Science/Tech

You are currently browsing the archive for the Science/Tech category.

A couple of things I learned from “How to Tell When a Robot Has Written You a Letter,” a Medium piece by the reliably excellent Clive Thompson: 1) Companies remain which employ people to handwrite letters for you, and 2) Subtle differences make it possible to detect if a machine has written a missive rather than a human (though I must admit I would still be fooled even after reading Thompson’s post). An excerpt:

“So now robots are trying to write like us. But they’re not perfect yet! It turns out there are some intriguing quirks of human psychology and letter-formation that the machines can’t yet mimic. Learn those tricks, and you can spot the robots.

I first heard of these human-machine handwriting differences in a conversation last week with Brian Curliss and Daniel Jurek, the cofounders of the startup Maillift. If you need to send out 200 personalized letters to sales leads but haven’t got the time to handwrite them yourself — or if your handwriting is, like mine, grotesque — then Maillift will generate them for you, using teams of genuinely carbon-based people. (What sort of person enjoys handwriting letters for others? ‘Teachers,’ Curliss replies. Apparently teachers have spectacular handwriting, take enormous pride in the craft, and want to make some extra coin in their evenings and weekends.)

Curliss and Jurek also own a handwriting robot, so they’ve studied thousands of human-written letters and compared them to ones produced by machines. They’ve identified three crucial distinctions.”

Tags: , ,

Is there too much venture capital? Yes, there is. Whether it’s traditional firms, angels or crowdsourcing, investors seem to be out there for dreamers of all sized dreams, even during these difficult times. Case in point: Waypoint 2 Space, a start-up which aims to acclimate Earthlings to the final frontier, preparing tourists and long-term tenants physically and psychologically for a mission to Mars or wherever. It took its small steps with Kickstarter and is working on making a giant leap with the help of deeper pockets. It actually will be necessary at some point, but now may or may not be that moment. From Issie Lapowsky at Wired UK:

“The age of commercial spaceflight is finally here. From Richard Branson to Elon Musk, some of the world’s greatest innovators have spent years developing a new kind of space shuttle, with the promise that one day, in the not too distant future, all of us will have a chance to hop on a flight to space.

And Kevin Heath wants to make sure we don’t puke on the way.

Heath is the founder and CEO of Waypoint 2 Space, a space-training startup based at the Houston Technology Center incubator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Its goal is to prepare potential space tourists for the trip, using similar training methodology and technology that NASA astronauts receive. Waypoint’s staff-many of whom are former NASA trainers-will prepare students not only for maneuvering their bodies in a weightless environment and completing a lunar walk, but for the psychological toll that even a short trip to space can take. ‘We’re not a Disneyland experience. This is not space camp,’ Heath says. ‘We’re literally training people to go to space.’

Heath’s timing is right. Just last week, NASA awarded two contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop and deploy their own space shuttles, sending a $6.8 (£4.2) billion cash infusion straight into the heart of the commercial space flight industry. Though the shuttles will only be used to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station for now, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that the partnership ‘promises to give more people in America and around the world the wonder and exhilaration of space flight.’

But space tourism is only a fraction of the potential market. A constellation of industries is now popping up around the development of commercial shuttles, from companies like Planetary Resources that want to mine the moon for natural resources, to companies like Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace, which have plans to open so-called space hotels for wealthy space travellers in the near future.

‘If we’re to see the logical extension of the technological gains of the last 30 years, we need people in space, ways to get them there and training for the trip,’ says Mike Lousteau, a partner at I2BF Global Ventures, which has invested in several space-related startups (though not Waypoint). ‘Whether we’re talking about advanced telecommunications, resource exploration or imaging and Earth observation, a trained human element can provide operation, maintenance and innovation. As these industries and others draw more people to go to and stay in space, the need to train more people will only increase.'”

Tags: , , ,

Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, but he wasn’t alone. The automobilist will forever be crowned the inaugural winner, but fellow driver Cyrus Patschke also handled the wheel of his car, the Marmon Wasp, for a spell, a maneuver common to drivers in early auto races who wanted to take a breather. Ralph Mulford, another entrant who drove his vehicle all by himself for the race’s duration, was actually considered the more impressive driver, and protested Harroun being named winner. The complaint, though, wasn’t directed at Harroun employing a “relief driver,” but rather the fact that Mulford received the checkered flag first, and while he was running several extra laps just to be sure that he’d completed enough tours of the track, Harroun made his way to the winner’s circle. The historic moment had left Mulford in the dust.

An article about the soon-to-be-run race in the May 28, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which featured the comments of driver Ralph DePalma:

____________________________________

In 1961, Harroun appeared on What’s My Line? fifty years year after his most famous moment:

Tags: , ,

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has AI on the brain these days, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. One exchange about the future of labor:

Question:

Good evening from Australia Professor! I would really like to know what your opinion is on technological unemployment. There is a bit of a shift in public thought and awareness at the moment about the rapid advances in both software and hardware displacing human workers in numerous fields.

Do you believe this time is actually different compared to the past and we do have to worry about the economic effects of technology, and more specifically AI, in permanently displacing humans?

Nick Bostrom:

It’s striking that so far we’re mainly used our higher productivity to consume more stuff rather than to enjoy more leisure. Unemployment is partly about lack of income (fundamentally a distributional problem) but it is also about a lack of self-respect and social status.

I think eventually we will have technological unemployment, when it becomes cheaper to do most everything humans do with machines instead. Then we can’t make a living out of wage income and would have to rely on capital income and transfers instead. But we would also have to develop a culture that does not stigmatize idleness and that helps us cultivate interest in activities that are not done to earn money.”

