Category Archives: Business

Manzanedo and Trepat on “Positive Platforms”

Many people see the gig economy to be the “new way of work”, enabled by a variety of software “platforms” implementing on-demand labor markets (think ‘Uber’) (e.g., this, this, this).

Whatever the merits of this platform technology might be, it is clear that they are often not particularly beneficial for the workers or local economies.  The prospect of a future of marginal, exploitative employment is certainly problematic, and more efficient peonage is scarcely the original promise of the internet.

It is important to note, though, that these labor platforms are enabled by contemporary internet technology, but are not determined by the technology. By that I mean that there are many ways that such markets can be organized, operated, and governed while using the exact same ubiquitous digital technology.

The door is open to experimentation.

For example, the Platform Cooperativism movement proposes to use the same technology with user/worker owned cooperative models. The disrupters are easily disrupted.  “Seize the means of production“. Etc.

Platform Cooperativism is scarcely the end of the story, though.  Just what should we build from this technology?

This fall, Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat published a report for the Institute of the Future, “Designing positive platforms” [2].  Their focus is “governance”, i.e., how the operation is run, and how decisions are made. While they take internet technology as written, they believe that it can be used in “positive” ways, by which they mean positive from the point of view of the workers, i.e., those who create the value via the platform.

The gig economy runs entirely on online social platforms that connect people, knowledge, and opportunities for meaningful collaborative work.” ([2], p. 2)

What they want to do is come up with and promote concrete design principles, to transform the gig economy for the better.

By breaking down the designing of positive platform into concrete steps and actions, Manzanedo and Trepat hope to persuade more start-ups, cooperatives, nonprofits, and even corporations to integrate positive principles in their governance — and potentially transform the gig economy for the better.” [1]


They define “positive” to mean shared decision making and adequate benefits from the work.  Their approach focuses on governance, which is the design of decision making.  They break this down into three important facets ([2], p.3):

  • Ownership (property of capital and its entailed rights / accountability instead of ownership in the case of networks)
  • Value (value generation and value distribution processes within the organization)
  • Power (rights, processes and structures for decision-making)

The paper sketches five design principles (which are related and overlapping):

  1. Inclusion
  2. Participation
  3. Autonomy
  4. Recognition of the Generated Value
  5. Welfare

The report discusses examples from existing organizations, and points out known challenges.  They also highlight “positive practices”, i.e., good examples from the organizations examined.

One recurring challenge is scale. Some approaches work fine for a handful of people who can know and trust each other well.  But the approach may well break down at larger scales, where people cannot know each other.   Similarly, fully democratic decision making that works for a small group is difficult to maintain at large scale for many reasons.

Overall, I don’t think there is anything completely new here, but it is an interesting and pretty comprehensive survey of the challenges and prospects for democratic governance.

Personally, I’m not as sold on digital technology as these researchers are. There is really good reason to think that digital interactions are less personal and less pleasant than face to face.  This may or may not be an issue for governance and decision making.  I tend to think it is inherently depersonalizing and promotes many hidden biases (e.g., by privileging digital skills and amplifying some voices over others).

Nevertheless, digital technology is ubiquitous, so we need to learn how to use it well.  This report is a useful guide to start thinking about better ways to do things.


  1. Nithin Coca (2018) Institute for the Future report outlines a worker-centered design for gig economy platforms. Shareable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/report-outlines-how-gig-economy-platforms-that-takes-workers-rights-into-account
  2. Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat, Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach. Institute For The Future, Palo Alto, 2017. http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/ppj/DesigningPositivePlatforms_for_IFTF.pdf

 

Slow Down, Work Better?

The contemporary “Gig Economy” is said to be the New Way of Working. Freelance workers are “free” to hustle for gigs and work as much or as little as they want.

But people are still people, and work still sucks, mostly.

But workers are on their own.


It isn’t too surprising to me that both the Coworking Movement and the Freelancers Union are coming to talk about mental health.  Liz Elam includes “wellness” and dealing with loneliness as a top megatrend in coworking.

And this month, Sensei Tyra Seldon muses on “slowing down” in the Freelancers Union Blog.

I admit that my reaction to here headline, “Can slowing down make you more productive?” was, “I hope the answer is, ‘yes’?”  For one thing, going slow is definitely in my personal wheelhouse. : – )  But also, advancing faster by moving slower is a natural strength of older workers, who face brutal challenges in the gig economy.

