Big Think Interview With Michael Schrage

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWhat is the major problem right now in transportation?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage: The major problem with transportation technology and\r\ntransportation policy is that you have a battle between utopians who believe\r\nthat they can get whatever they want, faster, better, cheaper, and the\r\npragmatist, the hard ball economic types who say, "No, no, no, let's ban\r\nthe car from the city, let's create calming zones, zero-emission vehicles,"\r\netc., etc.  You have a real\r\ndialectic, a real tension, and my view is, when you have that kind of\r\nschizophrenia, when you have that kind of chasm, not just of technologies and\r\nexpectations, but of values, I think you get into a lot of gridlock--pun\r\nintended.

\r\n\r\n

Question: Are there any promising advancements that will take us into\r\nthat next era of transportation?

\r\n\r\n

Michael\r\nSchrage:  Oh, my gosh!  There's so many things going on that are so exciting that\r\nit's not clear to me what's the best bet. \r\nWe have smart vehicles, smart devices, smarter people, better sensors,\r\nmore information, the ability to have the technology act in a more nimble\r\nway.  We have the ability to play\r\nwith tax policy and congestion charges. \r\nSo to me, the question is going to be, there's a tension between\r\ndisruptive innovation and rapid iderative incremental innovation.  But if you have enough incremental\r\ninnovation in a short period of time, you got a revolution.  You know, the simple model for that is\r\nlike a Mapquest, or putting an accelerometer in an iPhone.  The fact of the matter is, between\r\nmobile phones, between iPhones, between Rim's, between GPS, every car in the\r\nworld, every bicycle in the world, can be made smarter.  Heck, we can make every street corner,\r\nevery streetlamp smarter, more nimble, more agile.  The issue is, what's the organizing principal underlying\r\nthat?  Haven't a clue. 

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nDo you think we need to build on what we have, or revolutionize mobility?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  Being an\r\nMIT person, I'm very, very sympathetic to that view of, gee, let's just start\r\nfrom scratch, let's reinvent everything. \r\nBut basically, I think it's a bunch of crap.  You know, that's basically like saying, gee, we've sequenced\r\nthe human genome, let's reengineer human beings so they'll make less, they'll\r\ntake up less space, they'll do less waste, they'll be more energy\r\nefficient.  As I said earlier,\r\nthere's always going to be a tension between the incremental and the\r\nrevolutionary.  Folks at MIT tend\r\nto self-select towards the revolutionary side, but ordinary human beings,\r\ntypical human beings, human beings who have, shall we say, real lives, not MIT\r\nlives, are more prepared to have a mix of the disruptive innovation and the\r\nincremental innovation.  And that's\r\nhow I think that's going to play out, particularly in transportation\r\npolicy.  I don't believe people are\r\ngoing to give up on the wheels of a car for the foreseeable future.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nIs there something we’ll have to give up in order to get there?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  Well, you\r\nknow, frankly I don't care if there's an internal combustion engine in a car, a\r\nfuel cell in a car, a battery in a car—I don't care.  My friends who are incredibly green care a lot.  Now, do I think they've actually done\r\nthe math and calculated the carbon footprint of fuel cells versus batteries\r\nversus internal combustion engines throughout the entire supply and value\r\nchain?  Heck, no.  And I think that's where we're going to\r\nsee a lot of the policy battles because there are all manner of ways of\r\nallocating costs and responsibilities for the carbon footprint of an\r\nautomobile, for the carbon footprint of a person.  Or should we say the carbon tire track?

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWill we ever not have a congestion problem?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  We will\r\nalways have congestion problems. \r\nThe issue is what's tolerable. \r\nIf you had told me that I would be on a 40-minute commute, I would say\r\nyou're crazy, but I've gotten adjusted to it.

