Do You Want To See Some Robots?

The DARPA Robotics Challenge will hold its 2015 finals June 5-6 in Pomona, California.  DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the Defense Department focused on leading edge research in a number of fields.  Over 10 years ago started conducting competitions in driverless automobiles through competitions, and the Robotics Challenge is an offshoot of that effort.  Like the 2012 Challenge, this year the focus is on automated robots that can perform critical tasks in situations where communications from humans may be compromised.

As you might guess, those interested in competing are already well engaged in the process.  But high school students interested in this work have an opportunity to see it up close and personal (H/T White House).  DARPA is looking for 2-3 minute videos from students in grades 9-12 (in schools in the U.S. and its territories) that describe the kind of robot-assisted society that the entrants want to see.  Entries will be judged on clarity of ideas, creativity of presentation and quality of the video.  You have until April 1 to submit your entry.

Good luck!

#SciFiSciPol – Automata Implies The Singularity Can’t Be Programmed Away

As this film has been out for several months, though not in wide release, I’m inclined to say that a spoiler alert is not necessary.  I will speak about the use of robots in the film, which

Last weekend I watched Automata, a 2014 film set in a dystopian future where robots have been built to help society rebuild.  The robots have two rules – 1. A robot cannot harm a human, and 2. A robot cannot repair or upgrade itself.  The plot is put into action when a robot is discovered that was allegedly repairing itself.

From a #SciFiSciPol perspective, there were two items that attracted my attention.  The first was the intention behind the second rule.  If robots were forbidden from repairing or upgrading themselves, they shouldn’t be able to surpass the capabilities of humans.  Put another way, the robots won’t achieve the Singularity described by Ray Kurzweil.  It is an effort to enforce a technical restriction on the ability of a system to improve itself beyond the ability of its masters to control it.  Unfortunately, the film is vague about how the robots were able to work around their programming.  It is quite different about what the robots want to do with their newfound freedom.

The other aspect of the film worth exploring from a policy perspective is how the robots are managed.  Yes, a major corporation is involved, but the control mechanism is through repair and insurance.  Not only are the robots forbidden to repair themselves, so is anyone not affiliated with the company that builds the robots and insures them.  It doesn’t stop unauthorized modifications, but it drives them underground.  This is a different kind of control device, and like the second rule, it is not 100 percent successful in managing the robots.

While the film doesn’t dwell on this lesson, it certainly takes the point of view that simple technological fixes are not going to constrain complex technical systems.  And yes, I consider insurance a technological fix.

As Automata is no longer in theaters, my recommendation to wait for a rental is moot.  It traffics in interesting ideas, but stumbles in execution.  It’s still worth having a look.

When Fighting The Clock Can Be Literal

Early tomorrow the United States shifts to Daylight Saving Time, which will last until early November.  While it’s been around since World War I, it hasn’t been uniformly applied, and was actually quite haphazardly administered until the Uniform Time Act of 1966.  The last major change in the U.S. was in 2007, expanding it to the current schedule.

While this time of year (or the change back in the fall) prompts the usual discussions of whether or not to keep Daylight Saving Time, it’s been a while since the debate had any teeth.  TIME magazine recounted this story from 1923 (H/T io9) about a dispute in Connecticut where clocks displaying anything beside standard time would be subject to a fine.  It’s not just a conflict between rural and urban citizens, but one between the state and local governments.

So, if you’re in the proper jurisdictions, remember to spring ahead tonight.  Not that we’re likely to change, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask why we still do it.

Maybe Innovation Is Just Too Sexy For Good Policy

Early in my graduate education it was drilled into me (and I was quite receptive) that technology is not just high tech, and it’s not just new tech.  But it is hard to avoid those perspectives in science and technology policy.  There’s a hole category of innovation policy, and often one of the criteria for deciding what grants to fund is the novelty of the proposed research.

But it presents an incomplete picture of the science and technology ecosystem.  Today’s innovations become tomorrows commodity items, embedded infrastructure, or other things we take for granted.  Historians can help highlight the ‘routine’ aspects of technology, and the processes by which what was novel is now quite ordinary.

Some of them are looking for collaborators in such a project.  Called “The Maintainers,” Lee Vinsel at Stevens Institute of Technology is looking for a few good scholars to help push back on the narratives surrounding innovation.

“I am writing this blog post to find like-minded individuals who are interested in exploring this the history of maintenance, infrastructure, and mundane labor, broadly construed. We believe that such investigations could have practical upshots, and we are especially keen to involve practitioners, including standards engineers, forensic engineers and architectures, managers in charge of safety and maintenance, policymakers who focus on upkeep and infrastructure health, and others involved in such pursuits. Furthermore, this effort must have an international and transnational dimension, including work on “developing nations.” (Some of us, for example, are interested in the development economist, Albert O. Hirschmann’s insistence that, to survive, societies must develop a “maintenance habit.”)”

