Supercomputer Rankings, ‘Frankenturtles,’ and Psychology of Self-Driving Cars

11:59 minutes

TOP500, a project that details the fastest supercomputers, released its supercomputer world rankings. China had the fastest supercomputers, and highest number, for a total of 167, outpacing the second-placed U.S. by two. Amy Nordrum, an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, discusses what supercomputers tell us about investments in technology and scientific research in the two countries.

A futuristic traffic circle, from Shutterstock
A futuristic traffic circle, from Shutterstock

Plus, autonomous cars promise a long list of benefits, including safer driving (cars don’t drink or text); convenience (forget looking for parking); and flexibility (disabled, blind, or elderly citizens wouldn’t have to rely on other drivers). But there is one huge drawback: They’d put taxi drivers, truckers, and others who drive for a living out of work. And a new study suggests people aren’t psychologically ready for autonomous vehicles, either—especially for ones that might be programmed to sacrifice their passengers’ lives to avoid an even greater casualty toll among pedestrians. We’ll discuss the debate in our Good Thing/Bad Thing segment this week.

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Azim Shariff

Azim Shariff is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine in Irvine, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, a man who likes to get stung by insects to measure the pain– ouch. But first, there’s a lot of talk about which country will emerge as the next superpower.

Pundits analyze GDP, exports, economic stability. Some experts look at military power. There was one list out this week that put China ahead of everyone else, and it was not looking at any of those indicators. It’s the Top 500 list, as it’s called, and it looked at the country’s total number of supercomputers.

Here to tell us why that indicator matters is Amy Nordrum. She’s an associate editor at The IEEE Spectrum here in New York. Welcome back, Amy.


IRA FLATOW: OK, how many supercomputers does China have?

AMY NORDRUM: China now officially has 167 supercomputers, surpassing the US for the first time in history, which has 165.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So that’s how we rate, the number of supercomputer [? we have? ?]

AMY NORDRUM: Well, you could also rank it by the fastest, and China beats us out on that as well. China has the top performing most powerful supercomputer in the world and also the second most powerful. And the remarkable thing about China is back in 2001, it had no supercomputers on the top 500 list. So it has come a long way very quickly.

IRA FLATOW: I remember when it was Cray Computers and they measured it. Are they American-made or do they totally make them in China?

AMY NORDRUM: That is a great question. So now the top performing supercomputer, which is located in China, is for the first time made completely with Chinese processors. And this is a very big deal, because about a year ago, the US actually blocked the shipment of Intel processors from the US to Chinese supercomputer labs, so prohibited China from having access to US-made processors.

So China started making their own, and now they’ve actually built the most powerful supercomputer in the world with Chinese-made processors, which is pretty remarkable.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so they’re moving very quickly.

AMY NORDRUM: They are. They are. The blockage was out of concern that the Chinese government might be using supercomputers for crunching metadata for surveillance purposes. And China says their newest supercomputer, the most powerful one, is going to be used for things like weather monitoring and research and engineering and manufacturing. So we’ll see if that’s the case.

IRA FLATOW: So they say, if you don’t sell it to us, we’ll build our own.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. The US is trying to catch up. So they’ve got three supercomputers on track for 2018 that would beat this fastest supercomputer out. But China has plans for even bigger projects beyond that. So we’ll see.

IRA FLATOW: You used to hear who was the race for being the top dog in supercomputing.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the rescue operation that was going on at the South Pole.

AMY NORDRUM: This is a fascinating expedition. So right now it’s winter in the South Pole. It doesn’t feel like it here in New York, obviously, over in the summertime. But down there, it’s negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit and very, very dark. The sun won’t rise again until September.

Usually the base station down there run by the National Science Foundation does not even have any flights in or out between February and October of every year, due to the cold and the conditions on the ground. They still have 48 people stationed down there, keeping some things like radio telescopes and other experiments on atmospheric gases running in the meantime.

This week, they had to run a rare rescue mission to recover two contractors actually who had become sick while working down there. They were with Lockheed Martin. And this is only the third time in history that the National Science Foundation has run one of these rare wintertime rescue operations to their South Pole base station.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I remember back in the ’90s there was a doctor stationed at the Pole who was diagnosed with cancer and they had to get the doc out.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, yes. And it’s an extremely touch and go operation. So the contractors who run these expeditions for the National Science Foundation in the middle of the Antarctic winter are out of Canada. So they had to actually fly down there. They sent two planes just in case one had some trouble and they’d have to go in and do a search and rescue operation. But fortunately, they were able to make it out with the patients who landed in Chile earlier this week for medical attention.

IRA FLATOW: We don’t know what officially what was wrong with them.

AMY NORDRUM: We don’t officially know, no. I mean, really, when you’re down there, you are pretty much on your own. And they do have usually a medical staff on base. So typically, it’s something quite serious that would’ve had a risk of death if they weren’t recovered before October.

IRA FLATOW: I was down there many years ago, and I can tell you how lonely it gets.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, I can imagine.

IRA FLATOW: And they rarely ever take anybody out, because of the rescue effort is very dangerous. Let’s talk about scientists having created what they called Frankenturtles. It’s not even Halloween, and we’re talking Frankenturtles. Sea turtle zombies, or what are we talking about?

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. If you live around Chesapeake Bay, you may be on the lookout, because these zombie or Frankenturtles might be washing up on your beaches. So there’s a couple of scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences who are working on an experiment to try to figure out the mystery of sea turtle strandings.

So every year, hundreds of sea turtles wash up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, and they’ve died and we don’t really know why or where these turtles are coming from.

