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Someday we’ll be playing golf on the moon, hitting our balls in space.

I can’t say if Moon Express will successfully soft-land on the moon next year, but I think at some point in this century we’ll begin mining other spheres beyond our own. What body will be regulating such endeavors I do not know. From Dominic Basulto at the Washington Post:

Sometime in late 2016, a small robotic spacecraft the size of a coffee table will attempt to soft land on the surface of the moon. If it does so successfully, the new MX-1 lunar lander spacecraft from Moon Express would not only win the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE – it would also help to usher in a new era of commercial space exploration.

Soft-landing on the moon is a feat that has only been accomplished before by three superpowers – the United States, Russia and China. The notion that a team of approximately 40 employees at a Silicon Valley start-up that was founded only in August 2010 could pull off the same feat is audacious in and of itself. Thanks to a unique public-private partnership with NASA, though, Moon Express has access to NASA engineering expertise as well as access to launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center.

But the real audacity is what happens next – and that’s the strategy that Moon Express has for mining the surface of the moon. As Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, told me in a phone interview, thanks to initiatives such as NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper mission, “We have mapped every inch of the moon, both topographically and mineralogically.” As a result, Moon Express has already outlined four categories of resources that might be mined in the future – platinum group metals, rare earth elements, helium-3, and, yes, moon rocks.•

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People seem so pleased with their cleverness now, and I think that’s a mistake. We shouldn’t be proud. We should be deeply ashamed. All of us. Stop building statues. Stop carving faces into mountains. Leave the fucking mountains alone. 

I’m sure we’re smarter now than ever before, though at the same time it seems a more shallow intelligence. We are far too entertained, all binge and no purge, and there are an awful lot of bright people focused on very silly things. Want more clicks on Twitter? Now that’s a kale-turkey chopped salad! Chrissy Teigen is a social media genius! If that’s the cost of everything being so decentralized, it’s likely a worthwhile one. But, still…

From Douglas Coupland in the Financial Times:

Today I wondered, “If the internet had an IQ, what would it be?” And so I made a guess: 4,270 — a four-digit IQ. Yes, I know the internet is just a tool and not a sentient being. But one can dream. …

I think people are smarter now than they were in, say, 1995. I’ve touched on this before: we all feel stupider yet I think if we were to compare IQs from then and from 2015, we’d find that our new standard IQ is more like 103. People time-travelling from 1995 to 2015 would probably speak with us for a few minutes and then quietly excuse themselves and go meet in the kitchen and wonder what drug we’re on. “They have no attention span, and the moment you tell them even the slightest fib, they reach into their pockets, pull out a piece of glass, dapple their fingers over it and then look up at you and tell you that your fib was a fib. What kind of way is that to live life?”•

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Information has not saved us.

Free and plentiful though it now is, data still depends on us to process it. From Truthers to Birthers to Vaxxers, some of us choose the wrong info, ignore the right and mix up different threads to “prove” some deeply held belief that is utter bullshit. No recruitment is necessary; people actively pursue these nonsensical ideas. Something’s amiss. 

Why are there those among us who can’t make basic sense of things? Perhaps some of the entrenchment in ignorance is a response to the deluge of facts, but that’s probably not an explanation for so much wrongheadedness. The opening of Quassim Cassam’s provocative Aeon essay, “Bad Thinkers,” a salvo aimed at the faltering intellectual character of conspiracists:

Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn’t have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Polling evidence suggests that Oliver’s views about 9/11 are by no means unusual. Indeed, peculiar theories about all manner of things are now widespread. There are conspiracy theories about the spread of AIDS, the 1969 Moon landings, UFOs, and the assassination of JFK. Sometimes, conspiracy theories turn out to be right – Watergate really was a conspiracy – but mostly they are bunkum. They are in fact vivid illustrations of a striking truth about human beings: however intelligent and knowledgeable we might be in other ways, many of us still believe the strangest things. You can find people who believe they were abducted by aliens, that the Holocaust never happened, and that cancer can be cured by positive thinking. A 2009 Harris Poll found that between one‑fifth and one‑quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation, astrology and the existence of witches. You name it, and there is probably someone out there who believes it.

You realise, of course, that Oliver’s theory about 9/11 has little going for it, and this might make you wonder why he believes it. The question ‘Why does Oliver believe that 9/11 was an inside job?’ is just a version of a more general question posed by the US skeptic Michael Shermer: why do people believe weird things? The weirder the belief, the stranger it seems that someone can have it. Asking why people believe weird things isn’t like asking why they believe it’s raining as they look out of the window and see the rain pouring down. It’s obvious why people believe it’s raining when they have compelling evidence, but it’s far from obvious why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job when he has access to compelling evidence that it wasn’t an inside job.

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.•

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It’s just perfect that Monopoly, which brought cutthroat capitalism to the living room, allowing you to bankrupt grandma, was birthed through dubious business deals. In Mary Pilon’s new book, The Monopolists, the author traces the key role in the game’s invention of Elizabeth ­Magie, whose Landlord’s Game, which preceded Charles Darrow’s blockbuster, has largely been lost to history. From James McManus in the New York Times

Our favorite board game, of course, is Monopoly, which has also gone global, and for similar reasons. Played by everyone from Jerry Hall and Mick ­Jagger to Carmela and Tony Soprano, it apparently scratches an itch to wheel and deal few of us can reach in real life. The game is sufficiently redolent of capitalism that in 1959 Fidel Castro ordered the ­destruction of every Monopoly set in Cuba, while these days Vladimir Putin seems to be its ultimate aficionado.

What dyed-in-the-wool free marketeer invented this cardboard facsimile of real estate markets, and who owns it now? From whose ideas did it evolve? These are the questions Mary Pilon, formerly a reporter at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, proposes to answer in her briskly enlightening first book, The Monopolists. For decades the ­official story, slipped into every Monopoly box, was that Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman, had a sudden light-bulb moment about a game to amuse his poor family during the Depression. After selling it to Parker Brothers in 1935, he lived lavishly ever after on the proceeds.

To trace how far removed this was from the truth, Pilon introduces Elizabeth ­Magie. Born in 1866, she was an ­unmarried stenographer whose passions included politics and — even more rare among women of that era — inventing. In 1904 she received a patent for the Landlord’s Game, a board contest she designed to cultivate her progressive, proto-feminist values, and as a rebuke to the slumlords and other monopolists of the Gilded Age.

Her game featured spaces for railroads and rental properties on each side of a square board, with water and electricity companies and a corner labeled “Go to Jail.” Players earned wages, paid taxes; the winner was the one who best foiled landlords’ attempts to send her to the poorhouse. Magie helped form a company to market it, but it never really took off. The game appealed mostly to socialists and Quakers, many of whom made their own sets; other players renamed properties and added things like Chance and Community Chest cards. Even less auspiciously for Magie, many people began referring to it as “monopoly” and giving it as gifts. Then in 1932, Charles Darrow received one with spaces named for streets in Atlantic City.

