New Technology

#ChonkyBois: When It Comes to Running Shoes, How Thicc is too Thicc?

Molly Woodford, MJLST Staffer

Early last November, I wrote a blog post about the developing controversy surrounding the Nike Vaporfly NEXT%. At that time, the IAAF (track and field’s world governing body, which has now rebranded itself as “World Athletics”) had just announced that it was assembling a working group to examine the Vaporfly controversy and “find the right balance in the technical rules between encouraging the development and use of new technologies in athletics and the preservation of the fundamental characteristics of the sport: accessibility, universality and fairness.” The IAAF also announced that it expected the working group “to report back by the end of the year.”

True to its word, on January 31, 2020, the IAAF promulgated new rules governing footwear. Among other things, the new rules stated that all racing shoes could have a sole no thicker than 40mm and contain no more than one carbon plate. In addition, in order to prevent athletes from racing in prototypes that might otherwise comply with the rules, “any shoe that is first introduced after [April 30,] 2020 may not be used in competition unless and until it has been available for purchase by any athlete on the open retail market (i.e. either in store or online) for at least four months prior to that competition.” Since the first day of Olympic track and field is, for now, scheduled to begin on July 31, 2020, and the Olympics marathons are scheduled to take place on August 8 and 9, any racing shoe used in the Olympics must, therefore, be released for sale to the general public by the end of April.

The IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, stated that:

As we enter the Olympic year, we don’t believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time, but we can draw a line by prohibiting the use of shoes that go further than what is currently on the market while we investigate further.

True to Coe’s words, under the new rules, the Nike Vaporfly NEXT% is legal, as is its successor, the AlphaFly Next%, which was announced by Nike on February 5, 2020, less than a week after the new IAAF rules. The “stack height,” or “the amount of material between your foot and the ground” of the AlphaFly is 39.5mm, versus 37mm in the Vaporfly Next%. By way of comparison, the stack height of the Nike Zoon Streak 7, a conventional marathon racing flat, is 26mm. Thus, the Next% line features a sole that is approximately 50% thicker than its traditional counterparts. “Running twitter” has taken to referring to the Alphafly as #ChonkyBois.

Nike made a limited number of Alphaflys available to Nike Plus members on February 29, 2020, to coincide with the United States Olympic Marathon Trials. In a genius marketing coup, Nike made the Alphafly available, for free, to all athletes competing in the Olympic Marathon Trials. According to Runner’s World, about 25% of competitors opted to wear the Alphafly, even though those who are not sponsored by Nike had just received the shoes days before the race (you generally do not want to try new things during a marathon, like shoes or nutrition). Runners were willing to take this risk because, while the Vaporfly boosts performances by ~4%, the Alphafly may help twice as much.  The previously-unheralded Jacob Riley intentionally chose to forgo pursuing sponsorship until after the Olympic Trials so that he could race in the Alphafly. His gamble paid off, with a personal best and an Olympic berth.

Nike’s competitors are working to match the effectiveness of the Alphafly, but they’re not there yet. With its legality no longer in doubt, the Alphafly is here to stay, for better or for worse.


Timing Trouble: to what extent should we assume people will break the law?

Jack Brooksbank, MJLST Staffer

City planners and civil engineers across the country face a little-known, yet extremely important, question when designing road systems: how long should the green lights last? Anyone who has ever had a regular commute probably wishes the answer was simply “longer,” but this seemingly minor detail can get quite complex. Traffic light timing decisions are made by both government officials and specialist consulting firms, based on extensive studies, and supported by academic papers. The practice of traffic light timing is so established that it has its own lingo.

Perhaps the most important part of traffic light timing is coordination. Engineers try to set the cycles of lights on a given route in concert, so that a car passing through one green light finds the next light turning green in time for it to continue. “The intent of coordinating traffic signals is to provide smooth flow of traffic along streets and highways in order to reduce travel times, stops and delay.” When done well, it leads to a phenomenon known in the industry as a “green wave,” where a car hits every green light in a row and never needs to come to a stop.

It’s not just a minor detail, either. Coordination can have some serious benefits for a city. One town revamping its timing scheme estimated it would reduce travel times by as much as 10%. And although making the morning commute go more smoothly is a worthy goal in itself, proper light timing can create other benefits too. Efficient traffic light timing can even help the environment: by reducing the number of stops, and the total time spent driving, coordinated traffic signals reduce the amount of fuel burned, and greenhouse gasses produced, by commuters.