Tags:

Via the wonderful Delancey Place, a prescient excerpt from E.B. White’s 1949 book, Here Is New York, about towers that resembled targets, which predates Don DeLillo’s similar fever dreams about falling skyscrapers by more than four decades:

“To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing. In many respects it neither looks nor feels the way it did twenty-five years ago. … New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the light that changes always an instant too soon, the passenger that bangs on the shut door, the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. …

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

Tags:

Automats were once wildly popular coin-operated restaurants in NYC during that earlier age when it seemed retail and dining might be consumed by machines, but Weak AI wasn’t yet ready to deliver. Its time has arrived now, and as fast-food workers fight for living wages, machines that barely register in our consciousness prepare to operate with quiet efficiency. The opening of Aaron Gilbreath’s Harper’s blog post “Lunch at the Robot Grill“:

“This spring, at a time when American fast-food workers were marching to demand pay increases, and local governments were voting to raise the minimum wage, the Chili’s restaurant chain installed more than 45,000 tabletop touchscreen devices at 823 of its franchises nationwide. Customers at these locations can now order drinks and dessert directly through monitors, pay without the assistance of a server, play games, and read the digital edition of USA Today. The company has also installed computerized ovens at 1,200 locations. Applebee’s, meanwhile, has announced plans to follow suit with approximately 100,000 tabletop tablets by the end of 2014, while Panera Bread is replacing many registers with self-serve kiosks and adding technology that will allow customers to sit down, enter their orders and table numbers on a smartphone, and have their food delivered to them.

For consumers, such automation is convenient. For restaurant workers, it raises fears of displacement. Some analysts believe fast-food chains will respond to the push for higher wages by simply replacing servers and cooks with robots — some of which are already arriving: MIT’s Makr Shakr is capable of mixing cocktails ordered through mobile devices, while the Chinese-made NoodleBot cuts fresh noodles at a fraction of the usual cost. And a hamburger maker marketed by Momentum Machines can grind meat, cook patties, slice tomatoes, and assemble and bag approximately 360 burgers per hour. Restaurants around the world are exploring new ways to implement these new technologies. Since 2008, customers at Bagger’s, in Nuremberg, Germany, for example, have been ordering from touch screens, then waiting for the cook to deliver their food by sliding a container down a set of winding metal tracks, in a theatrical touch.

Japanese restaurants embrace a more pragmatic form of mechanization. At the thriving donburi chain Matsuya, customers order and pay for meals at self-serve machines known alternately as shokkenki or kenbaiki (both of which translate to ‘ticket machine’). So too at the home-style restaurant chain Yayoiken and at the countless independent curry, ramen, takoyaki, and udon restaurants that fill Japan’s bustling train stations and side streets. For these businesses and their customers, shokkenki are a benign convenience, so integrated into daily life that locals barely notice them.”

Tags:

I was disappointed when I first played the new EconTalk podcast, which featured host Russ Roberts interviewing Capital in the Twenty-First Century author Thomas Piketty; I simply couldn’t understand the guest due to his French accent (or my American ears). Thankfully, the program is transcripted, and it makes for a fascinating read. The Libertarian host and his politically opposed guest go at it in an intelligent way on all matters of wealth creation and distribution.

One argument that Roberts makes always galls me because I think it’s intellectually dishonest: He says that really innovative people (e.g., Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) deserve the huge money they make, implying that most of the wealth in the country is concentrated with such people. That’s not so. They’re outliers, extreme exceptions being raised to argue a rule.

There are also the Carly Fiorinas of the world, who run formerly great companies like Hewlett-Packard into the ground and make a soft landing with a ginormous golden parachute just before thousands of workers are laid off. If you want to say she’s equally an outlier, feel free, but the majority of CEOs in the U.S. aren’t great innovators. They’re stewards being compensated like innovators, collecting generous “royalties” on someone else’s ideas.

One excerpt from the show on this topic:

“Russ Roberts:

I’m just trying to get at the mechanics, because I think it matters a lot for why inequality has risen. So, for example, if somebody has gotten wealthy because they’ve been able to be bailed out using my tax dollars, then I would resent that. But if somebody is wealthy because they’ve created something marvelous, then Idon’t resent it. And my argument is that when we look at the Forbes 400, or the top 1%, many of the people in their, their incomes, their wealth has risen at a greater rate than the economy as a whole not because they are exploiting people, not because of corporate governance, but because of an increase in globalization that allows people to capture–make more people happy. Make more people–provide more value. My favorite example is sports. Lionel Messi makes about 3 times–the great soccer player, the great footballer, makes about 3 times what Pele made in his best earning years, 40 years ago. That’s not because Messi is a better soccer player. He’s not. Pele, I think, is probably a better soccer player. But Messi reaches more people, because of the Internet, because of technology and globalization. You can still argue that he doesn’t need $65 million a year and you should tax him at high tax rates. But I think as economists we should be careful about what the causal mechanism is. It matters a lot.

