How much do trans characters on TV impact cultural attitudes? A lot, actually.

This article was originally published in Metro Weekly

Jeffrey Tambor — Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Jeffrey Tambor — Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Researchers at the University of Southern California have discovered that the more we see transgender characters on television, the more positive our attitudes toward transgender people and related policies become. According to the study, becoming engrossed in a narrative enables viewers to identify with transgender characters’ struggles in a way that mimics a first-hand experience.

Researchers surveyed viewers of USA Network’s Royal Pains following a June 2015 episode that featured a teenage transgender character. Their findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles, showed that viewing the episode correlated to more positive attitudes toward transgender issues and policies.

The effect was also shown to build on itself: the more exposure to transgender television characters that viewers had — such as through Transparent or Orange is the New Black  — the more positive the viewers’ opinions of transgender people and policies became. Even just a single exposure still correlated to more pro-transgender attitudes.

However, high-profile news about transgender people does not have the same impact. Exposure to Caitlin Jenner’s transition, heavily covered in the media at the time of the study, apparently had no impact on participants’ views of transgender issues.

Since the USC study provides evidence that transgender characters lead to a more favorable attitude among viewers, researchers hope that it might also lead to such things as increased voting, activism, and political contributions to the trans cause.

Royal Pains had never before featured a transgender character or dealt with LGBTQ issues in general, a factor that researchers think helped boost its effectiveness in shifting attitudes. According to the study, transgender “single-episode characters” have the ability to reach people who would not tune into a show dealing exclusively or mostly with transgender issues.

“For show writers who are seeking to increase understanding around LGBT people and issues that they face, there is evidence that smaller storylines are effective,” says Traci Gillig, lead researcher on the project and doctoral candidate at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “A lot of focus is on the bigger shows, but sometimes smaller exposures are the most effective.”

The findings are significant for television writers seeking to make an impact on cultural attitudes through their storylines. And the stakes are high: In light of steadily high rates of violence toward transgender people, researchers call improving attitudes towards transgender people a public health priority.

Could AI abolish car accidents? Mayor Bowser is betting on it

This article was originally published to


Imagine for a moment that, every week, four to five commercial airplanes crashed in America.

In reality, a similar number of people die per week in traffic accidents, but, for the most part, those deaths don’t resonate with us in the same way. 

“If that many airplanes were crashing every week, it would not be acceptable to people. Unfortunately, we’ve come to view traffic death as the ‘cost of doing business,” said Franz Loewenherz, principal transportation planner for the city of Bellevue in Washington state. “But it doesn’t have to be.” 

Under his leadership, Bellevue has partnered with Microsoft to come up with a software solution that could reduce or eliminate traffic deaths. The software, developed under Microsoft Distinguished Scientist Dr. Victor Bahl, will eventually recognize locations where crashes are most likely to occur. 

“This is an entirely different way of looking at safety,” Dr. Steven Lavrenz, technical programs specialist with the Institute of Transportation Engineers said. “We’re detecting events before they occur in order to ensure that they never do.”



How does it work?

In short, the software algorithm analyzes a city’s traffic footage and uses artificial intelligence to recognize traffic events known as near-misses. (Think: a car screeching to a halt to avoid hitting a pedestrian.) This strategy, known as surrogate safety analysis, uses near-misses as “surrogate events” in order to detect risk before actual crashes take place. 

As patterns emerge, city transportation officials will gain the ability to identify where the highest risks for traffic accidents are around the city. Eventually, the goal is to build a database that city officials will be able to use to spot the riskiest areas on the streets.

But the software is not yet fully developed — it still has trouble differentiating between pedestrians and bicyclists. And the challenge is that the software cannot teach itself; it requires a human being to label an object multiple times before it can begin to recognize it on its own.

So, to bring this project across the finish line, developers are calling on the public to help by watching traffic footage and labeling people and bikes. 



That’s where D.C. comes in.

Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that D.C. would be participating in this effort as part of the Vision Zero initiative, a campaign to end traffic fatalities in the District by 2024.

What exactly has Mayor Bowser signed us up for? Now that we are signed on, Microsoft will be granted access to the 130 closed-circuit traffic cameras that perch above our streetscape here in the District. Video footage of traffic will be fed into the software, and people from all over the United States will help by labeling objects for the machine to learn. 