\r\n\r\n

By the way,\r\nlet's deal with that as an example. 25 years ago, being stuck in traffic was a\r\nhorrible, horrible waste of time. \r\nIf you got a mobile phone, if your kids are watching TV in the back\r\nseat, it's not so bad!  It's not so\r\nbad.  Now, what transportation\r\nplanner anticipated the impact of mobile phones in the car and TV screens,\r\nLCD's in the back seat?  None of\r\nthem!  None of them!  And heck, I've read a lot of science\r\nfiction; I didn't see those scenarios being played out by Isaac Asimov or\r\nHarlan Ellison either.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWhere do you see intelligent transport systems fitting in?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  Well,\r\nthey already are.  The issue about\r\nintelligent systems is almost like the question associated with governance,\r\nwhich is where do you want the power? \r\nDo you want intelligent transport systems defined by centralization or\r\ndecentralization?  It's like, do\r\nyou want to consolidate power in Washington or do you want to distribute it out\r\nto the states, to the cities, to the individual people?  Are we going to end up with more\r\nefficient and more effective transport systems by giving people who are\r\ntraveling more intelligence?  Or by\r\ngiving the highway engineers or the tollbooths or the city center people more\r\nintelligence and control?  Again,\r\nthat's a political question, that's not a technology question.  So I'm going to circle back to the way\r\nI began this, which is the real battle that we're going to have, the technology\r\nis incidental to the politics, to the aspiration.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWhat role should the government have when it comes to transportation issues?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  Yes, I\r\nthink the federal government should buy up, in addition to buying up the\r\nautomobile companies, it should buy up the cities—no.  I am not a government person.  I'm more of a libertarian kind of guy.  I believe that the role of the federal\r\ngovernment should be to facilitate opportunity and choice for people who wish\r\nto travel.  And the real challenge\r\nthat the federal government in that kind of context has is, who do we\r\nsubsidize, who do we tax?  Do we\r\nreally want to penalize motorists in favor of subsidizing people who take light\r\nrail?  Or more public forms of\r\ntransport?  Or can you make the\r\nroads, the cars, more environmentally effective, improve through-put, improve\r\nefficiencies, have the right kind of congestion in a manner in which you have\r\nan economic balance?  You strike a\r\nbalance that the commuters are comfortable commuting and the people taking\r\nbusses and trains are comfortable.

\r\n\r\n

And that leaves\r\nout other variables, which is perhaps one of the roles of local government is\r\nto facilitate carpooling kind of arrangements, where we didn't have mobile\r\ndevices a few years back.  What\r\nkind of self-organization can there be for the future of carpooling?  For the future of group travel?  I haven't a clue, but I'll tell you\r\nthis--neither does anybody in the government.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nShould we copy London’s congestion pricing system? 

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  I think\r\nLondon is an excellent example, as is Stockholm, of how not to do congestion\r\npricing.  It is the laziest, most\r\npunitive form of taxation, regressive taxation, around.  It's operating, it's doing arthroscopic\r\nsurgery with a machete instead of a laser beam.  I think the principal of congestion pricing, the principal\r\nof pricing for managing congestion, or access to space, to minimize or smooth\r\npeak times, completely logical, completely reasonable, completely rational, and\r\nconsistent with the fact, you know, of my background in economics and computer\r\nscience.

\r\n\r\n

However, as is\r\nalways the case, politics intrude and I think cities have become less\r\ninterested in congestion pricing for improving the quality of life or improving\r\nthe quality of traffic than as a means to raise revenue.  So I'm afraid we've come full circle\r\nback to the pathology of politics.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWhat are some tangible examples of people working on very promising\r\nadvancements?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  I'll take\r\nthe path of least resistance, the easiest examples of incrementalism come right\r\nout of Moore's Law and Metcalf's Law, that is to say leveraging our enormously\r\neffective investments in digital media, virtually every car coming off the\r\nline, be it in Japan or Europe or in America, comes with a GPS system.  But you know, if you don't have a GPS\r\nin your car, you probably have one on your phone, so you can have GPS for a\r\nbike. 

\r\n\r\n

I remember\r\nflying into Sydney, Australia, and there was a taxi driver, based on my\r\ninteractions with him, I'd been in the country longer than he had, but he was\r\nusing the GPS to navigate Sydney. He was a recent immigrant.  In theory, there is no reason for\r\nanyone to be lost.  In fact, not\r\nonly is there no reason for anyone to be lost, there's no reason for anyone not\r\nto have the most efficient route to where they're going, to budget their time\r\nbetter and accordingly.  When you\r\nput that power of being to do route planning and time management in every\r\nsingle car, every single bike, every single bus, you would think that we're\r\ngoing to end up with not just incremental improvements and congestion, but\r\ndisruptive, dramatic improvements. \r\nPeople can make more intelligent decisions based on better quality of\r\ninformation.

