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Letters to the Editor: July 3, 2014

Conflict of interest?

To the Editor:

The 2012 Wisconsin redistricting moved the Towns of Cylon and Forest from the 10th Wisconsin State Senate District represented by State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R) to the 25th Wisconsin State Senate District represented by State Sen. Bob Jauch (D).

In general, since the new voting boundaries went into effect, there have been accusations of improprieties and irregularities in the process by which the boundaries were redrawn. Locally, there is also cause for concern.

The law firm Michael Best & Friedrich was hired by the Wisconsin Legislature to draw the new redistricting maps for 2012. This is the same law firm that is also representing the Highland Wind Project at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission hearings as well as participating in opposition to the current lawsuit by the Town of Forest in St Croix County Circuit Court challenging the PSC approval of the Highland Wind Turbine Project.

Is this just a coincidence? All of the mapping was done at their offices in Madison. The Wisconsin Elections Board needs to investigate this and decide if the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich intentionally moved the Towns of Cylon and Forest from the 10th Senate District to the 25th Senate District in order to enhance their upcoming case in representing Highland Wind at the PSC for financial gain? Wouldn’t this be a conflict of interest and be illegal?

Jeff Ericson, Town of Forest


Walker had his chance

To the Editor:

Two articles in last Tuesday’s issue of the Pioneer Press offer more evidence of Wisconsin trailing the pack. One reports May home sales in Wisconsin declined for the fifth straight month. The other article reported nationwide home sales up 4.9 percent in May. Wisconsin is lagging behind the rest of the country.

In January 2009, Scott Walker took office, and Republicans gained control of Wisconsin’s legislature. The nation was in the midst of the worst recession since The Great Depression. In the last six months of the Bush administration, the U.S. lost 3.5 million jobs. But six months after President Obama took office, economists noted that the economy was turning the corner and beginning to grow again. Gov. Walker had boldly pledged to create 250,000 private sector jobs by the end of 2014. Now, just six months away from Walker’s own deadline, the state has achieved only 40 percent of that goal. Wisconsin ranks 35th in job creation. Grading students on a curve, 40 percent would be a failing grade. Even worse, a rank of 35th among 50 states would place Wisconsin in the 30th percentile.

At the beginning of his term, Gov. Walker ordered that all the signs reading “Wisconsin Welcomes You” include the phrase “Open for Business.” The legislature followed his lead by reducing business taxes and easing regulatory litigation. State Rep. Dean Knudson of Hudson was quoted saying, “We need to make it easier to make a profit, because that’s what keeps people in business. It makes them willing to expand and take risk and hire more people.”

Walker and his disciples have had their chance to make a difference for our state. Indeed, they’ve made a difference, and the difference is an embarrassment.

Harlen Menk, Ellsworth


Moral robots?

To the Editor:

And you thought movies were about fiction, guess again. A question running around the United Nations these days is, “Are robots capable of moral or ethical reasoning?” It’s no longer just a question for tenured philosophy professors or Hollywood directors.

The Office of Naval Research will award $7.5 million in grant money over five years to university researchers from Tufts, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Brown, Yale and Georgetown to explore how to build a sense of right and wrong and moral consequence into autonomous robotic systems.

Even though today’s unmanned systems are ‘dumb’ in comparison to a human counterpart, advances are being made to bring more automation at a faster pace. For example, Google’s self-driving cars are legal and in use in several states right now.

The United States military prohibits fully lethal autonomous robots and semi-autonomous robots can’t select and engage individual targets or groups that have not been previously authorized by a human. But what happens when they lose the signal in the middle of transmission, or it picks up another signal like “Late Night with Jay Leno”? Talk about your moral dilemma.

It was noted in an article in Nexgov that the sophistication of cutting-edge drones like British BAE Systems’ batwing-shaped Taranis and Northrop Grumman’s X-47B reveal more self-direction creeping into ever more heavily armed systems. But how do you code something as abstract as moral logic into a bunch of transistors?

One of the arguments for moral robots is that they may be even better than humans in picking a moral course of action because they may consider more courses of action. But here’s the rub, whose morals when you consider all the different ethics used by different people?

Now let’s take it one step further, what if you have a situation where the robot can’t make a decision because it is partially damaged by enemy fire or a drone flies into it? Then what?

I have this feeling that far into the future some GI is sitting in a fox hole watching old episodes of “Gilligan’s Island” with a very expensive piece of ethical robot being used as an antenna. Forty years ago when you were out in the jungle and it was a hot day and wanted something cold, all you needed was an empty ammo can, a can of pop and a fire extinguisher. The really expensive ones.

The Defense Department’s policy directive on lethal autonomy offers little reassurance since the department can change it without congressional approval, at the discretion of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and two undersecretaries of Defense. What I’ve always wondered about high-ranking officers is do they see things the same way as us or do they just listen to undersecretaries who have done extensive reports from the coffee shop on their laptops.

If I can quote the Terminator, “No problemo.”

Robert Pike, Town of Stanton