However, timing traffic lights relies in large part on one central assumption: that a car leaving one green light takes a certain amount of time to get to the next one. This raises a potential problem: drivers don’t follow the speed limit. Indeed, one study found that nearly 70% of all drivers regularly speed! When timing traffic lights, then, designers must make a choice: do they time the lights based on the legal speed limit, or based on the speed drivers actually go?

If timing is based on the speed limit, many cars will still arrive at the next light before it has turned green. The coordination of signals won’t have mattered, and the cars will still have to come to a stop. By basing the timing on the wrong speed, the designers have negated the benefit of their careful work, and might as well have saved the time and money needed for figuring out how to coordinate the signals in the first place. But, if instead timing is based on the speed drivers really travel, designers are essentially rewarding illegal behavior—and punishing those drivers who do actually follow the law with extra stops and delays!

Most major cities now rely on actuated controllers, or devices that detect when cars are approaching in order to trigger light changes without human input. Some cities are even experimenting with AI-based systems that take the design out of human hands completely. Advances in technology have thus heavily favored the “actual speed” approach, but is this because a decision was made to accommodate speeding drivers? Or have cities, in their enthusiasm to reduce congestion, simply adopted the latest in technology without considering the policy choice that it entails?

Also, if traffic lights should be timed for the actual speed cars travel, it may raise further implications for other areas of law that rely on questionable assumptions of human behavior. Perhaps most notable is the law of contracts, which generally relies heavily on the assumption that people read contracts before signing them. But as electronic devices, apps, and online content proliferate, this assumption gets farther from the truth. And people can hardly be blamed for agreeing without reading: one investigation in Norway found that people have an average of 33 apps on their smartphones, and that reading the terms and conditions of that many apps would take an average of 31 hours. Another investigation found that simply reading all the website privacy policies an average internet user encounters in a year would require 76 eight-hour days of reading! If we should time traffic lights to account for people being too impatient to follow the legal speed limit, surely we should update the laws of contract to account for such a crushing reading load. Perhaps it is time to reform many areas of law, so that they are no longer grounded on unrealistic expectations of human behavior.

 


E-Bikes: Protections, Safety and Liability on the Road

Alex Wolf, MJLST Staffer

E-bikes, or electronic bikes, are kind of a hybrid between an electric scooter and a regular bicycle. In appearance, they’re no different than your normal two-wheeled bike, but e-bikes have a motor that lets the rider reach brisk speeds without much pedaling effort. There are two classes of motors, hub motors and mid-drive motors. Hub motors are installed in the hub gear and mid-drive motors are installed between the pedals at the bottom bracket of the bike. The usual advice for e-bike newbies is to start with a hub motor; it is simpler to install and it has fewer working parts (creating less risk of a slip/accident and lasting longer). However, the mid-drives have now outpaced the hubs in popularity; for biking enthusiasts, the gear shifts feel more natural and the extra power is great for terrain or mountain biking.

E-bikes are on the streets, so states and localities need to decide how to regulate them. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers recently signed a law that incorporates e-bikes into an existing law governing safety regulations for bicycles. The law creates a three-tiered “e-bike class” system, based on the maximum speed the e-bike can reach with its motor. Although e-bike riders don’t need any license or permit to operate, riders must be 16 years or older to ride e-bikes that can reach 28 mph. These regulations are similar to those previously enacted in Illinois and Michigan.

Like electronic scooters, e-bikes pose more safety issues than non-mechanized transportation. Reliable data is very hard to find (as e-bikes are new on the scene), but news reports indicate that older bikers are getting injured at higher rates than others. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would’ve reauthorized electronic scooters and e-bikes on paths and bike lanes. He said that he believed the bill lacked important safety requirements, namely helmet use. However, Governor Phil Murphy of neighboring New Jersey eagerly signed a bill permitting scooters and e-bikes, hoping that “By bringing our motor vehicle laws into the 21st century, we will enable the rollout of e-bikes in Jersey City’s bike share program and expand the transportation options available to New Jerseyans.”

What can we expect for e-bikes in the near future? The annual e-bike market has surpassed $1.5 billion, with recognizable brands like BMW and Harley-Davidson jumping headfirst into this exciting commercial domain. We might soon see the statistic of the number of Americans who bike to work, currently about 1%, tick upwards. Minneapolis’ Nice Ride is leading the way for e-bikes in Minnesota, working with Lyft to bring 2,000 e-bikes to the city sometime in 2020. Minnesota law does not require either a license or a special motorized bicycle permit, but it does have other safety precautions like headlight use and an adult riding along if a minor is operating. So, if you’ve got the means, let it ride!