\r\n\r\n

But wait!  It gets better!  Once we start putting sensors on the\r\nroads and link them to the traffic lights, we can now create a different kind\r\nof an ecosystem where we can further improve efficiencies.  So these things can all build on one\r\nanother.  Unfortunately, I am not\r\nclever enough to figure out what the ultimate impact is of these very complex\r\ninteractions, but my bet is that that's where real innovation is going to come\r\nfrom.  Not just from discrete\r\nbreakthroughs in technology, but from the interoperability of those\r\nbreakthroughs.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nHow viable are high-speed trains?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  Speaking\r\nas somebody who will probably be taking the Acela some time this week, it would\r\nbe nice if we had higher speed trains, let alone high-speed trains. I think\r\nthat when you do back of the envelope, capital internal rate of return\r\ncalculations and the number of people moved and the value of these things, it\r\nreally doesn't work out very well. \r\nI am not an optimist on light rail or high-speed rail.  I think I would rather invest in a\r\ncounterpart of Ryanair, than in fixed track locations.  I think it may work for Asia and\r\nEurope, but people are closer together, the city densities are different, the\r\nlifestyles are different, the cultures are different.  And I'm one of these old fashioned people who take culture\r\nand lifestyle differences very seriously.

\r\n\r\n

I believe that\r\nregions and states and cities should be doing experimentation.  But it's been my unfortunate\r\nobservation that a lot of what people call experiments are really ways of\r\nthrowing money at a problem.  One\r\nwould think that California would have all manner of dedicated, faster\r\nrail.  But you look at the economic\r\nsuccess that Bart is not in the Bay area, despite the fact that there are good\r\npopulation densities, despite the fact that there's a variety of different ways\r\nto create complements between the rail and the car, and they haven't managed to\r\npull it off.  And I don't think\r\npeople in California are stupid, so there must be other reasons.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nHow viable is shared mobility?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  Yeah,\r\npeople are doing the Zip car thing, they're doing the bike thing.  I know that they've tried this in Paris\r\nand have discovered that sometimes people aren't as well behaved or as\r\naltruistic or as nice as they should be. 

\r\n\r\n

Let me say\r\nsomething politically incorrect and I'm going to argue that some communities\r\nwill do the shared thing very, very well. \r\nIf you held a gun to my head, I think that many of these things will go\r\nover well in Denmark and parts of Sweden, rather than in parts of Paris. 

\r\n\r\n

I think shared\r\nmobility is a perfect example of something that technologically we could do\r\nwith a snap of our fingers.  The\r\nproblem ain't the technology, it's--altogether now--the value and the politics,\r\nit's the differences in lifestyles. \r\nDo I think shared mobility will do gangbusters in Tokyo and Kyoto and\r\nlarge parts of Shanghai and Beijing? \r\nYou betcha!

\r\n\r\n

By the way, the\r\nreason why it's going to do really well in Beijing and Shanghai?  Is if you don't share nicely, they're\r\ngoing to put you in jail.  That's\r\njust not going to happen in America. \r\nNo matter how much certain people want it.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWhat is the history of concealing research in America?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage: The notion of what constitutes adequate sharing has\r\nalways been a problem.  I mean,\r\nthat's not an American issue, we're talking about a Galileo and Newton issue\r\nhere.  Individuals and communities\r\nhave understandably different notions about what they wish to share and what\r\nthey don't wish to share.  This\r\ngoes right back to playing in the sandbox, you know.  Now, in science, we have the cultural phenomenon of peer\r\nreview and that begs two questions, what's a peer and what's being reviewed?  It's not enough if you're a\r\nsophisticated scientist, or frankly a sophisticated person, it's not enough to\r\nreview the data, you know, what goes in and what goes out, you want to see the\r\nmachine.  You want to see the\r\nnature of the experiments.  You\r\nwant to see the code, now with digital stuff, you want to see the code, the\r\nsoftware.  Was it biased in any\r\nsort of way?  Was there a bug that\r\nmight account for some of the phenomenon that we're observing?

\r\n\r\n

So there's a\r\nreal tension here between what constitutes effective sharing and what\r\nconstitutes the desire that many people have to make their science, their\r\nscience.  To make their research,\r\ntheir research.  Not in a\r\nproprietary, ownership sense, but in the sense of, you know, it's a little too\r\nsoon for me to completely open the kimono.

\r\n\r\n

The\r\ncomplicating factor, just to build on that is, when you begin to inject market\r\nforces, when you begin to inject political forces, climate change, should I\r\npatent this finding?  Do I want to\r\nlicense this to somebody who will give me lots of money to do research? You've\r\nnow created a mix of motivations and incentives.  Does it make more sense for me as a scientist to share my\r\nmethodology, to show people how good my work is and to get credit from my\r\npeers?  Or does it make more sense\r\nfor me to make some of it secret so that I can get private funding to continue\r\nthe research along a route that I consider very good and important?