Anyway, what Sensei Seldon is actually talking about is not so much working slower, as living simpler.  In particular, she’s talking about turning it off.

She starts with the ubiquitous problem of digital distraction. Recording how she spends her time yielded alarming results: lot’s of activity, much of it irrelevant.

Whereas I thought my 60-hour weeks were signs of my being a dedicated entrepreneur and being uber productive, this reality check proved otherwise.

She did the obvious experiment, i.e., turning it off.  Spending more time in face-to-face conversations.  She also started to redefine “productivity”, to include “things that were meaningful and valuable”, such as meditation, prayer, and journalng.

And she liked it.

Even better, she worked better.

I don’t think I can fully go back to the person who I was


I’m not in the least surprised by Seldon’s experience.  There is a large and growing literature that tells us that constant digital engagement is bad for you in many ways. (here, here, here, here, here, here)

It is also true that one of the principle reasons that contemporary coworking was created is to deal with the need for face-to-face interactions.  Today’s workers are well connected digitally, but many are more socially isolated than ever.   It is important not just to unplug to take care of yourself, we have to take care of each other. The best way to do that is to talk face-to-face.

These problem have been around for a long time.  Working in a conventional organization is generally just as bad or worse as freelancing in this regard. In a conventional job, it isn’t easy to tell your boss that you don’t look busy because you are doing something more important than her deliverables.

The best thing here is that Freelancers actually can unplug and focus on more than being “busy”.  In this, the contemporary Gig Economy is directly attacking one of the most critical problems facing contemporary workers.  If Freelancing and Coworking end up actually helping people  live a better life, then they will be counted as great and successful innovations in working.


  1. Tyra Seldon, Can slowing down make you more productive?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/01/15/can-slowing-down-make-you-more-productive-2/

Liz Elam on the Future of Coworking

Liz Elam is the visible face of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, and a major advocate for the coworking “industry”.  This fall she wrote about Coworking Megatrends for 2018.

Sensei Elam makes some interesting observations.  She gives four trends:

  • Demand (especially, large corporations)
  • WeWork (is expanding and diversifying and aggressively marketing)
  • Scarcity of Resources (especially, community leaders)
  • Health (wellness and loneliness)

Elam is excited that “15% of the SP 500 have entered the coworking world”, though I’m not really sure what all “enter” means.  One thing it means is investment in coworking in a variety of permutations, “with more brands adding in coliving, coffee shops, retail and build to suit arrangements”.

WeWork has been aggressively expanding, underselling competitors, and generally being bad neighbors.  Elam comments that they are also diversifying and “losing focus on the original workspace vision”. (I have never heard her criticize any coworking operation before this.)

She sees a “scarcity of resources”, by which she means that investors are finding a dearth of investments, “they’re not finding enough operators that are willing, and able to scale.”  (Conversely, this means that there is a glut of money available.)  The most critical resource of all is community leadership, and experienced people are “in great demand and hard to retain”.

Finally, Elam continues to emphasize wellness. She echoes the growing concern about loneliness (which, by the way, has been a problem since the invention of cities).  She points out that “Coworking is the solution” to loneliness.


In a follow up with Sensei Cat Johnson, Elam emphasizes that health is at the end because it is the most important trend. This is a trendy topic, and who isn’t in favor of “healthy”?  But she emphasizes that there needs to be a serious commitment, not just boxes checked. Operators need “to make sure nobody is actively thinking about committing suicide in your space”.

Elam also has frank words for coworking operators who face fatal competition from WeWork.

When WeWork does start to hurt you—and they will—you’ve got to be able to survive it. You just need to survive because members will come back, and they’ll come back in droves because you offer a more meaningful and smaller community…We have a very clear advantage, but you’ve got to survive to be in the game.

This is a somewhat apocalyptic vision, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this contradicts her own rosy conclusion “that Coworking will continue to thrive, evolve and take over the world.

Elam is usually a loud advocate for the coworking industry, so it is very interesting to see her rather tough critiques of the industry. Despite her often corp-speak rhetoric, she seems to understand the original and true innovation of coworking is community, community, community.


I hold that coworking was invented to deal with the isolation of independent workers, and when it works well, it probably is a “cure” for loneliness.  Implied but unsaid by Elam is the question whether piles of corporate money, branding, and diverse “services” are likely to deliver community and happiness.

My own view is that they are antithetical to authentic community, and Elam’s comments about “a more meaningful and smaller community” is telling.  So is her use of the word “We” in the next sentence.  She seems to think so, too.

