Problems Counting People?

Implementing COVID Regulations

Here in the Netherlands the University system just reopened after a short lockdown (again). There are still restrictions on how many people are allowed into rooms however, a maximum of 75 in any single space. This ruling was introduced last year, and led to some developments that might be of interest to technology fans (and privacy fans I should add).

Counting people manually as they enter and leave a room is a time consuming and expensive approach, so two universities had the idea of using cameras and artificial intelligence to check how many people are in buidings and individual spaces.

Utrecht University ran a trial, while Leiden placed 371 cameras on the walls above the doors to each space.

The Leiden approach however caused a bit of a stink. The cameras were all placed and set up while the students were locked out of the building, the ideal time we might say, to be having people up ladders in front of doors. But such an approach can also be seen as trying to do something without too many people noticing.

And that is how some of the students saw the arrival, and a couple started to investigate for an article in the weekly University student magazine.

Counting entries and exits, well nobody could be against that! The University has to do it by law. So discussion grew around the methods and the cameras and the data.

The university had bought 371 cameras from the Swiss manufacturer Xovis, 600 euro a piece. So the question is what can (and do) they register?

According to company spec, the system is capable of:

Counting students

Following their individual routes

Calculating an individual’s height

Estimating age

Suggesting mood (is an individual happy or angry)

Determining who is a staff member

Counting numbers in groups

Detecting incorrect facemask use.

Now these types of cameras are already in use in airports and shopping centres, to minimize waits (among other things) and to try and calibrate advertising and work out the actual moment that someone choses to buy something. So such data does offer broad analysis possibility.

The slogan used by the manufactures maybe lets the cat out of the bag a bit: ‘Way more than people counting.’

The cameras can of course be set to different levels of data collection and privacy, from level 3 fully anonymous (just numbers of people), to 0, which is a livefeed of the images.

Some Questions

Now I am no expert, but one problem seems to me to be that the system records lots of data, that at some point someone filters before providing their dataset to the customer. Who, when, under which circumstances, who manages security of access, there are a lot of issues here. But they are not all negative. Such a system may be of use in a terrorist incident for example, or other sorts of emergency. You could see why something more expansive might be chosen over a system that just counts movement. But there is a moral as well as practical dilemma in choosing such an overkill solution to a simple problem.

The report the student investigators published in the weekly university magazine showed lots of security issues, and there were protests from the students who wanted the system taken down. Both Utrecht and Leiden have now stopped using the cameras.

But that is not a good result from a responsible innovation perspective. Lots of money was wasted, many people got upset, two sides of an argument were constructed that are at loggerheads with each other.

A change in public participation techniques might have avoided all of this. A lesson to be learned I feel. Informing without debate doesn’t work.

You can read the student report here and a local newspaper report here. All in Dutch though, so you might have to use some translation software.

OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society

In this post I would like to offer some take-aways and personal thoughts on the recent OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society, held on the 6th and 7th of December 2021.

Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions

The conference rationale was Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions, based upon the arguments that the world faces unprecedented challenges in health, food, climate change and biodiversity, solutions for which will require system transition or transformation. The technologies involved may bring fear of negative consequences and problems with public acceptance, as well as raise real issues of social justice (primarily of equal access, thinking today about covid vaccination inequalities as an obvious starting point).

Good governance and ethics will therefore be necessary to harness technology for the common good.

Towards a framework for the responsible development of emerging technologies

The following is taken from the rationale page of the conference website:

The conference will explore values, design principles, and mechanisms that operate upstream and at different stages of the innovation value chain. Certain policy design principles are increasingly gaining traction in responsible innovation policies, and provide an organising structure for the panels in the conference:  

Inclusivity, diversity and stakeholder engagement

Stakeholder and broader public engagement can be means to align science and technology with societal values, goals and needs. This includes the involvement of stakeholders, citizens, and actors typically excluded from the innovation process (e.g. small firms, remote regions, certain social groups, e.g. minorities etc.). The private sector too has a critical role to play in governance. 