Thomas Piketty:

Oh, yes, yes, yes. But this is why my book is long, because I talk a lot about this mechanism. And I talk a lot about the entrepreneur, and the reason there is a lot of entrepreneurial wealth around, but my point is certainly not to deny this. My point is twofold. First, even if it was 100% entrepreneurial wealth, you don’t want to have the top growing 4 times faster than the average, even if it was complete mobility from one year to the other, you know, it cannot continue forever, otherwise the share of middle class in national wealth goes to 0% and you know, 0% is really very small. So that would be too much. And point number 2, is that when you actually look at the dynamics of top wealth holders, you know it’s really a mixture of, you know, you have entrepreneurs but you also have sons of entrepreneurs; you also have ex-entrepreneurs who don’t work any more but their wealth is rising as fast and sometimes faster than when they were actually working. You have–it’s a very complicated dynamics. And also be careful actually with Forbes’s ranking, which probably are even underestimating the rise of top wealth holders and you know, there are a lot of problems counting for inherited diversified portfolios. It’s a lot easier to spot people who have created their own company and who actually want to be in the ranking because usually they are quite proud of it, and maybe rightly so, than to spot the people, you know, who just inherited from the wealth. And so I think this data source is very biased in the direction of entrepreneurial wealth. But even if you take it as perfect data you will see that you have a lot of inherited wealth. You know, look: I give this example in the book, which is quite striking. The richest person in France and actually one of the richest in Europe, is Liliane Bettencourt. Actually, her father was a great entrepreneur. Eugene Schueller founded L’Oreal, number 1 cosmetics in the world, with lots of fancy products to have nice hair; this is very useful, this has improved the world welfare by a lot.

Russ Roberts: 

Pleasant. It’s nice.

Thomas Piketty:

The only problem is that Eugene Schueller created L’Oreal in 1909. And he died in the 1950s, and you know, she has never worked. What’s interesting is that her fortune, between the [?], between 1990 and 2010, has increased exactly as much as the one of Bill Gates. She has gone from $5 to $30 billion, when Bill Gates has gone from like $10 to $60. It’sexactly in the same proportion. And you know, in a way, this is sad. Because of course we would all love Bill Gates’ wealth to increase faster than that of Liliane. Look, why would I–I’m not trying to–I’m just trying to look at the data. And when you look at the data, you would see that the dynamics of wealth that you mention are not only about entrepreneurs and merit, and it’s always a complicated mixture. You have oligarchs who are seated on a big pile of oil, which you know, I don’t know how much of it is their labor and talent but some of it is certainly direct appropriation. And once they are seated on this pile of wealth, the rate of return that they are getting by paying tons of people to make the right investment with their portfolio can be quite impressive. So I think we need to look at these dynamics in an open manner. And when Warren Buffet says, I should not be paying less tax than my secretary, I think he has a valid point. And I think the issue, the idea that we are going to solve this problem only by letting these people decide how much they want to give individually is a bit naive. I believe a lot in charitable giving, but I think we also need collective rules and laws in order to determine how each one of us is contributing to tax revenue and the common good.

Russ Roberts:

Well, the share contributed by the wealthy in the United States is relatively high. You could argue it should be higher. As you would point out, I don’t really have a model to know what that would be. But real question for me is the size of government. If there’s a reason for it to be larger, if money can be spent better by the government, that would be one thing. And again, the other question is what should be the ideal distribution of the tax burden.”

Tags: ,

Is it terrible if humans become extinct provided another species replaces us, whether it’s a carbon- or silicon-based life-form? Well, sucks for me and for you magpies as well, but it’s not nearly as bad as nothingness if we’re ranking such things. From Neil Levy at Practical Ethics:

“I think that reflecting on the end of humanity gives some support to views according to which it is not death itself that matters; rather it is the cessation of some kind of ongoing project. Compare two different scenarios in which humanity comes to an end. In scenario 1, humanity comes to an end in 300 years time when a large asteroid collides with the Earth, causing immediate devastation and a long winter in which the remnants of humanity die off. In scenario 2, humanity comes to an end because we encounter and interbreed with space-faring aliens. I think it is clear that scenario 2 is far preferable to scenario 1, and not just because scenario 1 involves suffering (indeed, if we remove the suffering from scenario 1 – the asteroid somehow triggers instant and painless death – 2 remains far preferable to 1). That suggests that what matters for us is not whether humanity comes to an end, but whether our current projects are in vain. If everything we strive for makes no difference, some kind of meaninglessness seems to threaten, but if our projects continue then they might matter beyond their more immediate effects.”

Tags:

Larry Ellison is out at Oracle, but he intends to never quit Lanai, the Hawaiian island the multibillionaire purchased for relative pocket change ($300 million) in 2012. It was a takeover with no hostility, as the locals loved Larry. The place has a peculiar history, having, in its pre-Ellison incarnations, been passed from faux Mormons to the Dole pineapple company to another billionaire benefactor, eventually landing in a state of disrepair during the aughts. Ellison is in the process of remaking it into a totally green haven with massive environmentally friendly development, but his control over the potential paradise and its economy is eye-popping, even if many of the inhabitants welcome the ambitious, top-down transformation. From an article about the acquisition by Jon Mooallem of New York Times Magazine:

“Ninety seven percent of Lanai may be a lot of Lanai, but it’s a tiny part of Ellison’s overall empire. Ellison, who stepped down as C.E.O. of Oracle on Sept. 18, is estimated to be worth $46 billion. He made an estimated $78.4 million last year, or about $38,000 an hour. He owns a tremendous amount of stuff — cars, boats, real estate, Japanese antiquities, the BPN Paribas Open tennis tournament, an America’s Cup sailing team, one of Bono’s guitars — and has a reputation for intensity and excess. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that when Ellison has played basketball on the courts on his yachts, he has positioned ‘someone in a powerboat following the yacht to retrieve balls that go overboard.’ One biographer called him ‘a modern-day Genghis Khan.’