No light bulb necessary.•

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Government in America is far from perfect, but I still trust it a great deal more than corporations. Libertarians and Silicon Valley billionaires who feel differently aim to build a floating nation in the ocean, many nautical miles beyond regulation. The Seasteading Institute (“Opening humanity’s next frontier”) is to allow Burning Man to walk on water. I have no worries whatsoever about this planned “soaktopia,” but I am concerned about the mindset it reveals, a longing by some for a runaway free market here on solid ground. From Conor Lynch at Salon:

As some may already know, Thiel has teamed up with the grandson of libertarian icon Milton Friedman, Patri Friedman, to try and develop a “seastead,” or a permanent and autonomous dwelling at sea. Friedman formed the “Seasteading Institutein 2008, and Thiel has donated more than a million dollars to fund its creation.

It is all very utopian, to say the least. But on the website, they claim a floating city could be just years away. The real trick is finding a proper location to build this twenty-first century atlantis. Currently, they are attempting to find a host nation that will allow the floating city somewhat close to land, for the calm waters and ability to easily travel to and from the seastead.

The project has been coined “libertarian island,” and it reveals a building movement within Silicon Valley; a sort of free market techno-capitalist faction that seems to come right out of Ayn Rand’s imagination. And as with all utopian ideologies, it is very appealing, especially when you live in a land where everything seems possible, with the proper technological advancements.

Tech billionaires like Thiel, Travis Kalanick and Marc Andressen, are leading the libertarian revolution in the land of computers, and it is not a surprising place for this laissez faire ideology to flourish. Silicon Valley is generally considered to have a laid back Californian culture, but behind all of the polite cordialities, there rests a necessary cutthroat attitude. A perfect example of this was Steve Jobs, who was so revered by the community, and much of the world, yet almost psychopathically merciless. The recent anti-trust case against the big tech companies like Google, Apple, and Intel, who colluded not to recruit each others employees, has even lead to speculation as to whether Jobs should be in jail today, if he were still alive.

So while Silicon Valley is no doubt a socially progressive place (i.e. gay marriage), if one looks past social beliefs, there is as much ruthlessness as you’d expect in any capitalist industry. Look at the offshore tax avoidance, the despicable overseas working conditions, the outright violations of privacy and illegal behavior. There is a very real arrogance within Silicon Valley that seems to care little about rules and regulations.•

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Speaking of Alvin Toffler’s dour prognostications, while he’s been wrong about some things and tended to roll disparate crises (Watergate, oil shortage, unemployment, etc.) into a neat ball of apocalypse, he was right before most in realizing the Industrial Revolution was all but over. From a 1974 People Q&A with Toffler conducted by Christopher P. Andersen:

Question:

Do any world leaders comprehend what you regard as a grave situation?

Alvin Toffler:

I don’t think President Ford has a glimmer, nor do any of the Democratic front-runners. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson doesn’t have a clue, and Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev is too busy trying to bring the 20th century to a 19th century economy. Still, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (a former finance minister) does have some idea of the enormity of the crisis and some glimmering vision of the society that might replace our current industrial civilization.

Question:

What will we run into en route to that “new civilization”?

Alvin Toffler:

We can expect to experience some turbulent, painful, conflict-filled years. It could lead to a better ecological balance, a stronger world economy and more equality in terms of nations and individuals. Or we could be moving into a period of totalitarianism. It would not surprise me if there are attempted coups in England, France, Japan and here. Nor would I be surprised to see violent confrontations in this country over jobs.

Question:

Can’t we solve unemployment within the existing system?

Alvin Toffler:

Even if we succeed in lowering the jobless rate and curbing inflation within the next six months or one year, our troubles aren’t over. Any such improvement would be only temporary.

Question:

What is your solution?

Alvin Toffler:

I think we have to get serious about setting up a transnational system to keep the multinationals from barreling down the international highways without observing the traffic laws. It is also time to build up food and resource stockpiles as stabilizers. And instead of trying to employ jobless workers at the national level, we should set up a decentralized network of work projects. The idea that governments can solve the economic crisis by turning a spigot in the central bank or by suddenly raising or lowering taxes for the nation as a whole is obsolete.•

 

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A little more about The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man, Michael Tennesen’s new book about the end of us. In a episode of The Point of Interest podcast hosted by Lindsay Beyerstein, the environmental journalist says this near the show’s end:

What we’ve created is the false promise that we don’t need the environment anymore, we’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t need nature anymore, that these ecosystem services are not critical. That’s basically what’s happening. And as we lose these species and they disappear, we learn the importance of them, how disease spreads…We’re getting into a world that’s a depauperate world…We have an inflated ego of who we are, and we think we’re going to last forever. Homo sapiens has a limited lifespan, and we should try to coexist and try to stop thinking we’re the be all and end all and that we’re the dominant member of the natural society and start playing a part of that society. Maybe we could last longer and enjoy it more.• Listen here.

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If every police officer in Ferguson were African-American, it probably wouldn’t change much of anything.

Apart from a brief shining moment directly following Emancipation, when former slaves began to gain a political foothold in the country, the postbellum history of race in America, from Jim Crow to George Zimmerman, has been about pre-criminalizing African-Americans, painting them as a class of predators not to be trusted. It’s never been about keeping the peace but about maintaining the power.

There are racist police officers, of course, but even a race-blind force in every U.S. town and city wouldn’t have made things fair because fair was never on the docket. An example: Studies have shown that white and black Americans smoke marijuana at similar levels yet the latter are arrested three times more often. That enters a large group of people into a system they never should have been a part of. In this way, we endeavor to create a criminal class.

The Broken Windows Theory allowed for petty offenses (or alleged ones) to be amplified into breaches of great importance–these measures will stop violent crime!–with the police reimagined as hectoring (if heavily armed) meter maids, the citizens serving as beleaguered piggy banks. Add in profiling and you have an endlessly harassed race of people, and sooner or later these confrontations lead to tragedy.

The micromanaging of civil life has turned us all into potential suspects and African-Americans into arrests waiting to happen. The difference between a stroll and a perp walk has never been narrower.

The opening of David Graeber’s Gawker essay “Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life“:

The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department has scandalized the nation, and justly so. But the department’s institutional racism, while shocking, isn’t the report’s most striking revelation.

More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants.

Many will try to write off this pattern of economic exploitation as some kind of strange anomaly. In fact, it’s anything but. What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life; something which is beginning to transform our most basic sense of who we are, and how we—or most of us, anyway—relate to the central institutions of our society, in ways that are genuinely disastrous.

The DOJ’s report has made us all familiar with the details: the constant pressure on police to issue as many citations as possible for minor infractions (such as parking or seat-belt violations) and the equal pressure on the courts to make the fines as high as possible; the arcane court rules apparently designed to be almost impossible to follow (the court’s own web page contained incorrect information); the way citizens who had never been found guilty—indeed, never even been accused—of an actual crime were rounded up, jailed, threatened with “indefinite” incarceration in fetid cells, risking disease and serious injury, until their destitute families could assemble hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and penalties to pay their jailers.

As a result of such practices, over three quarters of the population had warrants out for the arrest at any given time. The entire population was criminalized.•

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Did some creatures max out and solider on? Charles Darwin coined the term “living fossil” for subspecies which peaked early, evolutionarily speaking, but the idea has lost its currency. Somewhere, a crocodile is smiling. From Ferris Jabr at Nautilus:

In May 1997, the same month that The Lost World: Jurassic Park debuted in the United States, the U.S. Postal Service released 15 gorgeous stamps depicting various dinosaurs and extinct reptiles. The stamps caused a sensation among dino enthusiasts and paleontologists alike. “We all rushed out to get them,” remembers Christopher Brochu, a paleontologist at the University of Iowa. As an expert on crocodiles and their ancestors (known collectively as crocodilians and crocodyliforms), Brochu was particularly ecstatic to see that one stamp featured Goniopholis, a crocodyliform from the late Jurassic. When he looked closer, however, he noticed a few oddities: The checkers on its tail, the shape of its scales, and the arrangement of its teeth were not quite right. This drawing, Brochu realized, was not based on fossils of Goniopholis, but rather on the contemporary Nile crocodile.