Goal orientation

Policy can play a role in better aligning research, commercialisation and societal needs. This implies investing in public and private sector research and development (R&D) and promoting “mission-oriented” technological transformations that better connect innovation impacts to public policy needs. At the same time, such innovation and industrial policies need to be transparent, open and well-designed so they foster deliberation, produce value for money, and do not distort competition.

Anticipatory governance

From an innovation perspective, governance approaches that engage at a late stage of the innovation process can be inflexible, inadequate and even stifling. More anticipatory kinds of governance — like new technology assessment methods, foresight strategies and ethics-by-design – can enhance the capacity to govern well.

The conference included round-table and panel events alongside institutional presentations, introductions and scene setting as well as wrap-ups. Video of each event is available via the conference website, supported by an introduction paragraph and series of questions.

One of the roundtables I attended may be of particular interest to Technology Bloggers readers as it was all about carbon neutrality:

Realising Net Carbon Neutrality: The Role of Carbon Management Technologies

Description

Reaching net carbon neutrality is one of the central global challenges we face, and technological development will play a key role. A carbon transition will necessitate policies that promote sustainable management of the carbon stored in biomass, but not exclusively so: technology is increasingly making it possible to recycle industrial sources of carbon, thus making them renewable. The idea of “carbon management” may capture the different facets of the answer: reduce the demand for carbon; reuse and recycle the carbon in the bio- and technosphere; and remove carbon from the atmosphere. But a reliance on technologies for carbon capture and usage (CCU) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) may present barriers for other more radical transformations.

● What knowledge is necessary to better guide national and international policy communities as they manage emerging technology portfolios for carbon management?

● What can more holistic approaches to carbon management offer for developing technology pathways to net carbon neutrality?

● What policies could ensure that one technology is not a barrier for implementation of another?

I took a lot of notes, including the following points:

What kind of technology and knowledge is necessary when steering the development of emerging technology?

There are both opportunities and challenges for finding the right mix between technology and policy

Carbon capture alone will not be viable, we have to reduce emissions

The energy transition will have to be dramatic but there is no international agreement on the phasing out of carbon fuels

There is an immediate need for investment, social acceptance and political will

Use technology that is available today rather than using language about innovation

Policy-makers have to see a whole picture, just cutting carbon from some of the big emitters will not be enough

Real structural change is necessary

The old economic sectors and the poor should not be those who pay

Success requires not only information, but communication

The truth about both economic and social costs should be available

Why not watch the video here? It’s just over an hour long.

Why Tesla will be the biggest company of this decade

This is going to sound nuts, but I believe the most important company of this decade will be a “car” company. Specifically Tesla.

But why?

Here are my thoughts.

Tesla’s Mission

“Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

That’s a direct quote from Tesla’s website. It’s what their founder, CEO and Technoking (yes, that really is his title! 😂) Elon Musk believes, so much so, that Tesla’s patents are open-source – the goal being so others can benefit from the advancements Tesla have made.

Elon believes that even with access to Tesla’s intellectual property, competitors still won’t be able to compete, thanks to the companies software and manufacturing excellence.

The first step to becoming a great organisation is having a mission people truly care about and believe in. In my book, there aren’t many missions stronger than trying to make the world a better place to live.

Tesla’s diverse business(es)

It’s a great misconception to believe that Tesla is a “car company”.

  • It’s a sustainable energy company, selling solar panels and solar tile roofs ☀️
  • It’s an energy storage firm, selling Powerwalls and Megapacks to individuals, businesses and countries! 🔋
  • It’s a utilities provider, powering homes and businesses
  • It’s a battery pack and cell manufacturer, working on it’s 4680 cell technology for the cars of the future 🔋
  • It is also a car company, building, assembling and selling the fastest, most efficient electric cars on Earth! 🌍
  • It’s a vehicle manufacturer, developing a pick-up (Cybertruck) a lorry (Semi) and an ATV (Cyberquad) 🛻🚛🏍️
  • It’s in the servicing industry, providing the parts and labour required to maintain all Tesla products 🛠️
  • It’s a rapid-charging network, with more than 25,000 Supercharging stalls globally ⚡
  • It’s an insurance provider, providing cover for those driving it’s cars 📄
  • It’s a software company, designing it’s own mobile apps and the in-car interface ⚙️
  • It’s an AI robotics firm, developing the code for Full Self-Driving (Level 5 Autonomy) and the Tesla Robot 🤖
  • It’s a supercomputer manufacturer, building the most powerful computer of all time, to support it’s AI 🖥️
  • It’s a currency trader, holding Bitcoin and selling in multiple currencies around the world 💱