At a public meeting on Lanai last year, an Ellison representative explained that his boss wasn’t drawn to the island by the potential for profits but by the potential for a great accomplishment — the satisfaction one day of having made the place work. For Ellison, it seemed, Lanai was less like an investment than like a classic car, up on blocks in the middle of the Pacific, that he had become obsessed with restoring. He wants to transform it into a premier tourist destination and what he has called ‘the first economically viable, 100 percent green community': an innovative, self-sufficient dreamscape of renewable energy, electric cars and sustainable agriculture.

Ellison has explained that Lanai feels to him like ‘this really cool 21st-century engineering project’ — and so far, his approach, which seems steeped in the ethos of Silicon Valley, has boiled down to rooting out the many inefficiencies of daily life on Lanai and replacing them with a single, elegantly designed system. It’s the sort of sweeping challenge that engineering types get giddy over: a full-scale model. Of course, there are actual people living inside Ellison’s engineering project — a community being hit by an unimaginable wave of wealth. But unlike all the more familiar versions of that story, Lanai isn’t being remade by some vague socioeconomic energy you can only gesture at with words like ‘techies’ or ‘hipsters’ or ‘Wall Street’ but by one guy, whose name everyone knows, in a room somewhere, whiteboarding out the whole project.

[Documentarian Henry] Jolicoeur seemed to understand the precariousness that power imbalance created: the staggering responsibility, the incomprehensible control.”

Tags: ,

The line between news and advertising was never drawn in pen though we might like to believe so in the fuzziness of retrospect, but there’s no doubt in these post-print times that there’s been a major assault on that demarcation. And that’s a heartbreaker, one of the clearest losses in a wave of progress. The opening of Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson’s Financial Times piece, “The Invasion of Corporate News“:

“A population of 100,000 is no longer a guarantee that a city like Richmond, California can sustain a thriving daily paper. Readers have drifted from the tactile pleasures of print to the digital gratification of their smartphone screens, and advertising revenues have drifted with them. Titles that once served up debates from City Hall, news of school teams’ triumphs and classified ads for outgrown bikes have stopped the presses for good.

Last January, however, a site called the Richmond Standard launched, promising ‘a community-driven daily news source dedicated to shining a light on the positive things that are going on in the community,’ and giving everyone from athletes to entrepreneurs the recognition they deserve. Since then, it has recorded the ‘quick-thinking teen’ commended by California’s governor for saving a woman from overdosing; the ‘incredible strength’ of the 5ft 6in high-school freshman who can bench-press ‘a whopping 295lbs'; and councilman Tom Butt’s warning about the costs of vacating a blighted public housing project.

The Richmond Standard is one of the more polished sites to emerge in the age of hyper-local digital news brands such as Patch and DNAinfo.com. That may be because it is run and funded by Chevron, the $240bn oil group which owns the Richmond refinery that in August 2012 caught fire, spewing plumes of black smoke over the city and sending more than 15,000 residents to hospital for medical help.”

Tags:

Anthropologist Cadell Last thinks we’re on the cusp of a major evolutionary change, one in which humans would be radically different by 2050. I think his ideas are sound but his math far too aggressive. From Christina Sterbenz at Business Insider:

“Humans already dedicate the most time and energy toward nurturing offspring of any primate species, and this pattern is becoming only more extreme.

‘Human life history throughout our species evolution can be thought of as one long trend towards delayed sexual maturation and biological reproduction (i.e., from ‘living fast and dying young’ to ‘living slow and dying old’),’ Last writes.

While physical needs fueled previous evolutionary changes, cultural and technological innovations will drive the next shift, which has been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution.

Simply said, humans need more time to develop to take advantage of our complex world.

Considering recent advancements like in-vitro fertilization, egg-freezing, and even adoption, the mechanics of biological reproduction have radically changed. ‘The biological clock isn’t going to be around forever,’ Last says — or at least, people can turn it off or ignore it for a while.

Today, and even more so in the future, the success of individual and collective human life depends on knowledge and economic prosperity. Passing on new and important ideas to the next generation involves a process called cultural reproduction, which redirects time and energy toward cultural activities, as opposed to biological reproduction.”

Tags: ,

Speaking of machines taking over, here’s one final excerpt from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. It comes from one of the best passages, “Of Horses and Men.” The sequence I’m quoting is rather dire, though Bostrom later looks at the more positive side of technology handling labor for us and how extreme wealth disparity could be remedied. The excerpt:

“With cheaply copyable labor, market wages fall. The only place where humans would remain competitive may be where customers have a basic preference for work done by humans. Today, goods that have been handcrafted or produced by indigenous people sometimes command a price premium. Future consumers might similarly prefer human-made goods and human athletes, human artists, human lovers, and human leaders to functionally indistinguishable or superior artificial counterparts. It is unclear, however, just how widespread such preferences would be. If machine-made alternatives were sufficiently superior, perhaps they would be more highly prized.

One parameter that might be relevant to consumer choice is the inner life of the worker providing a service or product. A concert audience, for instance, might like to know that the performer is consciously experiencing the music and the venue. Absent phenomenal experience, the musician could be regarded as merely a high-powered jukebox, albeit one capable of creating the three-dimensional appearance of a performer interacting naturally with the crowd. Machines might then be designed to instantiate the same kinds of mental states that would be present in a human performing the same task. Even with perfect replication of subjective experiences, however, some people might simply prefer organic work. Such preferences could also have ideological or religious roots. Just as many Muslims and Jews shun food prepared in ways they classify as haram or treif, so there might be groups in the future that eschew products whose manufacture involved unsanctioned use of machine intelligence.