Elections? There’s an App for That.

Jacob Hauschild, MJLST Staffer

Clay Aiken won. We true believers don’t care what FOX had to say about it. When the phone systems were allegedly logjammed on that 2003 day, millions of American Idolaters had their faith in the democratic vote shattered. As one author wrote, “Technology is thwarting democracy. . .”

Yet, even as our democracy has been so thwarted by encroaching technology, one Washington district believes there Ain’t No Need to Worry. Instead of protecting voters from technology’s perils, the King Conservation District of Washington is embracing technology in the democratic process, allowing roughly 1.2 million Seattle area voters to vote online, via a smartphone, tablet, or computer, in an election for a board of supervisor position. Last year, the King Conservation District had only a 0.2% participation rate in its Board of Supervisors’ election. By allowing voters to vote this year from their couches, administrators hope more residents will participate, strengthening the district’s democratic capacity.

Of course, such an expansion to voter accessibility is no laughing matter. On one hand, voter turnout in the United States is concerningly low. Of no help are the 24 states who have introduced heightened voting restrictions over the last decade. On the other hand, these kinds of restrictions are, in theory, meant to make our elections more secure, as recent elections have quite notoriously resulted in claims of voter fraud and international interference. And experts have major concerns about the effects of online voting, which include challenges in voter authentication, risks to ballots in transit (i.e. ballots that are manipulated while transferred between the voter and the election office), and the threat of malware infiltrating electoral systems.

Online voting advocates are responsive to these issues. Many believe that blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, may be the magic key to these security concerns. Others are far more cautious. Plus, in addition to security risks, there is the ever-present possibility that the voting technology fails to function as expected. For its part, the King Conservation District is utilizing a mobile voting platform through Democracy Live, which has FedRAMP certification, providing a government standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and monitoring of cloud services.

For now, other voting districts aren’t exactly lining up to make similar changes to voting accessibility. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman recently indicated after consultation with cyber experts from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security that “electronic transmission [is] far too risky for voting and could leave voter information and election infrastructure impaired.” Even Julie King, the Elections Director for King County itself, announced that mobile voting is “not technology [she’ll] be rolling out for King County in upcoming elections.”

Will this technology grow more widespread in the future? And if so, how does that affect the legitimacy of our democracy? For a glimpse of that future, we need only wait until February 16. Or, if you don’t intend to tune into the American Idol premiere, you can opt instead to observe mobile voting’s impact as early as February 11, when the King Conservation District polls close. That election’s success—or failure—could fundamentally change how Americans vote in coming elections.


“Open up it’s the police! . . . And Jeff Bezos?”

Noah Cozad, MJLST Staffer

Amazon’s Ring company posted a series of Instagram posts around Halloween, including a video of children trick or treating, and statistics about how many doorbells were rang on the night.  What was probably conceived as a cute marketing idea, quickly received backlash. It turns out people were not enamored by the thought of Ring watching their children trick or treat.  This is not the first time Ring’s ads have drawn criticism. In June of this year, social media users noticed that Ring was using images and footage from their cameras in advertisements. The posts included pictures of suspects, as well as details of their alleged crimes. Ring called these “Community Alerts.” Customers, it seems, have agreed to exactly this use of data. In Ring’s terms of service agreement, customers grant Ring the ability to “use, distribute, store .  . . and create derivative works from such Content that you share through our Service.”

The backlash to Ring’s ads gets to a deeper concern about the Amazon company and its technology: the creation of a massive, privately owned surveillance network. Consumers have good reason to be wary of this. It’s not fully understood what exactly Ring does with the images and videos this network creates. Earlier this year, it was reported that Ring allegedly gave their Ukrainian R&D team unlimited access to every video and image created by any Ring camera. And Ring allegedly allowed engineers and executives unlimited access to some customers cameras as well, including Ring’s security cameras made for indoor use. Ring has denied these allegations. There are not many specifics, but the company is said to have “minimum security standards” in general, and appears not to encrypt the storage of customer data. Though data is now encrypted “in transit.”

