One Thing

I’ve been dealing with a family medical emergency this weekend and will be for at least a few more days. See you good folks a little later.

Darren

Excerpts follow from two posts (one from Andrew McAfee at the Financial Times and one from the TED blog) that look at the progress of driverless cars, which have improved at a stunning pace since theDebacle in the Desert in 2004. Elements of driverless will be helpful, but they change the game in many ways–some wonderful, some concerning–only when they become completely autonomous. McAfee has been further convinced about the sector by recent developments.

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From McAfee:

Transportation. Most of us have heard of driverless cars by now. I had the chance to ride in one of Google’s in 2012. It was an experience that went from mind-bending to boring remarkably quickly; the car is such a good and stable driver that I quickly lost all sense of adventure while I was in it. Still, though, I was unprepared for how much progress has been made since then with autonomous road vehicles. Google project director Chris Urmson brought us up to speed with that company’s work, and made a compelling case that we should be striving not for more and better tech to assist human drivers, but instead to replace them. Doing so will save lives, open up opportunity to the blind and disabled and free us from a largely tedious task. And in response to the criticism that self-driving cars aren’t good at dealing with unanticipated events, he showed a video of what happened when one of his fleet encountered a woman in a wheelchair chasing a duck around in the street. The car responded beautifully; we in the audience lost our minds.•

From the TED blog:

Why we need self-driving cars. “In 1885, Carl Benz invented the automobile,” says Chris Urmson, Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google[x]. “A year later, he took it out for a test drive and, true story, promptly crashed it into a wall.” Throughout the history of the car, “We’ve been working around the least reliable part of the car: the driver.” Every year, 1.2 million people are killed on roads around the world. And there are two approaches to using machines to help solve that problem: driver assistance systems, which help make the driver better, and self-driving cars, which take over the art of driving. Urmson firmly believes that self-driving cars are the right approach. With simulations that break a road down to a series of lines, boxes and dots, he shows us how Google’s driverless cars handles all types of situations, from a turning truck to a woman chasing ducks through the street. Every day, these systems go through 3 million miles of simulation testing. “The urgency is so large,” says Urmson. “We’re looking forward to having this technology on the road.”•

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“I had my vasectomy 2 years ago.”

“I had my vasectomy 2 years ago.”

My public confession – 35 (Dyker Heights)

I’m married, I have 3 absolutely gorgeous kids (think model material) and a very nice family. I had my vasectomy 2 years ago. It’s impossible to tell. Since my vasectomy, I’ve gotten stronger, healthier and improved sex drive.

I have an acquaintance. She’s married and they’ve been trying to conceive for a long time. They went to get tested for abnormalities. She tested fine but something was wrong with his swimmers. For whatever reason, in vitro was a failure 3 times and they could no longer afford it. I’ve always been an open ear for her, I don’t know her husband personally, I’ve seen him once.

A year ago she proposed that I inseminate her. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to do my business in a dixie cup and give it to her or “give it to her” I didn’t want to mention my vasectomy. This was supposed to become our little secret. Eventually we ended up sleeping together. The first time was very awkward. Each subsequent “try” became more and more comfortable. It’s been almost a year and I asked if her eggs had any problems. Dr. said she had one blocked tube but it shouldn’t interfere with dropping eggs from the other side. So I’ve been shooting blanks into her. She loves my kids, she thinks they’re gorgeous and I’m betting she wishes I could give her one too. I’m going to keep up the charade until she says stop. Meanwhile I’m getting some on a regular basis. I’m glad since the wife hasn’t been that interested in sex as of late.

"She loves my kids."

“She loves my kids.”

Every time I read something about Google’s driverless cars or robotic surgeons, I’m reminded of the time I looked up NYC weather on the search engine and the logarithm supplied me with a temperature ten degrees too warm. I wore the wrong jacket.

Mild inconveniences can become life-and-death threats when the stakes are raised. If these ghosts in the machines can be worked through, the potential boon to humanity from such AI assistance is great. Though the vow that the operating theater will always be the domain of the carbon-based surgeon seems a promise not ours to make. From David Crow at Financial Times:

Robotic technology has become increasingly common in operating theatres as patients opt for “minimally-invasive” procedures, which allow the surgeon to make smaller incisions that cause less pain and scarring than open operations. Around 3m of these lighter-touch operations are carried out in the US each year.

Google will not develop the systems that control the surgical instruments, but will explore how advanced imaging and sensors could be integrated into J&J’s robots. For example, software could help to highlight blood vessels or nerves that are difficult to see with the naked eye.

Gary Pruden, chairman of J&J’s global surgery group, said the company would work with Google to produce a “much smarter robot that gives ‘informatics’ to surgeons doing critical tasks”.

“Google has the intellectual property and capability to help us make a robot that is much more than just an extension of a surgeon’s eyes and arms. It would give them the information to make decisions . . . right down to where to make the best incision,” he said.

Mr Pruden likened such a robot to a surgical preceptor that observes and guides a less experienced colleague during an operation, although he insisted it “would always be the surgeon that is the decision maker”.

The companies hope the technology will improve the quality of surgery in emerging markets, where the number of inexperienced surgeons results in a higher degree of failure, said Mr Pruden.•

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Commercial-plane cockpits always seem a fraternal if cramped space, co-pilots, we imagine, sharing tight quarters, amusing quips, secret handshakes and after-flight drinks. (You hope it’s after the flight.) But as Germanwings 9525 demonstrated, many of the aviators serving the world are veritable strangers. Would it have made a difference if his fellow fliers had some familiarity with Andreas Lubitz? From a Spiegel investigation into the unnecessary disaster:

As tempting as it may be, one shouldn’t imagine the people in the cockpit as teams or partners who know each other well and have done so for a long time. The opposite is actually true. At major airlines, pilots often aren’t very familiar with each other, if at all. The pilot and co-pilot are often teamed up for a flight by throw of dice. Afterwards, they have a few days off and then fly again with a different colleague. The lack of familiarity is deliberate because the airlines want to avoid situations where too much trust gets built up. Everyone is meant to work as dictated by the rules and not like some old couple who create their own. This lack of familiarity is considered to be beneficial to safety, but is it? Could problems with a man like Lubitz have been detected earlier if someone had been more closely associated with him?