What hinges on this? To the extent that cheap machine labor can substitute for human labor, human jobs may disappear. Fears about automation and job loss are of course not new. Concerns about technological unemployment have surfaced periodically, at least since the Industrial Revolution; and quite a few professions have in fact gone the way of the English weavers and textile artisans who in the early nineteenth century united under the banner of the folkloric ‘General Ludd’ to fight against the introduction of mechanized looms. Nevertheless, although machinery and technology have been substitutes for many particular types of human labor, physical technology has on the whole been a complement to labor. Average human wages around the world have been on a long-term upward trend, in large part because of such complementarities. Yet what starts out as a complement to labor can at a later stage become a substitute for labor. Horses were initially complemented by carriages and ploughs, which greatly increased the horse’s productivity. Later, horses were substituted for by automobiles and tractors. These later innovations reduced the demand for equine labor and led to a population collapse. Could a similar fate befall the human species?

The parallel to the story of the horse can be drawn out further if we ask why it is that there are still horses around. One reason is that there are still a few niches in which horses have functional advantages; for example, police work. But the main reason is that humans happen to have peculiar preferences for the services that horses can provide, including recreational horseback riding and racing. These preferences can be compared to the preferences we hypothesized some humans might have in the future, that certain goods and services be made by human hand. Although suggestive, this analogy is, however, inexact, since there is still no complete functional substitute for horses. If there were inexpensive mechanical devices that ran on hay and had exactly the same shape, feel, smell, and behavior as biological horses — perhaps even the same conscious experiences — then demand for biological horses would probably decline further.

With a sufficient reduction in the demand for human labor, wages would fall below the human subsistence level. The potential downside for human workers is therefore extreme: not merely wage cuts, demotions, or the need for retraining, but starvation and death. When horses became obsolete as a source of moveable power, many were sold off to meatpackers to be processed into dog food, bone meal, leather, and glue. These animals had no alternative employment through which to earn their keep. In the United States, there were about 26 million horses in 1915. By the early 1950s, 2 million remained.”

Tags:

Rebecca Solnit, a very smart writer I know best for this book, has penned “The Wheel Turns, the Boat Rocks, the Sea Rises,” a TomDispatch piece that calls for the ultimate disruption: a humanity-saving mass movement against the forces enriched by the levers of climate change. Solnit suggests that as the Berlin Wall came down without warning, so too can entrenched interests supporting fossil fuels. The economic ramifications are certainly more complex, but it’s already late and can’t get too much later. The opening:

“There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system.  They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

 As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inchessince 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels.  The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know.  In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.

The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.”

 

Tags:

Even by the oft-eccentric standards of your garden-variety cyberneticist, Warren Sturgis McCulloch was something of an outlier. Known for his purported diet of cigarettes, whiskey and ice cream, the MIT genius was the proud father of 17 adopted children. More than six decades ago he was extrapolating the power of then-rudimentary machines, concerned that eventually AI might rule humankind, a topic of much concern in these increasingly automated times. The below article from the September 22, 1948 Brooklyn Daily Eagle records his clarion call about the future.

_______________________

In 1969, the year before McCulloch died, his opinions on the Singularity had changed somewhat.

Tags:

A little more (see here) about Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, this time from Ben Shephard of the Guardian:

“The philosophy that emerges, however, is not what you’d necessarily expect from an Israeli with a background in medieval military history. History, for Harari, is largely made up of accidents; and his real theme is the price that the planet and its other inhabitants have paid for humankind’s triumphant progress. There are indicators of this in an elegiac passage on the destruction of the megafauna of Australasia and South America and a rapturous account of the life of Buddha, but it is only when he reaches the modern era that Harari brings his own views to the fore. He sees modern agriculture’s treatment of animals as one of the worst crimes in history, doubts whether our extraordinary material advances have made us any happier than we were in the past, and regards modern capitalism as an ugly prison. What is more, current developments in biology may soon lead to the replacement of H sapiens by completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities.

It takes broad brushstrokes to cover a vast canvas and, inevitably, some of the paintwork is a little rough. Occasionally Harari makes it all too simple and sounds like a primary school teacher being cute. He defers too much to current orthodoxies – the discussion of patriarchy resists the logic of its own arguments for fear of affronting feminists – and reflects current academic fashion by, for example, hugely overstating the role of science in European colonialism. Napoleon may have taken 165 scholars with him when he invaded Egypt but the scramble for Africa later in the century was more about machine guns, searchlights and metallurgy.

That said, Sapiens is one of those rare books that lives up to the publisher’s blurb. It really is thrilling and breath-taking; it actually does question our basic narrative of the world.”

Tags: ,

From a report by Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times about the recent debate between David Graeber and Peter Thiel, two big-picture thinkers who could not be more disparate politically:

“If he and Mr. Graeber didn’t plan the future on Friday, they did agree that it needed to be radically different from the present. Mr. Graeber kicked things off with an extemporaneous summary of his essay ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,’ which is included in the new Baffler anthology No Future for You. (As of this writing, the book was lagging about 297,000 spots behind Mr. Thiel’s on Amazon.)

Once upon a time, he said, when people imagined the future, they imagined flying cars, teleportation devices and robots who would free them from the need to work. But strangely, none of these things came to pass.

