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What’s Driscoll’s role in new administration?

When Gov. Maura Healey spent a day in Michigan earlier this month, acting governor Kim Driscoll did not take the opportunity to bring some semblance of Salem to the corner office by piling it full of jack-o-lanterns.


“We were talking about whether we should have an executive order to declare Halloween in May,” Lt. Gov. Driscoll joked on the Codcast, “but we just ended up doing all the normal stuff we needed to do instead.”


All that normal stuff is an expansive and still evolving brief. Driscoll led Salem as mayor for about 16 years before heading up to Beacon Hill with Healey. She clearly is playing a major role in the new administration that so far doesn’t seem confined to one specific area of focus.


“When you’re working in one community, obviously it’s 24/7, ‘How do we make Salem better? How do we really care about what’s happening on the ground?’” she said. “And I’m fond of saying, when you’re mayor, there’s no hiding, right? You make decisions every day. They impact people you know and see, whether you’re in the grocery store or in city hall.”


In Massachusetts, the lieutenant governorship is a vaguely defined position, essentially a “governor in waiting unless you choose to do something,” Thomas P. O’Neill III, who was lieutenant under two different governors, told The Republican some 10 years ago. The post’s only constitutionally mandated duty, aside from becoming acting governor if the sitting governor is unable to serve, is being a member of the Governor’s Council, which mainly votes on judicial appointments.


That’s left a wide range of possible identities for the former mayor. Driscoll said she is working to make sure the administration isn’t “holed up in the State House” and retains a connection to the rest of the Commonwealth.


Her predecessor, Karyn Polito, leaned into the role of connector between the state and its 351 cities and towns. Driscoll has a convincing background to take up that mantle, having helmed Salem for the better part of two decades and been a leader among mayors. Still, it doesn’t appear Driscoll’s focus is solely on local levels of government.


She and Healey frame the administration as a team exercise — with “a lot of shared leadership,” Driscoll said. “We talk every single day and it feels like we’re in a position to really move Massachusetts forward at what I think is a really pivotal time,” she said. “I’m sure every new administration feels like the next four years are critical, but as we come out of this pandemic, we’re still very much in this transition phase. It’s a little messy.”


Though Driscoll seems to be taking on a jack-of-all trades role in the new administration, she speaks most passionately, and wonkily, about the need to aggressively take on the state’s housing crisis and 200,000-unit shortfall. Housing is where she carved out a prominent platform in the first six months of the administration, leading a working group to shape the responsibilities of the newly split-off Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which used to be bundled in with economic development.


The administration is still “drawing the masking tape down the middle of the room,” she said, deciding “what’s gonna be housing, what’s gonna be economic development” and working toward a collaborative “housing moonshot.”


Driscoll’s responsibilities on housing are a bit hazier now, with former Worcester city manager Ed Augustus set to become the new housing secretary on June 1. While the administration has touted his experience overseeing Worcester’s economic boom, and Driscoll feels a kinship with her fellow Gateway City leader, housing advocates are quick to point to the skyrocketing housing costs that came with Augustus’s tenure.


“I’m fine with saying no mayor in America, no city manager controls the market, right?” Driscoll said. Housing prices are “through the roof” across the state, not just in revitalized cities, she said. “So I don’t think it’s unique to the city of Worcester that through this revitalization, they’ve also seen the price of housing and the cost of rents really increasing. Our challenge is, how do we address that statewide? Who better to do that than somebody who’s been on the ground and understands the pressures of needing new growth?”


Housing is bound up with another state crisis – transportation. Bringing the MBTA up to a state of good repair, making sure it has the funding to meet its federal safety mandates, and improving overall reliability are a hefty lift.


“It’s gonna take some time,” Driscoll said. “It’s unfortunately not gonna happen as quickly as any of us want it to, but we know it’s critical to the housing growth. It’s not fair to push for more housing, particularly transit-oriented development housing and not have the transit piece fully lined up. So we’re gonna stay on it.”


