogOverijssel (i.e. High Overijssel) became very suspicious and started an investigation himself.

Two weeks ago the error in the calculation of the ministry was discovered. “The ministry used airplane characteristics for landing and take off, that were totally unrealistic and produced extremely low noise statistics as a consequence of this lack of realism”, according to Adegeest. “In our investigation we used more realistical profiles and therefore we found soon where the differences came from”.  

These discoveries by Adegeest, as well the never desisting lobby on the social media of Adegeest and his sympathizers (including yours truly) put the floodgates open with respect to Lelystad Airport. An old Minister for the Environment even invented the verb “Schiphollen” for not telling the truth and rigging the results of scientific investigations.

Suddenly all Environmental Effects Reports and other information regarding possible passenger growth coming from the likes of Schiphol, were distrusted by the Dutch people: not only for Lelystad Airport, but also with regards to Schiphol itself. The people felt for the umpteenth time betrayed by their government with unreal data and much too optimistical stories about the positive effects of aviation in The Netherlands, while totally ignoring the negative effects of this passenger growth for safety and national health.

The Dutch people living in the mid-country provinces felt sacrificed for the interests of Schiphol and Lelystad Airport, especially when it became clear that airplanes coming from Lelystad Airport would remain on a very low altitude (approximately 2 kilometers) for hundreds of kilometers, in order not to interfere with the airplanes taking off from Schiphol itself.

After this situation had festered for a few months, the new Minister for Infrastructure and Waterworks, Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, could hardly do anything else than postponing the opening of Lelystad Airport from early 2019 to 2020 or even later.

And now the mess for Schiphol was complete: their cherished Lelystad Airport would remain closed for at least one more year, with an increasing risk that it would never open at all. This as a consequence of mounting public pressure upon the political leaders and the increasing odds of losing the business case, due to environmental hazards.

On top of that, also Schiphol’s own MER was put under intensified scrutiny as a consequence of the errors in the MER for Lelystad Airport and the assumption that Schiphol’s MER could be error-prone itself due to flawed calculations based upon wrong assumptions. This put the desired expansion of the number of slots under serious jeopardy.

As a matter of fact the whole business model of Schiphol and the airlines it services is based on unhampered, steady growth until “eternity”. Every year Schiphol wants more globally operating airlines, more slots, more passengers, more freight, more destinations and more sales in their countless shops, restaurants and bars and real estate buildings. In their world standing still means trailing behind the global competition.

This was the reason that Schiphol, and especially the whole aviation industry connected to the national airport, wrote a pressing letter to the press, thus ringing the alarm bell ‘for the future of the airport’.  

Here are the pertinent snippets from an AD-article:

When the cabinet decides to lock up Schiphol up to and including 2020, this will come at the expense of employment, the establishment climate for new businesses and the attainableness [of The Netherlands – EL] as a whole. This warning was administered by various stakeholders of Schiphol, among which KLM, Easyjet, Corendon, travel organization ANVR, labour unions CNV and VNV and the logistical industry organizations TLN and Evofendex.

The number of flights that comes and goes to and from Schiphol has almost reached its peak level of 500,000 flights per year. Recently the cabinet decided not to water down the agreements with respect to this number of flights up to and including 2020. By doing this, the government does not wait for the results of a new report with respect to the reduction of hindrance for the people living around Schiphol, according to the parties involved.

In a joint statement, these companies speak of an unresponsable blockade of the airport and they want to quickly deliberate with minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen of Infrastructure, in order to come to “appropriate agreements”. 

The parties point towards a paragraph in the government agreement, regarding more silent and clean airplanes, that leaves room for further growth.

Of course I understand these people. When your whole business case is based upon the notion that you have to grow over and over again in order to stay in the business, this letter makes very much sense.

And of course, even when Schiphol plays a “neutral role” in this letter (see the unprinted remainder of this article in the AD newspaper), in order to not offend the Dutch national government, it is logical that the airport also wants to grow to at least 600,000 slots per year.

