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Immobots Take Control

It’s interesting that programmers are able to develop systems that think of things that the programmer can’t (Immobots Take Control,” TR December 2002/January 2003). Or, more precisely, things that the programmer didn’t. And here lies the fundamental barrier to intelligent computing: our reality must be distilled into terms the system can understand, and the frame of reference for that understanding is defined by the model. It’s time, however, to put our models on the shelf and do some real thinking.

Michael Schupan
Ottawa, Canada

This is a good article that touches on a deep subject. Clearly, immobots can fail. How far would you trust an immobot driver of your car? Would you fall asleep and let it drive? What if one of the sensors fails and this leads the immobot to incorrectly deduce that the sensor reading is seeing a very low value? Would the immobot incorrectly invoke an emergency procedure, amplifying a minor problem into a major one? Can we countermeasure by adding a second immobot to watch over the first immobot? This quickly leads to a Rube Goldberg tower.

Donald J. Christian
Fremont, CA

How You’ll Pay

Your article on electronic payment devices (How You’ll Pay,” TR December 2002/January 2003) refers to retail checkout lanes with smart card readers that monitor purchasing patterns and offer promotions. The implication seems to be that this invasion of privacy is a good thing. Corporations have incentives to invade our privacy, and they often bend the rules. This doesn’t necessarily benefit the people who buy their products.

Jonathan Fisher
Lyme, NH

After reading your interesting article, I still have one critical question: what happens when someone steals your smart card/Speedpass/iButton?

Rolf Karlsson
Warren, MI

R&D 2002: Research that Breaks the Mold

Fuel cells are old news; connecting power sources to the grid is even older news. (Electricity-Producing Vehicles,” TR December 2002/January 2003). The vast hydrogen infrastructure to make all this work is the real news. How does General Motors plan to get the hydrogen to homes so its “fuel cell skateboard” can “supply power to a house or even feed the local electric grid”? Where will the hydrogen in the hydrogen economy come from, and how will it be delivered to where it’s needed? And how will all this be cheaper and cleaner than today’s sources of electricity?

George W. Braun
Hawthorne, FL

I was amused by your article’s prediction that by 2012, cars might be able to deactivate cruise control when passing through a school zone. I appreciate the technical goal, but how many people are zipping through side streets on cruise control anyway? Maybe 10 years from now, schools will be built next to the highway.

John Pilafidis
Newport Beach, CA

Smarter Inboxes

A fter reading Simson Garfinkel’s column (Think Outside the Mailbox,” TR December 2002/January 2003), the single feature I ask of anyone creating the next generation of e-mail applications is the ability to edit my subject headers. I can’t count the times I’ve reread e-mails searching for information because the sender used an inappropriate or blank subject header. If I could rename them I’d be in e-mail heaven.

Conrad Warre
Newton, MA

Common Sense Patenting?

Seth Shulman suggests that patent rights should be modified on an ad hoc basis to serve the “greater public good” (A Dose of Common Sense,” TR December 2002/January 2003). The framers of the U.S. Constitution considered the greater public good when they granted Congress the power to promote the “useful arts” by giving inventors exclusive rights to their creations for a limited time. As Abraham Lincoln later observed, patents add the “fuel of interest” to the “fire of genius.”

The “compromise” Shulman urges has been implemented over the past two centuries in the form of U.S. and international patent laws that determine the extent to which “exclusivity” is to be given as an incentive for invention. International patent treaties would be of little use if every country were permitted to mold its own patent systems to fit its own needs.

Richard P. Beem
Chicago, IL

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