‘What happened to the second half of the 20th century?’ Mr. Graeber asked. His answer is that it was deliberately short-circuited by a ‘ruling-class freak-out,’ as ‘all this space-age stuff was seen as a threat to social control.’

Mr. Thiel took the microphone and made a similar argument, citing the slogan of his venture capital firm, the Founders Fund: ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.’

If he didn’t blame any ruling-class freakout, he did see a loss of nerve and sclerotic bureaucracies. He cited the anarchist slogan ‘Act as if you are already free,’ and praised initiatives like SpaceX, the private space technology company started by his fellow PayPal founder, Elon Musk.

‘We’re not going to get to Mars by having endless debates,’ he said. ‘We’re going to get to Mars by trying to get to Mars.'”

Tags: , ,

The robot-aided piloting of airplanes has been around longer than many people may realize. And soon it will be in cars as well. For the most part, that’s a great thing. Plane crashes in U.S. commercial airliners aren’t exactly a thing of the past, but almost, as the autonomous function combined with knowledge of wind shears has reduced dangers markedly. Roboplanes also wrestled the controls from often-autocratic lead pilots, whose refusal to listen to dissent led to many air crashes.

But there’s a new peril attendant to autonomous steering: As Nicholas Carr outlined last year, pilots are no longer as practiced should a technological glitch happen (and they will occur, if rarely).

The question is: Since the big-picture of safety has been greatly improved in aviation, how concerned should we be about technology causing some human pilot skills to atrophy? The same question can be applied to robocars and drivers going forward.

From “The Human Factor,” William Langewiesche’s Vanity Fair article about the safety measures that can occasionally making flying unsafe:

“These are generally known as ‘fourth generation’ airplanes; they now constitute nearly half the global fleet. Since their introduction, the accident rate has plummeted to such a degree that some investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board have recently retired early for lack of activity in the field. There is simply no arguing with the success of the automation. The designers behind it are among the greatest unheralded heroes of our time. Still, accidents continue to happen, and many of them are now caused by confusion in the interface between the pilot and a semi-robotic machine. Specialists have sounded the warnings about this for years: automation complexity comes with side effects that are often unintended. One of the cautionary voices was that of a beloved engineer named Earl Wiener, recently deceased, who taught at the University of Miami. Wiener is known for ‘Wiener’s Laws,’ a short list that he wrote in the 1980s. Among them:

  • Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.
  • Exotic devices create exotic problems.
  • Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.
  • Invention is the mother of necessity.
  • Some problems have no solution.
  • It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
  • Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.
  • You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful about what you put into a digital flight-guidance system (Wiener).

Wiener pointed out that the effect of automation is to reduce the cockpit workload when the workload is low and to increase it when the workload is high. Nadine Sarter, an industrial engineer at the University of Michigan, and one of the pre-eminent researchers in the field, made the same point to me in a different way: ‘Look, as automation level goes up, the help provided goes up, workload is lowered, and all the expected benefits are achieved. But then if the automation in some way fails, there is a significant price to pay. We need to think about whether there is a level where you get considerable benefits from the automation but if something goes wrong the pilot can still handle it.’

Sarter has been questioning this for years and recently participated in a major F.A.A. study of automation usage, released in the fall of 2013, that came to similar conclusions. The problem is that beneath the surface simplicity of glass cockpits, and the ease of fly-by-wire control, the designs are in fact bewilderingly baroque—all the more so because most functions lie beyond view. Pilots can get confused to an extent they never would have in more basic airplanes. When I mentioned the inherent complexity to Delmar Fadden, a former chief of cockpit technology at Boeing, he emphatically denied that it posed a problem, as did the engineers I spoke to at Airbus. Airplane manufacturers cannot admit to serious issues with their machines, because of the liability involved, but I did not doubt their sincerity. Fadden did say that once capabilities are added to an aircraft system, particularly to the flight-management computer, because of certification requirements they become impossibly expensive to remove. And yes, if neither removed nor used, they lurk in the depths unseen. But that was as far as he would go.”

Tags: , , , ,

Oy gevalt, one of almost any of us is enough. But there’s a chance we could eventually have a digital doppelganger that guides our behavior the way search engines predict what we seek. The Other could use our previously stated “likes” and information we may not have culled on our own. Seems useful, and, perhaps, made for mayhem. It’s a nudge, it’s a shove. The opening of John Smart’s “The Cybertwin: Your Emerging Digital Self“:

“Once we have reasonably good conversational interfaces and semantic maps, circa 2015-2020 in my guesstimation, a major new developments we can expect at the same time are ‘CyberTwins’ (called ‘Twins’ hereafter), intelligent assistants, agents, avatars, butlers, and ‘techretarys’ that will use these interfaces and maps to construct crude models of their user’s preferences and values. Twins will use as input user writings and archived email, realtime wearable smartphones (lifelogs), and verbal feedback, to allow increasingly intelligent and productive guidance of the user’s purchases, learning, communication, feedback, and even voting activities, offloading a lot of the information overload and cognitive overhead of managing modern society from biohumans to their twin. As I see it, the intelligence amplification that results from our having twins will begin a major revolution in protecting and furthering the user’s interests, leading us to a much more democratic society.

Twins will start out primitive, but they will quickly get good at filtering digital information streams for the user, answering simple questions, managing simple productivity tasks, and offering simple advice. Many people, walking in a supermarket or driving on the street, will reach past one brand of product, or drive past one type of store to another, guided there verbally or visually by their twin, who is continually using public data, user history, and algorithms to seek a better statistical match with their expressed values and preferences.”