All-in-all, Tesla has a huge number of areas of speciality, and is vertically integrated to the extreme!

Tesla aims for the moon, in EVERYTHING it does

Tesla has a culture of being the absolute best in class at everything they do. Tesla doesn’t settle for second best, if they commit to something, they’re aiming to be the best.

They didn’t just aim to make a fast electric car, they aimed to make the fastest production car in the world – and they did!

They wanted to build safe cars, and they really did – when released, the Model 3 was the safest car the NHTSA had ever tested! The Model Y received top marks too.

NHTSA Tesla saftey

They aren’t satisfied with a Gigafactory, they’re aiming to be able to produce 10 terawatt-hours of battery capacity by 2030. VW is a leader in electrification among the legacy automakers, “boldly” aiming for 240 gigawatt-hours of capacity by 2030. Tesla is aiming to produce that (and another 10gWh) from their new Berlin factory alone… in the next few years!

They aren’t aiming for gold standard driver assistance aids, they’re working on fully autonomous vehicles, which are already 10 times safer driving than a person. Entertainment centres on wheels, with Netflix built-in, and no need for steering wheels.

They aren’t even satisfied with the cars as they are when they sell them, so they’re constantly tweaking, enhancing and upgrading them with free, over-the-air software updates. Extras include: entertainment upgrades like the YouTube app and Fallout Shelter game; Sentry mode, a security camera recording system; power boosts and range improvements; faster charging speeds; mapping upgrades and charge station updates; and much, much more.

The entire fleet provides data to Tesla and their neural nets are constantly learning and improving features, be that airbag deployment safety, automatic wipers sensitivity or full self-driving accuracy.

They weren’t happy welding individual parts together, and now use a Gigapress/gigastamp, which speeds up production and improves quality – stamping car bodies out like toy cars! This helps them to produce a car every 2 minutes!

They have Elon Musk

Whatever your opinion of the man, he’s a visionary, with extraordinary determination, and the ability to galvanise a cult-like following. He’s had huge success in the past with Zip2 and X.com (which became PayPal), and his current companies are doing pretty well too!

In September, SpaceX sent four regular people into space. They orbited the Earth for 3 days, higher than the ISS and higher than any human has been since we went to the moon. The Starlink satellites are rolling out rapidly, offering high-speed, low latency internet globally.

Having multiple companies which can integrate and share knowledge is a huge bonus. For example, what other car manufacturer is able to send a car into space – like Elon did with Starman in his Tesla Roadster.

His approach to a problem is to make the product ten-times cheaper through relentless efficiency and looking at the problem in a new way. One example can be seen at SpaceX, the view there was that throwing a rocket away after each launch was a big contributing factor to its cost. Elon often likens it to throwing away an aeroplane after each flight, it’s madness! So SpaceX engineered self-landing rockets, a phenomenal idea, cost saver and huge achievement!

Musk also owns The Boring Company, which is creating tunnels under major cities to enable significantly faster transportation – another service Tesla cars could benefit from.

The knowledge sharing across his companies is a huge advantage, Tesla’s competitors just don’t have.

Footnote

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few months now, and started working on it in September. This was before Tesla’s huge Q3 deliveries and financial results, and the massive stock growth which followed – making them the 6th biggest company (by market capitalisation) in the world! It seems like these developments further support the thinking that Tesla will be the biggest company in the world this decade.