Nevertheless, as the situation around Lelystad Airport already showed out, it is extremely complicated to accommodate more than half a million flights per year in a very small country like The Netherlands; especially when these flights have to take off and land on no less than 5 main airports (Schiphol Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Lelystad and Maastricht Aachen Airport) within a very limited amount of air space. And all these airports need to have their own slice of the air space pie in order to service their passengers quickly and safely.

The fact that flights from Lelystad have to remain at two kilometers of altitude for dozens or hundreds of kilometers of their flight path shows how darn difficult it is to offer safe airspace for all these travellers. And this will only become worse when Schiphol Airport wants to grow to say 600,000 slots.

Of course, what all these airliners and other stakeholders of Schiphol want to point out with their letter is not only fearmongering. Things might indeed become a little harder for these stakeholders when Schiphol can’t grow anymore… But it is not as if their sheer future and existence is on the line when further growth is not possible!

A situation of unhampered growth for aviation in The Netherlands is utopian, due to the limited air space, the very dense population and the consequential safety precautions that must be above average to keep the Dutch people safe.

It is just not so that the whole current air fleet visiting The Netherlands will turn into green, electrical airplanes alone tomorrow and that all the noisy kerosine guzzlers avoid Schiphol all of a sudden. Noise pollution and particulates from kerosine burning will still have their influence on the mental and physical health of the Dutch population and safety of airplanes will remain an issue for the future in such a densely populated country.

Instead of trying to avoid the inevitable by ringing the alarm bells and sending pressing letters to the news media, the aviation industry could better think of a future with stable or even slightly declining numbers of slots. Just because they can’t keep on growing forever!

Friday, 30 March 2018

Will Cambridge Analytica-gate eventually force Facebook to traverse The Road to Golgotha, in order to be sacrificed for its criminally negligent and brutal behaviour?! I won’t shed a tear about it!

The success of social media platform Facebook is bedazzling. Over two billion users, of which at least one billion users logs in on a nearly daily basis. And in 2017 alone the company presented sales figures to the tune of €40 billion.

Facebook is the glue that binds numerous families and friend networks together and on top of it, it is the main (if not only) supplier of internet at remote spots of the world. And with the ownership of instant messaging app Whatsapp, the company is also the undisputed champion of the free message services.

And so, in less than 15 years, Facebook became one of the most important brands in the world of internet and social media; only surpassed in size by Google and far removed from the other social networks, like Twitter and Instagram.

But Facebook is also a controversial company, that is constantly hovering on the fine line between legal and illegal behaviour in its massive hunger for more advert sales, more tradeable user data and more addictive influence on its end-users.

In a way, Facebook acts like a drugs dealer who offers a very addictive and free product in order to make people addicted to its service. And then the people will pay…!

Some years ago I had become a part of the Facebook network, lured to it by the pictures and stories of some highschool friends from a long time ago. As opposed to Twitter, which immediately attracted me and reeled me in with its endless flow of (sometimes very) interesting short messages, fun and news flashes, I always had a love/hate relationship with Facebook. That never changed over the years.

In the beginning I used it as a tool to distribute my articles and occasionally I deliberatly posted something about myself, but for the rest I kept a very low profile there.

I was not particularly interested in knowing everything that my old and new friends and acquaintances did in their work or leisure time, unless I heard it from them in person. And I never felt the urge to share “everything” about myself or my family with the people on Facebook, only to see it go ‘viral’… which it of course never does.  

That, in combination with the sometimes utterly boring content of “shiny, happy people having a ball every day of the week in restaurants, bars and holiday resorts” and the increasingly shameless begging of companies and people to like them on Facebook for their own purposes, made that my sympathy for the social network dropped quickly below zero.

On top of that, through the years the stories kept on coming about Facebook further and further bending the rules regarding privacy and fair use of content put there by Facebook users. And especially regarding ownership of pictures, videos and whatever. The Golden Rule seemed: If you put it on Facebook, it belongs to Facebook!