One wonders what may unfold at the 2018 GCUC meeting.  Elam promises a “really frank discussion” of the WeWork threat.  But will the rest of the meeting be about authentic community, or about how to clone WeWork?


  1. Liz Elam, The Coworking Megatrends for 2018, in LinkedIn – Pulse. 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coworking-megatrends-2018-liz-elam/
  2. Cat Johnson, Digging Deeper Into The Coworking Megatrends Of 2018: A Q&A With Liz Elam, in AllWork. 2017. https://allwork.space/2017/12/digging-deeper-into-the-coworking-megatrends-of-2018-a-qa-with-liz-elam/
  3. Cat Johnson, The Evolution of the Shared Workspace Industry (and Where We’re Going Next), in Cat Johnson content. 2018. https://catjohnson.co/evolution-shared-workspace-industry/

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.

Tyra Seldon on “co-working with virtual strangers”

Sensei Tyra Seldon muses this month on “co-working with virtual strangers”.

These days terminology about work is confused and ambiguous, and it turns out that she is not specifically talking about “coworking” in the sense of physically sharing a coworking space.  And “virtual strangers” is not the metaphorical “as good as” strangers, but rather strangers known only through digital communications.

In short, she is describing digitally enabled distributed work groups. And her point is that freelancers not only can but should work in such teams.

we become members of shared virtual workspaces without leaving our homes or offices.”

Seldon sketches the plethora of software that makes these collaborations possible.

(Aside:  you youngsters have no idea how lucky you are. In my day, we built all this stuff from scratch – making it up as we went along, and with only 1% of the storage and bandwidth you have on your tablet.  Kid’s today have it easy. : – ))

Sensei Seldon advises that there are benefits, including “skills gained, resources generated, and relationships established”. She hints at the risks to be watched, such as contracts and payments.  The important thing to note is that these are really no different than the risks and benefits of any collaboration.

working with virtual strangers is going to be a significant part of the future of freelancing and gig economy jobs.

Seldon is correct, though I would say she understates the case by far.

First of all, the gig economy is pretty much designed with virtual teams in mind. Freelancing today is, almost by definition, going to involve virtual teams. So, no news there.

Second, these technologies were developed in conventional organizations which have geographically dispersed teams. There is a vast academic literature about the benefits and limitations of these work practices. My own summary would be that it has its strengths and weaknesses, but it is extremely cost effective so it is here to stay.

Third, I’ll point out that the contemporary Coworking Movement is a response and antidote to the isolation of working “without leaving our homes or offices”.  In a coworking space workers will find a face-to-face community of collaborators.  There the teams will use the digital tools as Seldon describes, but will also be able to talk in person and generally be less “strangers” to each other.  For many workers, this is the best part of working in a coworking space.

I would say that coworking spaces were developed to try to get the benefits of digital collaboration while mitigating the perils of isolation and distrust of virtual strangers. It’s a lot easier to establish trust and mutual respect face-to-face.

In short, Coworking spaces are designed to be where freelance workers collaborate.

I’ll note that the coworking movement has elaborated the perceived benefits of these collaborations far beyond Seldon’s own testimony, including enhanced happiness, productivity, and serendipity.  See perhaps [1-3].

So, I would agree with Sensei Seldon, though I honestly don’t think Freelancers have the option to not work in virtual groups. And I would strongly encourage freelancers to explore local coworking spaces (don’t stop at the first one, find one that fits), which may well be even more beneficial.


  1. Lori  Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=ybFCrgEACAAJ
  2. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf?dl=0
  3. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0. 2012. https://www.seats2meet.com/downloads/The_Serendipity_Machine.pdf
  4. Tyra Seldon, Can co-working with virtual strangers enhance your freelancing business?, in Freelancers Union. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/11/30/can-co-working-with-virtual-strangers-enhance-your-freelancing-business/

 

 

What is Coworking

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.

Crowd Sourced Research Projects

There are many “citizen science” initiatives, and many of them are variations on crowd sourcing. One prominent example, Zooniverse, is a veritable cottage industry creating one crowd sourced project after another. These projects employ ordinary people, AKA “citizens”, in real scientific research.

These collaborations can be very effective, magnifying the efforts of our few remaining professional scientists and research dollars. Unfortunately, in most cases, the civilians are employed in routine, low skill roles. In the case of Zooniverse, the projects are almost exclusively visual (or aural) recognition tasks, asking people to look for significant objects in visual (or sound) data. These internet volunteers occupy the ecological niche that we used to pay students to fill, back when we had money for scientific research.