The legal and civil rights concerns from this technology all seem to come to a head with Ring’s partnerships with local police departments. Six hundred plus police departments, including the Plymouth and Rochester departments, have partnered with Ring. Police departments encourage members of their community to buy Ring, and Ring gives police forces potential access to camera footage. The footage is accessed through a request to the customer, which can be denied, otherwise, police usually require a warrant to force Ring to hand over the footage. California departments though allege they have been able to sidestep the customer, and simply threaten Ring with a subpoena for the footage. If true, there is effectively little stopping Ring from sharing footage with police. Ring has claimed to be working hard to protect consumers privacy but has not answered exactly how often they give police footage without the approval of the customer or a warrant.

How legislatures and regulators handle this massive surveillance network and its partnerships with law enforcement is up in the air at this point. Despite continual backlash to their services, and 30 civil rights groups speaking out against Ring’s corporate practices, there has been little movement on the Federal level it seems, besides a letter from Senator Markey (D-Mass) to Amazon demanding more information on their services. Recently, Amazon replied to Senator Markey, which shed some light on how police can receive and use the data. Amazon stated that police can request 12 hours of footage from any device within a 0.5 mile radius of the crime. Amazon further stated that it does not require police to meet any evidentiary standard before asking for footage.

Despite the relative lack of governmental action currently, it is almost assured some level of government will act on these issues in the near future. For now, though, Ring continues to expand its network, and along with it, concerns over due process, privacy, and law enforcement overreach.


Information Sharing: Tesla and the Open Patent Framework

Bernard Cryan, MJLST Staffer

Information Sharing: Tesla and the Open Patent Framework

By Bernard Cryan

Patents offer powerful protection of intellectual property, i.e., inventions. Patents confer the patent owner the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the patented invention for a limited time. In return for a limited monopoly, the inventor must disclose the invention. This is the classic quid pro quo of the patent system—a limited monopoly granted by the government to an inventor in exchange for revealing helpful information to society. Tesla owns many patents on its electric vehicle technology. Under Elon Musk’s direction, Tesla has decided to allow others to use its patented technologies to “accelerate sustainable transport.”

The Patent System

The patent system often works as expected—the patent owner practices the patented invention and prevents others from doing so. Sometimes, however, the patent system can behave oddly. For example, contrary to popular belief, patents do not grant the patent owner automatic permission to practice the invention. This situation can occur in the pharmaceutical industry. For instance, a drug maker can acquire a patent on a pharmaceutical not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As a result, the drug company cannot itself make, use, or sell the drug—even though it owns a patent on the drug. Therefore, a patent alone is insufficient to practice the invention. An additional inquiry is required, i.e., is the patent owner allowed to make, use, or sell the patented invention?

An opposite oddity can also occur. One can practice an invention that is patented by another. This occurs through either a formal license agreement or an open patent framework. A license, in the patent context, is simply an agreement between the patent owner and another party granting legal permission to use the patented invention. The more interesting framework, however, is the use of an open patent system. An open patent is a patent that is intentionally not enforced. In other words, the owner of the patent allows others to use the invention and actively avoids filing an infringement lawsuit—which is the main platform to enforce patent rights.

Tesla’s Pledge

Elon Musk believes the carbon crisis calls for joint efforts amongst all automakers to build electric vehicles. In 2014, Tesla pledged that it would not file patent infringement lawsuits against companies that use, in good faith, Tesla’s electric vehicle patented technology. In Tesla’s words:

“What this pledge means is that as long as someone uses our patents for electric vehicles and doesn’t do bad things, such as knocking off our products or using our patents and then suing us for intellectual property infringement, they should have no fear of Tesla asserting its patents against them.”

The Good

Another car company can use Tesla’s patented technology instead of spending resources developing similar electric vehicle technology. Tesla is the leading seller of electric vehicles and has sold more than 380,000 electric vehicles (as of April 2019). There is still opportunity for electric vehicle development as the electric vehicle market share is small (1.8% as of March 2019). As a result, Tesla’s pledge is significant because it encourages the sharing and use of powerful information in the auto industry, which should accelerate society’s move toward electric vehicles. The use of proven technology can facilitate a start-up company’s path to success or focus an established automaker’s efforts to develop electric vehicles. Further, Toyota has followed Tesla’s approach with respect to its hydrogen fuel cell technology. This open patent framework is not limited to only the auto industry. Google, for example, has pledged to open some of its patents directed at encryption technologies.

