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Friday Catch-Up (01/06/06)

Asimo.jpgThis week's catch-up takes us from green planning in Sweden to robots in Japan, with stops to check out voting machines in Wisconsin and another step in the rise of the Participatory Panopticon.

The Green Welfare State: Sweden is one of a growing number of nations with an entire government department dedicated to sustainability. The Ministry of Sustainable Development's responsibilities include renewable energy, efficiency and environmental protection. The Ministry's mission is to build what it terms "the green welfare state."

In the green welfare state, our country will reconcile good economic progress with social justice and protection of the environment, to our own benefit and the benefit of future generations. Being at the forefront of development, we will also be in a position to succeed in the export market and support environmentally sustainable social development in countries that are now experiencing strong growth. In this way, national progress is a source of global opportunities.

All well and good, but how does that translate into policy? In impressive ways, actually: Sustainable Development Minister Mona Sahlin recently announced a set of ambitious goals to reduce Sweden's already low dependence on coal and oil through the development of 15 annual terawatt-hours of renewable energy by 2015, with a further plan to eliminate oil use entirely by 2020. (Via.)

Open Voting Machines: One of the best ways to eliminate the insecurity and uncertainty surrounding electronic voting machines is to open up the underlying code, thereby allowing security experts and interested citizens to inspect the software for bugs and security flaws. Open voting machine software proposals (sometimes inaccurately referred to as "open source") have been around for awhile now, but they're finally moving from Internet discussion to actual policy. The state of Wisconsin's newly-signed electronic voting machine law (PDF), which has as its primary element the requirement of voter-verifiable print-outs, includes a section requiring that the software be open to public inspection, as well. Go Wisconsin!

Living in the Participatory Panopticon: The world of mobile technology recording everything one sees or does for later inspection and recall is still a few years off in the future, right? Wrong. Microsoft's Gordon Bell, working on the MyLifeBits project, has turned the project into a personal reality:

At the age of 71, he is recording as much of his life as modern technology will allow, storing it all on a vast database: a digital facsimile of a life lived.
If he goes for a walk, a miniature camera that dangles from his neck snaps pictures every minute or so, immediately committing the scene to a memory built not of neurons but ones and noughts. If he wanders into a cafe, sensors note the change in light, the shift of temperature and squirrel the information away. Conversations are recorded and steps logged thanks to a GPS receiver carried with him.
Dr Bell has now stored so much of his life on computer that he is in danger of forgetting how to remember.

Readers familiar with my Participatory Panopticon argument will find much of what Dr. Bell experiences as he lives his project to be familiar. What's new is the underlying suggestion that this kind of technology may see its initial application not as a lifestyle toy or as a political tool, but as a kind of memory augmentation for the elderly. The rapid aging of society is an increasingly important driver of change.

Robophilia: Finally, the Economist has a provocative piece this week on the role of robots in Japan. The Japanese are far more comfortable around robots than are people of other societies, the Economist argues, in part because they allow for interaction without risk of embarrassment. Perhaps more importantly, they allow for Japanese society to function without the need to bring in foreign workers:

Although they are at ease with robots, many Japanese are not as comfortable around other people. That is especially true of foreigners. Immigrants cannot be programmed as robots can. You never know when they will do something spontaneous, ask an awkward question, or use the wrong honorific in conversation

The article's introduction is worth reading, even if you don't find the rest of the piece entirely convincing. I don't; I think the author ascribes a greater importance to robots in Japan than is warranted, and doesn't quite address how the common perception of cultural insularity bordering on xenophobia differs now from in the pre-robot era.

More interesting, however, is what the model of robots as replacement for immigrant labor means for a world where interactions between immigrants and long-time residents has become more conflictual. It's a narrower version of the old "robots took my job" fear, but one that could find a more welcome reception among people around the world who see immigration as a source of as much trouble as benefit.

Comments (1)

On electronic voting machines - I've long thought the best solution would be to establish a standard USB-like device connection to polling machines, allowing any independent third party to attach a standard device that can display for the voter what they've done, and can independently tally the numbers for later aggregation. This would allow immediate independent verification of voting by any number of separate organizations - who would require approval of local election authorities to attach their devices of course.

Surely a far better arrangement than forcing tons of paper on everybody, no?


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