Science/Tech

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

I wish everyone writing about technology could turn out prose as sparkling and lucid as Nicholas Carr. In a New York Times opinion piece, he stresses that while people are flawed, so are computers, and our silicon counterparts thus far lack the dexterity we possess to react to the unforeseen. He suggests humans and machines permanently remain a team, allowing us to benefit from the best of both.

I think that’s the immediate future, but I still believe market forces will ultimately cede to robots anything they can do as well (or nearly as well) as humans. And I’m curious as to the effects of Deep Learning on the impromptu responses of machinery.

From Carr:

While our flaws loom large in our thoughts, we view computers as infallible. Their scripted consistency presents an ideal of perfection far removed from our own clumsiness. What we forget is that our machines are built by our own hands. When we transfer work to a machine, we don’t eliminate human agency and its potential for error. We transfer that agency into the machine’s workings, where it lies concealed until something goes awry.
 
Computers break down. They have bugs. They get hacked. And when let loose in the world, they face situations that their programmers didn’t prepare them for. They work perfectly until they don’t.
 
Many disasters blamed on human error actually involve chains of events that are initiated or aggravated by technological failures. Consider the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 as it flew from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The plane’s airspeed sensors iced over. Without the velocity data, the autopilot couldn’t perform its calculations. It shut down, abruptly shifting control to the pilots. Investigators later found that the aviators appeared to be taken by surprise in a stressful situation and made mistakes. The plane, with 228 passengers, plunged into the Atlantic.

The crash was a tragic example of what scholars call the automation paradox. Software designed to eliminate human error sometimes makes human error more likely. When a computer takes over a job, the workers are left with little to do. Their attention drifts. Their skills, lacking exercise, atrophy. Then, when the computer fails, the humans flounder.

Tags:

One question asked of Bernie Sanders in his AMA yesterday that I failed to include was a query about technological unemployment. He gets it, even if some of the potential jobs for people he mentioned will be disrupted by robotics soon enough. Some already are. The exchange:

Question:

What do you think will have to be done regarding massive unemployment due to automation permanently killing jobs with no fault on the people losing these jobs?

Bernie Sanders:

Very important question. There is no question but that automation and robotics reduce the number of workers needed to produce products. On the other hand, there is a massive amount of work that needs to be done in this country. Our infrastructure is crumbling and we can create millions of decent-paying jobs rebuilding our roads, bridges, rail system, airports, levees, dams, etc. Further, we have enormous shortages in terms of highly-qualified pre-school educators and teachers. We need more doctors, nurses, dentists and medical personnel if we are going to provide high-quality care to all of our people. But, in direct response to the question, increased productivity should not punish the average worker, which is why we have to move toward universal health care, making higher education available to all, a social safety net which is strong and a tax system which is progressive.•

Tags:

Postmates wants to become the “Uber of goods,” but Uber also wants to fulfill that function, and the “venerable” rideshare company aims to upend the Silicon Valley upstart, founded by German-born entrepreneur Bastian Lehmann, which will deliver an iPad or eye drops to your home or office in under an hour, with the help of non-FT freelancers. The job is very flexible, which is helpful, because you might have time for another job that offers great benefits.

It’s amazing to reflect on services like UrbanFetch or Kozmo, which attempted the same business model during Web 1.0, a time before universally fast downloads, let alone smartphones. The reverse of Miniver Cheevy, they were born too early. Now we have the technology.

From Thomas Schulz’s Spiegel article about the potential Valley unicorn:

Postmates has set itself an ambitious goal — to be the Uber of goods, with a vast network of couriers, linked, like Uber’s drivers, via a sleek app, waiting for users to hit a button on their smartphones and send them forth to pick up anything that money can buy. Like Uber’s drivers, Postmates couriers aren’t employees but “independent contractors.” Anyone with a bike, car, truck, scooter or motorcycle can register and decide exactly when they want to work. …

Game-Changing

Postmates currently takes 70,000 orders a week. Available in 26 major metropolitan areas, the company has raised nearly $60 million in venture capital and presides over the world’s third largest network of couriers, after Uber and Lyft. A few weeks ago, Starbucks announced it would be teaming up with Postmates so that customers can now have their skinny lattes delivered to their door.

The loft premises in a brick building in downtown San Francisco, where the company has been headquartered for the last eight months, are already getting too small. A total of 198 staff members — many of whom boast IT degrees from Ivy League universities — sit at back-to-back computers crammed into two floors. Lunch is eaten al desko.

The start-up’s rise has been so meteoric that many in Silicon Valley thought Postmates could be the next addition to the Unicorn List — one of those rare companies that prove to be game-changers or build whole new markets, such as Airbnb and Uber.•

Tags: ,

While the 73-year-old Socialist Congressperson Bernie Sanders has to pretend he can win the Presidency, he probably realizes, unlike, say, Ted Cruz, that he has no real shot at victory. What points does he feel his protest candidacy is particularly positioned to make?

An Ask Me Anything at Reddit he just conducted reveals a number of priorities, including the issue of surveillance. It’s good Sanders mentions that the private sector, as much as government, is hopeful of turning society into an Orwellian state, though I don’t see any way such a reach is kept in check, regardless of law. The tools will almost definitely stay ahead of legislation, obliterate it. I’m more hopeful about remedying income inequality and electoral reform.

There are also questions about space-exploration funding and universal basic income. A few exchanges below.

___________________________

Question:

As the longest serving independent in congress, what are your thoughts about electoral reform in the United States?

Bernie Sanders:

The major issue in terms of our electoral system is truly campaign finance reform. Right now, we are at a moment in history where the Koch brothers and other billionaires are in the process of buying politicians and elections. We need to overturn Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. We need to pass disclosure legislation. We need to move toward public funding of elections. We also have got to see an increased federal role in the outrageous gerrymandering that Republican states have created and in voter suppression. These are the main issues that I’ll be tackling in the coming months.

___________________________

Question:

Do you think that wiretapping of American citizens is necessary for security of America?