\r\n\r\n

I mean, it is\r\namazing, I'm a child of an academic, a child of a science academic, and I grew\r\nup in a very, very elite research university environment.  And I am astonished by what scientists\r\nare capable of getting away with, even prestigious scientists are capable of\r\ngetting away with, in terms of withholding and sharing things.  The ideal, the platonic ideal, is that,\r\nyou know, it's like a--let's create a nice phrase here—it’s like a kibbutz and\r\neverybody shares.  That science is\r\na form of socialism and everybody shares the results and everybody shares their\r\ninstruments.  And to a certain\r\nextent, large parts of that are true, but there are very large parts where it's\r\n70-80 percent accurate, and in that missing 20-30 percent, there are a lot of\r\nissues.  A lot of issues.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWhat can we do to fix it?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  You know,\r\nas I get older, I have come to the conclusion that there are certain kinds of\r\nproblems you don't look for solutions, you look for approaches.  And if you asked me with a wave of the\r\nhands, what would be the one thing I would do to really encourage healthy\r\nsharing, because I can understand there's certain things that need to be\r\nwithheld, or it makes sense to withhold or at least limit, I would make funding\r\ncontingent upon disclosure rules. \r\nIt used to be, just to give you a real world example, it used to be that\r\nscientists, medical researchers could publish their work in the New England\r\nJournal of Medicine, and other medical journals, without disclosing that some\r\nof their research had been financed by pharmaceutical companies or device\r\ncompanies.  For completely\r\nunderstandable reasons, that concealment, that nondisclosure is no longer\r\nacceptable.

\r\n\r\n

I feel that\r\nthose same kind of pressures can be brought to bear to people who don't share\r\ncode.  If you are running a\r\ncomputer model that predicts the earth is getting warmer, the atmosphere is\r\ngetting warmer and it will go up 7 degrees Celsius in the next 50 years, that\r\nthe oceans will rise, the coral will die, etc., show me your code.  Show me the code.  I don't want to just see the equations,\r\nshow me the code.  Because, and I'm\r\nsaying this as somebody who's written code, I know how you game the code to\r\nkind of put a thumb on the scale. \r\nAnd some of these things are done subconsciously or unconsciously.

\r\n\r\n

They have a\r\nsaying in the open source development community, many eyes shallow bugs.  The more people that see the code, the\r\nquicker you spot the bugs and eliminate them.  It's good enough for software, good enough for science.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nAre there leaders in the open science movement?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  There are\r\nindividuals who are leaders.  There\r\nare certain, because I think the Royal Society in the UK has done a better job\r\nthan our own AAAS of aggressively and energetically promoting disclosure and\r\nsharing of code.  That's not to say\r\nthat the AAAS has done a bad job, I actually believe that there are forces\r\nthere where they're trying to push for more openness in science.  But established institutions,\r\nparticularly research universities and the tenured faculty therein, I think,\r\nshould step up. 

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWhat would be the incentive for scientists to disclose research?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  They\r\nalready have, they already do it! \r\nIt's really important that we deal with the premise of your\r\nquestion.  Many scientists have\r\nalready been doing these things. \r\nThere are many cultures and sub-cultures within science where mentoring\r\nand sharing and helping people out and picking up the phone or sending, that's\r\nnot an aberration at all.  I'm not\r\nasking people to do things that are inimical to culture.  The incentives are oftentimes ego related\r\nand opportunity related.  People\r\ncollaborate because it makes sense for them to collaborate.  We should be promoting free exchange. 

\r\n\r\n

There are\r\ncomplicating factors, if your school says, if your institution says anything\r\nthat you invent while you are on the faculty is our property, not yours, or\r\nyour compulsory license for that, that creates tensions.  Should it be a 50/50 split?   An 80/20 split?  What should the split be?

\r\n\r\n

So what we're\r\ntalking about here are tensions and tradeoffs.  What we really have to address is, what are the reasonable\r\nand rational and fair ways to manage those trade offs.  We're not asking people to behave\r\nabnormally or against their best interest.  All policies that ask people to behave against their best\r\ninterests are doomed to fail. 

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWho would make the rules? 

