The Benefits, Disadvantages, and Ethical Dilemmas of Self-Driving Cars

The Benefits, Disadvantages, and Ethical Dilemmas of Self-Driving Cars

Picture this: you’re in your car, heading through the city. Maybe you’re on your way home from a long day at work. You see a group of pedestrians crossing ahead so you begin to slow down, only your brakes aren’t working. You furiously pump the brake-pedal but nothing happens, and you’re getting closer and closer to the pedestrian crossing. If you do nothing, you will hit the pedestrians. You could swerve to the right, saving the pedestrians but hitting a bystander walking along the footpath. Alternatively, you could swerve left, into a wall. This would save the pedestrians but kill you.

What would you do?

What is the ethically “right” thing to do? Should you hit the bystander on the sidewalk or crash your car into a wall, killing one person to save multiple pedestrians? Or should you let the car take its course?

These are the kinds of ethical dilemmas that we’re going to have to struggle with if we want to live in a world with autonomous cars. The cars will need to be told what to do if situations like these arise, so we will need to agree on the best course of action in these scenarios.

In a TEDx talk in 2016 Iyad Rahwan, associate professor at MIT, spoke about a survey he and his collaborators conducted in which people were presented with these types of scenarios. The survey questions had two options, inspired by Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant.

The Bentham option was to crash the car before hitting the pedestrians, even if that meant killing a bystander or the passenger. The car should take the action that would minimise total harm.

According to Kant, the car should not do something that explicitly harms a human being, and you should let the car take its course, even if that will harm more people.

Bentham Kant

Which option would you choose?

Overwhelmingly, people said they preferred Bentham’s way of thinking. Minimising total harm. However, when asked if they would purchase a car that behaved that way, they said “Absolutely not.” It appears they would prefer cars that protect them at all costs, even though that means jeopardising the common good (minimising total harm).

Clearly it’s hard for people to decide on an approach that they agree with. They can see the benefits of cars that reduce total harm, but just can’t bring themselves to put their lives in the hands of one. This is a shame because it’s been estimated that self-driving cars could reduce fatalities from traffic accidents in the United States by 90%. Based on statistics from 2013, this would mean almost 30,000 lives saved every year, just in the US.

It already seems like autonomous cars are better drivers than we are. In 2015 there were a number of accidents involving self-driving cars, but it was the human drivers who were at fault in all of them. Even recently, in Arizona an automated car owned by Uber was in an accident when it was hit by a human driver who “failed to yield”. What this means is the human driver didn’t give way and caused an accident.

Reducing traffic and accidents is the goal of a collection of computer scientists from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who developed a routing algorithm that should minimise traffic jams. Even if just 10% of cars on the road were a part of a network of cars utilising this routing algorithm, it would drastically reduce traffic and congestion.


Google’s self-driving Lexus RX 450h (source)

But for all the benefits self-driving cars seem to bring to the table, there are drawbacks. Cory Doctorow recently brought up an interesting issue. Since these cars would obviously be programmed to avoid killing people, theoretically pedestrians could step out into the street without fear, knowing that these cars will stop for them – as it’s in their programming to do so. He cites a paper written by Adam Millard-Ball (if you can’t access the paper, Adam also adapted it into a blog post).

Doctorow paraphrases Millard-Ball, writing “either cities will be effectively no-go zones for self-driving cars as pedestrians blithely step into the road; […] or drivers will take control over their cars rather than chilling with their smartphones, believing that pedestrians will be scared off by the possibility of a human driver failing to brake in time.”


Will cities become no-go zones for driverless cars? (source – modified with permission)

What do you think about self-driving cars? Would you trust one with your life? If this technology fails or encounters an error, people’s lives are at stake. Sure, technology messes up all the time, but as John Capp, the Director of Electronics and Control Research at General Motors, points out, “We’re all fairly tolerant of cell phones and laptops not working, but you’re not relying on your cell phone or laptop to keep you alive.”

Nature Documentaries, Anthropomorphism and Conservation

Nature Documentaries, Anthropomorphism and Conservation

The year was 1948. The year Jean Negulesco’s Johhny Belinda and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tied for “Best Picture” at the Golden Globes. This was also the year that the Walt Disney Company released their first True Life Adventures nature documentary, Seal Island. It was the first in what would be a series of 14 documentary films released from 1948 to 1960.