Is it possible to have more people participate in science in more interesting ways?


In the last couple of years, a Stanford-Santa Cruz project has deployed digital collaboration tools to create “Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories,” [1] The idea is to involve volunteers from around the globe in the full array of research activities, including decision making, problem solving, and professional publishing.

Most important of all, the projects were not reduced to “Mechanical Turk” microtasks, but functioned more like actual science labs. The projects were organized akin to conventional university research, directed by a professional Principle Investigator, with institutional techincal support. The participants were recruited through open calls, and invited to study, investigate, propose, and critique the research problems.

The Crowd Research project uses techniques and tools familiar from virtual organizations and collaborative on-line work. Each project developed milestones, which were reviewed in periodic (weekly) meetings. These tasks might involve many familiar research activities, including reading papers, interviewing informants, generating ideas, or prototyping.

The large number of responses are peer evaluated to select a handful to discuss in the video conference. This process is essentially the same as reddit-style upvoting. It is interesting that “randomized a double-blind assignment, anonymous feedback was needlessly negative and evaluative” ([1], p. 834), so they use completely public reviews.

A small group of participants connects to the live video discussion, others can participate through digital comments and anyone can view the archived meeting. The weekly meeting discusses the top submissions, and decides what to do next. The PI may assign reading or other training activities. In some cases, an individual may be designated to lead execution of a particular milestone, e.g., when multiple efforts need to be coordinated.

I note that participating in the video conference is a “prize” for submitting a high rated response to the milestone. This converts the mandatory, “oh, no, not another meeting” situation, into a sought-after opportunity to meet the PI and top colleagues. I.e., this is an improvement over many collaborations, virtual or physical.

The project results are written up to meet profession style and standards. The contributions of individuals are visible in the digital collaborations, so the paper can assign credit as due. This is a significant opportunity for the participants to achieve visible academic credentials that usually are only garnered by students at elite schools.

The Crowd Research project created a decentralized system to assign credit to the contributions of each person. This helps the PI write letters of recommendation, even when the research group is too large and distributed to know every individual.

The Crowd Research Initiative has evaluated these techniques in a metastudy [1]. The digital infrastructure makes it possible to not only track participation, but also who did what. They document that most of the final ideas originated from “the crowd”, and most of the writing also was done by the crowd. It is important to note that this is about the same as a university lab, except the participants are not limited to selected enrolled students.

While there was little formal screening of participants, there was high attrition that filtered out the majority of initial sign ups. Many were not able to commit enough time due to other commitments, though there are also indications that some lost interest in the work as it developed.

The researchers document the relatively democratic spread of access and benefit from the experience. With publications and letters from PIs, many students gained admission to programs of study that they otherwise would not have.

The reputation system was correlated with the assignment of authorship and acknowledgement on the publications. Their algorithm (similar to PageRank) tended to reflect concrete contributions (such as checkins), though it was still possible to game the system to increase personal credit.

In their recent paper, they draw conclusions about “How to run a bad Crowd Research project” ([1], p. 838). They note the need to expect drop outs and conflict, and suggest that the project be carefully selected to match the strengths of the format. Also, as noted, they don’t recommend a competitive vibe.


This is an interesting and somewhat heroic project, harking back to the good old days when university researchers were generously supported and could tackle ambitious projects involving dozens of students.

One very important point to emphasize is that these projects were much more like “regular research”, and absolutely not the usual trivial crowd sourcing tasks. I would also say that they strongly resemble many software projects, and also collaborative non-profit projects (e.g., organizing a community workshop). I think this is not a coincidence, in that these virtual collaborations are similar social groups. As such, the lessons of Crowd Research probably should apply well to other digitally enhanced collaborations.

There are a couple of important caveats about this approach.

First, as they intimate in their anti-patterns, not every research topic or project is a good match to crowd research (or digital collaboration). A good project should “leverage scale and diversity to achieve more ambitious goals” (p. 838) I would also say that the project needs to have primarily digital deliverables. Obviously, it would be difficult to coordinate and share a single physical prototype or materials, with any digital technology.

Second, the high satisfaction of the participants, professional and non-professional, has to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, the participants were self-selected at the beginning, and through attrition. Crowd Research is well designed to create a sense of commitment and ownership in the project, at least in those who persist. However, it isn’t possible to extrapolate these results to people in general.