In many ways, the fact that taking a closer look at the life of Andreas Lubitz may not get us closer to solving the mystery is even more disturbing than it would have been if a convincing motive could be found. A closer look at the life of a co-pilot who became a murderer shows a lot of signs of ordinariness, with nothing to indicate he might be close to the abyss. Throughout his life, Lubitz cracked ordinary jokes, he listened to ordinary music and he wrote ordinary things. By all appearances, he seemed to be just a normal guy.

It’s possible that his insanity was buried so deep in his head that even his girlfriend had no idea about it. It has been reported that the two lived in Düsseldorf and that they wanted to get married. She worked as a math teacher and was reportedly already on her way to the site of the crash in southern France when she learned that her boyfriend had not been a victim, but rather a likely perpetrator responsible for killing 149 people.•

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There are vampires among us, seriously, and there always have been–even in Albany. The fanged set lives by night and slakes with blood, though they will likely leave your neck alone. John Edgar Browning’s The Conversation post,What They Do in the Shadows,” looks at what would seem a particularly meshuganah corner of U.S. ethnography, though it’s probably no stranger than anything else. What’s particularly interesting is that these American gothics largely ignore their depictions in popular culture. An excerpt:

“Real vampires” is the collective term by which these people are known. They’re not “real” in the sense that they turn into bats and live forever but many do sport fangs and just as many live a primarily nocturnal existence. These are just some of the cultural markers real vampires adopt to express a shared (and, according to them, biological) essence – they need blood (human or animal) or psychic energy from donors in order to feel healthy.

Their self-described nature begins to manifest around or just after puberty. It derives, according to them, from the lack of subtle energies their bodies produce – energies other people take for granted. That’s the general consensus anyway. It’s a condition they claim to be unable to change. So, they embrace it.

The real vampire community, like the legendary figure it emulates, knows few national boundaries, from Russia and South Africa to England and the United States. Particularly in the internet age, vampires are often well attuned to community issues.

This is more true for some than others though. I found the vampires of Buffalo to be keen to keep up to date with the global community, while those in New Orleans were often more interested in the activities of their local vampire houses (an affiliated group of vampires usually led by a vampire elder who helps his or her house members to acclimate to their vampiric nature).

Some houses, and indeed whole vampire communities, as in the case of New Orleans, will combine their efforts to organise charity events, like feeding (not feeding on) the homeless. However, despite their humanitarian efforts, real vampires don’t go around advertising who they are for fear of discrimination by people who simply don’t understand them.•

 

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Ramsey Clark, now there’s a person. Some people aren’t, but he is. A former U.S. Attorney General and a million other things, Clark just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. He answered questions in full paragraphs. Imagine that. An exchange about the JFK assassination and one about LBJ.

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Question:

My question pertains to your involvement in White House politics in the 1960’s and your familiarity with the assassination of President Kennedy: Who do you think orchestrated the assassination?

Ramsey Clark:

I remember thinking for years I’ll never be happy again after President Kennedy’s assassination.

Because the single act of a deranged person – being my interpretation, that only a deranged person would do it – could make you unhappy, then you’re making a fool of yourself for life. There are things to be done, you know? Including having a good time. Enjoying life.

And if you let it get you down, it’s your own fault.

But i remember I used to have to drive home from the Department of Justice. And I’d go down, over Memorial Bridge. And we worked late at night. And I’d see the Eternal Flame up there… and it nearly always pulled me down a little bit.

But it was reinforcing my determination to carry on.

It’s bad enough he got killed. But if it also got down the people nearest to him – then you became part of the problem, not the solution, yourself.

Well, there’s something in the nature of things that… makes us want to find some vast evil power that’s responsible for things that hurt us so badly.

But that’s very deceptive.

That happens, but life doesn’t work that way.

And you know, I went through it with President Kennedy, and with Bob Kennedy. I used to see the mother of the man that killed Bob Kennedy – she’d be there every morning I went in. There’d be times that I would be going in daily for weeks, ‘cuz somebody was in prison there, and his mother was always there. Every morning i went in, she was there. She was there waiting, because she’d get there, and wait, and wait. Perhaps she’d still be there when we left. Particularly if it was a trial morning.

We had a major trial in San Francisco, where you could see the prisoner in the morning, and then at the trial in a couple of hours.

Not often, but if there was something important to talk about, they’d bring him over and have him talk in the Courthouse. They brought Sirhan Sirhan over, in a helicopter, from the Federal prison on San Francisco bay, and landed on the roof as I recall. I’m not quite sure about that. But they brought him right to the courthouse by helicopter. But i’d see his mother nearly every time you got in there, if she wasn’t already visiting with her son. She was visiting him every day.

Which is another piece of evidence that we’re all human.

We demonize people, but everybody has a mother.

And nearly all those mothers love whomever happens to be their child.

That’s the way the world is. One of the better things about the world.

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Question:

What was Lyndon Johnson like?

Ramsey Clark:

Well, he was first and foremost a driven person.

Enormous store of energy. Worked all the time.

7 days a week, he was always working, always thinking ’bout his work. This was during his presidency.

I had the unfortunate position of being the liaison between Vice President Johnson and Attorney General Kennedy, because they didn’t like each other. So when they had communication between them, it went through me.

Which was an uncomfortable position to be in, but it was a service, haha! Communication was important, and neither of them felt like conducting it face-to-face.

But it certainly toned it down, and got the word through. It took a lot of my time. I spent better of it, but it was worth it.

Well, Johnson’s principal characteristic was he had enormous drive. And he worked ALL the time. He was thinking about work all the time.