She’s hopeful that new MBTA general manager Phillip Eng and a reconstituted MBTA board can start to right a wobbling ship.


“Obviously we have a lot of work to do with the T,” Driscoll said. “I’m not quite sure we fully know where the bottom is yet.”

The promise and pitfalls of everyday artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is changing the way we think about authorship, art, and white collar work. It may be changing how we think, full stop.


As artificial intelligence, or machine learning, becomes more integrated into people’s everyday lives, it runs the risk of “replacing moral judgments, or by replacing practical judgments, or replacing everyday judgments,” Nir Eisikovits, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said this week on The Codcast.


Decisions as minor as what to watch on a streaming service or as major as whether to approve someone for a mortgage are being gently, or not so gently, automated.


“The basic point is making a judgment like, ‘Should somebody get a promotion? Should somebody get a mortgage?’ used to be something that a human being decided by weighing all kinds of particulars using their spidey sense or whatever,” Eisikovits said. “Increasingly, they’re made by machines, and if using your judgment is a little bit like going to the gym – it’s like a muscle … use it or lose it – then more and more we’re, in more and more contexts, not using it.”


Eisikovits founded the Applied Ethics Center at UMass Boston. Since the center opened in 2017, Eisikovits and his colleagues have been thinking about the impact of artificial intelligence on moral decision-making and its unique relationship to work and creativity.


Flashy fears about artificial intelligence are probably not the best targets for human hypervigilance, Eisikovits notes. “One important misconception is that we’re moving closer and closer to a sentient kind of Skynet AI that’s capable of generating its own intentions and finally becoming a robot overlord,” he said. “I think that’s not in the cards for the near future.”


A risk of increased reliance on artificial intelligence is, instead, about short-cutting many of the basic moral and creative decisions that people make. If a machine can suggest possible song samples for aspiring musicians, or go further and create a music video from a popular artist nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, the relationship between artist and artistic product can get confusing.


“We admire great performances, because they represent the kind of giftedness that awes us,” Eisikovits said. “And in the case of technologically generated performance, our admiration moves from the giftedness to an engineer or to a pharmacist or to a lab person. And it’s not clear what art can still do for you under those conditions.”


There are some upsides to better machine learning, in theory. A person’s “spidey sense” could boil down to personal bias that a more fair machine learning system could counteract. On the other hand, the bias of a programmer or the pools of data that machines are trained to sort through could fundamentally taint the outcome.


Famously, Eisikovits recalled, facial recognition technologies were better at recognizing light-skinned faces than dark-skinned faces because the data used to train the programs used more White people.


“Importantly, if there’s enough political will, and commercial pressure, and both, then those biases can be fixed, just like Microsoft fixed its facial recognition software in response to pressure,” he said. “So in some way, I think the extension-of-bias question is a big question. It’s important. But it can be addressed. What I think can’t be addressed, or is much harder to address, has to do with the loss of capacity from this replacing us in some basic functions.”


Every new technology is met with a level of agonized fretting about replacing human beings in some essential way, Eisikovits said. The invention of writing displaced oral storytelling traditions in much of the world. Industrial machinery could accomplish intense physical tasks beyond the human body’s potential.


Artificial intelligence’s capacity to replace workers is similar to industrial machinery in that it can perform labor-intensive, low-skill work more efficiently – reviewing large amounts of documents in legal or medical fields, for instance.


It ties into a broader conversation about the nature of work and fulfillment. Is there an inherent value to making a human being pore through tens of thousands of pages, or summarize stock briefings, or pull together a basic marketing deck? CommonWealth last month considered the rise of the four-day work week, which proponents assert gives employees more time for their personal lives while counterintuitively getting the same amount of work done as they might in a five-day work week.


“What seems to be happening is rather than jobs being replaced wholesale, parts of jobs are being replaced,” Eisikovits said. “So people’s job definitions are changing. I think there’s no way around that, meaning that sooner or later, you’ll need fewer people to generate the same kind of productivity.”


Taking a long view of the MBTA

Nicholas Dagen Bloom, the author of The Great American Transit Disaster, takes a long view of the current problems at the MBTA.