Even in these experiments, more than half of the initial recruits dropped out. Whatever the reason for leaving (generally, lack of time), these drop outs did not benefit and could not have a very high satisfaction with the experience. This was a great experience for a tiny, select group of people. The successful participants were highly motivated, and had skill and interest matches. This is a natural feature of collaborative research, and crowd technology neither can or should change that.

A third point to consider is that these young (mostly undergraduate students) were surely digital natives, quite used to social media and communication media such as reddit and reputation systems. This study showed that these technologies can be used effectively, at least for a self-selected group who are proficient and comfortable with these digital interactions.

It isn’t clear how universal this sort of digital literacy may be, or whether there are different styles. The study had to deal with cultural and personal conflict, but it could only deal with them within the digital arena. People who could not or would not play the game were simple not in the sample.

Obviously, technical and language limitations could preclude effective participation. In addition, people with limited vision or motor skills would be at a disadvantage. And, of course, people who lack confidence or are just shy will be hard to get.

These challenges are important issues for all digital life and digital work. Indeed, at its best, Crowd Research is a great approach, because the PI and RAs offer positive and encouraging leadership. My own view is that the attention and leadership of the PI probably spells the difference between the successful CR project and the hundreds of failed digital collaborations. In this, CR is recreating one of the ways that university education succeeds through mentoring and exposure to professional role models.


  1. Rajan Vaish, Snehalkumar S. Gaikwad, Geza Kovacs, Andreas Veit, Ranjay Krishna, Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Camelia Simoiu, Michael Wilber, Serge Belongie, Sharad Goel, James Davis, and Michael S. Bernstein, Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories, in Proceedings of the 30th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. 2017, ACM: Québec City, QC, Canada. p. 829-843. http://hci.stanford.edu/publications/2017/crowdresearch/crowd-research-uist2017.pdf

 

Ad Servers Are—Wait For It–Evil

The contemporary Internet never ceases to serve up jaw-dropping technocapitalist assaults on humanity. From dating apps through vicious anti-social media, the commercial Internet is predatory, amoral, and sickening.

This month, Paul Vines and colleagues at the University of Washington report on yet another travesty—ADINTUsing Ad Targeting for Surveillance” [1].

Online advertising is already evil (you can tell by their outrage at people who block out their trash), but they are also completely careless of the welfare of their helpless prey. Seeking more and more “targeted” advertising, these parasites utilize tracking IDs on every mobile device to track everyone of us. There is no opt in or opt out, we are not even informed.

The business model is to sell this information to advertisers who want to target people with certain interests.  The more specific the information, the higher the bids from the advertiser.  Individual ID is  combined with location information to serve up advertisements in particular physical locations. The “smart city” is thus converted into “the spam city”.

Vines and company have demonstrated that it is not especially difficult to purchase advertising aimed at exactly one person (device). Coupled with location specific information, the ad essentially reports the location and activity of the target person.

Without knowledge or permission.

As they point out, setting up a grid of these ads can track a person’s movement throughout a city.

This is not some secret spyware, or really clever data minig. The service is provided to anyone for a fee (they estimate $1000) . Thieves, predators, disgruntled exes, trolls, the teens next door. Anyone can stalk you.

The researchers suggest some countermeasures, though they aren’t terribly reassuring to me.

Obviously, advertisers shouldn’t do this. I.e., they should not sell ads that are so specific they identify a single person. At the very least, it should be difficult and expensive to filter down to one device. Personally, I wouldn’t rely on industry self-regulation, I think we need good old fashioned government intervention here.

Second, they suggest turning off location tracking (if you are foolish enough to still have it on), and zapping your MAID (the advertising ID). It’s not clear to me that either of these steps actually works, since advertisers track location without permission, and I simply don’t believe that denying permission will have any effect on these amoral blood suckers. They’ll ignore the settings or create new IDs not covered by the settings.

Sigh.

I guess the next step is a letter to the States Attorney and representatives. I’m sure public officials will understand why it’s not so cool to have stalkers able to track them or their family through online adverts.


  1. Paul Vines, Franziska Roesne, and Tadayoshi Kohno, Exploring ADINT: Using Ad Targeting for Surveillance on a Budget — or — How Alice Can Buy Ads to Track Bob. Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, 2017. http://adint.cs.washington.edu/ADINT.pdf

The “Ethical Knob” Won’t Work

If the goal was to make a splash, they succeeded.