The Bad

While Tesla’s pledge may appear revolutionary, it has drawbacks. Some companies may fear the legal tools to enforce Tesla’s pledge are insufficient. As a result, automakers may be reluctant to use the patented technology out of fear that Tesla will not follow through on its promise. While a formal license agreement to use patented technology is enforceable through reliable legal tools, an informal pledge posted in blog format by a CEO on the company website may not carry the force of law. Is Tesla required to follow through with its pledge? Maybe, under the legal doctrine of estoppel. Will Tesla withdraw its pledge? It is unlikely as Elon Musk recently reminded the world of Tesla’s pledge. Nevertheless, Tesla’s pledge may have only limited impact if other automakers lack confidence to legally enforce the pledge.

The Takeaway

This open patent framework has enormous potential to facilitate innovation by concentrating companies’ efforts to build on each other’s prior work, rather than around it. Time will reveal the true impact of open patent pledges like Tesla’s. Most recently, XPeng, a Chinese automaker inspired by Tesla, has secured a $400M investment.

Perhaps the biggest impact of Tesla’s pledge is not the acceleration of the electric vehicle use, but rather teaching the world that openly sharing valuable information is priceless. This reminder may encourage other industries to adopt similar pledges, thereby accelerating all kinds of innovation.


When It Comes to Running Shoes, How Fast Is Too Fast?

Molly Woodford, MJLST Staffer

On October 12, 2019, Eliud Kipchoge made headlines for running a marathon in 1:59:41 in Vienna. A day later, Brigid Kosgei broke Paula Radcliffe’s long-standing women’s marathon world record by over a minute, recording a time of 2:14:04 at the Chicago Marathon. Nike sponsors both athletes. Kipchoge’s run does not count as an official world record for a number of reasons, including a rotating phalanx of pacemakers and a pace car, but he holds the official world record of 2:01:39 set at the Berlin Marathon in 2018. Two weeks before Kipchoge’s historic sub-two-hour run, Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder at 5000m and 10,000m, missed Kipchoge’s world record by a mere two seconds at the 2019 Berlin Marathon. Nike also sponsors Bekele. All of these record-setting athletes wore some version of the Nike VaporFly during their races.

This spate of record-setting performances has reinvigorated a debate in the running community about whether these shoes confer an unfair advantage to competitors who wear them and should, therefore, be banned. The first iteration of the Nike VaporFly, later dubbed the 4%, first appeared on the feet of elite athletes in early 2016, at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. The shoe became available to the public in July 2017, retailing at $250. Several studies (1, 2) have shown that, true to its name, the Nike VaporFly 4% makes wearers approximately 4% more efficient compared to other racing shoes (which make the wearers ~1.9% faster). Nike has since released an updated version, the Next%, which was worn by Kosgei in Chicago and Bekele in Berlin, as well as by Kipchoge’s entire rotating phalanx of pacers in his sub-2 attempt. Next%, now also available to the public for $250, is certainly intended to, and based on recent performances may actually, confer a benefit of more than 4% to its wearers. But is that fair? Other companies are racing to compete, but none appear to have caught up to Nike just yet. And, whether or not it is fair, is it legal?

In April 2017, the IAAF significantly modified its rule regarding shoes, apparently due to “speculation and the increased interest in the development” of the 4% and other shoes. Before the rule change, “[a]ll types of competition shoes [had to] be approved by IAAF.” After the change IAAF appears to approve the shoes post hoc, and only “[w]here evidence is provided to the IAAF that a type of shoe being used in competition does not comply with the Rules or the spirit of them” at which point “it may refer the shoe for study and if there is non-compliance may prohibit such shoes from being used in competition.” In response to the advantage conferred by the Nike VaporFly, IAAF released a statement in mid-October stating that its technical committee had established a working group to look into the issue.

Even if IAAF eventually determines that Nike’s technological advances are too advantageous, Nike seems to be the main beneficiary, thus far, of IAAF’s rule change. Nike has received an enormous amount of free press, this blog included, because of the recent spate of record-breaking performances, and the surrounding controversy. However, a group that could benefit are up-and-coming, innovative, shoe manufacturers. In the late aughts, a company called Spira built a marketing campaign around being banned by USATF and IAAF because of springs in their shoes. Whether or not Spira was ever actually banned appears to be an open question—USATF repeatedly stated that Spira was not banned, and three runners wore Spira shoes in the 2008 Olympics. However, Spira filed a lawsuit against USATF and IAAF, alleging that the organizations had violated antitrust laws. Spira voluntarily dismissed the suit. Although there is other evidence that USATF believed that Spira did not comply with the IAAF shoe rules.