Interestingly these documentaries were structured in such a way that they told stories, presenting the animals as characters, rather than an objective, factual look at nature, at least according to Elizabeth Leane and Stephanie Pfennigwerth. This is important because since then, there are been a lot of nature documentaries that use a similar structure. One of the most famous documentaries of all time, March of the Penguins, uses this structure to great effect.

March of the Penguins, released in 2005, was directed by Luc Jacquet. It depicts the annual journey made by the emperor penguins of Antarctica from the ocean to their inland breeding grounds, and then the subsequent treks to and from the ocean to gather food for their young.

The language that’s being used here is important. Take note of the use of the way the documentary describes the annual mating ritual as a “journey” or a “quest” that the penguins must go on. Putting an emphasis on these themes of a quest, of a hero on his journey, gives the documentary a narrative structure that the audience can follow pretty easily. Throw in some obstacles for the hero to overcome (like “enemies” such as leopard seals) and some romance (the penguins’ search for a mate) and you’ve got yourself a pretty detailed narrative arc.

By presenting the penguins in this way, the documentary also draws parallels between their behaviour and our own. Going on a journey, falling in love, by emphasising the penguins’ more human characteristics the documentary is attempting to create audience empathy. We are supposed to relate to these animals in human terms, judging them in terms of human character attributes.

This isn’t unnatural behaviour. Given the way that penguins stand, the way they walk with their flippers hanging by their sides similar to the way our arms do, there is something human about them. “Creatures which look so human must behave like humans,” to quote British scientist, Bernard Stonehouse.

As I said earlier, it’s a totally natural thing to do. The practice of assigning human characteristics to non-human things is known as anthropomorphism, and it’s something we humans just naturally tend to do, according to Matthew Hutson’s The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy. However there are potential drawbacks noted by Leane and Pfennigwerth, notably that we tend to only anthropomorphise animals with the “right” human characteristics.

So these documentaries throw in a little flair here and there. They make us empathise with the animals they’re filming, make us care about them. They anthropomorphise the penguins, giving them innately human characteristics and presenting their annual mating ritual as a “quest” or a “rite of passage” for the penguins to come of age. Doing this causes the viewer to connect more with the animals being presented (penguins in the case of March of the Penguins) but can have unintended effects on conservation surrounding the animals presented. Anthropomorphising some animals but not others, can cause us to favour certain animals over others – “cute” animals may be favoured for conservation efforts over “ugly” or “boring” animals. Obviously this isn’t great when it comes to conservation and the protection of species.

Documentaries like Disney’s True Life Adventures series and March of the Penguins obviously aren’t bad documentaries. Spreading information and helping people learn more about the world around them is never a bad thing. However, perhaps a little more thought could be put into the way animals are presented, with some more consideration of the pros and cons of anthropomorphising.

No Selfie Control

No Selfie Control

Taking and uploading selfies can be empowering for a lot of people. Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym say as much in What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon. They write that although the act of taking, uploading, viewing, exchanging, or commenting on images can’t empower (or dis-empower) someone, it can facilitate their empowerment.

For example, someone might upload a selfie and receive overwhelmingly positive comments, which would most likely make them feel better about themselves. Or many individuals taking and sharing selfies together, using a hashtag for instance, could enact political change or simply begin discussions around an issue. This could be seen as an example of political empowerment. It is important to remember, however, that the practice of uploading and sharing photographs can also make us feel dis-empowered, particularly when it comes to the circulation of our images and our inability to control it.

In Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, he calls the internet “the world’s largest copy machine.” Described as a free-flowing river of copies, as soon as something is uploaded to the internet it becomes a part of that river, and is just about impossible to keep track of. 

kevin kelly

Kevin Kelly on the internet (source)

Kate Palmer Albers, a professor from the University of Arizona in the US, has two interesting examples of the ways the spread of images online can make us feel like we have no control over them.

Her first story is fairly short and involves an unnamed colleague of hers who she refers to as Jane. Jane apparently disliked a photograph of herself that appeared when Google searching her name so she tried to get the photo taken down. While doing this, Jane discovered that a woman from Eastern Europe was using the image as her own profile picture. A woman Jane had never met saw her photo and decided to use it, and Jane couldn’t stop her.

