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Driverless Cars?

I’m sometimes reluctant to accept terminology invented by others, just as others don’t always use the terms I favor. For example, almost no mathematician knows what I mean by “A module” or 1/24th of a regular tetrahedron. We read different books.

Growing up, I read The Futurist quite a bit, a magazine to which my dad, an urban and regional planner, subscribed. The concept of “people mover” was well established. They didn’t have steering wheels. You would summon one, and it would take you from A to B, like Uber but without a driver. That’s one meaning of “driverless”.

Another meaning of “driverless” which is not really driverless, is a kind of enhanced autopilot. These systems are dangerous in the sense that the driver is lulled into complacency, starts reading or texting, and then, bam, the autopilot relinquishes control and it’s your insurance that pays the damages all of a sudden. The autopilot is free to just throw up its hands and say “I give up.” I would not call such automobiles “driverless”.

The confusing terminology around cars reminds me of the confusing terminology around schools. People say “charter schools are public schools” in one sentence, then “charter schools are a threat to public schools” in the next breath. Is it that some public schools never needed a charter? Isn’t a “charter” some kind of written mandate to perform a public service, as authorized by some legal entity? I suppose “legal entity” is redundant. Lets just say “entity”. Are public schools really unauthorized in the sense of not needing a charter? Might they obtain one retroactively?

Of course that’s not what people mean. They accept that traditional public schools might have some kind of charter, but “charter school” means something else. They talk about “private ownership”. But in both cases, the revenue comes from the state, on behalf of the students. The students then pay additional fees, for uniforms, musical instruments, enrichment classes, or whatever the school system considers optional and elective. Indeed, many expenses are mandatory. A lot of students have to buy calculators, even through it’s coding experience they need in math class.

Back to driverless cars: don’t we need whole communities, free of any mixing of pilotless and piloted? If all the vehicles on the road are automated, that’s more like a luggage handling system in an airport. You don’t need people in those things at all, in many cases. Pizza delivery, Amazon delivery, is all by people mover. Yes, you could use drones, and we understand those to be remote controlled. Remote controlled vehicles would be safer on the road if all the vehicles were under the control of the same system. Mixing in clueless drivers who have no connection with the remote system is an unnecessary risk, provided we establish driverless communities.

Back in the day, we had a model for such experimental communities, called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT. Lots of EPCOTs could be established, each testing different futuristic products. Not every lifestyle is able to coexist at the same time. If you’re experimenting with a no smoking community, you can’t mix in smokers. People sign up based on what experiments they’re willing to be a part of. I’m not suggesting prisoners have any obligation to serve in this way, although truth be told, prisons are already EPCOTs in their own way, often dystopian in conception.

People movers would make sense in an EPCOT setting. We could monitor how these experiments were going through the videos each produced. Skeptics and detractors would also make their videos, begging to differ with a more official line. The public would get to judge whether to adopt various aspects of the lifestyles shown. Make sense?

Without this commitment to EPCOTs, which could also be billed as schools, campus settings, I think we’re stuck with doing human subject experiments in less controlled ways that may be counterproductive. The original EPCOT, in Orlando, was decommissioned as a testing site and renamed Epcot, two meaningless syllables strong together. That likely happened around the same time the NCTM changed its logo, from something definite, to something slippery. That’s probably too obscure an allusion for anyone not a math teacher. The old NCTM logo let to “A modules” since it had tetrahedrons in it. The new logo advertised our ability to “infinitely postpone” any serious treatment of polyhedrons in K-12.

I’m going to connect these threads a little better: at the heart of Epcot (formerly EPCOT) we find Spaceship Earth, that buckyball geodesic sphere that has signified positive futurism for two or three generations. The geodesic sphere guy, Medal of Freedom winner, celebrated architect and inventor, came up with the term “A module” along with “B module” for describing a logical dissection of the tetrahedron and octahedron. Anyone with any interest at all in spatial geometry likely knows what I’m talking about right? Wrong. The schools decided there was no point going with positive futurism and textbooks by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and so on, pointedly excluded this terminology from their so-called Common Core.