“People think that to make a landscape look primeval, all you need to do is throw a crocodile into the mix—even a modern one,” Brochu says. “There’s this idea that crocodiles haven’t changed at all since the time of the dinosaurs, that they are so-called ‘living fossils’.” It’s a notion that’s often repeated in magazines, museums, and nature documentaries. But it’s completely wrong. In fact, the whole concept of a “living fossil” has fallen apart.

Charles Darwin coined the term “living fossil” in The Origin of Species to describe some of the planet’s more ambiguous creatures—such as the lungfish and platypus—that evolved relatively early and “endured to the present day.” He saw these animals as living proof of the evolutionary transitions between, say, ocean-dwellers and amphibians. Darwin was careful to point out that this phrase was “fanciful,” but it was also poetic and memorable. It quickly multiplied in both academic writing and the popular press. Eventually, it came to signify creatures that had emerged long ago and had not changed for eons, preserving a primitive appearance unlike any other living thing. “Living fossil” was no longer a passing phrase; it had become a powerful concept shaping scientists’ attitudes towards modern species. If certain creatures were frozen in evolutionary time, the reasoning went, then they could be our windows to ancient epochs of life.

There was a habit of saying, ‘Oh, this fossil looks like a crocodile, let’s just put it in a drawer.’
The idea of the living fossil persists today in everything from top-ten lists of weird creatures to recent scientific studies. The only trouble is this: There is no such thing as a living fossil. It’s true that the living descendants of early animal lineages can teach us about their ancestors, but the idea that any species alive today has stopped evolving is simply false.•

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John Naisbitt, who spent two years on the New York Times Bestseller list in the early 1980s with Megatrends, proved a pretty good prognosticator, not just a useful counterpoint to the previous decade’s dire soothsaying of Alvin Toffler. They were both right on many counts, often seeing flip sides of the same coin. His comments about technology not reordering socializing along more-virtual lines seem off the mark, however. Three quick excerpts follow from a 1982 People Q&A conducted by John Stickney.

______________________

Question:

Are we more obsessed with the future than past generations?

John Naisbitt:

Yes, because of an important shift in our time orientation. As an agricultural society, we were oriented to the past, with traditions of how to plant and harvest. An industrial society is oriented to the present—get it out, get it done, ad hoc, bottom line, short term. Now we’re changing from an industrial society to one based on information, and that’s a megatrend. An information society is oriented to the future, which is why we’re so interested in it. We’re drowning in data, yet thirsty for intelligence and knowledge.

Question:

With this deluge of data, don’t a lot of people feel they may go under?

John Naisbitt:

Of course. People are looking for something to hold onto, and that’s why we’re having a religious revival. That’s also why we have all these waves of nostalgia. We want to cling to the past, which is becoming ever more recent, by the way. The past is the 1950s and 1960s.

Question:

How can you get a fix on the future?

John Naisbitt:

A sense of what’s happening now would put us way ahead. Practically the whole country continues to act as if we’re an industrial society. You shouldn’t get depressed about the latest gloomy business statistics, which are often rooted in old indices like the Dow Jones industrial average. Many companies in electronics, biotechnology and other so-called “sunrise sectors” are going strong. They’re the ones to invest in now. The economy is much better off than the economists represent to us.

______________________

Question:

Why are there so many start-ups now?

John Naisbitt:

Because access to the system is so much easier. In the old economy the strategic resource was capital. Now it’s what’s in your head, it’s information, not how much money you’ve got in your pocket. Think about all those kids starting software companies. One-third of the new businesses today are started by women.

______________________

Question:

The home of the future may be a so-called “electronic cottage” connected by computer to the outside world and to the workplace. Won’t this put a damper on old-fashioned socializing? 

John Naisbitt:

On the contrary. The electronic cottage won’t go very far because people want to be with people. The more technology you put in society, the more people will seek ways to congregate at movies, restaurants, shopping malls. There will be no end to office meetings. It’s a trade-off I call “high tech/ high touch.”

Question:

Would you explain?

John Naisbitt:

The idea is we put in high technology and then create a compensatory human element, or we reject the technology. For example, simultaneous with the wave of stories about the wide-spread use of computers in schools have been reports about either reviving religion there or teaching courses in values.

Question:

Where’s the political power going?

John Naisbitt:

It’s decentralizing. The percentage of eligible voters casting ballots in presidential and congressional elections continues to decline, but turnouts for local initiatives and referenda are going up—as high as 75 and 80 percent in some areas. State governments in particular are asserting themselves. Nevada, for example, is demanding state control over the four-fifths of its land now under federal jurisdiction. The decentralizing trend is reinforced by states increasingly dealing directly on their own behalf with countries all around the world.

Question:

Don’t you see any threatening clouds on the horizon?

John Naisbitt:

Of course. What are we going to do about our underclass, our industrial workers who need retraining, and our aging population? I don’t have the answers, but I’m convinced changes will come from the local level, with the private sector involved. Just because something must be done doesn’t mean the federal government creates a solution and then we all salute it.•

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Earlier this week, Elon Musk made this provocative comment about a future in which autonomous automobiles have been perfected: “People may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.” A good deal more work needs to be done before robocars are finished, but as Emily Badger writes in the Washington Post, no such legislation would be required in Musk’s scenario. An excerpt:

What Musk hasn’t considered, though, is that the importance of public safety here will no doubt bump up against another equally prized American value: individual freedom. And when the two conflict, we don’t always chose the former. We chose, for instance, to allow widespread private gun ownership in America, despite its costs in gun violence and the prevalence of accidents.

Your right to drive a car isn’t protected by a constitutional amendment. But it’s a form of freedom that’s deeply engrained in American culture. It’s hard to imagine lawmakers ever taking it away, even in the face of persuasive safety data. Like with vaccines, driverless cars may one day create a kind of herd effect short of 100 percent adoption, and maybe we’ll live with that. Maybe the cars that will be driven by computers will be able to compensate for the bad decisions of cars driven by humans.

All of this is a case for why lawmakers probably won’t ban human driving. But that doesn’t mean the private market won’t effectively do the same. Fifty years from now, if you still want to drive your vintage 2021 Camry onto a highway humming with autonomous cars, you may have a very hard time finding insurance to do that — that is, if you can still find the car.•

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Robots needn’t be conscious to help or hurt us, to serve or displace us. One possible remedy to the fears about an automation proliferation is human-machine collaboration. For example: In freestyle chess, teams comprised of one human and one computer regularly obliterate a lone person or computer. Will human employees be paired with robots in the same way?

Two things: 1) Such tandems will still checkmate a lot of workers, and 2) It may be the “detente” is only temporary, the human half of the equation gradually phased out. From a report about you newest coworker–a cobot–from Tanya Powley at the Financial Times:

Meet Sawyer. It is the newest robot on the block designed to speed up automation in factories by taking on tasks that once relied on humans’ manual dexterity and good eyesight.