But if this is supposed to be a serious proposal, it’s positively idiotic.

This minth Giuseppe Contissa, Francesca Lagioia, and Giovanni Sartor of the Univerity of Bloogna published a description of “the ethical knob”, which adjusts the behavior of an automated vehicle.

Specifically, the “knob” is supposed to set a one-dimensional preference whether to maximally protect the user (i.e., the person setting it) or others. In the event of a catastrophic situation where life is almost certain to be lost, which lives should the robot car sacrifice?

Their paper is published in Artificial Intelligence and Law, and they have a rather legalistic approach. In the case of a human driver, there are legals standards of liability that may apply to such a catastrophe. In general, in the law, choosing to harm someone incurs liability, while inadvertant harm is less culpable.

Extending the principles to AI cars raises the likelihood that whoever programs the vehicle bears responsibility for its behavior, and possibly liability for choices made by his or her software logic. Assuming that software can correctly implement a range of choices (which is a fact not in evidence), the question is what should designers do?

The Bologna team suggests that the solution is to push the burden of the decision onto the “user”, via a simple, one-dimensional preference for how the ethical dilemma should be solved. Someone (the driver? the owner? the boss?) can choose “altruist”, “impartial”, or “egoist” bias in the life and death decision.

This idea has been met with considerable criticism, with good reason. It’s pretty obvious that most people would select egoist, creating both moral and safety issues.

I will add to the chorus.


For one thing, the semantics of this “knob” are hazy. They envision a simple, one-dimensional preference that is applied to a complex array of situations and behavior. Aside from the extremely likely prospect of imperfect implementation, it isn’t even clear what the preference means or how a programmer should implement the feature.

Even more important, it is impossible for the “user” to have any idea what the knob actually does, and therefore to understand what the choice actually means. It isn’t possible to make an informed decision, which renders the user’s choice morally empty and quite possibly legally moot.

If this feature is supposed to shield the user and programmer from liability, I doubt it will succeed. The implementation of the feature will surely be at issue. Pushing a pseudo-choice to the user will not insulate the implementer from liability for how the knob works, or any flaws in the implementation.  (“The car didn’t do what I told it to.”, says the defendant.)

The intentions of the user will also be at issue. If he chooses ‘egoist’, did he mean to kill the bystanders? Did he know it might have that effect? Ignorance of the effects of a choice is not a strong defense.

I’m also not sure exactly who gets to set this knob. The authors use the term “user”, and clearly envision one person who is legally and morally responsible for operating the vehicle. This is analogous to the driver of a vehicle.

However, the “user” is actually more of a passenger, and may well be hiring a ride. So who says who gets to set the knob? The rider? The owner of the vehicle? Someone’s legal department? The terms and conditions from the manufacturer? The rules of the road (i.e., the T&C of the highway)? Some combination of all of the above?

I would imagine there would be all sorts of financial shenanigans arising from such a featuer. Rental vehicles charging more for “egoist” settings, with the result that rich people are protected over poor people. Extra charges to enable the knob at all. Neighborhood safety rules that require “altruist” setting (except for wealthy or powerful people). Insurance companies charging more for different settings (though I’m not sure how their actuaries will find the relative risks). And so on.

Finally, the entire notion that this choice can be expressed in a one-dimensional scale, set in advance, is questionable. Setting aside what the settings mean, and how they should be implemented, the notion that they can be set once, in the abstract, is problematic.

For one thing, I would want this to be a context sensitive. If I have children in the car, that is a different case than if I am alone. If I am operating in a protected area near my home, that is a different case than riding through a wide open, “at your own risk” situation.

Second, game theory makes me want to have a setting to implement tit-for-tat strategy. If I am about to crash into someone set at ‘egoist’, then set me to ‘egoist’. If she is set to ‘altruist’, set me to ‘altruist’, too. And so on. (And, by the way, shouldn’t there be a visible indication on the outside so we know which vehicles are set to kill us and which ones aren’t?)

This whole thing is such a conceptual mess. It can’t possibly work.

I really hope no one tries to implement it.


  1. Giuseppe Contissa, Francesca Lagioia, and Giovanni Sartor, The Ethical Knob: ethically-customisable automated vehicles and the law. Artificial Intelligence and Law, 25 (3):365-378, 2017/09/01 2017. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10506-017-9211-z

 

Robot Wednesday