The second example is slightly longer, it’s about an American artist called David Horvitz. In 2014 he uploaded a photo of himself to Wikimedia Commons, an image database that anyone can access and use. David’s intention was to let his photo spread online and ideally track it’s progress. This is where he ran into a problem.


David’s photograph (Source)

Tracking the spread of a single image online is a near-impossible task considering the rate at which images can multiply online. Once content is uploaded to the internet it will inevitably be copied, reposted, and forwarded an unknowable number of times. After its initial upload David simply couldn’t track the image’s spread. His example is important because it shows us how easy it is to lose control of an image. I believe this is one of the reasons why selfies – and other images spread online – are seen as “places where control is lost.

Our final example is one that I think you’ll like, mostly because it’s about memes, and everybody loves memes. One of the most important characteristics of memes is that they spread fast. They’re shared, saved, edited, and reposted all over the internet with frightening speed. This is pretty amazing, but it also means that they’re impossible to control.

The story begins with 11-year-old Maggie Goldenberger. One day while joking around with her friends, Maggie took a photo of herself wearing some truly outrageous clothing, holding several Goosebumps books. The photo was uploaded to MySpace and Facebook, and that was where the image’s story ended. Until 12 years later, in March 2012, a Reddit user named ‘xWavy’, a.k.a. Jeff Davis, discovered the image while browsing a publicly visible photo album on Facebook. He then shared the image with the Reddit community where another Reddit user called ‘plantlife’ added a caption, which left us with the image below.


Maggie’s photograph with a new caption thanks to Reddit users xWavy and plantlife (Source)

As I’m sure you all know, the image went viral, with people creating countless versions of their own as it spread across the internet. What I find most interesting about this example is that this photo went unnoticed for 12 years before xWavy stumbled upon it. But once he did, it spread like wildfire, and Maggie had no control of the photo’s spread or subsequent usage.

As these examples have (hopefully) shown you, it’s fairly easy for the spread of images online can make you feel dis-empowered. They can multiply and spread faster than you can follow them, flowing through the “river of copies” and ending up in all kinds of places. While seeing your photo taken and distributed all over the internet can be empowering for some, for others it is anything but.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Investor State Dispute Settlement

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Investor State Dispute Settlement

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) has been under negotiation for almost seven years now, and is currently awaiting approval. If ratified and put into effect it would be the largest trade-agreement in the world.


The TPP would include 12 countries. Source.

The TPP will apparently strengthen the economies of all member countries by reducing or removing trade-tariffs and other non-tariff barriers to trade. The plan is that this will boost trade between nations.

While this sounds beneficial, the TPP also includes a controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision. This would give investors the ability to sue a country’s government for introducing legislation that harms their investments.

Why should I care about ISDS?

The investor-state dispute settlement provision would leave TPP member countries exposed to expensive legal cases from multinational corporations. These cases could be over environmental, health, or public interest regulations. According to Robert French, the chief justice of Australia’s high court, and other legal experts, ISDS is an unfair legal system. It has no independent judges, no precedents, and no appeals.

“Arbitral tribunals set up under ISDS provisions are not courts, nor are they required to act like courts, yet their decisions may include awards which significantly impact on national economies and on regulatory systems within nation states.” – Chief Justice RS French

The really scary part of ISDS is that disputes would be handled by secret, extrajudicial tribunals, presided over by corporate lawyers instead of judges.

If you’re wondering what an ISDS claim could look like in practice, the German government has been the victim of two ISDS claims from a Swedish energy company called Vattenfall. The first, over restrictions implemented to protect the environment, was worth €1.4 billion and forced Germany to remove the restrictions. The second time Vattenfall took action over Germany’s decision to phase-out nuclear energy after the disaster at Fukushima, demanding €3.7 billion.

ISDS claims don’t happen infrequently either. A report from GetUp! has warned that the number of ISDS cases worldwide has been steadily increasing annually, reaching a record high in 2015. The report also reveals that multinational companies based in Canada and the US are the most litigious in the world. If the TPP is ratified Australia would be exposed to multi-million dollar ISDS cases from both, potentially facing huge litigation costs.


The number of ISDS cases worldwide by year. Source.