Eventually, D.C. city officials will have access to a wealth of information about high risk areas on our streets and be able to respond accordingly. While many of these solutions won’t be clear until the problems are identified, corrective actions could include adjusting traffic signal timing, reducing crossing distances for pedestrians, implementing roundabouts or conducting public education campaigns.



Artificial intelligence: driving the future

All of this represents the tip of an iceberg, with artificial intelligence set to play an increasing role in the way we transport ourselves in coming years. A great example of this, of course, is the autonomous car — but think beyond that. Here are four ways AI could help:

  • Improve your driving. Dr. Victor Bahl says that as autonomous cars gain sophistication, they will be able to communicate with surrounding infrastructure to keep us safer. Take for example a recent demo in Hannover, Germany in which an autonomous car was able to brake safely for a pedestrian obscured from its view. How? By communicating with a traffic camera that had a clear view.  
  • Save you time. Artificial intelligence will also help motorists save time. An example of this includes Xerox Research Center Europe’s plans to develop software that recognizes available parking spaces on city streets via cameras attached to buses. Another is the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon project in Pittsburgh to develop “smart” traffic lights that use artificial intelligence to communicate with one another, adapting to changing traffic conditions in order to increase efficiency at intersections. They’ve been shown to reduce travel time by 25 percent and idling time by over 40 percent.
  • Improve public safety. Dr. Bahl points out that an intelligent, connected camera system could even aid in Amber Alert cases by sorting through traffic footage in real time to identify car color, make, and model and license plate numbers.
  • Help navigate. It’s feasible that this technology could compete with Waze and Google Maps by using smart, connected cameras to issue real-time traffic alerts to help ease congestion. (And, Dr. Bahl points out, the less time spent on the road, the fewer opportunities for accidents.)

Where do we go from here?

Before the software can go mainstream, privacy concerns will need to be sorted out. According to Loewenherz, a number of cities interested in implementing this technology have had to put it on the backburner while working out issues with their existing video privacy policies. 

But it is likely that, as the software develops and yields compelling results, more cities will be eager to sign on.


Can those food delivery bots travel the District’s streets safely?

D.C. is moving forward with bot delivery — cautiously.

This article was originally published to Technically.

It’s a dilemma for the ages, isn’t it? The challenge of transporting people and things from point A to point B seems likely to be with us for as long as space and time — and faraway loved ones and online shoe shopping — exist.

The newest innovation in response to this problem is autonomous transportation technology. (Think: self-driving cars , currently on their way to becoming mainstream.) Autonomous transportation technology boasts many possible positive implications, but as with progress in general  —  and technology advancements in particular — they also present brand new problems to be solved.

D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and Energy, is well aware of this. She has been instrumental in pushing forward autonomous transportation technology in the District  —  most recently with the Personal Delivery Device Act of 2016, legislation that legalized a pilot program for autonomous delivery bots capable of making deliveries with no human assistance.

While she’s hopeful regarding the implications of this new technology, she is careful to note that there are still questions that must be answered before wide-scale roll out of the technology can occur.

New technology, new problems

Potential vandalism or theft present a clear challenge, but Starship Technologies, the Estonian company that manufactures the bots, is confident that the bots include sufficient security measures, like alarms and cameras, to deter most would-be thieves and vandalizers. But Cheh won’t be convinced entirely until a couple of other questions are answered.

The councilmember says she’s waiting for this month’s pilot program to confirm whether the bots, successful elsewhere, have the technical capacity to safely navigate the District’s streets. There is reason to be optimistic, since the same model of bots is now operating in Europe, having safely covered 14,500 miles and counting.

Still, the bots are new to the city, and Cheh would like to see them successfully navigating these particular streets and sidewalks before she’s ready for the bot program to move from the pilot stage to full-scale implementation.

But more complicated challenges exist  —  and ones with more potentially destructive effects. An obvious and significant concern is the potential for misuse of bots to transport dangerous materials to target government buildings or embassies. In a post-9/11 world, where the threat of terrorism ranks high on global security concerns, this question holds particular salience.