Spira still exists today, though they never took off as a serious running shoe brand. Whether the Spira controversy was completely authentic or drummed up for publicity, the next Spira could benefit from IAAF’s rule change. Instead of worrying about when and if they’ll receive IAAF approval, a new company and its shoe will only be scrutinized by IAAF if “evidence is provided to the IAAF that a type of shoe being used in competition does not comply with the Rules or the spirit of them.”


The Environmental Costs of Amazon

Christina Petsoulis, MJLST Staffer 

Amazon. One of the 21st century’s most novel inventions. Amazon now dominates e-commerce, with 43% of money spent online coming from Amazon sales. The online retail giant has, without a doubt, changed the way society operates – in some ways, for the better, while in others, for the worse.

Amazon’s carbon footprint is nothing short of concerning, especially with its continued expansion of Prime services. Expedited shipping means more cars and trucks on the road for delivery services, and increased waste from packages that are not as consolidated as they could be. Amazon packaging demands billions of boxes each year, with over 5 billion Amazon Prime packages alone sent worldwide in 2017. In fact, 64% of American households have Amazon Prime, and traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are closing down in every market as a result of the shift toward online retail shopping.

Some experts argue that having individual consumers drive to, and shop at, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers is more inefficient than consolidating packages for delivery. I find this argument unpersuasive, as consumers tend to make small purchases each time they shop online, requiring multiple shipments per week per consumer. Moreover, while online retail continues to gain dominance, traditional retail still exists and has shipping and packaging demands of its own. This situation, in essence, doubles consumer ‘demands.’

But most of Amazon packaging is recyclable, so we’re good, right? Not exactly. First, just 34% of solid waste is recycled (attributable to both consumer behavior and access to municipal recycling services). 80% of solid waste is recyclable with just 28% of it actually being recycled. Second, the vast majority of U.S. recyclables are sent to China for processing, which is problematic because China has announced that it will no longer import foreign garbage. In fact, China has banned importation of particular paper and plastic products, leaving the U.S. to deal with its own trash. With increased waste management demand and decreased capacity to deal with it, big questions remain as to how federal, state and local government will fare the storm.

Is Amazon liable for the vast quantities of trash it introduces into the market? Will Amazon be asked to alter business behavior, such as cut down on its packaging materials or enforce package consolidation policies? These types of requirements counter Amazon’s business interests, as the dominant draw of Amazon is individualized, convenient, fast shipping. Amazon’s model facilitates individual gain (i.e. $7.99 water bottle shipped day-of-order for free) at the expense of our environment’s health (i.e. one over-sized cardboard box ending up in a landfill). The epitome of a negative externality. It seems unlikely that any sort of regulation on packaging, shipping, and handling would stand a chance in light of consumer gravitation toward online shopping.

Government has tried to regulate Amazon, but not necessarily for environmental reasons. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has probed Amazon’s pricing practices as it expands its markets beyond e-commerce, threatening companies such as Netflix and Apple with its video services.

Surely, Amazon is not the only actor in the issue of environmental costs associated with e-commerce. But with 43% of online purchases coming from Amazon, it’s hard not to point fingers at a company so heavily dominating the marketplace.


Virtual Reality in Education & the ADA: More Accessibility or Less Accessibility?

Yvie Yao, MJLST Staffer 

Imagine that students no longer need to go to a lab to have a lab experience or go to France to visit the Eiffel Tower. Though sounding impossible, edtech companies that integrate virtual reality (“VR”) technology into the classroom learning experience have enabled these activities.

Copenhagen-based company, Labster, plans to use VR to create virtual labs that will allow students to perform experiments and hone their skills in a risk-free environment. U.S.-based companies, like Nearpod and Alchemy Learning, can take students on virtual field trips to learn about everything from the Amazon rainforest to ancient Roman ruins.

While kids love VR technologies, edtech companies ought to be careful about creating content or products within legal boundaries. After edX’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”), edtech companies may face increased scrutiny under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). DOJ claimed that edX’s website, as well as the open online courses offered on its platform, were not fully accessible to individuals with disabilities, thus violating the ADA.

“Massive open online courses have the potential to increase access to high-quality education for people facing income, distance, and other barriers, but only if they are truly open to everyone” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Gupta.