Bernie Sanders:

I voted against the USA Patriot Act and voted against reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act. Obviously, terrorism is a serious threat to this country and we must do everything that we can to prevent attacks here and around the world. I believe strongly that we can protect our people without undermining our constitutional rights and I worry very very much about the huge attacks on privacy that we have seen in recent years — both from the government and from the private sector. I worry that we are moving toward an Orwellian society and this is something I will oppose as vigorously as I can.

___________________________

Question:

If you win in 2016, what will your first dispositions be?

Bernie Sanders:

My first effort would be to rally the American people to demand that Congress pass a progressive agenda which reverses the decline of our middle class. We have got to create millions of decent-paying jobs rebuilding our infrastructure, we’ve got to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, we’ve got to overturn this disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision and we have to transform our energy system in order to protect us from climate change. If the American people are politically active and demand that Congress act on their behalf, we can accomplish those goals and much more.

___________________________

Question:

According to Votesmart.org in:

  • 2012: you voted to decrease spending on space exploration
  • 2000: you voted to decrease funding to NASA
  • 1996: you voted to decrease budget for NASA

What, if anything, has or will convince you to provide more funding to NASA in the future? Numerous breakthroughs in recent years and promising technologies being developed and brought to market have made it obvious that, outer space treaty what it is, the first trillionaires will be made in space. Wouldn’t it be best if the American People were part of that?

Bernie Sanders:

I am supportive of NASA not only because of the excitement of space exploration, but because of all the additional side benefits we receive from research in that area. Sometimes, and frankly I don’t remember all of those votes, one is put in a position of having to make very very difficult choices about whether you vote to provide food for hungry kids or health care for people who have none and other programs. But, in general, I do support increasing funding for NASA.

___________________________

Question:

What is your stance on Universal Basic Income (UBI)? If in favor how do you see the United States progressing towards realizing UBI? If against, what alternatives come to your mind for combating rising inequality and poverty in the United States?

Bernie Sanders:

So long as you have Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, and so long as you have a Congress dominated by big money, I can guarantee you that the discussion about universal basic income is going to go nowhere in a hurry. But, if we can develop a strong grassroots movement which says that every man, woman and child in this country is entitled to a minimum standard of living — is entitled to health care, is entitled to education, is entitled to housing — then we can succeed. We are living in the richest country in the history of the world, yet we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country and millions of people are struggling to put food on the table. It is my absolute conviction that everyone in this country deserves a minimum standard of living and we’ve got to go forward in the fight to make that happen.•

Tags:

Predictions by technologists tend to be optimistic, their timeframes often as aggressive as their ambitions, but there’s no denying the Internet’s relentless attempts to quantify are being visited upon us more and more in the physical realm. Those efforts will only increase, even if it’s anyone’s guess when an “emotion chip” will be realized. We went to the cloud, and now the cloud is coming to us. It will be seamless.

From Neil Howe’s Forbes piece about the potential of a “digital fog”:

Long considered the stuff of science fiction, AI’s great leap forward has been driven by a perfect storm of technological change. First is a growth in capabilities: Rapid advancements in computing power and falling hardware costs have made AI-related computations much cheaper to perform. Second is the advent of Big Data, which has enabled deep-learning algorithms in which the systems themselves learn bottom-up from a vast, fast-expanding universe of digital information.

Tech gurus speculate that the marriage of Big Data, the Internet of Things, and AI will eventually result in “ambient intelligence”—an ever-present digital fog in tune with our behavior and physiological state. Affectiva’s founder, Rana el Kaliouby, predicts in The New Yorker that before long, devices will have an “emotion chip” that functions unseen in the background the way that geolocation does in phones. Verizon has drafted plans for a sensor-laden media console that could scan a room and determine a driver’s license worth of information about its occupants. All these data would then determine the console’s selection of TV advertising: Signs of stress might prompt a commercial for a vacation, while cheery humming could result in more ads with upbeat messages.

What kind of mark will AI ultimately leave on society?•

Tags:

Remember when workers were being nickeled and dimed? Ah, the good old days.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who’s spent much of her journalistic career studying the indignities of the working class, has penned a New York Times review of Martin Ford’s excellent book, Rise of the Robots, an extended diagnosis and concise prescription for the potential mass automation of work. The machines, he argues, are coming for your job, whether your collar is white or blue.

Ford is decidedly in the this-time-it’s-different camp who believe that unlike the the Industrial Revolution, which replaced farm jobs with better ones, this second machine age will not create new positions for people who have their careers disappeared. He also argues that the earlier fear of automation, a twenty-or-so-year period beginning in the late 1940s and cresting in the mid-1960s, wasn’t incorrect, just early.

The author’s argument is supported by academic research of all manner, but it’s a compelling and lucid one deserving of a wide readership. While he addresses the longer term possibility of Strong AI, which would clearly make the situation even more pressing, Ford focuses mostly on the type of Weak AI (non-conscious machines) set to invade every industry from taxi to delivery to law to medicine. In fact, the first inroads have already been made, and they’ve been dazzling. If Moore’s Law holds out a little while longer, the march of the non-wooden soldiers will come at a brisk pace, and the idea of near-universal employment will become an impossibility. No nickels for you, no dimes. What then?

Despite the alarmist topic of the book, Ford is reasoned and cautious, conservative even. Like myself, he argues against the most-quoted Piketty approach to combating income inequality, education, as a panacea. A worthwhile thing, sure, but not a broad answer. Ford asserts that we’ll most likely need to opt for a guaranteed basic income (incentivized to promote work whenever possible) to be funded in part from shifting tax responsibilities from workers to capital. (His feelings on the need for basic income have been shared by disparate thinkers: Andrew McAfee, Charles Murray, Friedrich Hayek, Eric Brynjolfsson, etc.) Easier said than done considering our political climate, but if wealth and productivity increase in the next few decades while employment continually ticks down, Americans at some point will likely not be pacified by bread and Kardashians.