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  Oh,\r\nagain, you know, believing as I do in good governance and democracy, I would\r\nlike government funding agencies to insist that taxpayers, when our taxes pay\r\nfor something, when Europeans' taxes pay for something, when Asian taxpayers\r\npay for something, that these publicly-funded science funders, foundations,\r\nthat they make it a condition of their funding that people disclose in the\r\nmanner that makes sense.  Not just\r\nthe findings, but the code.  It\r\nshould be throughout the value change of knowledge and discovery, not just\r\nblack box.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nWouldn’t we still have the problem of privately funded research?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage:  No.  No.  If people want to, if you have something, you know, now\r\nagain, this is turning into an economics kind of conversation, which I'm quite\r\ncomfortable having. Here is Apple, if Apple versus Google, okay?  Apple has decided to, and Facebook,\r\nthese companies have what we would call walled gardens.  They limit the amount of interoperability\r\nand sharing.  There are some walls,\r\nthere are some windows.  Okay?  Google, more of an open source kind of\r\nthing.  It's easier to interoperate\r\nwith Google.  Their business model\r\nis different, they want to sell more advertising.  What you want, if you're in the private sector, is what's\r\nthe reason that we have to share and collaborate?  And this is the classic question, what many organizations\r\nhave discovered amidst the digital revolution, is that it's more profitable,\r\nit's more reasonable, it's better business to share.  Not necessarily everything.  By the way, I don't necessarily want everything shared.  I just want to change, to use your\r\nword, I want to change the incentive structures associated with sharing.  I do not want proprietary to be the\r\ndefault position.  I want it to be\r\na secondary or tertiary default.  I\r\ndon't want it to be the prime option, I want it to be a lower down in the queue\r\noption.  I want the default to be,\r\nlet's err on the side of being open rather than on the side of being closed. 

\r\n\r\n

I'll give you a\r\nreally good example.  If I were\r\nrunning the City of New York, if the City of New York came to me—now, there's a\r\nslight complication here, because of terrorism sort of issues, okay?  So we have to deal with, but if the\r\nCity of New York came to me and said, "Michael, what's the fastest, best,\r\ncheapest thing that we could do to improve transportation in New\r\nYork?"  I would say, "Put\r\neverything up online.  Let people\r\nbe able to run analytics and observe how the subways are running, how the\r\nbusses are running, what times are peak times for congestion, what parts have\r\npeople figured out clever work-arounds. \r\nEnable people to have raw data so they can run simulations and come to\r\nyou with proposals for reducing congestion times, doing better link-ups between\r\ntrains, subways, busses, etc., intermodal things.  Make it more transparent.  Make transportation more transparent.  We'll call it the Trans Initiative.

\r\n\r\n

Question:\r\nCould crowd sourcing ideas help solve the transportation problem?

\r\n\r\n

Michael Schrage: \r\nAbsolutely.  I think it would\r\nbe a fantastic thing if the Mayor of New York, currently Mayor Bloomberg, who\r\ncould bloody well afford it, instead of basically saying, "Nope!  Nobody can go into Times Square,"\r\nthere should be the, that would be a great idea, the Bloomberg prize in transportation.  Minimizing congestion design\r\nconstraints for improving quality of transportation and quality of life, because\r\nthere is such a thing as perverse outcomes.

\r\n\r\n

I'll tell you a\r\ntrue story in that regard.  For\r\nreasons I won't bore you with, I became an expert in the history of traffic\r\nlights.  It is a true story that\r\nNew York, for almost two years, tried to economize on traffic lights by\r\neliminating the amber light.  They\r\ngot rid of the middle light and they went from red and green because it would\r\nsave, it would save money, it was cleaner, it was binary.  Let's just say that the accident rate\r\nwent up rather significantly.  So\r\nalways, you've got to come to grips with the notion that transportation isn't\r\njust about cars and streets.  It's\r\nan eco system that deals with people. \r\nYou know, people watching this, probably, it's worth their time looking\r\nat Tom Vanderbilt's book on traffic, because traffic is as much a story of\r\nhuman behavior as it is about technological innovation.  Prizes that come up with clever ways of\r\naligning human behavior and technological innovation, great idea, fully\r\nsupportive. 

Recorded on January 22, 2010

\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

How to bring more confidence to your conversations

Entrepreneur and author Andrew Horn shares his rules for becoming an assured conversationalist.

content.jwplatform.com
Videos
  • To avoid basing action on external validation, you need to find your "authentic voice" and use it.
  • Finding your voice requires asking the right questions of yourself.
  • There are 3-5 questions that you would generally want to ask people you are talking to.
Keep reading Show less

Bespoke suicide pods now available for death in style

Sarco assisted suicide pods come in three different styles, and allow you to die quickly and painlessly. They're even quite beautiful to look at.

The Sarco assisted suicide pod
Technology & Innovation

Death: it happens to everyone (except, apparently, Keanu Reeves). But while the impoverished and lower-class people of the world die in the same ol' ways—cancer, heart disease, and so forth—the upper classes can choose hip and cool new ways to die. Now, there's an assisted-suicide pod so chic and so stylin' that peeps (young people still say peeps, right?) are calling it the "Tesla" of death... it's called... the Sarco! 

Keep reading Show less

Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less