The Future of Self-Driving Cars – Designed Around People (132 years later)

Although the deployment of a number of technologies may have been delayed due to the pandemic, others may accelerate as a result of it. Just as the pandemic and lockdown removed the barrier (now 20 years into the 21st Century!) for paperless workflow in the office, remote meetings, remote work, education disruption, etc., others may be demanded and accepted for a number of reasons and preferences in a post-pandemic world as noted in the Wall Street Journal:

“Over the last 100 years you can’t really say the car was designed around the people; they got what space was left over”…

…As the auto industry contemplates the impact of technology—from electric cars, internet connectivity, and ultimately vehicles that drive themselves—designers are reinventing the interior of the automobile and how its passengers experience the ride. One doesn’t have to imagine some fantastic future with Jetsons-like inventions zipping around on the ground and in the air because the future is already on the drawing boards of car makers today.

What is most striking in these automobile innovations (and very consistent with the unfolding of the whole pandemic response) is the great reversal that cars now represent as a “safe space.” This of course is it due to both the inherent risk of traveling as well as the potential inconvenience of protracted wait times (or potentially getting stranded). So traveling within a large state such as California, people may simply choose to use their cars. The “oasis” concept revolves around the eventual full engagement of self-driving vehicles, technology with “head up” screens and embeded within the window, space utilization for sleeping, and ride-hailing/self-parking, all designed to prividing to create a viable and formitable competitor to air travel.

Again, what is most interesting is that these concepts are not new, but the demand may entirely shift due to the realities of a post-pandemic world. See the full WSJ post here.

First 100 days after shelter-in-place – where are we now?

Today markes the 100th day since the shelter-in-place in the northern California Bay Area, with some interesting reflections in The San Francisico Chronicle on what happened – and going forward:

Wednesday will mark 100 days since shelter-in-place orders were issued on March 17. Experts believe the move prevented thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of infections. It kept hospitals from being overrun and gave cities and counties precious time to learn about this new virus and mount a defense against it.

But more than 500 Bay Area residents died of COVID-19 in that time. More than 18,000 tested positive. And the coronavirus that drove millions of people into isolation remains as sinister and unpredictable now as it was 100 days ago. What’s changed over the past three months is not the virus, but the way the Bay Area lives with it.

…No one in public health really expected [three weeks] would be enough time to suppress the virus and let life resume as normal — but few predicted that 14 weeks later there would be no end in sight to this pandemic.

What is most remarkable is that many experts believe “the world is going to be cozy with this virus for a long while…coronavirus is still here…it’s probably far more widespread now than it was in March,”  which certainly gives pause to the last three and a half months. It is further interesting to note that the shelter orders were self described as a “draconian strike,” with profound consequences:

But understanding that their decision would have profound repercussions was not the same as watching those effects play out, said Louise Rogers, chief of San Mateo County Health.

…I didn’t really have a full understanding of how deeply impacted so many people would be, and how much it would reveal some of the deep systemic issues that already exist in society – the inequalities and the disproportionate effects.

See the full post here.

WSJ: A question of purpose as many go back to work

Purpose, satisfaction, and relevance have been ongoing topics of discussion in a workplace that has changed over the last several decades but is especially felt in our present time as the Wall Street Journal points out:

Companies may have to address the angst some workers feel about their relevance and the purpose behind their jobs. Decades of research show people crave a sense of purpose to feel motivated at work. Without the coffee dates, meetings and camaraderie of time with colleagues, “you’re left with the work itself,” and if the work starts to feel wanting, it can lead to painful reckonings.

It is probably not a stretch to say that everyone has had extended, contemplative stretches of time as many (if not most) of us have had more time on our hands (even those working) than in our entire adult lives, and it would appear rotating back into the workplace is more abrupt than expected:

“Purpose” has been invoked in recent years by business leaders and employees, who say they want their careers to have meaning broader than the bottom line. Companies have embraced the term as they recruit young employees, casting their work and mission as solving important problems.

In addition to several suggestions, I would add don’t miss this unique opportunity, while it is still fresh in our minds, to contemplate why and how we are not meant to be isolated. See the full post here.