The EPCOTs we create to test new lifestyles, might likewise be used to test alternative curriculums. I’ve been checking out some remote locations around Oregon where we might actually include information about A & B modules in the curriculum. These might be boarding schools, open only to teachers at first. Teachers could decide, after a couple weeks of touring, whether any of these ideas had application back in their home communities. We would leave it up to the teachers to decide. They could try our electric ATVs, our geodesic dome planetariums (a first use of this technology), our mini-golf, our beer, and decide whether our lifestyle was worth sharing. Teachers could see this as a form of professional development and get paid accordingly.

But would these have to be charter schools? I’m thinking we should receive a charter before starting, probably from the State of Oregon. Oregon has a history of private groups starting religious schools that have uneasy relationships with the surrounding populations. I’m thinking of Rajneesh Puram in particular, which got into some serious chemical warfare with the state. Our EPCOTs should not go down that road. Tourism will be encouraged, as well as high turnover. Our work is not designed to start religious cults.

I feel it necessary to submit these disclaimers because, as a Quaker, I’m interested in working with Gulen charter schools. Sufis are likewise non-violent. We could keep our campuses gun free accept maybe the physics department would teach ballistics using inventory otherwise kept under lock and key. Not every campus would need to teach physics in this way, and students with religious objections to even touching a firearm should not be coerced into doing so. This is not about state fascism ala mandatory ROTC. We’re not looking to create pockets of ultra-nationalist militants, such as they allow in Idaho.

We’re allowed to have religious affiliations, and yet collaborate with the state in a public and transparent manner. In that context, we will invite the public to get around campus in our people movers, something like golf carts without drivers. The students and faculty will be in charge of programming these things. Product placement opportunities, for companies anxious to show off their innovative products, will abound. We’re allowed to have sponsors and donors. We’re allowed to field bizmos (business mobiles) to recruit students. Bizmos will have crews of more than one adult in most cases. They need to abide by whatever rules of the road obtain in the allowing state. I’m thinking Oregon, but any state might source a charter.

In the absence of any campus or many sponsors, I’ve been pretty successful at sharing about EPCOT geometry with local teachers. Portland State University had me in to lecture on some of the basics. Getting to A & B modules requires understanding the mathematics of the so-called Synergetics Constant or S3 for short. That’s because cubic units and tetrahedral units have a 6% difference (mas o meno) in the canonical representation. Not every mathematics teacher understands this material, but the ones I know often do, because we’re prototyping the EPCOT lifestyle and need to know the roots of Spaceship Earth (start with a rhombic triacontahedron perhaps, and learn about the T & E modules).

Some teachers will ask how much our curriculum depends on AI, given the people mover interest (enhanced cruise control is something else, maybe too dangerous). First of all, I’m not the dean of every campus and can’t speak for every EPCOT. My blogs are full of talk about EPCOT West, which is about showcasing how North Americans deal with Student Housing in the Global U. That’s not a project I have any direct management authority over. How much AI gets used around EPCOT West is up to them. Tourists flying into PDX and just wanting a quick visit, will need to make their own arrangements with the relevant authorities.

If by “AI” we mean “cybernetic systems” i.e. systems sensitive to feedback, then sure, I’m into AI. If we’re talking about simulating a human personality in software and making it hold up its end in conversation, I see no market need for that. Direct queries such as Google offers are enough. Voice recognition has gotten really good. Lonely heart conversation with a machine is something I’d like to wash my hands of. I’m not at all interested in replicating experiments by Amazon in this direction, nor improving upon them. I want humans to converse with each other, and to know for sure that they’re not being tricked by either a computer impersonating a human, or a human impersonating a computer. Both forms of fraudulence would be against the Laws of Robotics in my view. We have a Code of Conduct to uphold.

As long as we’re not deceiving people, ala Sophia and Hanson Robotics, I’m OK with AI. I’ve taught a Machine Learning course in Python, albeit a rather simple one (no TensorFlow, no Pytorch). I’m all for people movers that don’t crash into one another, or run over pets and pedestrians. I also really like puppets and thought Sesame Street was a great show. What I have a problem with is humans thinking the puppets they’re talking to are actually “smart machines”. I would hope to avoid unethical fraudulence of that type, and teachers visiting my campus would hear some lectures along those lines. That might sound too cultish, to Salvation Army to some ears. But lets reiterate: I’m not the dean of every EPCOT. If you’re into deceiving yourself, you’ll no doubt have competing EPCOTs eager for your business.