Dr Kyla Tienhaara, from the Australian National University, likens the ISDS provisions included in the TPP to those included in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which she says led to dozens of legal cases being made against Canada by US corporations. According to PublicCitizen, a US based advocacy group, Canada has been forced to pay out over US$440 million is ISDS cases.

That could never happen in Australia, right?

Multi-billion dollar corporations suing Australia might seem unlikely, but it’s happened before. In 2011 Philip Morris, an international cigarette and tobacco company, tried to take legal action against Australia for its plain-packaging laws. They did this in a very roundabout way by shifting some assets to their Hong Kong headquarters, then using a clause from a 1993 trade-agreement between Australia and Hong Kong to sue Australia in an ISDS court.

What can I do?

If this sounds unfair to you there are a number of things you can do to stop the TPP. Sign a petition from GetUp!, join the Greens’ campaign, or even send a letter showing your concern to your local MP, the Prime Minister, or the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

Regulating Content? Or Price Gouging?

Regulating Content? Or Price Gouging?

You’re settling in for a night of binge-watching television. You’ve got your snacks, your blanket, and you’re ready to get started with the evening’s entertainment. That’s when you see the dreaded error message, “This video is not available in your country.”

You’re probably wondering what this is, and why it’s happening. Well don’t worry, everything will be explained.



What you have just encountered is known as geo-blocking, the practice of restricting a user’s access to content based on their location. Using your IP address, content providers can determine your location and geo-block you accordingly, only allowing you access to certain content under specific rules depending on where you are. Geo-blocking is done by video streaming services, online music stores, and even digital PC/console game stores.

In terms of online video streaming services: certain YouTube users will geo-block some of their content, ABC’s iView won’t let you watch any shows from outside Australia, and Netflix provides separate libraries for users depending on their location, allowing some access to content before others.

Online music stores can geo-block in a different way. iTunes was found to be charging some users more for the same product. When comparing the prices of Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear, Australian buyers were paying 82% more than their US counterparts. You will also find it impossible to purchase any albums from Amazon unless you live in the US.

Finally, on to digital stores for buying video-games. Digital retailers were found to be charging Australians customers more than customers in the US for the same product, and hardware suppliers including Lenovo are doing the same thing. In 2012 Lenovo sold their latest ThinkPad at a significant mark-up for Australian customers.

You might notice that it seems like Australians aren’t getting a fair deal in a lot of these cases, and you’d be right. Australians have been paying more for the same content and products for some time now, thanks to what’s generally known as the “Australia Tax”.

So why is this done? Well there are several reasons that companies may engage in geo-blocking, and not all of them are ridiculous. Licensing agreements are one of the main causes of geo-blocking, particularly when it comes to video streaming websites. For example, Netflix may be unable to provide a particular show to their Australian customers because another distribution company has already bought the right to distribute the show in this region.

For the sale of digital goods which are identical there really isn’t a good reason for a distributor to charge one person more than another. In 2013 the Australian government looked into the apparent discrepancies in the pricing of digital products. When it comes to the sale of video-games, users found significant price disparities imposed on Australian gamers when purchasing through digital distribution services like Steam. They cite the example of Diablo 3, released in 2012. At the time the government report was published, Australian customers were paying 30% more than those in the US. The report noted that there was no difference in the way the game was delivered (by download) or played (on a US based server as there were no Australian servers) that could account for the difference in price.

The report went on to state that in regards to the sale of video games, there were no transport costs (delivery is by digital download and the consumer is footing the bill for transport through a contract with their ISP), nor were there costs related to production of packaging or disks that could explain the inflated prices Australians are paying for identical goods.

No representatives from the games industry addressed this issue.



In an increasingly connected world, it really doesn’t make sense to restrict users’ online browsing based on their physical location, but that’s exactly what’s happening. Users want to be able to purchase what they want when they want to, without paying an inflated price because of where they live.

The Ethics of Photography

The Ethics of Photography

Street photography is a form of photography that has an emphasis on random and direct encounters with people within public spaces, typically in an urban environment. There is some debate over whether or not street photography necessarily has to be candid with some photographers saying it is defined by its candid nature, while others believe candidness is not necessary. This raises some ethical issues regarding taking photographs of individuals in public places without their knowledge and/or consent. Most of the time this candid photography is totally legal, but this does not necessarily mean it’s ethical.