From Ehrenreich:

In the late 20th century, while the blue-collar working class gave way to the forces of globalization and automation, the educated elite looked on with benign condescension. Too bad for those people whose jobs were mindless enough to be taken over by third world teenagers or, more humiliatingly, machines. The solution, pretty much agreed upon across the political spectrum, was education. Americans had to become intellectually nimble enough to keep ahead of the job-destroying trends unleashed by technology, both robotization and the telecommunication systems that make outsourcing possible. Anyone who wanted a spot in the middle class would have to possess a college degree — as well as flexibility, creativity and a continually upgraded skill set.

But, as Martin Ford documents in Rise of the Robots, the job-eating maw of technology now threatens even the nimblest and most expensively educated. Lawyers, radiologists and software designers, among others, have seen their work evaporate to India or China. Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams. Particularly terrifying to me, computer programs can now write clear, publishable articles, and, as Ford reports, Wired magazine quotes an expert’s prediction that within about a decade 90 percent of news articles will be computer-­generated. …

This is both a humbling book and, in the best sense, a humble one. Ford, a software entrepreneur who both understands the technology and has made a thorough study of its economic consequences, never succumbs to the obvious temptation to overdramatize or exaggerate. In fact, he has little to say about one of the most ominous arenas for automation — the military, where not only are pilots being replaced by drones, but robots like the ones that now defuse bombs are being readied for deployment as infantry. Nor does Ford venture much into the spectacular possibilities being opened up by wearable medical devices, which can already monitor just about any kind of biometric data that can be collected in an I.C.U. Human health workers may eventually be cut out of the loop, as tiny devices to sense blood glucose levels, for example, learn how to signal other tiny implanted devices to release insulin.

But Rise of the Robots doesn’t need any more examples; the human consequences of robotization are already upon us, and skillfully chronicled here.•

 

Tags: ,

Futurist and philosopher Melanie Swan has a thought-provoking and well-written Edge essay response to the question, “What do you think about machines that think?” She suggests a cafeteria approach to future intelligence, envisioning, among other things, a world in which humans enhanced cognitively would share terrain with those unenhanced.

I wonder about that. Today’s wealth inequality has caused problems and may lead to more serious ones (especially if Narrow AI is the job killer it appears to be), but that’s nothing compared to what would likely happen if superintelligent people were living aside those of much inferior thinking ability. Homo sapiens had company from several other species of humans at one point not too long ago, but we finished vanquishing them all with the fall of the Neanderthals, and perhaps we didn’t even do it on purpose. The sweep of our progress may have just swept everyone else away. Tremendous disparity in future intelligence may lead to something similar whether we’re talking about an intramural contest among humans, or humans vying with sentient machines, should they develop. The writer believes in “trust-building models for inter-species digital intelligence,” but I’m skeptical.

The opening of Swan’s essay:

Considering machines that think is a nice step forward in the AI debate as it departs from our own human-based concerns, and accords machines otherness in a productive way. It causes us to consider the other entity’s frame of reference. However, even more importantly this questioning suggests a large future possibility space for intelligence. There could be “classic” unenhanced humans, enhanced humans (with nootropics, wearables, brain-computer interfaces), neocortical simulations, uploaded mind files, corporations as digital abstractions, and many forms of generated AI: deep learning meshes, neural networks, machine learning clusters, blockchain-based distributed autonomous organizations, and empathic compassionate machines. We should consider the future world as one of multi-species intelligence.

What we call the human function of “thinking” could be quite different in the variety of possible future implementations of intelligence. The derivation of different species of machine intelligence will necessarily be different than that of humans•

Tags:

Corporations have always sold “happiness,” realizing psychology was key to sales, but they did so with some guesswork involved, hoping that small focus groups were accurate, wishing that you would look at that advertisement in that magazine. They approximated as they preyed upon vanities and weaknesses.

Once the Internet made it possible to quantify eyeballs, there was a shift toward real-time engagement of what was going on inside of minds. Apps are just a further extension of that type of measurement. Corporations don’t want to estimate anymore–they want to know. 

In Vice, Rose Bretécher interviews William Davies’s about The Happiness Industry, his new book about the marketing of just about every moment of our lives. An excerpt:

Vice:

What techniques and technologies does the happiness industry use to monitor our emotions?

William Davies:

There are countless new apps and gadgets—way too many to name. To give a couple of examples, there’s Affectiva, which uses a webcam to track consumers’ smiles, and Beyond Verbal, which can analyze your tone of voice on the phone. Just this week I heard that IBM are working with a startup on a tool which analyzes your text messages in order to recommend you a therapist.

Then you’ve got wristbands like Jawbones and Fitbits, which seem to suggest that there’s a scientific answer to how to live: “If you start doing this, you’ll feel better.” And I think that’s very problematic, because there are complex reasons why people behave as they do—some people aren’t simply able to just change what they do in response to data. Sometimes you’ll just go and eat a McDonald’s because you’re feeling lonely. These gadgets claim to be completely evidence-based and have no philosophy in them, and I think that’s slightly disingenuous. Clearly there’s something missing in this data-led view of life—it doesn’t touch upon the transcendent, life-changing, life-affirming forms of happiness that really don’t lend themselves to science.

Vice:

And why is data about our happiness valuable to big business and governments?

William Davies:

Businesses have been trying to predict and influence how people will behave for over a hundred years now. But in the last 20 years there has been a surge of interest in happiness and positive emotion because there’s evidence that happiness in the workplace contributes to productivity, and because stress leads to absence from work. And there’s also growing awareness in the world of marketing—which has been supported by neuroscience since the 1990s—that the best way for brands to develop consumer loyalty is to illicit a positive emotional reaction from consumers.•

Tags: ,

“The romantic ideas of ‘home’ are collapsing all around us,” writes Ben Valentine in an h+ essay which meditates on the new book SQM: The Quantified Home. Well, most of us still live in homes similar to the previous generation, but the eyes of the Internet have begun to peep inside, and once every object is, in fact, a computer, it will be impossible to stop the prying. Valentine suggests that “free” products will be a trade-off in which we surrender privacy, the way Facebook costs nothing monetarily but is expensive in other ways. As Airbnb has shown, economic pressures have left doors ajar for strangers. More and more, the unfamiliar faces will be virtual. An excerpt:

In his essay, Bruce Sterling asks us how the architecture and architects of the home will be disrupted – like the music and publishing industries were disrupted – for data optimization? As we’ve done for social media, we’re opening up our homes to private companies for the sake of security and ease. We’re putting security cameras in our children’s bedrooms and connecting our home to the cloud with devices such as Amazon Echo. How will the home as networked site look when created to produce as much advertising data as possible? How can a home look more like an Amazon warehouse?

In the networked home of the future, will we enter a Facebook-like power relationship, willingly rendering all our most private moments visible to marketers for a tax break or a free networked fridge? It sadly doesn’t sound too unlikely to me. SQM: The Quantified Home sets up a history and context to considering the realities of this kind of future home, making the clear complex data and politics already intersecting within our home.

Much of this opening up of the home is economically focused. Given the financial collapse of 2008 and subsequent austerity measures around the world, of which all but the mega-wealthy are still reeling from, we’ve been forced to use our homes as economic tools of investment as much as private spaces for family and loved ones. An investment which fewer and fewer people can afford to make. If architecture, homes, and even cities follow the trend of social media’s economic disparity – exchanging some free services for huge swaths of powerful and valuable data – it’s only going to get worse.•

Tags: ,

Logic and logistics suggest autonomy will be introduced gradually into cars as it has been thus far, allowing for regulatory bodies and human ones to gradually release the wheel over the next two or three decades. But Google isn’t interested in much of an intermediate stage, hoping to make driverless the way to ease on down the road in just five years. From Alex Davies at Wired:

What’s important here is Google’s commitment to its all-or-nothing approach, which contrasts with the steady-as-she-goes approach favored by automakers like Mercedes, Audi and Nissan.

Autonomous vehicles are coming. Make no mistake. But conventional automakers are rolling out features piecemeal, over the course of many years. Cars already have active safety features like automatic braking and lane departure warnings. In the next few years, expect cars to handle themselves on the highway, with more complicated urban driving to follow.

“We call it a revolution by evolution. We will take it step by step, and add more functionality, add more usefulness to the system,” says Thomas Ruchatz, Audi’s head of driver assistance systems and integrated safety. Full autonomy is “not going to happen just like that,” where from one day to the next “we can travel from our doorstep to our work and we don’t have a steering wheel in the car.”

Google thinks that’s exactly what’s going to happen.•

Tags: ,

The driverless cars in 2004’s inaugural DARPA Grand Challenge were largely a joke, a debacle in the desert, but no one was laughing five years later when Google began testing autonomous vehicles on American roads. Almost every technologist now believes they’ll be a permanent part of the traffic within two or three decades. 

The machines competing in June’s DARPA Robotics Challenge will likely be awkward and jerky, but we’re really just in the prelude stage. These humanoids won’t necessarily follow the rapid trajectory of robocars, but they’ll certainly improve greatly over time–and maybe not so much time.

And that’s cause for some worry. Presently, the Pentagon is judging only rescue robots to be utilized as part of humanitarian missions, but the military isn’t in the peace business, and every industrialized nation will see its defense department be increasingly robotized. Not all of these machines will be jaws of life.

From Christian Davenport at the Washington Post

The competition comes at a time when weapons technology is advancing quickly and, with lasers that can shoot small planes out of the sky and drones that can land on aircraft carriers, piercing the realm of science fiction.

But some fear that the technological advancements in weapons systems are outpacing the policy that should guide their use. At a meeting last month, the U.N. Office at Geneva sponsored a multi-nation discussion on the development of the “Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems,” the legal questions they raise and the implications for human rights.

While those details are being hashed out, Christof Heyns, the U.N.’s special rapporteur, called in 2013 for a ban on the development of what he called “lethal autonomous robots,” saying that “in addition to being physically removed from the kinetic action, humans would also become more detached from decisions to kill — and their execution.”

Mary Wareham, the global coordinator for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a consortium of human rights groups, said the international community needs to ensure that when it comes to decisions of life and death on the battlefield, the humans are still in charge.

“We want to talk to the governments about how [the robots] function and understand the human control of the targeting and attack decisions,” she said. “We want assurances that a human is in the loop.”

Tags:

Of the two things that could transform the world, Tesla and SpaceX, the former is far more plausible to succeed in its goal, which would be to environmentally remake the home and roads, but Elon Musk sees each as equally necessary for the human race to survive. Bloomberg has published an excellent segment from Ashlee Vance’s new book about Musk in which the writer makes clear how close the industrialist/technologist came to losing both the electric-and-solar empire and a shot at colonizing Mars.

SpaceX began with a dream of sending mice to our neighboring planet in a rocket purchased from the Russians, but consumer frustration forced Musk to build his own mini-NASA start-up, and for his ambitions to grow exponentially. 

An excerpt:

Elon and Justine decided to move south to begin their family and the next chapter of their lives in Los Angeles. Unlike many Southern California transplants, they were drawn by the technology. The mild, consistent weather made it ideal for the aeronautics industry, which had been there since the 1920s, when Lockheed Aircraft set up shop in Hollywood. Howard Hughes, the U.S. Air Force, NASA, Boeing, and a mosaic of support industries followed suit. While Musk’s space plans were vague at the time, he felt confident that he could recruit some of the world’s top aeronautics thinkers and get them to join his next venture.

Musk started by crashing the Mars Society, an eclectic collection of space enthusiasts dedicated to exploring and settling the Red Planet. They were holding a fund-raiser in mid-2001, a $500-per-plate event at the house of one of the well-off Mars Society members. What stunned Robert Zubrin, the head of the group, was the reply from someone named Elon Musk, whom no one could remember inviting. “He gave us a check for $5,000,” Zubrin said. “That made everyone take notice.” Zubrin invited Musk for coffee ahead of the dinner and told him about the research center the society had built in the Arctic to mimic the tough conditions of Mars and the experiments they had been running for something called the Translife Mission, in which there would be a capsule orbiting earth carrying a crew of mice. It would spin to give them one-third gravity—the same as Mars—and they would live there and make babies.