The same can be said for VR applications in education. Courses with the aid of VR technology provide access to high-quality education for students facing different barriers. Yet, the technology itself is less accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public accomodations, which include places of education and requires these places to take necessary steps to ensure individuals with disabilities are not treated differently. In the edX settlement, DOJ appeared to interpret edX itself as a place of education within the ADA’s definition of public accommodation. This has two implications. First, purely online educational entities without any physical location qualify as places of education. Second, other web-based education-related service providers might fit the definition of a place of education.

With the law in mind, edtech companies providing online learning content using VR that integrate the content into school curriculums, should be aware of the implications of the ADA and take necessary steps to provide auxiliary aids and services sufficient to enable disabled students to fully participate in the technology.


Who Gets to Speak for Earth? Thoughts on the Anniversary of the Arecibo Message

Will Dooling, MJLST Staffer

November 16th marks the 43rd anniversary of the Arecibo message, an attempt to broadcast a powerful radio signal from the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico to the heart of the Messier 13 galaxy, more than 25,000 light years away. The Arecibo message was largely ceremonial, or experimental, no one seriously expects to hear back. However, the experiment posed interesting questions about how, exactly, humans ought to go about broadcasting messages to extraterrestrials, and who gets to speak for humanity.

If these questions seem far-fetched, that is only because we, as a society, have grown less ambitious in our hopes for space exploration. In the heady days of the early space race, these questions were seriously considered by NASA and the UN. The Arecibo Message was not a lone experiment: both the Pioneer and Voyager space probes, launched at about the same time as the Arecibo message, carried plaques designed to be easily deciphered by whoever, or whatever, would happen upon them in the future. Four decades later, well into the 21st century, we have the first signs of a robust private space industry and serious proposals in place for mining asteroids and lunar tourism but we still have not resolved the questions posed by the Arecibo Message. Who gets to speak for humanity? Should we even be broadcasting right now?

Currently, several large-scale projects are in place with the primary purpose of locating extraterrestrial life in solar systems beyond our own. By far the most ambitious are the continuing efforts of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. SETI is a United States nonprofit organization funded almost entirely by private charitable donations. Some of its largest donors include tech giants William Hewlitt, David Packard, and Paul Allen. SETI largely devotes its time to hunting for radio signals using telescope arrays all over the world. SETI uses this approach because it is relatively easy to hunt for unusual radio signals. A few nations have tried more direct attempts: NASA’s space-based Kepler telescope, and a related French mission called COROT, both launched in part to analyze the chemical composition of planets in nearby solar systems, to see if they could detect chemical compounds that could only form on planets with complex biospheres. FAST (the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope), completed in 2016, is the largest conventional radio receiver on earth, it was built by China in part to hunt for extraterrestrial radio sources in a manner similar to the US’s SETI.

All these are attempts to locate extraterrestrial life. What should we do if we find any, and should we be sending any more messages in the meantime? The past few years have seen a renewed interest in actively contacting extraterrestrials via Arecibo-like radio broadcasts. (See for example 2017’s Tromsø broadcast from a radio observatory in Norway to the nearby red dwarf star GJ 273). There have even been proposed commercial broadcasts where customers could pay for the novel experience of having personal messages broadcast into space. This increased interest in broadcasting has provoked some controversy: In 2016, a group of prominent “futurists” including astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz and Tesla CEO Elon Musk signed and circulated a letter objecting to any active attempts to contact extraterrestrial life. The letter expressed concern that the content of any deliberate communications should result from international consensus not “a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment.” The letter called for “vigorous international debate by a broadly representative body prior to engaging further in this activity.” It opened with an even more dire observation: “We know nothing of ETI’s [Extraterrestrial Intelligence’s] intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.”

Ultimately, active communication with extraterrestrial life is an issue rather like the militarization of space and climate change. It is an international problem that requires international regulatory solutions. Individual actors have little incentive to self-regulate: the presence of any single unregulated actor makes the regulation ineffective. Neither the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space nor the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has taken a position on attempts to broadcast to extraterrestrial civilizations, though they could,and perhaps they should.

It is possible this is not an issue worth considering. It is possible that we are alone in the universe and there is nothing out there to hear us, through this would raise troubling questions of its own. It would mean humanity was a freak exception in an otherwise empty universe. It would mean that every other planet, around every other star, was completely devoid of life. It would be, in a word, weird. The alternative, only slightly less weird, is that something out there has the potential to hear us someday.  In the meantime, perhaps we should engage in “vigorous international debate” on this issue while it is still merely speculative.