In a new episode of the Codcast, Bloom, a professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College in New York City, said public transit in Boston is currently at a low point, but he said that’s nothing new.

“Episodic financial collapse and also managerial issues are part of the Boston story, going back to 1918 when you have the trusteeship created, the original MTA in the 1940s, the MBTA in the ‘60s, financial reorganization in the early ‘70s, future funding systems,” he said. “If you really look at it, it’s been a series of responses to crises. What stands out for me in Boston’s history is that in each case you see a kind of deeper engagement of state government, some kind of funding that can basically re-establish some kind of equilibrium. That’s an important difference from most American cities.”

Bloom said there are no guarantees, but he believes the MBTA will reach some kind of equilibrium again. “I would say have hope because this is something Boston has gotten through before,” he said.

In his book, Bloom traces the rise of American transit, initially as a largely private enterprise, and its dramatic fall. “The true disaster in the longer picture is that America goes from being, if not the world’s leader, certainly one of the leaders in mass transportation in 1900 to really being just in a terrible situation where in most regions transit riding is a very small percentage of total miles traveled. To me that is just a complete and total disaster.”

Bloom also weighed in on the calls in Massachusetts and elsewhere for doing away with fares. (He also wrote a commentary on the subject.) “It plays very well in cities right now, but when we see the financial reality of city budgets and state budgets … I think it’s really a distraction,” he said.

“We’ve been charging fares of some kind for over a century and if you take that out there’s some political liability. Long term, I don’t really see cities doing it.”

“The emphasis should be on how can we build better systems,” he said.

Bloom sees room for some optimism about the MBTA if it receives financial support, if policies are implemented to increase housing density, and if more colleges and universities follow MIT’s lead and buy T passes for their employees and students.

He said the key is to improve service and keep the system operating and not get distracted by what he calls the “shiny object of transit” – the latest vehicles, expansions, electrifications, etc.

“What saves transit is not the shiny object. Let’s save it, let’s keep it running,” he said. “Let’s be strategic about maintaining it and seeing what happens after the crisis. Because it could turn out that we really need it. Maybe we’re going to get really serious about climate change, put a gas tax on things really high. That is likely to happen.”

Moulton’s ambitious, expensive, and enthralling transportation vision

At a time when roughly a quarter of the MBTA subway system is crawling along at a safety-induced snail’s pace, US Rep. Seth Moulton is pushing an ambitious expansion of the T’s commuter rail network.

He acknowledges the first priority is getting the T’s subway system back in working order. “The reality is that the T is slower today than it was decades ago,” he said on The Codcast. “The first subway in the nation is now the worst subway in the nation.” 

But once that Herculean task is accomplished, he has new mountains for the MBTA to scale. 

“Looking toward the future, what we truly need is a world class regional transit system that can get people around the state faster than driving,” he said. “That’s the only way to get people out of their cars on to nicer trains. People don’t want to have to take trains because it’s the best of terrible options. We need people to want to take the train because it’s faster to get them to where they need to go.”


Cain Hayes vows to retain Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts brands

Cain Hayes, the president and CEO of Point32Health, says the five-year integration of the Harvard Pilgrim and Tufts health insurers is moving forward well ahead of schedule, but integration doesn’t mean the two brands will disappear. 

“We have no intention of consolidating those brands into one brand,” he said on The Codcast with John McDonough of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Paul Hattis, a fellow at the Lown Institute. 

Hayes said Harvard Pilgrim will focus on commercial business and Tufts will prioritize government work, primarily Medicaid and Medicare. He said the two health insurers, which merged  at the start of 2021, are blending many aspects of their operations – they now have one headquarters in Canton and utilize one pharmacy benefit manager. 

The combined company has 2.2 million members. “That gives us the scale to compete with not only our regional competitors [Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is the largest player] but in many cases our national competitors as well in this market. So, a ways to go, but the early signs are sort of the value of the combination is really bearing fruit from a competitive standpoint,” he said.