COVID-19: Ioannidis vs. Taleb (International Institute of Forecasters)

The International Institute of Forecasters facilitated a very interesting discussion in the form of two scholarly blog posts – COVID-19: Ioannidis vs. Taleb, Learning from the positions of Nassim N. Taleb and John P. Ioannidis in the COVID-19 debate. The idea of this match up of differing views from such profound thinkers is literally brilliant. The setting is what may be the closest thing we have seen of an old fashioned discourse. Pardon me for being old fashioned but actual, respectful dialogue and discourse is what is desperately needed in our present time and has been missing for decades. How much more do we need such a thing in an age where many of our national and international challenges have taken on a complexity due to the natural order of progress, technology and globalization. From the introduction page:

“Two…voices have been highly visible in the public debate, with seemingly diverging opinions. I am thinking here of John P. Ioannidis and Nassim N. Taleb (arguably two of the greatest living thinkers) holding opposing views about how to deal with the present pandemic and its potentially destructive consequences.

…Nassim N. Taleb believes that all efforts and resources should be directed to halt its spread and reduce the number of infected and deaths without any concern about forecasting its future course as the uncertainty of doing so cannot be measured and the risks involved are highly asymmetric. John P. Ioannidis, on the other hand, claims that more reliable information is needed to make multiple billion-dollar decisions and that forecasting has failed us by being too pessimistic about the future growth of the pandemic and by exaggerating its negative effects.

…This debate will not only allow us to better understand the points of view of the two great thinkers but be also left as a guide for how to deal with future pandemics.”

I would only take issue with the comment, billion-dollar decisions, since we are already well north of multi-trillion dollar decisions. Of the two positions, Taleb remains consistent with his central theme for more than a decade, namely, the profound consequences of risk versus upside benefits, and this is only amplified in pandemics, where he states they “represent existential risk.” In other words, survive now:

“Science is a procedure to update knowledge; it can be wrong provided it produces interesting discussions that lead to more discoveries…for matters that have systemic effects and/or entail survival, the asymmetry is even more pronounced.”

Ioannidis, on the other hand, has been one of the few critics of our nation and the world being put on “horror-alert,” with models that he states have:

“Failed when they used more speculation and theoretical assumptions and tried to predict long-term outcomes, e.g. using early SIR-based models to predict what would happen in the entire season.”

One note that I frequently see as both a criticism and straw man argument against Ioannidis that is worth mentioning: he is clearly not saying to do nothing, or that COVID-19 is trivial. He opens his post with the following, “COVID-19 is a major acute crisis with unpredictable consequences.” Later he and his colleagues state, “a doomsday forecast may come handy to protect civilization, when and if calamity hits. However, even then, we have little evidence that aggressive measures which focus only on few dimensions of impact actually reduce death toll and do more good than harm.” See introductory post here, Taleb here, Ioannidis here.

Epidemic Forecasting Challenge: Human Behavior

It is interesting to search and review older articles (looking for pre-COVID perspective) and realize how long we have been discussing these topics that have monopolized our current discussions in the last six months. In The Journal of Infectious Diseases, a study from 2016, Epidemic Forecasting is Messier Than Weather Forecasting: The Role of Human Behavior and Internet Data Streams in Epidemic Forecast, the authors explore the challenges of forecasting the spread of epidemics and compare and contrast with the progress of weather modeling.

The authors note in the abstract:

In the past 3 decades, the weather forecasting community has made significant advances in data collection, assimilating heterogeneous data steams into models and communicating the uncertainty of their predictions to the general public. Epidemic modelers are struggling with these same issues in forecasting the spread of emerging diseases.

Sound familiar? Here’s why, “epidemic models rely on human interactions, multiple data sources such as clinical surveillance and Internet data, and environmental or biological factors that can change the pathogen dynamics.” This reminds me of the hasty rush to a positive affirmation of test and trace (which I would not argue against) but could prove fraught with problems associated with the many and variegated variables of human behavior, requisite cooperation, and potentially unknown interactions (such as if asymptomatic superspreaders prove as accurate as is being posited). On this side point, I am not arguing against the activity of test and trace as it may be the best option we have, but the declaration of its success, given the myriad of unknowns.

The authors make a very interesting observation given what we, the entire world have experienced in the last six months, with some profound policy decisions that have been ostensibly driven by data:

Epidemic forecasting is still in its infancy and is a growing field with great potential. The challenges for accurate epidemic forecasting include data availability and emergent changes in human behavior and pathogens.

They conclude with this hopeful note which could prove prescient from four years ago, as phones and data have only increased, “there will be a parallel world, similar to that for weather forecasting, where billions of sensors will be uploading real-time information to obtain personalized disease forecasts.” Full study found here.