Importantly, baked into the Personal Delivery Device Act of 2016 are restrictions on movement of the bots, especially applicable in the high-profile city of Washington, D.C. For example, the bots are not permitted to travel near sensitive areas, such as the White House or Capitol Building. But questions arise around viability of these restrictions in the face of sophisticated hacking threats. For Cheh, the issue of weaponization of the bots is question that must still be answered. She says that she “hopes to gain clarity on the topic” in an upcoming hearing.

So, is it worth it?

If these hurdles can be overcome, there are compelling environmental and social reasons to support the proliferation of this technology in the District and beyond. Cheh is quick to point out the environmental benefits available through the use of these zero-carbon delivery bots. She also notes that seniors with limited mobility, as well as individuals living in food deserts could stand to gain from easy, affordable food delivery. But whether or not these benefits will be reaped remains to be seen — and will depend on the city’s ability to solve tough problems.

In 2017, your delivery person could be a robot

Bot in action 1.jpg

This article was originally published to Technically.

Imagine: it’s a weekday morning in Columbia Heights and you’re trudging to the Green Line. On the sidewalk, there it is: an R2-D2 look alike, rumbling past on six rugged-looking wheels. It is tan-colored and about knee-height with a black lid. It navigates around obstacles like fire hydrants and pedestrians, is able to stop suddenly and uses the crosswalk on its own.

Science fiction? No, just another day in the nation’s capital. By the end of this month, autonomous food delivery bots will be operating on the streets of Washington, which has been selected by an Estonia-based startup to host the first U.S.-based delivery bot pilot program. The startup supplying the robots is Starship Technologies, formed in 2014 by Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, two Skype cofounders.

The company chose D.C. because of its time zone proximity to Europe and its less-congested streets compared with other nearby options, said Starship spokesman Henry Harris-Burland. The company has a singular aim: to revolutionize the local delivery sector, bringing the cost of delivery to $1 or less.

How does it work?

Each robot is capable of carrying two grocery bags (or about 40 pounds) and can travel within a three-mile radius. It navigates by using nine cameras and a GPS to construct a 360-degree, 3D map of its surroundings. Starship says it can complete a delivery within five to thirty minutes and can do it at a price 10 to 15 times lower than other local delivery transport options. Although the bots are autonomous, operating on their own 99 percent of the time, there is always a remotely located operator on duty who can take over navigation or speak to passersby if any of the bots encounter issues.

Customers place their orders via an app, which they also use to track the progress and estimated arrival time of the bot. When an order is placed, the bot deploys from the hub it is stored at, heads to the restaurant from which the order was placed and carries the items to the customer. When the bot arrives, the customer uses a secret code from the app to unlock the lid.

Bots could put D.C. on the cutting edge of local delivery

The Starship bot technology comes in response to an emerging dilemma for many companies: figuring out how to reduce costs of home delivery in the age of online shopping. In the delivery sector it even has a name: the “last mile problem,” and it has prompted Amazon to experiment with aerial drone technology and “locker” pickup locations in cities.

The “last mile” is not necessarily one mile, but rather the final leg of a product’s delivery to the consumer  —  after it has reached a hub or port and must be distributed to various locations. It is the most expensive leg of the journey, comprising about 28 percent of the total cost of transport  —  and the most CO2-producing leg to boot.


What’s the catch?

An obvious issue is the possibility of vandalism or theft, a challenge that Harris-Burland, Starship’s manager of communications, says the company anticipates. Predicting that passersby will try to “ride them, steal them and tip them over,” the company has equipped each robot with an alarm, camera system and speaker to allow operators to warn would-be vandalizers that they are being recorded and that the police have been notified.

And another confidence-inspiring fact about the bots: so far, they have encountered 2.8 million people and covered 14,500 miles  —  all with no reported incidences of vandalism or theft. In fact, hundreds of trips are completed each day by the bots in England, Germany and Switzerland.

Still, the bots have yet to be tested in America, where last year a bot created by Canadian researchers as part of a social experiment was found destroyed in Philadelphia after having traveled for a full month without harm through Canada and parts of Europe. This has left some to wonder if the U.S. is a less hospitable environment for bots.

What’s the upshot?

If the program is successful in the U.S., Starship’s land bot program could add a valuable delivery solution to the mix here in the States  —  allowing the nation’s capital to help define the evolving landscape of local delivery.