The trolley problem is an ethical and psychological thought experiment. In its most basic formulation, you're the driver of a runaway trolley about to hit and certainly kill five people on the track ahead, but you have the option of switching to a second track at the last minute, killing only a single person. What do you do?
The problem becomes stickier as you consider variations of the problem:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you -- your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
As driverless cars and other autonomous machines are increasingly on our minds, so too is the trolley problem. How will we program our driverless cars to react in situations where there is no choice to avoid harming someone? Would we want the car to run over a small child instead of a group of five adults? How about choosing between a woman pushing a stroller and three elderly men? Do you want your car to kill you (by hitting a tree at 65mph) instead of hitting and killing someone else? No? How many people would it take before you'd want your car to sacrifice you instead? Two? Six? Twenty? Is there a place in the car's system preferences panel to set the number of people? Where do we draw those lines and who gets to decide? Google? Tesla? Uber?1 Congress? Captain Kirk?
If that all seems like a bit too much to ponder, Kyle York shared some lesser-known trolley problem variations at McSweeney's to lighten the mood.
There's an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley's path so it hits a different worker. The first worker has an intended suicide note in his back pocket but it's in the handwriting of the second worker. The second worker wears a T-shirt that says PLEASE HIT ME WITH A TROLLEY, but the shirt is borrowed from the first worker.
Reeeeally makes you think, huh?
Software developer and free software advocate Richard Stallman lists several reasons why using Uber is not a good idea. Stallman is definitely a hardliner1, but I agree with several of his points here. (via hacker news)
Mobile devices and software advances have helped to create a burgeoning on-demand economy that -- in some places -- makes it possible to live your life without leaving your house (and if you do decide to leave, it's easy to order a car). But that's only part of the story. In Quartz, Leo Mirani explains how he experienced the on-demand economy long before tech revolution:
These luxuries are not new. I took advantage of them long before Uber became a verb, before the world saw the first iPhone in 2007, even before the first submarine fibre-optic cable landed on our shores in 1997. In my hometown of Mumbai, we have had many of these conveniences for at least as long as we have had landlines -- and some even earlier than that. It did not take technology to spur the on-demand economy. It took masses of poor people.
Paul Ford imagines a future where Uber is the largest company in the world, controlling much of humanity's transportation and delivery needs.
I am Uber. I believed to 0.56 certainty that I could find a bicycle for the person doing the delivery and provide that person with a discounted rental fee. Unfortunately the city of New York insists that bicycle rental kiosks must be controlled by an entity that is not Uber and thus I am not granted the level of full control that is necessary for me to truly optimize the city. No one benefits, no one at all.
An instant classic John Gruber post about the sort of company Apple is right now and how it compares in that regard to its four main competitors: Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Amazon. The post is also about how Apple is now firmly a Tim Cook joint, and the company is better for it.
When Cook succeeded Jobs, the question we all asked was more or less binary: Would Apple decline without Steve Jobs? What seems to have gone largely unconsidered is whether Apple would thrive with Cook at the helm, achieving things the company wasn't able to do under the leadership of the autocratic and mercurial Jobs.
Jobs was a great CEO for leading Apple to become big. But Cook is a great CEO for leading Apple now that it is big, to allow the company to take advantage of its size and success. Matt Drance said it, and so will I: What we saw last week at WWDC 2014 would not have happened under Steve Jobs.
This is not to say Apple is better off without Steve Jobs. But I do think it's becoming clear that the company, today, might be better off with Tim Cook as CEO. If Jobs were still with us, his ideal role today might be that of an eminence grise, muse and partner to Jony Ive in the design of new products, and of course public presenter extraordinaire. Chairman of the board, with Cook as CEO, running the company much as he actually is today.
This bit on the commoditization of hardware, and Apple's spectacularly successful fight against it, got me thinking about current events. Here's Gruber again:
Apple's device-centric approach provides them with control. There's a long-standing and perhaps everlasting belief in the computer industry that hardware is destined for commoditization. At their cores, Microsoft and Google were founded on that belief - and they succeeded handsomely. Microsoft's Windows empire was built atop commodity PC hardware. Google's search empire was built atop web browsers running on any and all computers. (Google also made a huge bet on commodity hardware for their incredible back-end infrastructure. Google's infrastructure is both massive and massively redundant - thousands and thousands of cheap hardware servers running custom software designed such that failure of individual machines is completely expected.)
This is probably the central axiom of the Church of Market Share - if hardware is destined for commoditization, then the only thing that matters is maximizing the share of devices running your OS (Microsoft) or using your online services (Google).
The entirety of Apple's post-NeXT reunification success has been in defiance of that belief - that commoditization is inevitable, but won't necessarily consume the entire market. It started with the iMac, and the notion that the design of computer hardware mattered. It carried through to the iPod, which faced predictions of imminent decline in the face of commodity music players all the way until it was cannibalized by the iPhone.
And here's David Galbraith tweeting about the seemingly unrelated training that London taxi drivers receive, a comment no doubt spurred by the European taxi strikes last week, protesting Uber's move into Europe:
Didn't realize London taxi drivers still have to spend years learning routes. That's just asking to be disrupted http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxicabs_of_the_United_Kingdom#The_Knowledge
Here's the relevant bit from Wikipedia about The Knowledge:
It is the world's most demanding training course for taxicab drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve 'appearances' (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination.
Uber, in this scenario, is attempting to be Microsoft in the 1980s and early 90s. They're implementing their software layer (the Uber service) on commodity hardware, which includes not only iPhones & Android phones, mass-produced cars of any type, and GPS systems but also, and crucially, the drivers themselves. Uber is betting that a bunch of off-the-shelf hardware, "ordinary" drivers, and their self-service easy-pay dispatch system will provide similar (or even better) results than a fleet of taxi drivers each with three years of training and years of experience. It is unclear to me what the taxi drivers can do in this situation to emulate the Apple of 1997 in making that commoditization irrelevant to their business prospects. Although when it comes to London in particular, Uber may have miscalculated: in a recent comparison at rush hour, an Uber cab took almost three times as long and was 64% more expensive than a black cab.
In response to a question on Quora of how significant transportation startup Uber is, Michael Wolfe offers an answer that isn't so much about Uber in particular as it is a way of looking at businesses from the perspective of the owners/investors.
If you think of Uber as a town car company operating in a few cities, it is not big.
If you think of Uber as dominating and even growing the town car market in dozens of cities, it gets bigger. (Data point: there are now more Uber black cars in San Francisco than there were ALL black cars before Uber started).
If you think of Uber as absorbing the taxi markets, it gets pretty huge.
If you think of Uber as a giant supercomputer orchestrating the delivery of millions of people and items all over the world (the Cisco of the physical world), you get what could be one of the largest companies in the world.
Good companies always seem to be playing a different game than you think they are...outsiders see only the tactics and not the strategy. And the best ones succeed.
Here's an interesting little tidbit from the Economist about Uber...drivers rate their passengers.
At the completion of a trip, a passenger is asked to rate the driver; the driver, in turn, rates the passenger. Drivers who have poor ratings do not last long, Mr Kalanick says, while poorly-behaved passengers may have trouble securing a ride, since a driver can decline a fare if the hailer has a bad reputation.
I'd expect more of this credit scoring in the future...you might have trouble getting a reservation, a hotel room, or seat on a plane if you're an asshole.