As really nobody bothered to read the King Size-length Terms of Service of Facebook, the company used this knowledge to ‘bury’ all kinds of quite intrusive permissions and privileges on behalf of itself in the bottom of the conditions: You clicked on the tickbox that you accepted our conditions and thus you are supposed to have read those conditions. So hey hey… fooled you all, you bloody muppets!

And one day a few years ago, I discovered that Facebook automatically posted all my tweets on Facebook too. Even though I had certainly permitted this service earlier (probably without realizing this thoroughly), it was shocking to discover that I was not the “boss” with regards to what I wanted to post on the internet and where I wanted to post it. Facebook seemed to get an uncontrolled life of its own by scraping every utterance I did on every social platform together and putting it on their own platform.

I found a way to unregister myself from Facebook – with the help of other giant Google of course – and fought against the urge to have a peek at Facebook anyway in the two week cool down period. After two weeks it was finally over and done with! At least, that is what I hope.

I kept on using Whatsapp, even though I know this is a Facebook company, but that is all! I never went back again and I don’t miss it at all, even though the pictures and stories of old friends and interesting people keep sometimes luring me after all.

And then, a few weeks ago, I was pointed over and over again to the undeniable truth twice that it was a wise decision to abolish this social network in September, 2015.

One reason was the infamous Cambridge Analytic scandal that exposed the shameless hubris of two companies that think they can get away with litterally everything and that don’t scare away of blatantly manipulating 50 million people into chosing arguably the worst American president ever.

And of those 50 million people, at least 49 million were absolutely not aware that their profiles had been unwillingly surrendered as a consequence of an online survey that some friends or vague acquaintances of them did. They were simple guinea pigs for the Masters of the Universe that manipulated them. A simple means for making loads of money. Nuff said!

The second reason was in a way even more shocking for its boldness and ruthlessness. It was casually mentioned in a radio program of BNR News Radio in The Netherlands.

Facebook, they said, collected all the caller, call and SMS data from telephones that Facebook members used and posted those extremely private data to the network. Just, because they could do so!

Why. The. Hell. Would. A. Company. Do. That?!

What is the purpose? What is the point?

Unless you want to collect litterally everything from people, in order to be able to treat them as utter puppets on a string or to milk them as cows from their data?!

Which person in his right mind would take such brutally intrusive measures with only half a permission, coming from people he knows they didn’t read their rights and duties regarding the social network.

But now, finally now… it seems that Facebook went too far for their patient and perhaps even ignorant users to get away with these facts!

The outbreak of public outrage on Twitter cannot be simply overlooked and the chance that this ‘simply blows over’ is quite dim, as far as I’m concerned. A substantial number of high profile private and corporate users “has called it a day” with respect to the social network and has ended their subscription or their advertizing on it. Good for them!  

On top of that, both the administrations of the United States and the European Union, as well as the British government, have demanded a good explanation from Facebook highest ranked official (i.e. Mark Zuckerberg himself) about ‘what the hell’ went on there with Cambridge Analytica. And many more governments might follow in their footsteps.

As far as I’m concerned two things might happen here, after these events.

Either Mark Zuckerberg might be forced to step down as commander-in-chief of Facebook, only to be followed up by someone with less ‘virtual grease’ on his archetypical grey shirt. Or Facebook itself is split up for being too dangerously influential and too powerful a tool to be continued ‘as is’.

Whatever will happen in the coming period, I think it will become the end of the utterly powerful and dangerous monstrosity that Facebook had become. Either by itself or forced ‘at gunpoint’ by the international administrations and govenments around the globe.

Therefore I advise the executive management of Google, LinkedIn, Vkontakte (Russian social network) and many other social networks and information crunching companies all over the world to watch closely how the events unfold in the coming weeks and months.

It might save them from having to traverse the Road to Golgotha themselves…

For Facebook it is probably too late! And I won’t shed a tear about this, even though I fully understand that Facebook is the only access to internet in various countries. But such a shameless company does not deserve to exist anymore!