When it was time for dinner, Zubrin placed Musk at the VIP table next to himself, the director and space buff James Cameron, and Carol Stoker, a planetary scientist for NASA. Musk loved it. “He was much more intense than some of the other millionaires,” Zubrin said. “He didn’t know a lot about space, but he had a scientific mind. He wanted to know exactly what was being planned in regards to Mars and what the significance would be.” Musk took to the Mars Society right away and joined its board of directors. He donated an additional $100,000 to fund a research station in the desert.

Musk’s friends were not entirely sure what to make of his mental state at that time. He’d caught malaria while on vacation in Africa and lost a tremendous amount of weight fighting it off. Musk stands 6-foot-1 but usually seems much bigger than that. He’s broad-shouldered, sturdy, and thick. This version of Musk, though, looked emaciated and with little prompting would start expounding on his desire to do something meaningful with his life. “He said, ‘The logical thing to happen next is solar, but I can’t figure out how to make any money out of it,’ ” said George Zachary, an investor and close friend of Musk’s, recalling a lunch date at the time. “He started talking about space, and I thought he meant office space like a real estate play.” Musk had already started thinking beyond the Mars Society’s goals. Rather than send a few mice into earth’s orbit, Musk wanted to send them to Mars.

“He asked if I thought that was crazy,” Zachary said. “I asked, ‘Do the mice come back? Because, if they don’t, yeah, most people will think that’s crazy.’ ” Musk said that the mice were not only meant to go to Mars and come back but they also would come home with the baby mice, too.•

Tags: , , , , ,

Sir Hubert Wilkins, polar explorer, was familiar with investigating uncharted swatches of the globe by air, but in 1931 his aim was lower, as he commanded the Nautilus expedition whose goal was be the first to explore the North Pole by submarine. The voyage, which began in New York Harbor, was a grueling, troubled one, and after casualty and numerous engine failures, his benefactor, William Randolph Hearst, begged the adventurer, via wireless, to end the mission. Eventually Wilkins acquiesced, but not before proving a submarine could operate underneath the polar ice cap. Prior to the journey, Wilkins was thought to be batty for even trying, being seriously doubted in an article in the May 2, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Below the piece is Wilkins’ 1958 What’s My Line? appearance.

__________________________

“It was thought to be fantasy”:

Tags:

Here’s an example of what Andrew McAfee wrote about tech toys of the rich becoming tools of the masses: An article from Peter H. Lewis in the July 19, 1992 New York Times, which was prescient about the emergence of smartphones (if a decade too early), without realizing they’d be for everyone. Andy Grove, quoted in the piece, thought it all fantasy. An excerpt:

Sometime around the middle of this decade no one is sure exactly when — executives on the go will begin carrying pocket-sized digital communicating devices. And although nobody is exactly sure what features these personal information gizmos will have, what they will cost, what they will look like or what they will be called, hundreds of computer industry officials and investors at the Mobile ’92 conference here last week agreed that the devices could become the foundation of the next great fortunes to be made in the personal computer business.

“We are writing Chapter 2 of the history of personal computers,” said Nobuo Mii, vice president and general manager of the International Business Machines Corporation’s entry systems division.

How rich is this lode? At one end of the spectrum is John Sculley, the chief executive of Apple Computer Inc., who says these personal communicators could be ‘the mother of all markets.’

At the other end is Andrew Grove, the chairman of the Intel Corporation, the huge chip maker based in Santa Clara, Calif. He says the idea of a wireless personal communicator in every pocket is “a pipe dream driven by greed.”

These devices are expected to combine the best features of personal computers, facsimile machines, computer networks, pagers, personal secretaries, appointment books, address books and even paperback books and pocket CD players — all in a hand-held box operated by pen, or even voice commands.

Stuck in traffic on a business trip, an executive carrying a personal communicator could send and receive electronic mail and facsimile messages from anywhere in the country. She could also call up a local map on a 3-inch by 5-inch screen, draw a line between her current position (confirmed by satellite positioning signals) and her intended destination, and the device would give her specific driving instructions (as well as real-time warnings about traffic jams or accidents). Certainly, these are just predictions for now, but they sure are fun to think about.•

Tags: , , , ,

To the naked eye, Marc Andreessen appears like a giant mass removed from the base of Steve Ballmer’s spine. The Netscaper-cum-V.C.er is an interesting guy, but he’s also an extreme techno-optimist, a true believer to an obscene degree in the transformative power of Silicon Valley, and like most deeply devoted souls, he can be annoying as fuck. 

Tad Friend, an enormously enjoyable New Yorker writer who’s uncommonly gifted at simultaneously telling a macro and micro story, profiled the Northern California idolmaker and his milieu, an enchanted land where men (almost exclusively) with money dare to divine the next Google or Facebook, gambling in casinos still under construction, trying to identify black swans and ride unicorns. Along the way, Friend vividly depicts this modern strain of capitalism as well as reveals his subject, of whom he writes these two sentences: “Marc Andreessen mentions Thomas Edison often, his family never” and “Andreessen represents the Valley—both in its soaring vision and in its tendency to treat people as a fungible mass.”

The opening:

On a bright October morning, Suhail Doshi drove to Silicon Valley in his parents’ Honda Civic, carrying a laptop with a twelve-slide presentation that was surely worth at least fifty million dollars. Doshi, the twenty-six-year-old C.E.O. of a data-analytics startup called Mixpanel, had come from San Francisco to Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, where many of the world’s most prestigious venture-capital firms cluster, to pitch Andreessen Horowitz, the road’s newest and most unusual firm. Inside the offices, he stood at the head of a massive beechwood conference table to address the firm’s deal team and its seven general partners—the men who venture the money, take a seat on the board, and fire the entrepreneur if things go wrong.

Marc Andreessen, the firm’s co-founder, fixed his gaze on Doshi as he disinfected his germless hands with a sanitizing wipe. Andreessen is forty-three years old and six feet five inches tall, with a cranium so large, bald, and oblong that you can’t help but think of words like “jumbo” and “Grade A.” Two decades ago, he was the animating spirit of Netscape, the Web browser that launched the Internet boom. In many respects, he is the quintessential Silicon Valley venture capitalist: an imposing, fortyish, long-celebrated white man. (Forbess Midas List of the top hundred V.C.s includes just five women.) But, whereas most V.C.s maintain a casual-Friday vibe, Andreessen seethes with beliefs. He’s an evangelist for the church of technology, afire to reorder life as we know it. He believes that tech products will soon erase such primitive behaviors as paying cash (Bitcoin), eating cooked food (Soylent), and enduring a world unimproved by virtual reality (Oculus VR). He believes that Silicon Valley is mission control for mankind, which is therefore on a steep trajectory toward perfection. And when he so argues, fire-hosing you with syllogisms and data points and pre-refuting every potential rebuttal, he’s very persuasive.•

Tags: ,

E.O. Wilson is championing a goal of “Half Earth” for maintaining biodiversity, meaning we would set aside fifty percent of the planet’s land for preserves and parks where non-human species could thrive. Wonderful idea though it is, that will be a steep climb. Audacity is necessary, however. At the Biodiversity Foundation website, Wilson has republished a Mosaic piece in which he and molecular biologist Sean B. Carroll engage in a wide-ranging conversation about conservation, among other scientific matters. An excerpt:

E.O. Wilson: 

You probably haven’t heard of it, but I’ve been in from the beginning of the campaign in Alabama to create a national park of hundreds of thousands of acres. [The Mobile-Tensaw Delta] would be the most biodiverse park in America, with a tremendous variety of organisms: 350 species of fish and then, to the north, the Red Hills and the Appalachians – deeply divided terrain with relic plants and animals that were left behind during the retreat of the glacier 10,000 years ago. The people down there have just woken up to what we have.

Sean B. Carroll:

I was in Yellowstone National Park in August with Liz Hadly from Stanford University, and it still possesses all the mammal species that were there 3,000 years ago. We know this from what the pack rats put into the caves in Yellowstone – and if all the mammals are there, you can feel pretty comfortable that lots of the other things are there too.

So there’s a very old park, a very large piece of ecosystem set aside, it’s enjoyed by four million people a year, but it’s a success story. It says that the first thing you do is preserve a big ecosystem and then manage it. It can be done, and it can be managed scientifically.

It doesn’t mean everything that was ever done in Yellowstone was correct, but I was impressed when Liz explained that she knows that all the mammals that were here before European settlement are still here because she’s done the cave work to look at the microfossils. We should feel good about that: grizzly bears, bisons and wolves are in Yellowstone, and they’ve been removed from almost the rest of their entire range.

E.O. Wilson:

And if you go from the USA – which, relative to the rest of the world, is in pretty good shape in terms of biodiversity and sustainability – to the tropics, everything gets worse.•

Tags: ,

From the early attempt to quantify community in the The Woodlands to the sensor-centric, next-level Songdo, smart cities are an accepted (if vaguely defined) aspect of urban experimentation. But only one state, Singapore, is attempting to be a “smart nation.” It never truly was Disneyland with a death penalty, as William Gibson dubbed it in 1993, but it is a city-state saturated with smartphones, seemingly comfortable with surveillance. This ease with connectivity and quantification is one reason why the island nation feels it can transform itself into a techno-topia free of traffic jams and other such urban annoyances. From Anthony Cuthbertson at International Business Times:

The idea of everyone being connected to everything all the time might sound like a dystopian nightmare for some, but {Infocomm Development Authority head Steve] Leonard and [Prime Minister Lee] Hsien Loong believe it is key to creating a healthy and happy society.

Whether or not the citizens of Singapore have much of a say in the matter is another question. The country’s autocratic style of government has faced criticism in the past for stifling freedom, however it has also been recognised for overseeing Singapore’s remarkable economic growth over the last 50 years. If the ambitious smart nation vision is ever to be realised, it will play a key role. 

“Our advantage is that we are compact, we have a single level of government, we can decide efficiently, we can scale up successful experiments and pilots without any delay,” Lee said in a speech in April.

“Also we are able to take a long term view and see through big transformations to the end until they bear fruit for our citizens.”

There are legitimate issues that Singaporeans might have when faced with the prospect of living in Lee’s new nation, most notably those of privacy and security. For Leonard, this is the biggest challenge currently faced. 

When asked what the biggest hurdle is in implementing new technologies, it isn’t laws or regulation, it’s mindset.•

Tags: , ,

I loved video games as a child and have no interest in them as an adult, and I wonder sometimes if that’s because it seems like we live inside one 24/7 now. Our heads are in the cloud, our lives held in devices, and that experiment in anarchy we encounter on the Internet is going to increasingly career back into the physical world, as real and virtual forge a new partnership. What a game it will be.

Even to a non-gamer like myself, No Man’s Sky, a video game universe being built by a small team of designers and coders and artists outside London, sounds amazing. The interplanetary game has an essentially infinite playing field and a butterfly effect of interdependence so profound that even the creators are surprised by the causes and effects. Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker visited the Hello Games offices and brings a remarkable clarity to a runaway ambition that’s not yet fully realized. One example: He lucidly explains how “procedural generation”–producing content algorithmically rather than manually–allows a small independent company to turn out a blockbuster-sized vision. 

As for what I said above about feeling like we’re becoming players inside of a game, Khatchadourian said this in a Reddit AMA tied to his piece: “Your character won’t be defined as it is in many other games. In other words, you won’t have an avatar that you can build. You will be you.” And at the same time, you will not be you, not exactly. In that sense, the game seems appropriate to the moment.

