Weekly obsessions: what we can't stop thinking about
By , ,

    This week, our writers are looking up ... to the stars, and to the future of technology. Here are some things that we just can't stop thinking about:

    The life-saving potential of self-driving cars

    If a self-driving car must choose between killing its two passengers or three pedestrians, which should it choose?

    Given the imminence of the mass adoption of self-driving cars, this is no longer an abstract hypothetical question - and it’s one that’s been asked repeatedly by ethicists, philosophers and technologists in recent times.

    However, I think that even asking this question represents an unethical distraction from the real issues. Self-driving cars will, by and large, save millions of lives very quickly, since human drivers truthfully cause a lot of accidents already (traffic fatalities have risen by 14% since 2016 to over 40,000 last year, the largest such increase in half a century). So, worrying about the "ethical dilemmas" inherent in their upcoming prevalence unnecessarily turns public opinion against self-driving cars before their use is even widespread. In other words, presenting the dilemma as the car’s decision between killing two passengers or three pedestrians misses the point – it might be more accurate to present the dilemma (or lack thereof) as being between many people dying (today) or fewer people dying (in 10 years). 

    Not to mention that nobody bothers about the ethical dilemmas inherent in human-driven cars. 99 times out of 100, a human driver's self-preservation instinct will lead him or her to plow into the pedestrians, which is of course massively unethical. The very fact that technological developments have given us the ability to discuss whether or not the pedestrians should be killed is, frankly, miraculous – and I believe that any dialogues on such questions should much more clearly take this into account.

    -Jasper Gilley

    Could NASA rover InSight discover life on Mars?

    In the early hours of May 5, InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The mission's purpose is to learn more about the interior of Mars, which will be achieved via the analysis of “Marsquakes” (which may also reveal the presence of aquifers beneath the Martian surface). In addition, InSight will be the first rover to drill substantially – up to five meters deep – into Mars, providing additional data about the geology of the planet.

    It is no shock that there is a great deal of anticipation of discovering water and potentially life on Mars. For years, there has been evidence of ancient rivers and the possibility that the planet was once habitable. Should InSight help discover water that currently exists on the planet underground, the drive for space exploration would likely increase by an ~astronomical~ amount.

    What better incentive to invest in a manned mission to Mars than the prospect of discovering extraterrestrial life? On the one hand, this is a terrifying notion that would have massive implications for philosophy, religion and society as a whole. On the other, it is logical that in a universe of a trillion trillion stars, life would emerge on more than just one planet. Nonetheless, to have life in Earth’s solar backyard would certainly increase the likelihood that life permeates the universe.

    Does this mean that InSight could be the stepping stone towards discovering ET? Perhaps. At the very least, the rover will increase knowledge about the formation of the Red Planet and help scientists prepare for future missions to Mars, both manned and unmanned. But it would be fitting for a rover named InSight to provide the understanding necessary to determine whether life once existed or currently lives on Mars.

    -Ryan Wagner

    Chicagoland amateur stargazing

    The weather’s been beautiful this whole week, and I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that not only is it sunny and warm during the day, but even – get this – at night! Glorious, I know. And with the arrival of this much-needed spring weather, I’ve been spending so much more time outdoors and am starting to fall back into my love of stargazing.

    Though I know I’m at risk of sounding like an infomercial, this week I downloaded an app called SkyView (it’s free!), which uses GPS services to show you what stars are in the sky at your location. So if you point your phone at a star, it’ll tell you what it’s called and whether or not it is part of a constellation. The app also shows other objects like planets, the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. You can even search for something in the app and it will direct you to where in the sky it is!

    I know I’ll be spending more time in the coming weeks on the lakefill looking up at the stars. The unfortunate thing, however, is that the view of the stars from campus suffers from light pollution, since we’re so close to Chicago. And in the city, it’s even harder to see the cosmos.

    Don’t believe me? Check this out: Photographer Thierry Cohen traveled to Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in North Nevada, a location at the same latitude of Chicago, to capture images of Chicago’s starfield. He used those pictures with images of the city “darkened” to demonstrate the incredible amount of stars we could be seeing without light pollution. These darkened images really shed some light on what we're missing.

    -Carlyn Kranking


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.