Tags:

On the day after the People’s Climate March, I think it’s clear that though we’ve yet to reach a tipping point in terms of green-energy use, hearts and minds have been won. Wallets and bank balances are soon to follow, as alternative power is going to keep dropping in price the way fossil fuels never could. From Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post:

“In the 1980s, leading consultants were skeptical about cellular phones.  McKinsey & Company noted that the handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant.  It predicted that in 20 years the total market size would be about 900,000 units, and advised AT&T to pull out.  McKinsey was wrong, of course.  There were more than 100 million cellular phones in use 2000; there are billions now.  Costs have fallen so far that even the poor — all over world — can afford a cellular phone.

The experts are saying the same about solar energy now.  They note that after decades of development, solar power hardly supplies 1 percent of the world’s energy needs.  They say that solar is inefficient, too expensive to install, and unreliable, and will fail without government subsidies.  They too are wrong.  Solar will be as ubiquitous as cellular phones are.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years — as costs have been dropping. He says solar energy is only six doublings — or less than 14 years — away from meeting 100 percent of today’s energy needs. Energy usage will keep increasing, so this is a moving target.  But, by Kurzweil’s estimates, inexpensive renewable sources will provide more energy than the world needs in less than 20 years.  Even then, we will be using only one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth.”

______________________________

1976: “It may hold the solution to the energy problem.”

Tags:

Charity Johnson was interested in second chances, and so were her many mothers. A 34-year-old woman recently arrested for impersonating a tenth-grader in Texas, the pretend teen desired only to be a child whose love could not be refused by maternal figures, whose embrace could never be turned away. A daughter of abuse and neglect, she would not be cheated of what she never had and always wanted.

She’s not the first person to crave an infinite loop of adolescence–a period most of us were happy to escape–and she won’t be the last. Adults stuck in a particular time in childhood tend to have suffered a serious, unresolved wound at that age. But why does this extreme and specific type of need exist in some who had awful upbringings but not in others? And why isn’t this yearning fulfilled during the initial masquerade? Why is it serial, the hunger never sated? From Katie J.M. Baker at Buzzfeed:

“Longview, population 81,000, is a charmless city with nothing to do but hang out at churches and chain restaurants. But Charity seemed content. After school, she worked and spent time with her classmates and ‘mom,’ Tamica Lincoln, a 30-year-old McDonald’s breakfast manager whom Charity moved in with in the spring. She posted Instagram photos of friendship bracelets, cookies ‘split with friends,’ and smiling teenage boys on a spring break trip to a nearby Christian university. She loved making her own Instagram ‘art': selfies juxtaposed with sayings like ‘Baby I’m a star’ and ‘Honeybee, love me.’ Earlier this year, she posted a photo that read ‘My mommy was my best friend…’

‘Love ur mom with your all cuz n a split second u cld lose her..’ she wrote below the picture.

Charity has loved and lost so many ‘moms’ that it’s hard to keep track. Some of them reached out to Tamica when Charity’s mugshot made international headlines in May. That’s when Charity was arrested for intentionally giving false information to a police officer who received a tip that she was much older than her hair bows implied. Soon, outlets from Good Morning America to the Daily Mail were calling Charity’s devastated schoolmates (they still miss her, according to a recent ABC News follow-up) and bewildered 23-year-old boyfriend (he said he thought she was 18).

For years, Charity had targeted devout, maternal types with regrets and a weakness for lost, young souls. Women all over Texas, as well as North Carolina, New Jersey, and Maryland, said they had combed Charity’s hair, helped her with her homework, and given her a bed to sleep in. Up until her arrest, Charity kept in close contact with her collection of online ‘mothers,’ from a housekeeper in Nevada to a pastor in Ohio, whom she found through Facebook searches (‘pastor’ + ‘teen girls’ + ‘hope’).

Most of them cut ties with Charity after she was exposed as a 34-year-old living what Time called ‘Never Been Kissed IRL.’ (Time misreported her as being 31 at the time.) But Charity made an impact in Longview, where many of the friends, mentors, and makeshift family members she met are still mourning her loss. They haven’t seen or talked to Charity since she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor (for failing to identify herself to a police officer) after 29 days in jail and left town, but they don’t feel betrayed. Instead, they asked me for her phone number in hopes they could convince her to come back. They’re all deeply religious Christians who grew up in broken homes or even spent time on the streets before they were ‘saved.’ They wanted, and still want, to help Charity follow in their footsteps and succeed as an adult.”

Tags: ,

My preference would be to live forever–and I don’t mean metaphorically–but my (somewhat) more realistic goal is to reach 100. Of course, just like you and everyone you know, I could go in the next minute. I just don’t want to.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel wants to. Not right now, but soon, before he believes aging becomes nasty and burdensome for him and his loved ones. I think he’s giving short shrift to gerontological advances, but to each his own. The opening of his latest Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75“:

“Seventy-five.

That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

This preference drives my daughters crazy. It drives my brothers crazy. My loving friends think I am crazy. They think that I can’t mean what I say; that I haven’t thought clearly about this, because there is so much in the world to see and do. To convince me of my errors, they enumerate the myriad people I know who are over 75 and doing quite well. They are certain that as I get closer to 75, I will push the desired age back to 80, then 85, maybe even 90.

I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy.”