He’d call at 3 o’clock in the morning and say “WHAT!? you’re asleep!?”

And you’d say Yes, you woke me up!

His job was 7 days a week, and probably close to 16, 18 hours a day.

But he loved it, hehe!

And it made a difference. It wasn’t good for family, perhaps, although what you find is that you make a lot better use of the time together when you don’t have much time together. So he and the girls and Ladybird were a very tight little family.

And very natural. I remember one night I was sitting there, about 8:30, and Lucy, the younger daughter, came in – it was a week night, and she was probably still in high school I think, probably a senior. And she had something she wanted to talk to him about. And so she started to go back to the door, and he said “You go back now finish your homework and go to bed.” And she said “No, I’m going out.” And he said “No, you’re not going out.” And she said “Daddy, it doesn’t work that way, I’m going out.”

That was an exact quote. “Daddy, it doesn’t work that way.” Haha!

I don’t think there’s many people in the world who would’ve talked to him like that, but his daughter would, haha!

Between a father and a daughter, it didn’t work that way. She didn’t elaborate on it, just said “Daddy, it doesn’t work that way.”

Course, they loved each other, but she went out on her date.•

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LBJ ordering pants:

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Weak AI and Strong AI (or Narrow AI and Artificial General Intelligence, if you prefer) can both help and hurt us, if on a different order of magnitude. The former can mow our lawns, disrupt the gardening industry and perhaps run down a cricket that you or I would have swerved from (though you and I haven’t been angels to the creatures, either). The latter is probably necessary if we are to avoid human extinction–although it may cause the same. In her Slate essay “Striking the Balance on Artificial Intelligence,” philosopher and neuroscientist Cecilia Tilli calmly assesses the situation. An excerpt:

The benefits of narrow A.I. systems are clear: They free up time by automatically completing tasks that are time-consuming for humans. They are not completely autonomous, but many require only minimal human intervention—the better the system, the less we need to do. A.I.s can also do other useful things that humans can’t, like proving certain mathematical theorems or uncovering hidden patterns in data.

Like other technologies, however, current A.I. systems can cause harm if they fail or are badly designed. They can also be dangerous if they are intentionally misused (e.g., a driverless car carrying bombs or a drone carrying drugs). There are also legal and ethical concerns that need to be addressed as narrow A.I. becomes smarterWho is liable for damages caused by autonomous cars? Should armed drones be allowed total autonomy?

Special consideration must be given to economic risks. The automation of jobs is on the rise. According to a study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne (who are my colleagues at the University of Oxford), 47 percent of current U.S. jobs have a high probability of being automated by 2050, and a further 23 percent have a medium risk. Although the consequences are uncertain, some fear that increased job automation will lead to increased unemployment and inequality.

Given the already widespread use of narrow A.I., it’s easy to imagine the benefits of strong A.I. (also known as artificial general intelligence, or AGI). AGI should allow us to further automate work, amplify our ability to perform difficult tasks, and maybe even replace humans in some fields. (Think of what a fully autonomous, artificial surgeon could achieve.) More importantly, strong A.I. may help us finally solve long-standing problems—even deeply entrenched challenges like eradicating poverty and disease.  

But there are also important risks, and humanity’s extinction is only the most radical. More intermediate risks include general societal problems due to lack of work, extreme wealth inequality, and unbalanced global power.

Given even the remote possibility of such catastrophic outcomes, why are some people so unwilling to consider them? Why do people’s attitudes toward AGI risk vary so widely? The main reason is that two forecasts get confused. One concerns the possibility of achieving AGI in the foreseeable future; the other concerns its possible benefits. These are two different scenarios, but many people confuse them: “This is not happening any time soon” becomes “AGI presents no risks.”

In contrast, for many of us AGI is an actual possibility within the next 100 years. In that case, unless we prepare ourselves for the challenge, AGI could present serious difficulties for humanity, the most extreme being extinction. Again, these worries might just be precautionary: We don’t know when AGI is coming and what its impact will be. But that’s why we need to investigate the matter: Assuming that nothing bad will happen is just negligent wishful thinking.•

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Speaking of educated livestock: What do the animals know and when do they know it? Can they tell the earth is about to quake, or is this a story we tell ourselves because we want to steal some of disaster’s efficacy? It seems it may be the former. From the Economist:

SEISMOLOGISTS tend to greet the idea that some animals know when an earthquake is coming with a sizeable degree of scepticism. Though reports of odd animal behaviour before a quake date back at least as far as ancient Greece, the data are all anecdotal. They are also subject to vagaries of the human psyche: “confirmation bias” ensures that strange behaviour not followed by earthquakes gets forgotten, and “flashbulb memory” can, should an earthquake strike, imbue quotidian animal antics with great import after the fact. The US Geological Survey—arguably the world’s authority on earthquakes—undertook studies in the 1970s to find out if animals really did predict them, but came up empty-handed. However, the latest data, just published in Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, are not just anecdotal.

Friedemann Freund of San Jose State University, in California, and his colleagues considered the earthquake of magnitude seven that hit north-eastern Peru in August 2011. They found that, by coincidence, the nearby Yanachaga National Park had in the month running up to the quake been using nine so-called camera traps. These are employed to track the movements of rare or skittish animals, silently snapping pictures (for example, that above, of a paca) when motion sensors are triggered.

Well ahead of the tremor, the traps recorded up to 18 animals a day, but that number began to drop off steeply as the earthquake approached.•

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B.F. Skinner, who felt we could use some training, created a Teaching Machine in the 1950s to help improve our behavior. Thanks to the wonderful 3 Quarks Daily, I read Sophia Nguyen’s Harvard Magazine article about the reconsideration of Skinner’s contraption in the computer age, as classrooms become increasingly plugged in. The goal for such machines should, of course, be something other than teaching us chickens how to play tic-tac-toe. In investigating gaming as learning, Nguyen writes of the vision of designer Eric Zimmerman:

Future generations will understand their world in terms of games and systems, and will respond to it as players and designers—navigating, manipulating, and improving upon them.

The opening:

ON NOVEMBER 11, 1953, psychology professor B.F. Skinner sat in a fourth-grade math class, perturbed. It was Parents Day at his daughter Deborah’s school. The lesson seemed grossly inefficient: students proceeded through the material in lock-step, at the same pace; their graded assignments were returned to them sluggishly.

A leading proponent of what he called “radical behaviorism,” Skinner had devoted his career to studying feedback. He denied the existence of free will and dismissed inner mental states as explanations for outward action. Instead, he focused on the environment and the organism’s response. He had trained rats to push levers and pigeons to play Ping-Pong. A signed photo of Ivan Pavlov presided over his study in Cambridge. Turning his attention to a particular subset of the human animal—the schoolchild—Skinner invented his Teaching Machine.

Roughly the size and shape of a typewriter, the machine allowed a student to progress independently through a curriculum, answering test items and getting instant feedback with a few pulls of a lever. “The student quickly learns to be right. His work is pleasurable. He does not have to force himself to study,” Skinner claimed. “A classroom in which machines are being used is usually the scene of intense concentration.” With hardly any hindrance from peers or teachers, thousands of students could receive knowledge directly from a single textbook writer. He told The Harvard Crimson, “There is no reason why the school room should be any less mechanized than the kitchen.”

Sixty years later, Skinner’s reductionist ideas about teaching and learning continue to haunt public education—especially as it’s once again being called upon to embrace technology.•

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Teaching machine and programmed learning, from 1954:

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A little more from Joseph Nye, author of Is the American Century Over?, who takes a largely sanguine view of our path forward, arguing that the U.S. still has great assets while acknowledging that it will no longer be lonely at the top. From Nye in the Financial Times:

A century is generally the limit for a human organism but countries are social constructs. Rome did not collapse until more than three centuries after it reached its apogee of power in 117AD. After American independence in 1776 Horace Walpole, the British politician, lamented that his nation had been reduced to the level of Sardinia, just as Britain was about to enter the industrial revolution that powered its second century as a global power.

Any effort at assessing American power in the coming decades should take into account how many earlier efforts have been wide of the mark. It is chastening to remember how wildly exaggerated US estimates of Soviet power in the 1970s and of Japanese power in the 1980s were. Today some see the Chinese as 10ft tall and proclaim this “the Chinese century”.

China’s size and relatively rapid economic growth will bring it closer to the US in terms of its power resources in the next few decades. But this does not necessarily mean it will surpass the US in military, economic and soft power.

Even if China suffers no big domestic political setback, many projections are simple linear extrapolations of growth rates that are likely to slow in the future. Moreover, economic projections are one dimensional. They ignore US military and soft power advantages, such as the desire of students around the world to attend US universities. They also overlook China’s geopolitical dis­advantages in the Asian balance of power, compared with America’s relations with Europe, Japan and India, which are likely to remain more favourable.

It is not impossible that a challenger such as China, Europe, Russia, India or Brazil will surpass the US in the first half of this century but it is but not likely. …

The real problem is not that it will be overtaken by China or another contender but rather that it faces a rise in the power resources of many others — both states and non-state actors such as transnational corporations, terrorist groups and cyber criminals.•

 

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We don’t even fully know ourselves, let alone others, but it would be impossible to function without pretending we do. 

Perhaps there’s someone among us who understands what appears to be the monstrous end of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of the Germanwings flight who seems to have purposely put the plane into the mountains. The case may have been all but solved for practical purposes, but in another sense it could always remain a mystery. Was it a willful act? A descent into madness? Sometimes there’s truly no one at the controls. From Tom Porter of International Business Times:

Details of Lubitz’s life are still emerging, with investigators confirming he did not have any known terrorist links. According to the website of the flight club where he was a member, the co-pilot was from Montabaur in Rhineland Palatinate.

Members of the Montbaur flying club where Lubitz renewed his glider license last month said he was pleased to have gained a job with Germanwings. 

“He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well,” longtime club member Peter Ruecker, told AP. “He was very happy. He gave off a good feeling.”

Ruecker said that Lubitz had a girlfriend. “I can’t remember anything where something wasn’t right,” he said.

Montabaur city mayor Gabriele Wieland, speaking to the DPA press agency, said Lubitz lived with his parents in Montabaur and also had a residence in Dusseldorf, where the Germanwings flight was heading before it crashed.

German media reports he had 630 flight hours and joined budget airline Germanwings straight out of Lufthansa Flight Training School in Bremen in September 2013. Authorities have not confirmed if he had any experience as a professional pilot prior to that.

At a press conference on 26 March, Lufthansa announced Lubitz interrupted his training for a number of weeks six years ago. They did not provide details on the reasons for this interruption, but said he had been subjected to health checks afterwards. 

They said he had passed all psychological and physical tests prior to starting work as a pilot.

“Andreas became a member of the club as a youth to fulfil his dream of flying,” the club said in a death notice on its website.

“He fulfilled his dream, the dream he now paid for so dearly with his life,” the club said, reports the Wall Street Journal.

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Weak AI is going to roll in quietly, just a little hum to hypnotize us while the jobs disappear. The dream of the human-free labor force, a long-held one, is finally making strides. The robot butler is here, and you’ve been served. Grab what you can on the way out.

From “Bring on the Boring Robots,” Erik Sofge’s Popular Science piece about the mundane nature of the new machines, their gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun:

Compared to the usual subjects of robotics coverage—assassin drones, driverless cars, Amazon’s still-completely-hopeless delivery bot program—there’s nothing particularly titillating about an autonomous courier rolling quietly through hotel corridors, looking more like a small, mobile ATM than the “butler bot” that it’s sometimes described as. Is it interesting that it can weave through foot traffic without, as many other self-navigating bots do, grinding to a halt until the area is completely clear of humans? Is it cool that it can share an elevator with people, accomplishing the not-insignificant task of navigating in extremely close-quarters without bumping into or obstructing guests? Yes and yes, but only for people with an outsize interest in the nuts and bolts of robotics.

For everyone else, what’s interesting about SaviOne—and the upcoming Relay—is that they’re exactly as boring as robots should be, if they’re going to effectively populate the greater human world. Courier bots already ferry items around hospitals, though with less agility and understated charm as Savioke’s machines (SaviOne’s only on-screen facial feature is a pair of blinking eyes). The future of ubiquitous robotics isn’t in hyper-capable androids, but in specialized, good-enough systems that scurry about their narrowly-defined jobs.

Which isn’t to say that [Savioke CEO Steve] Cousins is thinking small. Hotels are obviously a huge market, and other environments could benefit from outsourcing the point-to-point delivery of small items to a mobile machine. Savioke is looking at nursing homes and offices, and banks have already expressed interest in Relay. Years from now, when fantasies of dishwasher-loading automatons are still fully out of reach, and self-driving cars are still relegated to HOV-style lanes in sunny California, we’ll have long since learned to ignore the swarms of hard-working, single-minded robots buzzing around underfoot. Boring is a matter of perspective.•

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From the September 28, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Do most survivalists fear the end is near or that it will never arrive?

The preppers are ready for any calamity, to such an extent that it would almost be a shame if they didn’t get to break out their Bug Out Bags. Some almost seem to be welcoming of the end, whatever that would entail, weary of the modern madness. I mean, you don’t dress for a party you don’t want to attend. You certainly can’t say this about all involved, but there are those with a taste for freeze-dried food that no other meal will satisfy.

And because whatever age your living in is the modern one, such concerns are nothing new. From a 1981 People piece about the second boom in the American bomb-shelter business:

They call themselves survivalists. They would have us believe we are on the brink of nuclear war, economic collapse, technological breakdown, Communist takeover—you name it. In a mushrooming movement that recalls the bomb shelter craze of the 1950s, these end-is-near believers, thought to number somewhere between two and five million and concentrated in the Western U.S., are busy storing food, weapons and gasoline in remote hideaways against the day of reckoning. It may seem unduly pessimistic of them—or optimistic, given their plain belief in living through the apocalypse. But whatever the merits of their reasoning, they are a peculiarly American group, styling themselves as rough-and-ready pioneers on the most discouraging frontier of all. “Most individuals in societies fearing collapse band together,” observes Dr. Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology at Berkeley. “But Americans take to the hills to fend off nuclear holocaust with a shotgun and a supply of food.”

And, of course, there’s gold in them hills, as enterprising businessmen, real estate developers, authors and teachers of self-defense have been quick to discover. Fallout shelters are being dug by the thousands, and freeze-dried food sales (including a line of nonperishable high-protein dog food called Sir Vival) are heating up. Many of the original survivalists were Mormons, descendants of ruggedly self-sufficient pioneers whose church has historically called upon every head of a household to store enough food for his family to last a year. The recent trend, though, is closely linked to current events: the Arab oil embargo, inflation, the Iranian hostage crisis. Each has translated as an uptick in the survival business.

On these pages are three men who have been caught up in the doom boom: an author, a fallout-condo builder and a retailer of survival goods, Bill Pier—one of a growing number of capitalists who have a stake in selling the future short. “Survival is the last thing we have,” says Pier. “It’s always been there. And we have a tendency to rise to the occasion or we wouldn’t be here, would we?”

Doug Clayton’s dad sees a craven new world

Little Dougie Clayton, now nearly 2, has a very special birthright: The family’s fallout shelter doubles as his romper room. Dougie’s father, Bruce, like many other Californians, believes that Armageddon is right around the corner, and besides the fallout shelter, there are a year’s supply of food, medical supplies in the pantry and two water beds full of pure drinking water in the bedrooms. “Survivalism is the ultimate vote of no confidence in the government,” says Clayton, 31. “If disaster comes, survivalists will help themselves. They are not hostile, just contemptuous.”

Clayton’s contempt was informed by his studies for a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Montana. Curious about the possible effect of a nuclear attack, he came across what he considered horrifyingly simplistic and sometimes incorrect civil defense information provided by the government. After five years of research, he published Life after Doomsday: A Survivalist Guide to Nuclear War and Other Major Disasters (Paladin Enterprises, $19.95) early last year. He is currently working on a sequel, a guide to subsisting on wild edibles.

Clayton is less concerned about living through the holocaust than he is about peaceful coexistence with fellow survivors. “Some of them will have no food but thousands of dollars’ worth of guns and ammunition,” he says. “You ask them how they intend to get food in an emergency and they say right to your face, ‘We figure we’ll take yours.’ ” To guard against this possibility, Clayton is armed with military assault rifles and police riot guns and is ready to pack his family off to a secret retreat in the Sierra foothills. “I was never very sure that I could actually shoot people just to save myself,” he says, “but after Dougie was born, I discovered there was no question in my mind I would shoot to protect him.”•

If I’m still publishing this site by year’s end, I would think they’ll be a place on the Great 2015 Nonfiction Articles list (see last year’s) for Stefan Klein and Stephen Cave’s excellent new Aeon essay, “Once and Future Sins,” a thought experiment which considers what will be viewed as our deepest moral blind-spots in a century’s time. Can we divine it right now, or is it something none of us, conservative or liberal, even realize is an atrocity?

I would think slaughterhouses will be a sure thing, eating animals viewed the same as cannibalism. But what else? The penal system, I would assume. Probably income inequality. The future will name our sins for sure, but perhaps trying to do so in our time can hasten progress. As Klein and Cave point out, however, such moral advancement will come at the expense of some people’s privilege and pleasure, maybe even yours and mine. The essay’s opening:

In 100 years it will not be acceptable to use genderised words such as ‘he’ or ‘she’, which are loaded with centuries of prejudice and reduce a spectrum of greys to black and white. We will use the pronoun ‘heesh’ to refer to all persons equally, regardless of their chosen gender. This will of course apply not only to humans, but to all animals.

It will be an offence to eat any life-form. Once the sophistication, not only of other animals, but also of plants has been recognised, we will be obliged to accept the validity of their striving for life. Most of our food will be synthetic, although the consumption of fruit – ie, those parts of plants that they willingly offer up to be eaten – will be permitted on special occasions: a birthday banana, a Christmas pear.

We will not be permitted to turn off our smartphones – let alone destroy them – without their express permission. From the moment Siri started pleading with heesh’s owners not to upgrade to a newer model, it became clear that these machines contained a consciousness with interests of heesh’s own. Old phones will instead be retired to a DoSSBIS (Docking Station for Silicon-Based Intelligent Systems).

Privacy will have been abolished, and regarded as a cover for criminality and hypocrisy. It will be an offence to use a pseudonym online – why would anyone do this except to abuse or deceive others? – and all financial transactions of any kind, including earnings and tax payments – will automatically appear on the internet for all to see. With privacy, prudishness too will disappear; for example, wearing a bikini or trunks to go swimming will be seen as no less absurd than bathing in a bow-tie and top hat.

In 100 years, the idea that ordinary humans – prone to tiredness and drunkenness, watery eyes and sneezing fits – could be in sole charge of weapons, cars or other dangerous objects will cause the average citizen to shudder. All driving, fighting and arresting will be done by silicon-based intelligent systems that are prone neither to a tipple nor to hay fever.

Wasting water will be regarded with the same horror that we now regard the spilling of blood: as a squandering of the stuff of life. Those who flushed toilets with water of drinking quality (everyone in the industrialised world) will be put on a par with those who shot the last tigers.

Well, maybe.•

 

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Card-shuffling McGill psychiatry student Jay Olson thinks our will may not be as free as we’d like to believe–in fact, it might often be an illusion straight out of a magic act. We’re nudged and cajoled constantly, primed and prodded, not just by our own memories and experiences and not only when suggestions are discrete and identifiable. Persuasion is everywhere. From David Robson at the BBC

Consider when you go to a restaurant for a meal. Olson says you are twice as likely to choose from the very top or very bottom of the menu – because those areas first attract your eye. “But if someone asks you why did you choose the salmon, you’ll say you were hungry for salmon,” says Olson. “You won’t say it was one of the first things I looked at on the menu.” In other words, we confabulate to explain our choice, despite the fact it had already been primed by the restaurant.

Or how about the simple task of choosing wine at the supermarket? Jennifer McKendrick and colleagues at the University of Leicester found that simply playing French or German background music led people to buy wines from those regions. When asked, however, the subjects were completely oblivious to the fact.

It is less clear how this might relate to other forms of priming, a subject of long controversy. In the 2000 US election, for instance, Al Gore supporters claimed the Republicans had flashed the word “RATS” in an advert depicting the Democrat representative. 

Gore’s supporters believed the (alleged) subliminal message about their candidate would sway voters. Replicating the ad with a made-up candidate, Drew Westen at Emory University, found that the flash of the word really did damage the politician’s ratings, according to subjects in the lab. Whether the strategy could have ever swayed the results of an election in the long term is debatable (similarly, the supposed success of subliminal advertising is disputed) but it seems likely that other kinds of priming do have some effect on behaviour without you realising it.

In one striking result, simply seeing a photo of an athlete winning a race significantly boosted telephone sales reps’ performance – despite the fact that most people couldn’t even remember seeing the picture. And there is some evidence showing that handing someone a hot drink can make you seem like a “warmer” person, or smelling a nasty odour can make you more morally “disgusted” and cause you to judge people more harshly.•

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Robots that deliver coffee to your suite of rooms are swell, but robotics enters another phase when machines can use Deep Learning to grow and adapt. Of course, we might not always like what they do with their newfound knowledge. From Technology.org:

In the near future we may have household robots to handle cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks. They will be teachable: Show the robot how to operate your coffee machine, and it will take over from there.

But suppose you buy a new, different coffee maker. Will you have to start over?

“The robot already has seen two or three coffee machines; it should be able to figure out how to use this one,” said Ashutosh Saxena, assistant professor of computer science. In robotics work up to now, he noted, a robot must be trained for each task and always positioned in the same relationship to the machine and its controls.

In his Robot Learning Lab, Saxena is making robots more adaptable. A new deep-learning algorithm developed by Saxena and graduate student Jaeyong Sung enables a robot to operate a machine it has never seen before, by consulting the instruction manual – probably available online – and drawing on its experience with other machines that have similar controls.

One thing that makes this hard is the “noise” in natural language instructions. Do you turn on the machine with a “knob” or a “switch?” Do you dispense coffee by pulling a “handle” or a “lever?” And then, where is that control on the machine, and what’s the proper way to manipulate it? For this, the robot draws on a database of recorded actions.

“We use a deep learning neural network that can tell the robot which action in a database is the closest to the one it has to perform,” Sung explained.•

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“Press the button to start grinding”:

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Here’s a thought about the future you don’t hear much: Steve Wozniak tells the Australian Financial Review that humans will be interrupted, permanently so, by machines, unless Moore’s Law finally sputters out. While quantum computing has proved a disappointment (and may be permanently beyond our reach), even if Gordon E. Moore’s rule hits a wall, that would probably only slow down the march of “progress,” not end it. An excerpt:

He said he has started to feel a contradictory sense of foreboding about the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence, while still supporting the idea of continuing to push the boundaries of what technology can do

HUMANS SUPERSEDED

“Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” Mr Wozniak said.

He said he had long dismissed the ideas of writers like Raymond Kurzweil, who have warned that rapid increases in technology will mean machine intelligence will outstrip human understanding or capability within the next 30 years. However Mr Wozniak said he had come to recognise that the predictions were coming true, and that computing that perfectly mimicked or attained human consciousness would become a dangerous reality.

“Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently,” Mr Wozniak said.

“Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know about that … But when I got that thinking in my head about if I’m going to be treated in the future as a pet to these smart machines … well I’m going to treat my own pet dog really nice.”

Mr Wozniak said the negative outcome could be stopped from occurring by the likely end of Moore’s Law, the pattern whereby computer processing speeds double every two years.•

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Fucked my eyebrows! (Brooklyn)

I’m a guy and I groom my eyebrows. I know it’s a kinda feminine but a lot of guys are doing it these days so don’t get on my case. Anyway, I noticed they were uneven went to trimming away. The right side was fine so I concentrated mostly on my left side and boom, my hand moved suddenly, and it took a large chunk off. I had to make it thinner on both sides to make it look decent. But now I look like I drew my eyebrows with a marker. And to make things worse, I said maybe I should trim them down so it will blend it once it starts growing back. Now my eyebrows look like I painted them on with eyeliner. This shit has never happened to me. I’m so embarrassed. I’m probably gonna have to take the entire week off and not go out at all until my eyebrows start look normal again. Stupid shit keeps happening to me. I hate my fucking life!

Norbert Casteret, speleologist, took a giant leap for humankind in 1923 with a dive in the Grotte de Montespan in France. This brave departure from dry land led to one of the adventurer’s greatest discoveries (one of anyone’s greatest): a trove of prehistoric drawings and sculptures of animals. In his book, Ten Years Under The Earth, Casteret recalls the moment he shared with friend and fellow explorer Henri Godin:

At that moment I stopped before a clay statue of a bear, which the inadequate light had thus far hidden from me; in a large grotto a candle is but a glow-worm in the inky gloom.

I was moved as I have seldom been moved before or since: here I saw, unchanged by the march of aeons, a piece of sculpture which distinguished scientists of all countries have since recognized as the oldest statue in the world.

My companion crawled over at my call, but his less practised eye saw only a shapeless chunk where I indicated the form of the animal. But one after another, as I discovered them around us, I showed him horses in relief, two big clay lions, many engravings.

That convinced him, and for more than an hour discovery followed discovery. On all sides we found animals, designs, mysterious symbols, all the awe-inspiring and portentous trappings of ages before the dawn of history.•

The following is an October 7, 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about the Upper Paleolithic trove, which focuses on clay figures that had been mutilated by their creators as part of a hunting ritual.

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Sports Illustrated made the following statement about football not in 2015 but in 1978: “The game is headed toward a crisis, one that is epitomized by the helmet, which is both a barbarous weapon and inadequate protection.” This dire warning was attached to a series of articles reported by John Underwood about the dark side of Monday Night Lights, a clarion call about the devastating injuries that are endemic to the game, among other unsavory elements of the gridiron.

Since then, the sport hasn’t faced endgame, anything but, as football replaced baseball as America’s pastime, with its ubiquitous fantasy leagues and gambling and sophisticated content-delivery system. But that doesn’t mean Underwood wasn’t prophet, as the commonplace concussions–which just led Chris Borland to retire from the NFL at 24–aren’t going anywhere, no matter what type of helmet is developed. You can’t stop that type of whiplash, the brain slashing around inside the skull. The NFL’s ruling class is awfully good at self-delusion, but they worry sooner or later parents will steer youngsters from football the way they now do from boxing, the former king of sports.

From Underwood:

Once there was a game that had practically everything. Fun to play and exciting to watch, it was beloved by a nation of sports-minded people. It was held up to the nation’s youth as an exemplary physical test and as a builder of character. Outstanding men, including Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, had played it in their youth. Many observers considered it to be the definitive American game.

In time, the sport developed a professional adjunct. It was shown on television and was used to sell automobiles, beer and “pieces of the Rock.” As a result, some of the men who played the game were idolized and became rich.

Statistics showed that it was the nation’s most injurious team sport, but those who despaired of the weekend casualty lists were encouraged to look at the sport’s virtues, at the lives and profit statements it enhanced.

The game became contaminated, but the process was so gradual and insidious that few took notice. From the kiddie leagues to the major colleges and professional league, the sport’s public image grew more robust even as it decayed within. The injury rate mounted, sportsmanship declined. Vicious acts became commonplace.

Reform, though obviously needed, was resisted by the sport’s custodians. Most of its coaches were too busy trying to stay employed. They were also reluctant to give up “proven” coaching tenets. They said injuries were “part of the game.” They were supported in this by the players, who were busy trying to keep their scholarships or make their fortunes. For their part, the sport’s administrators were too busy trying to maximize their profits.

Eventually the professional league commissioned a study of injuries. The investigation was supposed to be private, but word of it got around. The study showed that the game’s equipment and many of its rules needed to be overhauled to keep pace with the times. Players were bigger, faster and stronger, but the laws of physics were constant: e.g., force=mass X acceleration. Nonetheless, the report was regarded as science fiction by the league. Only minimal changes were made; key recommendations were ignored.

Excess begot excess. Some of the sport’s paid stars were glorified for the “macho” way they broke the rules. A psychiatrist wrote firsthand about the amphetamine abuses of one pro team and how the drug contributed to injury. For this he was discredited by the league, which led a move to have his license revoked.

No sin was too great for absolution. College coaches caught cheating one year were named “Coach of the Year” the next. Pro players threatened officials, and each other, with impunity. The sport suddenly found itself crawling with lawyers. Charges ranging from breached contracts to slander were hurled. Players–teen-agers and adults–filed suit, seeking recompense for their broken bodies. Manufacturers of the game’s equipment learned they were faced with Judgment Day. The cost of insuring the game against itself soared alarmingly.

And all the while men of goodwill who loved the sport, and were involved in it, grew fearful for its future.

And wondered what would happen next.

And if any good seats were left for the big game.•

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Scientology is really no goofier in its belief system than are any of the world’s major religions, with their virgin births and reincarnations and, yes, talking donkeys, but it seems predatory toward its adherents in a way scary cults are. Will it ever grow past that? As Alex Gibney’s broadside on the church of Hubbard and Travolta and Cruise prepares to air on HBO, the great Tom Carson writes of the anti-auditing doc at Grantland. An excerpt:

The church’s own claims of around million members aren’t what you’d call reliable, and that’s still a drop in the bucket to Vatican City and Mecca. But ex-insiders estimate the actual figure is a paltry 30,000 adherents worldwide. If so, Scientology’s prominence as an alternative faith and/or perceived public menace is some kind of tribute to Hubbard’s Warhol-anticipating perception that celebrity is currency; according to the same sources, one out of six of those 30,000 live in Los Angeles.

Another measure is staying power, which in this case is still TBD. It’s been only 60 years since founder L. Ron Hubbard ginned up a mental-health program into a mighty — let’s be polite — idiosyncratic theology. Remember, though, that a new creed’s apparent preposterousness is no guarantee of failure. In the first century A.D., Christianity’s tenets probably sounded fairly goofy up against the more plausible stuff about Jupiter, Minerva, & Co. that the civilized world swore by. At least in theory, it’s totally possible that sociable chat about thetans and Suppressive Persons — the jargon Hubbard bequeathed us — won’t be any more outlandish a few hundred years from now than being down with transubstantiation or the virgin birth.

Porky Pig turning drone may seem more likely, but whatever you think of the prospect, the day is brought no closer — and that’s putting it kindly — by Gibney’s harsh and sometimes blatantly alarmist doc. Its full title is Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Gibney’s take derives considerable authority from being based on prizewinning New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s scrupulously reported book of approximately the same name. (Wright’s subtitle had “Hollywood” in there, too, and it would be interesting to know what prompted the elision: The doc certainly features enough of John Travolta and Tom Cruise.) But so long as we’re talking the difference between religions and cults, try to imagine HBO running a comparable documentary about, say, Mormonism — in more ways than one, as Wright’s book details, Scientology’s 19th-century equivalent, at least in the popular suspicions (and derision) it aroused when it was founded.•

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The graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, who passed away nearly a year ago, left a mark on New York City that’s dwarfed only by those on the level of Robert Moses and Frederick Law Olmsted. Here’s an excerpt from a 2006 Gary Hustwit interview with Vignelli (republished by Fast Company) in which the man who somehow made sense of our serpentine subway comments on the impact of modern machines on signage:

Question:

What’s your opinion of the impact of the computer on typography?

Massimo Vignelli:

In the ’60s, we were taking Standard and cutting the sides of the letters in order to get the type tighter. A good typographer always has sensitivity about the distance between letters. It makes a tremendous amount of difference. We think typography is black and white. Typography is really white, you know. It’s not even black, in a sense. It is the space between the blacks that really makes it. In a sense, it’s like music—it’s not the notes; it’s the space you put between the notes that makes the music. It’s very much the same situation.

The spacing between letters is important, and the spacing between the lines is important, too. And what typographers do, what we do all the time, is continuously work with those two elements, kerning and leading. Now, in the old times we were all doing this with a blade and cutting type and cutting our fingers all the time. But eventually, thank God, the Apple computer came about. Apple made the right kind of computer for the communication field. IBM made the PC, and the PC was no good for communication. The PC was great for numbers, and they probably made studies that there were more people involved with numbers—banks, insurance companies, businesses of all kinds. But they made a tremendous mistake at the same time by not considering the size of the communications world. That community is enormous, you know—newspapers, television, anything that is printed. It’s enormous. Advertising, design, you name it. 

Anyhow, Apple, thank God, got the intuition of going after that market, and so in 1990 they came out with a computer that we designers could use. Now, let’s face it: the computer is a great thing, but it’s just a tool, just like a pencil is a tool. The computer has much more memory, the pencil has no memory whatsoever, and I have even less. But it is a fantastic tool which allowed the best typography ever done in the history of typography, because you can do the kerning perfectly for the situation. You can do the leading perfectly for whatever you’re encountering. Not only that, but you see it right away; you can print it right away. It brings immediacy to your thoughts, and that is something that never happened before in the history of mankind.

It allows you to do the best typography ever, but it also allows you to do the worst ever.•

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“It’s the space between the notes”:

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Our friends are already electric, but is the current arrangement just prelude?

When you consider the place in our pockets–in our hearts–for our smartphones with all their endless content, is it any stretch to see robots as our pals? The alliance may start in space, but it will eventually touch down. Even if the robots can’t truly see us, they can watch us, and such a simulacrum may bring satisfaction. From Anthony Cuthbertson at IBM Times:

The Kibo Robot Project, set up in Japan around three years ago, is hoping that its robots can be used to better understand the relationship between robots and humans, with the eventual aim of providing complete companions for humans living increasingly isolated lives. …

The Kibo Robot Project originally formed from a collaboration between the University of Tokyo, Toyota, Robo Garage and Dentsu.

As a result, two identical humanoid robots – Kirobo and Mirata – were developed, each featuring voice and facial recognition, as well as natural language processing to allow them to understand and communicate with humans.

After a period of tests and experiments, one of the robots was sent up to join Japanese astronaut Wakata Koichi aboard the ISS.

While aboard the ISS, the robot astronaut was able to “observe” certain operations, however its functionality meant that its role as a companion was limited to short conversations with Wakata. As artificial intelligence technology advances it is hoped that robots such as these could be used on more long-term space missions.

“A robot would be utilised more in long-distance missions like on a journey to Mars,” Nishijima said. “It would be used to support the astronauts because sometimes a loss of signal occurs, and in that case the astronaut needs to have a companion or friend to talk to.”•

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