Driverless Cars

I was listening to this story on NPR today on my drive home from work, and the reporter said something like 30,000 deaths [a year, I assume] are from car accidents, 95% of which are attributable at least in part to driver error, and wouldn’t it be nice if driverless car technology could help reduce or eliminate all those deaths. Now, I don’t know how fuzzy his statistics are, but in general I agree.

But that’s where it gets interesting – this goes from solving a technological problem to more of an existential question about what freedoms and responsibilities we are willing to relinquish. Ideally, driverless cars would create a traffic network free of congestion or collision. However we know that machines are only as error-free as the people who program them, and that sometimes they are simply unreliable. That would mean that even in a world where computers control all traffic, some percentage of deaths would still occur. The question is – what is our threshold for computer-related deaths? From our 30,000 deaths per year baseline, would we accept 5,000 computer-fault deaths a year? 10,000? 20,000?

I think there is something in our nature that abhors a reality in which all of our personal responsibility and ability to react is taken away from us, even if lives can be saved. It could be argued that given the choice between driver and driverless, if the driverless option on average produced just one less death a year, then it would be preferable.

And then there’s the issue of car insurance. How would that work?

MIT amps up solar cells

MIT is developing a new solar cell technology that results in a tenfold increase in power conversion, takes up less space, and can be added to existing solar panels.

Photo caption:

Organic solar concentrators collect and focus different colors of sunlight. Solar cells can be attached to the edges of the plates. By collecting light over their full surface and concentrating it at their edges, these devices reduce the required area of solar cells and consequently, the cost of solar power. Stacking multiple concentrators allows the optimization of solar cells at each wavelength, increasing the overall power output.

It’s about time, Starbucks

Finally, Starbucks Rolls Out Free Wi-Fi:

Here’s how the new Starbucks “free Wi-Fi” plan works: Customers purchase a Starbucks Card, which is like a gift card to yourself, with a minimum of $5 on the card. Then you go online to register the card for the rewards program. The rewards program grants you up to two hours of consecutive access every day. The $5 on the card can be used to buy coffee, snacks or other goods from Starbucks.

The only catch:

The catch for this service is that the rewards card has to be used at least once per month with a Starbucks purchase to keep the rewards active. AT&T will send you four solicitation e-mails per year.

It’s not a bad catch for such ubiquitous wi-fi. Really, in some over-caffeinated cities this could mean an uninterrupted wi-fi signal for miles. If you’ve got a rewards card, sign up here.

The missing finger that never was

I read a really interesting article in BBC News not long ago about a guy who was given a substance extracted from pig’s bladder to grow back part of his finger. Sounds too good to be true!

The Guardian (warning: semi-gross pictures) sorts it out:

The patient is Lee Spievack. He was given the powder by Acell, a large and longstanding biotech firm founded by Alan Spievack. He is Lee Spievack’s big brother. Dr Badylak is Acell’s chief scientific adviser, and he can be seen bravely making the best of all this unwelcome media attention by showing TV cameras around his labs and giving lengthy interviews, both now and in February 2008, when this story made the US news, and also, interestingly, in February of 2007, when it made the news for the first time, in exactly the same form, with exactly the same characters, and many identical quotes, verbatim, in the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and more.

I’m glad someone besides Jon Stewart is fact-checking these trigger-happy news morons. In addition to being published in the Guardian, Ben Goldacre’s got a great blog entitled Bad Science.