An excerpt from “World Without End“:

We were in a lounge on the second floor of the renovated studio; concept art hung beside a whiteboard covered with Post-its. The furniture was bright, simple, IKEA. Sitting in front of a flat-screen TV the size of a Hummer windshield, [Sean] Murray loaded up a demo of the game that he had created for E3: a solar system of six planets. Hoping to preserve a sense of discovery in the game, he has been elusive about how it will play, but he has shared some details. Every player will begin on a randomly chosen planet at the outer perimeter of a galaxy. The goal is to head toward the center, to uncover a fundamental mystery, but how players do that, or even whether they choose to do so, is open to them. People can mine, trade, fight, or merely explore. As planets are discovered, information about them (including the names of their discoverers) is loaded onto a galactic map that is updated through the Internet. But, because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance. As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal.

Sitting in the lounge, we began on a Pez-colored planet called Oria V. Murray is known for nervously hovering during demos. “I’ll walk around a little, then I’ll let you have the controller for a bit,” he said. I watched as he traversed a field of orange grass, passing cyan ferns and indigo shrubs, down to a lagoon inhabited by dinosaurs and antelope. After three planets and five minutes, he handed me the controller, leaving me in a brilliantly colored dreamscape, with crystal formations, viridescent and sapphire, scattered in clusters on arid earth. Single-leaf flora the height of redwoods swayed like seaweed. I wandered over hills and came to a sea the color of lava and waded in. The sea was devoid of life. With the press of a button, I activated a jet pack and popped into the air. Fog hung across the sea, and Murray pointed to the hazy outline of distant cliffs. “There are some sort of caves over there,” he said, and I headed for them. The No Man’s Sky cosmos was shaped by an ideal form of wildness—mathematical noise—and the caves were as uncharted as any material caves. I climbed into one of them. “Let’s see how big it is,” Murray said.•

Tags: ,

As costs and chips shrunk and things formerly known as supercomputers slipped into our pockets, space exploration ceased being a top-down affair possible only for governments. Perhaps a corporation like SpaceX will best NASA in a rush to Mars, and maybe a different free-market concern will establish a city in a moon crater. At the very least, satellites will become merely expensive toys–and then inexpensive ones. As 3D printers continue to improve, the stratosphere will grow more clogged. In this new normal, should there be formalized rules of engagement that all must abide?

That’s the prescription suggested in “The Democratization of Space,” a new Foreign Affairs piece by Dave Baiocchi and William Welser IV, which calls for a 21st-century version of the Outer Space Treaty to address a raft of issues, including the situational awareness of the growing number of satellites launched. An excerpt:

IN 1967, the United States, the Soviet Union, and many other countries signed the Outer Space Treaty, which set up a framework for managing activities in space—usually defined as beginning 62 miles above sea level. The treaty established national governments as the parties responsible for governing space, a principle that remains in place today.

Half a century later, however, building a basic satellite is no longer considered rocket science. Thanks to the availability of small, energy-efficient computers, innovative manufacturing processes, and new business models for launching rockets, it has become easier than ever to launch a space mission. These advances have opened up space to a crowd of new actors, from developing countries to small start-ups. In other words, a new space race has begun, and in this one, nation-states are not the only participants. Unlike in the first space race, the challenge in this one will not be technical; it will be figuring out how to regulate this welter of new activity.

FREE-FOR-ALL

Computing gets much of the credit for lowering the barriers to entry to space.•

Tags: ,

In Ashley Halsey III’s Washington Post piece about the future of driverless, he focuses on two important aspects: 1) The U.S. government seems at this point to be an ally of the technological shift, and 2) Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication is an important part of next-level car safety, a fact often lost in the awe factor of witnessing cars driving themselves. 

I’ve yet to read many thoughtful comments from anyone in American government in regards to the profound economic destabilization this changeover may provoke. This new industry will likely kill far more jobs than it creates, which doesn’t mean we should be Luddites about it, but we should be thinking of solutions should this situation arise. 

An excerpt:

The administration push is recognition of a fact that is largely lost on many Americans: though it will dawn gradually, the era of the autonomous car is upon them. …

Like any innovation in the automotive marketplace, the advent of cars that talk to each other (known as vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V) and fully autonomous cars will take years to unfold.

Foxx anticipated that the technology would be fully rolled out within 10 years and that it might be three decades before fully autonomous vehicles rule the roads.

The secretary and officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also showed a firm commitment to cementing the marriage of two closely related technologies: driverless vehicles and direct computer communication between cars on the road.

“V2V offers things that you just can’t get through on-vehicle sensors, through cameras and radar and lasers and so forth,” said a NHTSA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. “V2V sees around corners, it sees 15 cars ahead in traffic and across three or four lanes of traffic. It sees not only the car that is about to speed into the intersection, but whether the driver has applied the brake or not.”

Tags:

Daniel Mendelsohn, who writes beautifully and deeply on pretty much any topic, has a piece in the New York Review of Books about the films Her and Ex Machina, which allows him to drift from times ancient to modern, from Homer’s Greece to Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory to Hollywood’s soundstages, while weighing in on the race between carbon and silicon, a contest we’re certain to lose at least on the micro level. Technological unemployment is less cinematic than the emergence of conscious machines, however, so Strong AI has become the focus of modern storytelling. Mendelsohn wonders why so many of these narratives about “alive” devices revolve around matters of the heart and whether this new “love” means we have surrendered some of our humanness. An excerpt:

It’s hardly surprising that literary exploitations of this strand of the robot myth began proliferating at the beginning of the nineteenth century—which is to say, when the advent of mechanisms capable of replacing human labor provoked writers to question the increasing cultural fascination with science and the growing role of technology in society: a steam-powered man in Edward Ellis’s Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), an electricity-powered man in Luis Senarens’s Frank Reade and His Electric Man (1885), and an electric woman (built by Thomas Edison!) in Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s The Future Eve (1886). M.L. Campbell’s 1893 “The Automated Maid-of-All-Work” features a programmable female robot: the feminist issue again.