Tags:

The Red Sox brass’ attempts at rewiring their batters’ brains didn’t pay dividends during the team’s woeful 2014 season, but we’re just at the beginning of cognitive experimentation. PEDs will be seen as crude rudiments compared to what will eventually be permitted on and off the field of play. From Brian Costa at the Wall Street Journal:

“Take a peek inside the frazzled mind of a major-league hitter these days. It isn’t a pretty sight.

Pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Batters are striking out more often than ever. And their judgment is getting shakier: Hitters are chasing more pitches outside the strike zone.

It is enough to make some teams wonder: What if we could just rewire hitters’ brains to react to pitches better? As it turns out, at least three major-league teams are engaged in a covert science experiment to find out.

Several years ago, the Boston Red Sox began working with a Massachusetts neuroscience company called NeuroScouting. The objective was to develop software that could improve hitters’ ability to recognize pitch types and decide, with greater speed and accuracy, whether they should swing. The result was a series of no-frills videogames that became a required part of hitters’ pregame routines in the minor leagues.”

Tags:

In a Financial Times essay, economist Tim Harford finds a link no one else was looking for: the scorched-earth strategies which drive both Amazon and contemporary Russia. An excerpt:

“Brad Stone’s excellent book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, paints Amazon’s founder to be a visionary entrepreneur, dedicated to serving his customers. But it also reports that Bezos was willing to take big losses in the hope of weakening competitors. Zappos, the much-loved online shoe retailer, faced competition from an Amazon subsidiary that first offered free shipping and then started paying customers $5 for every pair of shoes they ordered. Quidsi, which ran Diapers.com, was met with a price war from “Amazon Mom.” Industry insiders told Stone that Amazon was losing $1m a day just selling nappies. Both Zappos and Quidsi ended up being bought out by Amazon.

When the weapons of war are low prices, consumers benefit at first. But the long term looks worrying: a future in which nobody dares to compete with Amazon. Apple is a striking contrast: the company’s refusal to compete aggressively on price makes it hugely profitable but has also attracted a swarm of competitors.

Consider a grimmer parallel. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the chain store. Georgia, Ukraine and many other former Soviet states or satellites must consider whether to seek ties with the west. In each case Putin must decide whether to accommodate or open costly hostilities. The conflict in Ukraine has been disastrous for Russian interests in the short run but it may have bolstered Putin’s personal position. And if his strategy convinces the world that Putin will never share prosperity, his belligerence may yet pay off.

I feel a little guilty comparing Bezos and Putin. My only regret about Bezos’s Amazon is that there aren’t three other companies just like it. I do not feel the same about Putin’s Russia.”

 

Tags: , , ,

Photographs aren’t life or memory, but in a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant. Like the tree’s lonely fall in the forest, the event unrecorded has less currency. Without capture, does the moment even exist anymore? On some levels, no. From “We Are a Camera,” Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker piece about living in the GoPro flow:

“For two days in the Idaho mountains, [mountain biker Aaron] Chase’s cameras had been rolling virtually non-stop. Now, with his companions lagging behind, he started down the trail, which descended steeply into an alpine meadow. As he accelerated, he noticed, to his left, an elk galloping toward him from the ridge. He glanced at the trail, looked again to his left, and saw a herd, maybe thirty elk, running at full tilt alongside his bike, like a pod of dolphins chasing a boat. After a moment, they rumbled past him and crossed the trail, neither he nor the elk slowing, dust kicking up and glowing in the early-evening sun, amid a thundering of hooves. It was a magical sight. The light was perfect. And, as usual, Chase was wearing two GoPros. Here was his money shot—the stuff of TV ads and real bucks.

Trouble was, neither camera was rolling. What with his headache and the ample footage of the past days, he’d thought to hell with it, and had neglected, just this once, to turn his GoPros on. Now there was no point in riding with the elk. He slowed up and let them pass. ‘Idiot,’ he said to himself. ‘There goes my commercial.’

Once the herd was gone, it was as though it’d never been there at all—Sasquatch, E.T., yeti. Pics or it didn’t happen. Still, one doesn’t often find oneself swept up in a stampede of wild animals. Might as well hope to wingsuit through a triple rainbow. So you’d think that, cameras or not, he’d remember the moment with some fondness. But no. ‘It was hell,’ Chase says now.

When the agony of missing the shot trumps the joy of the experience worth shooting, the adventure athlete (climber, surfer, extreme skier) reveals himself to be something else: a filmmaker, a brand, a vessel for the creation of content. He used to just do the thing—plan the killer trip or trick and then complete it, with panache. Maybe a photographer or film crew tagged along, and afterward there’d be a slide show at community centers and high-school gyms, or an article in a magazine. Now the purpose of the trip or trick is the record of it. Life is footage.”

Tags: ,

Yahoo! doesn’t know what it wants to be, while Google wants to be everything. It’s clear Larry Page would like to do radical experiments on the micro scale, but he really dreams of the macro, hoping to establish a next-wave Google to tackle the world’s non-virtual problems. From Vlad Savov at The Verge:

“As if self-driving carsballoon-carried internet, or the eradication of death weren’t ambitious enough projects, Google CEO Larry Page has apparently been working behind the scenes to set up even bolder tasks for his company. The Information reports that Page started up a Google 2.0 project inside the company a year ago to look at the big challenges facing humanity and the ways Google can overcome them. Among the grand-scale plans discussed were Page’s desire to build a more efficient airport as well as a model city. To progress these ideas to fruition, the Google chief has also apparently proposed a second research and development lab, called Google Y, to focus on even longer-term programs that the current Google X, which looks to support future technology and is headed up by his close ally Sergey Brin.”

Tags: ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »