hardware Internet Latest news Technology Reviews Links: January 22, 2023

The media got their collective knickers in a twist this week with the news that Wyoming is banning the sale of electric vehicles in the state. Headlines like that certainly raise eyebrows, which is the intention, of course, but even a quick glance at the proposed legislation might have revealed that the “ban” was nothing more than a non-binding resolution, making this little more than a political stunt. The bill, which would only “encourage” the phase-out of EV sales in the state by 2035, is essentially meaningless, especially since it died in committee before ever coming close to a vote. But it does present a somewhat lengthy list of the authors’ beefs with EVs, which mainly focus on the importance of the fossil fuel industry in Wyoming. It’s all pretty boneheaded, but then again, outright bans on ICE vehicle sales by some arbitrary and unrealistically soon deadline don’t seem too smart either. Couldn’t people just decide what car works best for them?

Speaking of which, a man in neighboring Colorado might have some buyer’s regret when he learned that it would take five days to fully charge his brand-new electric Hummer at home. Granted, he bought the biggest battery pack possible — 250 kWh — and is using a standard 120-volt wall outlet and the stock Hummer charging dongle, which adds one mile (1.6 km) to the vehicle’s range every hour. The owner doesn’t actually seem all that surprised by the results, nor does he seem particularly upset by it; he appears to know enough about the realities of EVs to recognize the need for a Level 2 charger. That entails extra expense, of course, both to procure the charger and to run the 240-volt circuit needed to power it, not to mention paying for the electricity. It’s a problem that will only get worse as more chargers are added to our creaky grid; we’re not sure what the solution is, but we’re pretty sure it’ll be found closer to the engineering end of the spectrum than the political end.

In tangentially related news, energy costs are much on the minds of the taxpayers of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where the local high school’s interior lights have been ablaze for the better part of two years now, because nobody can figure out how to turn them off. The story goes that when Minnechaug Regional High School was built about a decade ago, the school board specified a fancy building automation system that would be able to turn the building’s 7,000 light fixtures on and off automatically, to save energy. That worked fine up until April of 2022, when the software running the system barfed. It was a “good news, bad news” thing; on the one hand, the lights were still on, meaning students didn’t have to work in the dark. But now every light in the huge building stays on all day, every day, which has just got to gall the taxpayers who thought they were paying for a green system. The school board tried to get the original installer to fix the issue, but the business had changed hands a few times and wasn’t able to make repairs. A quote for $1.2 million to gut and replace the system was a non-starter, so they decided to cobble together bits and pieces of new hardware to fix things, but the dreaded “supply chain issues” keep pushing the fix back. The fix described in the linked story seems a bit heavy-handed; seems like one of us could probably have fixed this with a little reverse engineering, and for far less money.

Judging by the number of “Artificial Intelligence” articles that pop up in our feeds these days with Terminator references, the fear of the machines coming alive and killing us all in one fell swoop is very much on people’s minds. And while a few minutes on Twitter is enough for you to yearn for SkyNet to just launch all the nukes and get it over with, it looks like we’re going to have to wait a bit, if DARPA’s idea of battlefield AI is any indication. It seems that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency once enlisted the help of a group of Marines to train the AI model on a robot to detect approaching forces. All the Marines were able to avoid detection using such proven battlefield tactics as crawling while covered by a cardboard box, pretending to be a tree, and somersaulting for 300 meters. Granted, this training session seems like it was several years ago, so it’s likely that the models have been tuned up since then. But still, in a contest between humans and machines, we’ll put our money on the treachery and creativity of the human mind any day of the week.

And finally, we all know how spookily accurate The Simpsons has been at predicting the future. But even for a show that premiered over 30 years ago, there was at least one cartoonist who beat them to the punch by a long margin. Get a load of this 1923 political cartoon, which predicted that by 2023, cartoonists would have “all our work done by electricity.” It depicts a “cartoon dynamo” powering an “idea dynamo,” which uses an IV bottle full of ink and something like an X-Y plotter to churn out political cartoons automatically. It’s not too far off of what’s possible with GPT-3 and DALL-E, but judging by what resulted from the prompt “one-frame political cartoon about DALL-E,” it seems like cartoonists still have as much job security as Marines.