In my opinion, the way we all think about public photography has been changing. Today we’re aware that we’re filmed by security cameras pretty regularly and that everyone around us is effectively carrying a camera in their pocket. We’re more open to the idea of taking photo of public spaces even if people are in them, and we’re more open to the idea of being in someone else’s photograph if we’re in a public space. We’ve all had that moment when you realise you’re in the background of someone else’s photo. It can be a little awkward, or a little funny. Personally this sort of thing doesn’t bother me, but what if it did? What could I do if I decided I didn’t want to be in that person’s photo? Well it mostly depends on where you are.

If you’re in a public place, it’s generally legal for someone to take a photo of you without asking for your permission. If you were to seek legal recourse, you’d find that a judge will rarely decide that the individual (that’s you) had a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. A reasonable expectation of privacy is an expectation of privacy that’s generally recognised by society, you’d expect some degree of privacy inside your home but not when you’re out in public, for example.

However, if you’re on private property a photographer is required to get permission from the landowner before taking any photos, so you might be protected that way. Interestingly, there are no restrictions on taking photographs of people on private property from public property as long as what’s captured in the photo can be seen from the street. Again, reasonable expectation of privacy. If you’re walking around with all your curtains open, you’ve got to realise that people can see into your home.

So, legally, in those situations it’s legal for the photographer to photograph you, but just because photographing someone in a public place is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Take the example of Garry Winogrand. He was a photographer renowned for “never asking people for permission before taking their photographs.” Do you think this is ethical? Should you ask someone for permission before you photograph them, even if you don’t legally need to?

Let’s look at the photo I took earlier this week and see how legal and ethical my approach was.


I took a slightly different approach when taking photos for this week’s task. Instead of finding a subject to take a photo of, I wandered around the campus and took several landscape shots. Afterwards, I looked through the photos to see if I had captured anyone using technology in a public space. After three attempts I got one. In the photo shown above you can see an individual in the foreground using their smartphone to take a selfie. This photo was taken at one of the events for UoW’s Wheel of Wellbeing festival.

Since universities are private property, you would assume that I would need to obtain permission from the landowner before taking any photos. Many universities actually have guidelines available online for taking photos on campus to avoid the need to ask permission every time you want to snap a picture. Unfortunately, UoW only has guidelines for photography and filming within the library. Do you think I should have asked permission from the university before whipping out my camera?

There is another potential ethical dilemma associated with my photo. You could argue the subject of my photograph has changed since I took it. When it was taken, the photo was of an event, the subject was the Wheel of Wellbeing festival. However, you could argue that the subject is now the individual taking a selfie that I pointed out earlier since she is now arguably the focus of the photo.

Would you say that what I did was ethical? Do you think it was unethical? Let me know.

We Are the Journalists Now

We Are the Journalists Now

Citizen journalism is what we call it when citizens – who haven’t necessarily been professionally trained to do so – collect, analyse, and report news and information. It has been criticised for potential fakery, manipulation, bias, and a lack of accountability. Established news sources often don’t see citizen journalism as credible, but we can all agree that regardless of credibility there are some notable benefits to living in a world where everyone is a journalist.

Look At Me Edit.png

Although some may argue the opposite, today pretty much anyone can be a journalist. As Jay Rosen says, the journalist is “just a heightened case of an informed citizen”, someone who knows how to get information, ask questions, and tell stories. However, just because anyone can be a journalist it doesn’t mean that every source of citizen journalism is credible and reliable. Thankfully, in today’s world of information abundance this matters less and less everyday.

With no shortage of independent information sources it’s never been easier to do some fact checking, and you should be fact checking everything you read with information from at least one separate source. Never take what someone says as fact simply because they seem to know what they are talking about. Often, the professionals only know as much as, if not less than, the “amateurs”. Below are a few examples of generally trusted news sources getting it wrong, inspired by TV2’s usage of a still from Assassin’s Creed during a report on the current conflict in Syria.

First up is the BBC’s usage of Halo‘s United Nations Space Command‘s logo (on the right) instead of the logo for the United Nations Security Council.

Britain’s ITV mistakenly broadcast footage from ARMA 2, claiming it was shot by the IRA in 1988.

Finally the BBC also published this photo in 2012 in a story on a massacre that had occurred in Syria (link – since edited). The photo was actually taken in 2003 in Iraq by Marco di Lauro.