IRA FLATOW: In the same spot? They all come to the same spot?

AMY NORDRUM: They land on the beaches– they tend to land on certain stretches of beach. So they’re not really sure where the problem is in the ocean or where these turtles are dying off. And that’s what they’re trying to figure out.

So to do this, they’ve sort of worked backward and taken a few dead sea turtles, carved out their innards, stuffed them with Styrofoam to help them float, closed them with zip ties, and then set them in the ocean to see how they’re floating, where they’re ending up on the beaches. They’re hoping with some software and some GPS tracking they can actually work backward to figure out where the turtles that are landing up on the beach might have originated from.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I can’t imagine to make this work that anybody could have enough sea turtle carcasses in their freezer that you’re going to get out and just put them out there. They must make something artificial–

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: –mimic a sea turtle?

AMY NORDRUM: They do have a few actual carcasses that have been recovered from the beach and are still in decent enough condition, have not decayed or decomposed enough that they can use them for this experiment. But you’re right. They’re trying out a few other things, because the carcass supply is limited, let’s say. So they’re trying a couple of other things called drifters.

One is made out of balsa wood. It’s shaped like a turtle, meant to kind of mimic how a turtle might float if it were out of the ocean on its own. And then also, they’re using a couple buckets full of water which sit just below the surface. They’re not affected by wind currents, but they travel with water currents. And those can track the ocean’s movements in a different way.

IRA FLATOW: The fact that these are washing up, the dead sea turtles in Chesapeake Bay, that means that they are in trouble? Are they dying off?

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. There’s five species of sea turtle in the area, and all five are either endangered or threatened. So this is a pretty important mystery to figure out. It could be due to boat strikes. It could be due to changes in the ocean, particularly cold water can cause hypothermia. Or it could be due to something else that we haven’t yet discovered.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum– she is not part of the women’s clothing department store. Sorry to mispronounce your name.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s OK. It happens.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, associate editor at The IEEE Spectrum here in New York. And now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing. Because every story has a flip side. In our story today, autonomous cars. Because wouldn’t it be nice to just kick back and read the paper on your commute, sip some coffee while your car takes care of the driving, and your car’s talking to other cars.

And they’re all smoothly navigating out now on less crowded highways. And once you get to your destination, you just get out and your car is going to park itself, of course. Great. But below the surface, things are not quite as rosy. So here to weigh the good, the bad, and the complicated is my guest Azim Shariff.

He is an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. He’s one of the authors of a study out this week in the journal Science on some of the sticky moral issues, like how people feel about letting their cars decide who lives or dies in the case of an accident. He joins us by Skype. Welcome to Science Friday.

AZIM SHARIFF: Thanks. Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: As I mentioned, autonomous vehicles certainly have some benefits, right? Let’s talk about the good thing.

AZIM SHARIFF: Well, they have a lot of benefits, and you mentioned some of them. I think the one that most people think about is that idea of sipping coffee and reading the newspaper while being in the car, that convenience factor. But there’s a bunch of other things which people don’t think about as much. So one is fuel efficiency. These cars are going to be much more fuel efficient. Their capabilities of driving are going to be much more efficient.

People who are kind of locked out of the driving business themselves, so people with disabilities, people who are blind, the elderly– they will be able to be driven easily by these cars. We’re going to be able to redesign our cities, so we won’t have to have all the street parking. As you mentioned, the car can drop you off and then go zip off to some sort of central parking facility and then come back and pick you up when it needs to.

There is a tremendous well-being benefit. So right now commuting is the worst part of most people’s day for people who commute. The psychological literature is absolutely clear on that.

IRA FLATOW: I know all about the traffic. Let’s talk about the bad thing.

AZIM SHARIFF: Well, there’s one big good thing that I want to mention there, and that’s safety. So that’s probably the biggest and the most morally interesting advantage of having these cars. The estimate is that 90% of all the accidents that happen are human caused. They’re the product of human error. And that kills about 30,000 to 40,000 people in the United States every year. So that’s a tremendous benefit that we’ll see with these cars.

But yeah, there are some bad things. There are some bad things. So one of the big things is labor displacement. So these AVs, these autonomous vehicles, are going to replace a lot of jobs that are currently the human drivers. So Uber is trying to develop their own autonomous vehicles so they can take out that pesky human side of their business model.

And you can imagine a lot of trucking companies would also be keen to do this, because that’s an expense and it’s a lag on their efficiency. With an autonomous car, the truck can just go all night. Doesn’t have to rest. Doesn’t have to stop. And you don’t have to pay the humans for doing that. So that’s the negative.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, let’s talk about what you studied, the moral, psychological angle here, the more complicated thing.

AZIM SHARIFF: Right. So there, it’s a challenge of adoptions. So if it’s the case that these are going to be beneficial innovations, how do we get people to adopt them, and what’s actually going to dissuade them from adopting them? So in addition to replicating human capabilities, these cars are going to have to be making some value-laden moral decisions.

I mentioned it’s going to reduce accidents, but it’s not going to reduce all of them. And in certain accidents, these cars are going to be able to see different paths which will apportion harm to different people involved. So they could in one situation, if they take one option, they could harm pedestrians.

But if they see another option, that could actually harm the passengers. That might be from a utilitarian perspective the more ethical thing to do, but involves sacrificing the very people who bought and own the car.

IRA FLATOW: Hey, man, I want to buy a car that does that.

AZIM SHARIFF: Well, not one that’s actually trying to kill you in particular situations, no.

IRA FLATOW: That is complicated. You’re absolutely right, Azim. Thank you for joining us. Azim Shariff is an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine.

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