Vinsel acknowledges that the work he wants to do is not new or necessarily novel.  But when the dominant narratives focus on the leading edge of science and technology development, other valuable stories aren’t told.  And we can always use more stories.

Why Focus On One Committee Where Science Is Concerned?

In this blog I’ve only focused on the rosters and leadership of one Congressional committee – the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Exactly how narrow-minded is that?

Well, pretty narrow-minded.  But my focus, at least where I type, does not appear that unique.  Review the blogs and websites that report on science policy, and the House Science Committee gets most of the attention.  Not without cause, certainly, but it’s not the only one worth considering.

For instance, there’s a new chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – Senators Thune and Bill Nelson, respectively.  But the Senate Commerce Committee is not focused on science in the same way that it’s closest House counterpart is.  Perhaps that explains why the appointment of Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to chair subcommittees on space (Cruz) and the oceans and atmosphere (Rubio) attracted some attention, but not nearly the attention focused on members of the House Science Committee whenever they make pronouncements that suggest things other than science motivate their thinking.

So, what other committees are worth attention and scrutiny?  Several.  The Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate are critical in determining agency funding, and this is where last minute restrictions like Senator Coburn’s amendment on political science research, get in.  Committees on technology get short shrift from a lot of science policy press, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  I don’t know that it requires equal attention, but I think the committees dealing with new technologies can be just as influential as those determining how to support research and development in the United States.

There’s also the environmental committees.  Sure, there’s an Environment Subcommittee in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, but there’s also the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  (You’ll note the Democrat currently trying to find supposedly fraudulent climate researchers is on the House Natural Resources Committee.)  Health doesn’t have a dedicated committee in either chamber, but those topics are covered in other committees.

So, if you are really interested in science and technology issues in Congress, cast a wider net than I do.  A wider net than the science press does.

So Now There’s A Federal Data Scientist

February 20 – Edited to reflect Dr. Patil’s proper title.  I suppose I was projecting when I erroneously wrote that he would be a Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Privacy.


Earlier today Federal Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith announced that the Administration has named Dr. DJ Patil as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy Privacy and Chief Data Scientist.  Patil has been a data scientist for most of his career, which includes work in academia, government and the private sector.  He is credited as one of the people who coined the term data scientist.  He comes to the White House from RelateIQ, where he was Vice President of Product.

Much like with the Chief Technology Officer position, The White House gives the Chief Data Scientist a broad set of responsibilities.  From the announcement:

“As Chief Data Scientist, DJ will help shape policies and practices to help the U.S. remain a leader in technology and innovation, foster partnerships to help responsibly maximize the nation’s return on its investment in data, and help to recruit and retain the best minds in data science to join us in serving the public. DJ will also work on the Administration’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which focuses on utilizing advances in data and health care to provide clinicians with new tools, knowledge, and therapies to select which treatments will work best for which patients, while protecting patient privacy.”

Patil will also work on the government’s efforts in open data and data science.  The initial press surrounding the announcement has focused on the data scientist part of Patil’s job title.  What could prove interesting is how much time he will spend on the data privacy part of that title.

New Agency Open Access Plans Favor PubMed

In the last week two federal agencies, the National Aeronautics and Atmospheric Administration (NASA) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), released their open access policy plans (H/T OA Tracking Project, techdirt and SPARC).  They follow the Department of Energy, which announced its plans last August.

AHRQ and NASA plans both rely on the PubMed Central database for depositing publications that come from research the agencies fund.  PubMed Central is the repository used for compliance with the National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy.  (It is not the same system that underlies the new Department of Energy system.)  Each agency would expect the research publications to be available on PubMed Central within 12 months of publication.

But the new open access effort of the Obama Administration addresses both research publications and research data.  PubMed Central is not set up as a digital data repository, and most of the effort to set up new systems has been focused on research publications.  The AHRQ policy departs from this by including digital data.  The policy does not establish an AHRQ repository, but would require the agency to contract with a repository for address storage of research data covered by the policy.  Grantees would have to submit a data management plan (increasingly a requirement of federal research grants), and work with agency personnel to address the matter.

The NASA policy on digital data does not involve a digital repository of its own – at least at the moment.  It will instead serve as a central point of information for accessing digital data stored elsewhere.  Grantees would outline their digital data access strategy in a data management plan.  The agency will make a registry available with metadata and access instructions for datasets generated by its funded research.  NASA indicates in its plan that it will consider developing a research data commons (in consultation with other Federal agencies), but gives no timetable for that decision.

It is worth noting that NASA went so far as to commission an independent assessment of PubMed Central, the Energy Department’s PAGES system, and the publisher-encouraged CHORUS system before making its decision on how to handle research publications.  That suggests to me how seriously the agency is approaching the matter of open access to scientific information.  That NASA recognizes the infrastructure investment that is involved in complying with this policy, and that it wants to make a wise investment. I do hope other agencies are following suit.