The machine is one of two new “collaborative” robots, or co-bots, launched this week that are part of a new generation of affordable lightweight robots that are unlocking new markets and applications beyond automotive and semiconductor manufacturing, where robots have been a mainstay for decades.

Robot companies have been rushing to develop co-bots, which can work side-by-side with employees rather than behind a safety cage, as they look to capitalise on a growing trend by manufacturers to turn to technology to compete amid rising wage costs and labour shortages.

Unveiled on Thursday, Sawyer is made by US-based Rethink Robotics, which already builds a dual-arm humanoid robot known as Baxter. The single-armed Sawyer is more accurate, faster and smaller than Baxter, enabling it to automate a wider range of tasks such as machine tending and circuit board testing in the electronics industry. It can also carry a larger weight. Baxter has largely been used for packing purposes in factories and for academic research. …

Lightweight collaborative robots are cheaper, more dexterous, easier to move between tasks and do not require specialist programming skills. Many of them can be taught new moves by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to show it what to do. …

Sawyer will be marketed for $29,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot. Universal Robots sells its flexible, lightweight robot arms for between €20,000 to €30,000.

This has helped make automation more accessible for small and medium-sized businesses that previously could not afford the expensive heavyweight traditional industrial robots or did not consider them economical for smaller production volumes or contract manufacturing.•

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Robert Reich is opting in on technological socialism, a phrase often uttered by futurists, believing automation will cause a paucity of good jobs, and, one way or another, an endgame for capitalism that’s functional. He may be overreacting, but a working world of few hands and a long tail is at least a strong possibility. An excerpt:

The iEverything will be the best machine ever invented.

The only problem is no one will be able to buy it. That’s because no one will have any means of earning money, since the iEverything will do it all.

This is obviously fanciful, but when more and more can be done by fewer and fewer people, the profits go to an ever-smaller circle of executives and owner-investors.

One of the young founders of WhatsApp, CEO Jan Koum, had a forty-five percent equity stake in the company when Facebook purchased it, which yielded him $6.8 billion.

Cofounder Brian Acton got $3 billion for his twenty percent stake.

Each of the early employees reportedly had a one percent stake, which presumably netted them $160 million each.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will be left providing the only things technology can’t provide – person-to-person attention, human touch, and care. But these sorts of person-to-person jobs pay very little.

That means most of us will have less and less money to buy the dazzling array of products and services spawned by blockbuster technologies—because those same technologies will be supplanting our jobs and driving down our pay.

We need a new economic model.•

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It’s not always easy to distinguish between a nudge and a shove, as we well know already from the advertising age and will know even better once the Internet of Things becomes the thing. In “The Algorithmic Self,” Frank Pasquale’s expansive Hedgehog Review piece about how the new, non-humming machine we’ve built can quietly quantify us–direct us, even–while making it impossible to opt out. He surveys the landscape, looking at therapeutic robots, invasions of privacy, the dawn of a new type of surveillance, etc. An excerpt:

For many technology enthusiasts, the answer to the obesity epidemic—and many other problems—lies in computational countermeasures to the wiles of the food scientists. App developers are pioneering behavioristic interventions to make calorie counting and exercise prompts automatic. For example, users of a new gadget, the Pavlok wristband, can program it to give them an electronic shock if they miss exercise targets. But can such stimuli break through the blooming, buzzing distractions of instant gratification on offer in so many rival games and apps? Moreover, is there another way of conceptualizing our relationship to our surroundings than as a suboptimal system of stimulus and response?

Some of our subtlest, most incisive cultural critics have offered alternatives. Rather than acquiesce to our manipulability, they urge us to become more conscious of its sources—be they intrusive advertisements or computers that we (think we) control. For example, Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, sees excessive engagement with gadgets as a substitution of the “machinic” for the human—the “cheap date” of robotized interaction standing in for the more unpredictable but ultimately challenging and rewarding negotiation of friendship, love, and collegiality. In The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr critiques the replacement of human skill with computer mediation that, while initially liberating, threatens to sap the reserves of ingenuity and creativity that enabled the computation in the first place.

Beyond the psychological, there is a political dimension, too. Legal theorist and Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen warns of the dangers of “modulation,” which enables advertisers, media executives, political consultants, and intelligence operatives to deploy opaque algorithms to monitor and manipulate behavior. Cultural critic Rob Horning ups the ante on the concerns of Cohen and Turkle with a series of essays dissecting feedback loops among surveillance entities, the capture of important information, and self-readjusting computational interventions designed to channel behavior and thought into ever-narrower channels. Horning also criticizes Carr for failing to emphasize the almost irresistible economic logic behind algorithmic self-making—at first for competitive advantage, then, ultimately, for survival.6

To negotiate contemporary algorithms of reputation and search—ranging from resumé optimization on LinkedIn to strategic Facebook status updates to OkCupid profile grooming—we are increasingly called on to adopt an algorithmic self, one well practiced in strategic self-promotion. This algorithmic selfhood may be critical to finding job opportunities (or even maintaining a reliable circle of friends and family) in an era of accelerating social change. But it can also become self-defeating. Consider, for instance, the self-promoter whose status updates on Facebook or LinkedIn gradually tip from informative to annoying. Or the search engine−optimizing website whose tactics become a bit too aggressive, thereby causing it to run afoul of Google’s web spam team and consequently sink into obscurity. The algorithms remain stubbornly opaque amid rapidly changing social norms. A cyber-vertigo results, as we are pressed to promote our algorithmic selves but puzzled over the best way to do so.•

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Charter cities don’t work very often, probably because top-down design is antithetical to human nature, trial-and-error needing to be a more gradual and granular process. The stately pleasure-dome may work for Kubla Khan but not so much for you and I. Some academics love placing these planned utopias at the heart of bull sessions, building this city or tearing down that one in their heads. It can be disquieting to listen to, even if the intentions are good. In a new EconTalk episode, host Russ Roberts and NYU economist Paul Romer had such a talk. Two excerpts follow.

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Paul Romer:

You can think of a charter city as a kind of a zone, but a big one, big enough to encompass an entire city. One of the questions that you confront when you propose new zones is: What fraction of existing zones have succeeded, in any sense? Most zones fail. And so we have to ask, Why is that? It could be that starting a zone is kind of like starting a startup firm: even if you do it right there’s a high probability that it won’t succeed. But you keep doing it because the ones that do succeed are worth enough. But I think there’s another problem with zones around the world, which is that they fail in ways that you could have predicted when you started them, because they took this form that I’m calling a ‘concession zone.’ So, what’s the difference? A concession zone is a zone where you do something differently as a kind of a concession, a gift to some favored party. So, you give a tax holiday or some other kind of favored treatment to people who get those favors through mechanisms that are pretty easy to forecast. The test of whether something is a reform, or reform zone, is: Do you want it to extend to the rest of the country, and, do you want it to last forever? So, for example, a tax holiday, which is just for firms in a zone and just for a finite amount of time is clearly a concession. There’s no sense that this is something you’d want to extend to every firm in the country and extend forever, because typically they have no plan for how they would recover the tax revenue that they’d give up that way. So the thing to ask in small or big zones all over the world, is: Are governments using these to try out reforms that they want to spread throughout the rest of the country and have last forever, or are they just using them to give some concessions? And if they are to give some concessions, the probability that it won’t do anything good for the country, the ex ante probability, is very low.

Russ Roberts: 

Now, the way I originally understood the idea of a charter city is you have a system–you have a country, excuse me–where the governance of the country is failing in some dimension and it’s very difficult under that scenario, under that situation, for the government to credibly commit to reforming itself. And what a charter city would do is import essentially the institutions of a different country which they are more likely and more credibly able to promise about property rights, the rule of law, say, crime. And in this way you could encourage foreign investment, or any kind of investment, in that city, that you wouldn’t be able to attract if you were stuck under the governance of the host country. That idea is only one kind of charter city or one kind of reform, correct? Because you’re really talking about something more like a laboratory where trial and error could be used to assess effectiveness. 

Paul Romer: 

Yeah. I think the general concept here is that you use the decision to opt in to a new geographic area as an opportunity to implement reforms of any sort, any type of reform, that might be controversial if you tried to implement it on a group of people who were already in a particular location. Think of it as a way to avoid–is to try something new without any coercion. Try something new where the people who live under this new regime choose voluntarily to be part of that. And the thing that you try to do differently or try to do new can take many different forms; and different countries at different stages of development might try many different kinds of reforms or just innovations in their systems of rules. So, the one you were describing where the reform you want to undertake is one where you import government services from outside, I think that’s in practice a very important possible type of reform for poor countries. But the more general concept would allow many different types of reforms. You can even consider a new reform zone/city in the United States where you might do something like say, well, every vehicle in this city has to have autonomous control, instead of driver control. Or you might say, we’re going to ban any use of gasoline and diesel and just rely on natural gas and build the infrastructure for that. So, there’s things you can try in the new setting that would be very difficult from a technical point of view and a political point of view to try in an existing setting; and we might learn a lot that generalizes from running an experiment like that.

Russ Roberts: 

Well, what’s exhilarating about it is it allows the choice of a city to be similar to my choice of, say, music player. Right? Nobody sticks me with a music player. I go out and choose the one I want. I choose the phone I want. I choose the kind of house I want to live in, and I choose the books I want to read. I can choose the government I want but the costs of that choice are very different, right? 

Paul Romer: 

Yeah.

Russ Roberts: 

Because I can move.

Paul Romer: 

Yeah. When I teach about cities these days I tell students to think of cities as intermediate entities between the nation and a business. So, I don’t think a city is identical to a business. And I think there are some city functions that we couldn’t privatize to a corporate governance accountability kind of model. Policing is the test case on this. I think very few people would actually voluntarily choose to go someplace where there’s a police force and a judicial system that could lock you up that’s run by a corporate entity. And I think that doesn’t change whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit corporate entity. So, what we’re doing is using some of the same mechanisms for cities, like choice by consumers or users–we’re using choice, but it’s on an entity which is still likely to have some form of government that’s subject to some form of political accountability. And what this reform-zone idea does is more fully exploit the possibilities of this thing that lies between the nation and the business.•

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Russ Roberts:

So, if you say to me, ‘Hey, we’re starting this new town. It’s fabulous. It’s going to have driverless–this is the town that me and 17 other people would want to live in. It’s got driverless cars, natural gas fuel, no minimum wage laws–whole range of, say, attractive things. So, it’s clean air; it’s fabulous. But they you say: ‘But where is it?’ ‘Well, it’s in the middle of Nebraska.’ ‘But I don’t want to live in the middle of Nebraska.’ So in a way, all the good spots have been taken in the United States. That’s why there are cities there already. So, one of the challenges I think of thinking about Shenzhen and India and China, where their population is growing so fast: It’s going to be very appealing sometimes to leave a city for a new place. It’s a little more challenging in a country like the United States–imagine where this magical city of Oz would be.

Paul Romer:

Yeah. Well, I think we have to use a little bit of imagination. This is mostly being facetious, but one thing I tell people, having visited Long Beach, California just once, is that we should think about Long Beach as a tear down. You know, it’s a really ugly city, but in a beautiful location.

Russ Roberts:

Uuuh, uhhh, yeah–

Paul Romer:

We ought to just tell them to tear down the whole city. And then if you build like a Manhattan in Long Beach–if you could get like Manhattan densities and street activity and excitement, with California weather, man, that would be a successful real estate project.•

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You don’t have to read too much between the lines to understand that Braun design legend Dieter Rams, in his dotage, maybe regrets devoting his life to the field despite being so brilliant at it. I don’t think that’s such an unusual reaction to being on the wrong side of aging, no matter the accomplishments. Three excerpts follow from Gary Hustwit’s Fast Company Q&A with Rams.

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Question:

How has design changed in the last 50 years?

Dieter Rams:

What I am especially bothered by today is that, particularly in the media, design is being used as a ‘lifestyle asset.’ I’m bothered by the arbitrariness and the thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to the market. There are so many unnecessary things we produce, not only in the sector of consumer goods, but also in architecture, in advertising. We have too many unnecessary things everywhere. And I would even go as far as to describe this as inhumane. That is the situation today. But actually, it has always been a problem.

We need to deal with our resources differently, in terms of how we waste things. We have to move away from the throwaway habit. Things can, and must, last longer. They must be designed so that they can be reused. We need to take more care of our environment. That means not only our personal environment but also our cities and our resources. That is the future of design, to take more care of these basic elements. Otherwise I’m not sure what the future of our planet will be. So designers have to take on that responsibility, and to do so we need more support from government. We need political support to solve the problems with our environment and how we should shape our cities. As designers, we shouldn’t be doing this for ourselves, but for our community. And the community needs support, not only to interact with each other democratically, but it also needs support to live democratically.

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Question:

If you were to design a computer now, what would it look like?

Dieter Rams:

It would look like one of Apple’s products. In many magazines, or on the Internet, people compare Apple products to things which I designed, with this or that transistor radio from 1965 or 1955. In terms of aesthetics, I think their designs are brilliant. I don’t consider it an imitation. I take it as a compliment.

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Question:

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered so far?

Dieter Rams:

Well, I’m not very active in the design field anymore. I have only a few things to do, mainly in the furniture sector, because I have certain commitments. But I am still very interested in what’s happening, and it is my wish that we really do deal with our surroundings more consciously in the future. That is really my wish, because I believe it contributes to living with one another more peacefully. That’s why, if I had something to do in this world again, I would not want to be a designer. Because I believe, in the future, it will be less important to have many things and more important to exercise care about where and how we live.•

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A scene from Objectified, 2009.

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In her NYRB piece on Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, Sue Halpern runs through periods of the twentieth century when fears of technological unemployment were raised before receding, mentioning a 1980 Time cover story about the Labor-destabilizing force of machines. These projections seemed proved false as job creation increased considerably during the Reagan Administration, but as Halpern goes on to note, that feature article may have been prescient in ways we didn’t then understand. Income inequality began to boom during the last two decades of the previous century, a worrying trajectory that’s only been exacerbated as we’ve moved deeper into the Digital Revolution. Certainly there are other causes but automation is likely among them, with the new wealth in the hands of fewer, algorithms and robots managing a good portion of the windfall-creating toil. And if you happen to be working in many of the fields likely to soon be automated (hotels, restaurants, warehouses, etc.), you might want to ask some former travel agents and record-store owners for resume tips. 

Halpern zeroes in on a Carr topic often elided by economists debating whether the next few decades will be boon or bane for the non-wealthy: the hole left in our hearts when we’re “freed” of work. Is that something common to us because we were born on the other side of the transformation, or are humans marked indelibly with the need to produce beyond tweets and likes? Maybe it’s the work, not the play, that’s the thing. From Halpern:

Here is what that future—which is to say now—looks like: banking, logistics, surgery, and medical recordkeeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines. Manufacturing, which has long been hospitable to mechanization and automation, is becoming more so as the cost of industrial robots drops, especially in relation to the cost of human labor. According to a new study by the Boston Consulting Group, currently the expectation is that machines, which now account for 10 percent of all manufacturing tasks, are likely to perform about 25 percent of them by 2025. (To understand the economics of this transition, one need only consider the American automotive industry, where a human spot welder costs about $25 an hour and a robotic one costs $8. The robot is faster and more accurate, too.) The Boston group expects most of the growth in automation to be concentrated in transportation equipment, computer and electronic products, electrical equipment, and machinery.

Meanwhile, algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data for the NSA andCIA, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers fly planes—Nicholas Carr points out that the average airline pilot is now at the helm of an airplane for about three minutes per flight—and they compose music and pick which pop songs should be recorded based on which chord progressions and riffs were hits in the past. Computers pursue drug development—a robot in the UK named Eve may have just found a new compound to treat malaria—and fill pharmacy vials.

Xerox uses computers—not people—to select which applicants to hire for its call centers. The retail giant Amazon “employs” 15,000 warehouse robots to pull items off the shelf and pack boxes. The self-driving car is being road-tested. A number of hotels are staffed by robotic desk clerks and cleaned by robotic chambermaids. Airports are instituting robotic valet parking. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of MIT’s personal robots group, raised $1 million in six days on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, and then $25 million in venture capital funding, to bring Jibo, “the world’s first social robot,” to market. …

There is a certain school of thought, championed primarily by those such as Google’s Larry Page, who stand to make a lot of money from the ongoing digitization and automation of just about everything, that the elimination of jobs concurrent with a rise in productivity will lead to a leisure class freed from work. Leaving aside questions about how these lucky folks will house and feed themselves, the belief that most people would like nothing more than to be able to spend all day in their pajamas watching TV—which turns out to be what many “nonemployed” men do—sorely misconstrues the value of work, even work that might appear to an outsider to be less than fulfilling. Stated simply: work confers identity. When Dublin City University professor Michael Doherty surveyed Irish workers, including those who stocked grocery shelves and drove city buses, to find out if work continues to be “a significant locus of personal identity,” even at a time when employment itself is less secure, he concluded that “the findings of this research can be summed up in the succinct phrase: ‘work matters.’”

How much it matters may not be quantifiable, but in an essay in The New York Times, Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that there was

a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed.

One reason was suggested in a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), who found, Carr reports, that “people were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours.”

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Today may be Netanyahu’s waterloo, or not, with the ideologue shifting further right at the eleventh hour, hoping to extend his time in office. One thing which shouldn’t be lost regardless of the election’s outcome, is that in addition to worries about diplomatic bungling and existential threats from without, the country is enduring serious income inequality. From “Israel’s Gilded Age,” by Paul Krugman of the New York Times:

Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel feel the need to wag the dog in Washington? For that was, of course, what he was doing in his anti-Iran speech to Congress. If you’re seriously trying to affect American foreign policy, you don’t insult the president and so obviously align yourself with his political opposition. No, the real purpose of that speech was to distract the Israeli electorate with saber-rattling bombast, to shift its attention away from the economic discontent that, polls suggest, may well boot Mr. Netanyahu from office in Tuesday’s election.

But wait: Why are Israelis discontented? After all, Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. It weathered the financial crisis with minimal damage. Over the longer term, it has grown more rapidly than most other advanced economies, and has developed into a high-technology powerhouse. What is there to complain about?

The answer, which I don’t think is widely appreciated here, is that while Israel’s economy has grown, this growth has been accompanied by a disturbing transformation in the country’s income distribution and society. Once upon a time, Israel was a country of egalitarian ideals — the kibbutz population was always a small minority, but it had a large impact on the nation’s self-perception. And it was a fairly equal society in reality, too, right up to the early 1990s.

Since then, however, Israel has experienced a dramatic widening of income disparities. Key measures of inequality have soared; Israel is now right up there with America as one of the most unequal societies in the advanced world. And Israel’s experience shows that this matters, that extreme inequality has a corrosive effect on social and political life.•

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Some still eat McDonald’s and Kraft Singles and Lunchables and other suspicious-looking pseudo-edibles, but thankfully far fewer are stepping up to those plates. Big Food in America has repeatedly chosen taste over nutrition, a decision which paid off handsomely for a good while, but that mindset has come back to bite the industry. While the corporations have not changed, consumer choices have. It’s probably, in part, consequence of the ceaseless food porn and tiresome celebrity chefs which inundate us. Those screaming, skilleting idiots may have served a purpose after all. From Gary Silverman at the Financial Times:

Andy Warhol knew what he was doing. In the early 1960s, when he was looking to create a stir in the world of modern art, he fixed on an image as familiar to his audience as the Pietà was to Michelangelo’s — the Campbell’s soup can. It was both a consumer good and an icon of the age. Red and white, like the wine and bread of the sacraments Warhol knew from church, it promised comfort for the user once its condensed contents were mixed with water, heated and served.

But Warhol’s old models are now facing misfortune. The signature offering of Campbell Soup Company of Camden, New Jersey, founded in 1869, is falling out of favour with consumers in the US. Campbell’s condensed soup is no longer the stuff of modern art; it is becoming a symbol of days gone by, when Americans could be counted on to stock their pantries with the processed food brands advertised relentlessly on the three big television networks.

Today, a revolution is under way in US supermarkets. A more health-conscious millennial generation is forsaking the convenience food of their baby-boomer parents for fresher, more natural fare and proteins of various sorts. Burgeoning immigrant populations are stoking demand for different types of provisions. Beleaguered consumers are buying lower-cost store brands at bare-bones retailers, or cooking less and eating out more so they can work longer hours.

The result is that even as the US economy has recovered, some of the country’s best-known food companies — and some of their most enduring brands — have been suffering. Sales of Campbell’s condensed soup slipped 3 per cent year on year during its last six months of reported results. During the most recent quarter, North American revenues for Kellogg’s cereals and other morning foods fell 7.7 per cent, while Kraft Foods, the North American grocery business of the old consumer giant, reported a 6.6 per cent sales decline for meals and desserts, including its macaroni and cheese in a box.

So tumultuous are the culinary times that some of history’s most successful marketing organisations are admitting that they have lost touch with the people who buy their products. John Cahill, chairman and chief executive of Kraft, might as well have been speaking for the industry when he issued an extraordinary mea culpa this year as he cleaned his corporate house, saying goodbye to senior executives including his chief financial officer and adding a new “vice-president of growth initiatives”.

“It’s clear that our world has changed and our consumers have changed,” Mr Cahill said. “But our company has not changed enough.”•

 

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Newly standing on a world stage can make for an awkward posture. Every country has its faults, but some practices, like China stocking its market of internal organs by harvesting from executed prisoners, is particularly beyond the pale. Of course, it’s difficult to stop commerce practices long established, especially in a nation flooded with money and lacking in human rights. From the Economist:

TRANSPLANT operations in China have long relied on organs taken from executed prisoners, a practice that has led to such abuses as the timing of executions to meet organ demand, with no notification of relatives. As by far the world’s biggest user of the death penalty, China could count on an abundant—if still far from adequate—supply. But in recent years, stung by international criticism, it has been trying both to reduce executions and to end the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners without their, or their families’, consent. Since January 1st the government has insisted that no such organs be used for transplants. Ensuring compliance, however, will be difficult.

The number of executions is almost certainly falling, even if it remains far higher than in the rest of the world. The government does not release data, but the Dui Hua Foundation, an American NGO, reckons there were around 2,400 executions in 2013, down from 6,500 in 2007. In spite of the impact this has had on organ supply, the government still seems keen to sever the grim link between hospitals and courts that allows wealthy (or well-connected) patients to use organs from condemned prisoners. In theory, the rules mean that hospitals will be able to obtain only organs donated by volunteers to a national organ-bank. …

Persuading the public to donate remains a problem. Many Chinese adhere to a traditional belief that the body has to be kept intact to show respect for ancestors. A senior official at a provincial branch of the Red Cross Society of China, the agency responsible for the donor scheme, says that a lucrative backdoor trade in executed prisoners’ organs will be hard to stop.•

The Electra and Oedipus of the Apollo space program, Oriana Fallaci and Norman Mailer were two writers with egos massive enough to observe humankind’s mission to the Moon as not only material for New Journalism reportage of an historical quest but also as backdrop to investigations of their own psyches. In 1968, two years after Fallaci published If the Sun Dies… and the year before Mailer stormed through a series of long-form articles for Life magazine that became Of a Fire on the Moon, the pair sat down for an interview with Fallaci serving as the inquisitor. In Mailer’s face–“noble and vulgar,” she called it–Fallaci claimed to be searching for America. It actually wasn’t a bad place to look: Like his country, Mailer could be at turns soaringly brilliant and shockingly brutal–and completely delusional about his behavior in regards to the latter. His remarks about domestic violence, for instance, were beyond horrifying, and they unfortunately weren’t merely macho showboating. The discussion opened Fallaci’s collection of (mostly) non-political interrogations, The Egotists. Three excerpts follow.

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Oriana Fallaci:

The problem I want to talk about is a difficult one, but we have to deal with it. The fact is we Europeans used to love you Americans. When you came to liberate us twenty years ago, we used to look up to you as if you were angels. And now many of us don’t love you anymore; indeed some hate you. Today the United States might be the most hated country in the world.

Norman Mailer:

You used to love us because love is hope, and we Americans were your hope. And also, perhaps, because twenty years ago we were a better people, although not as good as you believed then–the seeds of the present ugliness were already there. The soldiers with whom I fought in the Pacific, for example, were a little better than the ones who are fighting now in Vietnam, but not by much. We were quite brutal even then. One could write a novel about Vietnam along the lines of The Naked and the Dead, and the characters would not need to be worse than they are in the book.The fact is that you have lost the hope you have vested in us, and so you have lost your love; therefore you see us in a much worse light than you did before, and you don’t understand that the roots of our ugliness are the old ones. It is true that the evil forces in America have triumphed only after the war–with the enormous growth of corporations and the transformation of man into mass-man, the alienation of men from their own existence–but these forces were already there in Roosevelt’s time. Roosevelt, you see, was a great President, but he wasn’t a great thinker. Indeed, he was a very superficial one. When he took power, America stood at a crossroad; either a proletarian revolution would take place or capitalism would enter a new phase. What happened was that capitalism took a new turn, transforming itself into a subtle elaboration of state capitalism–it is not by chance that the large corporations in effect belong to the government. They belong to the right. And just as the Stalinists have murdered Marxism, so these bastards of the right are now destroying what is good in American life. They are the same people who build the expressways, who cut the trees, who pollute the air and the water, who transform life into a huge commodity.

Oriana Fallaci:

We Europeans are also very good at this. I mean this is not done by only right-wing Americans.

Norman Mailer:

Of course. It is a worldwide process. But its leader is America, and this is why we are hated. We are the leaders of the technological revolution that is taking over the twentieth century, the electronic revolution that is dehumanizing mankind.•

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Norman Mailer:

I still have hope you seem to have lost. Because of the youth. Some of them are subhuman, but most of them are intelligent.

Oriana Fallaci:

That is true. But they are also stuffed with drugs, violence, LSD. Does that help your hoping?

Norman Mailer:

Theirs is an extraordinary complex generation to live in. The best thing I can say about them is that I can’t understand them. The previous generation, the one fifteen years ago, was so predictable, without surprises. This one is a continuing surprise. I watch the young people of today, I listen to them, and l realize that I’m not twenty years older than they are but a hundred. Perhaps because in five years they went through changes that usually take half a century to complete, their intelligence has been speeded up so incredibly that there is no contact between them and the generation around thirty. Not to speak of those around forty or fifty. Yes, I know that this does not happen only in America; this too is a global process. But the psychology of American youth is more modern than that of any other group in the world; it belongs not to 1967 but to 2027. If God could see what would happen in the future–as he perhaps does–he would see people everywhere acting and thinking in 2027 as American youth do now. It’s true they take drugs. But they don’t take the old drugs such as heroin and cocaine that produce only physical reactions and sensations and dull you at the same time. They take LSD, a drug that can help you explore your mind. Now let’s get this straight: I can’t justify the use of LSD. I know too well that you don’t get something for nothing, and it may well be that we’ll pay a tragic price for LSD: it seems that it can break the membrane of the chromosomes in the cells and produce who knows what damage in future children. But LSD is part of a search, a desperate search, as if all these young people felt at the same time the need to explore as soon as possible their minds so as to avoid a catastrophe. Technology has stripped our minds until we have become like pygmies driving chariots drawn by dinosaurs. Now, if we want to keep the dinosaurs in harness, our minds will have to develop at a forced pace, which will require a frightening effort. The young have felt the need to harness the dinosaurs, and if they have found the wrong means, it’s still better than nothing. My fear had been that America was slowly freezing and hardening herself in a pygmy’s sleep. But no, she’s awake.•

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Norman Mailer:

Damn it, I don’t like violence. But there’s something I like even less, and that’s a need for security. It smells of the grave and forces you to react with blood. 

Oriana Fallaci:

You dislike violence? You who knifed a wife and can’t miss a boxing match?

Norman Mailer:

The knife in my wife’s belly was a crime. It was a grave crime, but it had nothing to do with violence. And as for the fights, well, boxing is not violence. It’s a conversation, an exchange between two men who talk to each other with their hands instead of their voices: hitting at the ear, the nose, the mouth, the belly, instead of hitting at each other’s minds. Boxing is a noble art. When a man fights in a ring, he is not expressing brutality. He expresses a complex, subtle nature like that of a true intellectual, a real aristocrat. A pugilist is less brutal, or not at all brutal after a fight, because with his fists he transforms violence into something beautiful, noble and disciplined. It’s a real triumph of the spirit. No, I’m not violent. To be violent means to pick fights, and I can’t remember ever having started a fight. Nor can I remember ever having hit a woman–a strange woman, I mean. I may have hit a wife, but that’s different. If you are married you have two choices: either you beat your wife, or you don’t. Some people live their whole life without ever beating her, others maybe beat her once and thereon are labeled “violent.” I like to marry women whom I can beat once in a while, and who fight back. All my wives have been very good fighters. Perhaps I need women who are capable of violence, to offset my own. Am I not American, after all? But the act of hitting is hateful because it implies a judgement, and judgement itself is hateful. Not that I think of myself as being a good man in the Christian sense. But at certain times I have a clear consciousness of what is good and what is evil, and then my concept of the good resembles that of the Christian.•

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I recently came across the photo of Tinius the Turtle robot being “walked” at Rice University in 1950, and how cute! So far most psychological tests indicate humans are averse to harming robots, but I’m not buying it. Considering the things we do to one another and the atrocities we reign down on chickens and pigs and cows, it’s only a matter of time before restraint is relaxed and hands ungloved. There’ll be AI petting zoos, but there also be an industry of lifelike machines built to take a punch, or a bullet. There’s just something about us. We compartmentalize. From Alex Hern’s Guardian article about robopets and torture, which centers around DAR-1. An excerpt:

DAR–1 is the creation of roboticist Ray Renteria, who introduces himself to the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, as an amateur magician. And just as the work of a magician is focused around misdirection, and a control of the context in which magic is performed, so too is DAR–1 an exercise in how simple, mechanistic effects can be imbued with life with just the right presentation.

The work starts in Renteria’s blurb for DAR–1, a part of the festival’s “Robot Petting Zoo”. The Raspberry Pi and laser-cut legs (both, incidentally, produced in England, leading Renteria to describe the machine as a “British invader”) aren’t mentioned. Instead, visitors are primed to treat the robot as a fellow living being from the off.

“Curious about people, he’ll study your eyes and your smile with the intensity of a focused child,” it reads. “He’s shy, though. If you get a little too close to him, he’ll get nervous and try to back away. See how long you get him to keep following your eyes by looking deep into his.” Similarly, if you ask Renteria why the robot has a permanent shiver to its movements, there’s a technical answer – a particular variable hovering between fully-on and fully-off leads to motors being rapidly engaged then disengaged – but also an anthropomorphised one: “he’s nervous”.

At the same time, says Renteria, “he’s a robot, he’s proud of being a robot, so you’re not going to talk to him, you’re not going to call to him to try to get his attention.”

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I’ve written this before, but I think the final 5% of designing true driverless cars may prove to be more difficult than getting to that stage. Navigating inclement weather and “reacting” to signaling traffic cops will not be easy. There’ll be incremental introductions of the technology, but a car that allows you to sleep or play cards while it does all the work is not an easy assignment. From Matt McFarland at the Washington Post:

In an panel Saturday at SXSW, University of Michigan professor Ryan Eustice, who is developing algorithms for the maps driverless cars will rely on, acknowledged the challenge.

“To really field this technology in all weather, all kinds of scenarios, I think the public’s been a little oversold to this point,” Eustice said. “There’s still a lot of really hard problems to work on.”

He cited the problem of a driverless car’s sensors being confused by snowflakes during a snowstorm. There’s also the question of whether a driverless car in a snowstorm should drive in its original lane or follow the tracks of the car in front of it?

You might think we can just rely on humans to take over whenever a situation gets dicey. But Eustice and others aren’t fond of that.

“This notion, fall back to a human, in part it’s kind of a fallacy,” Eustice said. “To fall back on a human the car has to be able to have enough predictive capability to know that 30 seconds from now, or whatever, it’s in a situation it can’t handle. The human, they’re not going to pay attention in the car. You’re going to be on your cell phone, you’re going to totally tune out, whatever. To take on that cognitive load, you can’t just kick out and say oh ‘take over.’ ”•

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Elmo Keep, who made an appearance on Afflictor’sGreat 2014 Nonfiction Articles” list for her ambitious Matter piece about the seeming futility of the MarsOne project and, more broadly, the pursuit of escape in a dying universe, is back with a brief follow-up report. She refers to the Netherlands-based project as “hopelessly, dangerously flawed,” and I don’t think too many close watchers of the enterprise would disagree. The astronatut selection process sounds something like Amway hurtling through the Milky Way. An excerpt:

When Joseph first signed up with Mars One — the media-hyped, one-way mission to colonize the red planet being floated by a Dutch non-profit — he didn’t think much of it. The former NASA researcher said he never really took the application seriously; he was just putting his hat in the ring mostly out of curiosity, and with the hope of bringing public attention to space science.

But eventually Joseph — who is actually Dr. Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College’s School of Education in Dublin, with a Ph.D. in physics and astrophysics — found himself on the group’s shortlist of 100 candidates all willing to undertake the theoretical journey. And that’s when he started talking to me about the big problems he was seeing with Mars One.

It was difficult for him to break his silence, but he was spurred into speaking out by the uncritical news coverage. Many basic assumptions about the project remain unchallenged. Most egregiously, many media outlets continue to report that Mars One received applications from 200,000 people who would be happy to die on another planet — when the number it actually received was 2,761.

As Roche observed the process from an insider’s perspective, his concerns increased. Chief among them: that “ and are being encouraged to “donate” any appearance fees back to Mars One — which seemed to him very strange for an outfit that needs billions of dollars to complete its objective.

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”•

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Science and technology are the best chances for humans to survive a while longer–a lot longer, actually–but they also mean the end of us, as we’ve long defined our species. Those changes, which will likely occur very gradually, are disquieting (and fascinating) when considered all at once. Maybe that’s why movies and commercials set in techno-dystopias so enthrall us, as we watch them from the screens of our beloved tablets and smartphones. We want the future, but not all of it. In a CNET piece, Chris Matyszczyk wonders about our dual emotions regarding tomorrow. An excerpt:

It seems that almost every ad and Hollywood movie created about the future shows a world that is cold, heartless, menacing and thoroughly soulless.

Yes, we’ll have all sorts of strange gizmos, flying machines and lasers that will paralyze all living beings from galaxies away. But at heart our lives will be chillingly dark, the only color being provided by little green people who zoom in for a pot of tea, a cookie and a skirmish or two.

Simultaneously, in these pages we’re celebrating new devices, robots, flying cars, um, watches and other exciting creations that will take us into a more intelligent and allegedly advanced world.

While Google’s Ray Kurzweil cannot wait until the robots come and he can become one of them, many of us more earthly beings – Stephen Hawking, for example – worry that the robots will take one look at us, use us for a little while and stomp us against the cutting room floor.

Perhaps one reason why ads and movies like to portray the future as a miserable and dangerous place is that humans, in all our bloated magisterial weakness, have an innate fear of the unknown, of the things that can’t ultimately be predicted and controlled.

Yet here we are actively creating that very future. Here we are constructing the very digital, electronic elements that end up frightening Tom Cruise, Will Smith and even non Thetan-believers like Denzel Washington.

Is it really that we’re just playing a little game with ourselves in these ads and movies? Is it that filmmakers have to portray the future as menacing and dangerous so that they can ultimately create a happy ending (even if the world’s been largely destroyed in the process?)

Could it be, though, that there’s some element of self-distrust and even self-loathing in our dedication to automation and digital nirvana, while at the same time using ads and movies to warn of the insane nincompoopery of our thought processes?•

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