But the progenitor of the genre and by far the most influential work of its kind was Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein(1818), which is characterized by a philosophical spirit and a theological urgency lacking in many of its epigones in both literature and cinema. Part of the novel’s richness lies in the fact that it is self-conscious about both its Greek and its biblical heritage. Its subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” alludes, with grudging admiration, to the epistemological daring of its scientist antihero Victor Frankenstein, even as its epigram, from Paradise Lost (“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?”) suggests the scope of the moral questions implicit in Victor’s project—questions that Victor himself cannot, or will not, answer. A marked skepticism about the dangers of technology, about the “enticements of science,” is, indeed, evident in the shameful contrast between Victor’s Hephaestus-like technological prowess and his shocking lack of natural human feeling. For he shows no interest in nurturing or providing human comfort to his “child,” who strikes back at his maker with tragic results. A great irony of the novel is that the creation, an unnatural hybrid assembled from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” often seems more human than its human creator.

Just as the Industrial Revolution inspired Frankenstein and its epigones, so has the computer age given rise to a rich new genre of science fiction. The machines that are inspiring this latest wave of science-fiction narratives are much more like Hephaestus’s golden maidens than were the machines that Mary Shelley was familiar with. Computers, after all, are capable of simulating mental as well as physical activities. (Not least, as anyone with an iPhone knows, speech.) It is for this reason that the anxiety about the boundaries between people and machines has taken on new urgency today, when we constantly rely on and interact with machines—indeed, interact with each other by means of machines and their programs: computers, smartphones, social media platforms, social and dating apps.•

Tags:

The occasion of French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion’s second marriage in 1920 gave opportunity to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to publish his thoughts on a machine Thomas Edison announced he was working on, which would purportedly allow the living to communicate with the dead. Talk about a long-distance call.

Flammarion, who believed a personality of sorts survived after life had ended, was understandably excited about the deceased being conjured via allegedly scientific means in Menlo Park. In addition to the serious astronomical work he published, Flammarion wrote sci-fi and speculative narratives and is credited with birthing the idea of an alien race superior to Earthlings, which he believed in actuality and utilized as a plot device in his fiction. 

 

Tags: ,

An Economist article about Richard Thaler’s new book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, looks at how this sub-field of the dismal science still receives resistance when applied beyond the granular level, when looking at the illogic of the broader economy as opposed to the folly of the individual. The opening:

CAB drivers have good days and bad days, depending on the weather or special events such as a convention. If they were rational, they would work hardest on the good days (to maximise their take) but give up early when fares are few and far between. In fact, they do the opposite. It seems they have a mental target for their desired daily income and they work long enough to reach it, even though that means working longer on slow days and going home early when fares are plentiful.

Human beings are not always logical. We treat windfall gains differently from our monthly salary. We value things that we already own more highly than equivalent things we could easily buy. Our responses to questions depends very much on how the issue is framed: we think surcharges on credit-card payments are unfair, but believe a discount for paying with cash is reasonable.

None of these foibles will be a surprise to, well, humans. But they are not allowed for in many macroeconomic models, which tend to assume people actually come from the planet Vulcan, all coolly maximising their utility at every stage. Over the past 30-40 years, in contrast, behavioural economists have explored the way that individuals actually make decisions, and have concluded that we are more Kirk than Spock.•

Tags:

I still recall the frustration when I first entered the workplace and tried explaining to someone significantly older than myself that soon people wouldn’t care about working at a particular desk every day, that a place of business would not be a second home and that it was all headed in a much looser and more mobile direction. That conversation did not go far.

So, I certainly won’t discount Christopher Mims of the WSJ when he argues that most work in the future will be remote and aided by tools like Virtual Reality teleconferencing. I really only question the “most” part of his assertion, as these tools, once improved to satisfactory levels, will certainly be employed in business in the same manner as tablets and smartphones.

Of course, if automation takes all our jobs, we’ll be able to use our VR helmets to imagine the poorhouse is a five-star hotel. How sublime the new poverty!

From Mims:

I am convinced that the future of remote work—that is, the future of most work—is devices few people have been privileged to try, but won’t want to abandon once they do.

Let’s take this in order of when these technologies will be available. Oblong Industries was started by John Underkoffler, who designed the futuristic computer interfaces in the film Minority Report. Since 2013, Oblong has sold to deep-pocketed clients systems for fully outfitting conference rooms with banks of large monitors, cameras for videoconferencing, software that allows anyone present to wirelessly display the contents of his or her laptop or tablet on these screens, and Nintendo Wii-style wands that allow them to point at and manipulate this content.

Sitting in one of these rooms not long ago, I got the feeling that the Oblong staffers I was remotely collaborating with weren’t somewhere else so much as in a room right next door, and that I was looking through a glass window at them.

This year, Intel Corp. is rolling out its RealSense technology, which gives the cameras in laptops the ability to see and understand depth, just like Microsoft’s Kinect. Sanjay Patel, CEO of Personify, says he thinks RealSense will show up in tens of millions of notebooks this year, as every major PC manufacturer has revealed models that incorporate it. By the end of the year, it may also show up in tablets and phones.•

Tags: ,

Like myself, Elon Musk rents sumo wrestlers for his parties. I, however, also employ former astronauts to serve drinks. You can put your cigarette out on Buzz Aldrin’s forehead, and he will accept it with quiet resignation. 

Seriously, Elon Musk is a super-wealthy, highly driven and somewhat odd guy, which we already know, but in Dwight Garner’s NYT review of Ashlee Vance’s new Musk bio, his features are given some definition. An excerpt:

Other eye-popping details, not all of them previously reported, are flecked atop this book like sea salt. His five children don’t merely have nannies but have had a nanny manager. He worries that Google is building a fleet of robots that may accidentally destroy mankind. He rents castles and sumo wrestlers for his parties. At one of them, a knife thrower aimed at a balloon between the blindfolded Mr. Musk’s legs.

The best thing Mr. Vance does in this book, though, is tell Mr. Musk’s story simply and well. It’s the story of an intelligent man, for sure. But more so it is the story of a determined one. Mr. Musk’s work ethic has always been intense. One observer says about him early on, “We all worked 20 hour days, and he worked 23 hours.”

Mr. Musk was born in 1971 and grew up in Pretoria. His father was an engineer; his mother, whose family had roots in the United States and Canada, was a model and dietitian. There are indications his father was brutal, and that Mr. Musk is a tortured soul trying to make up for a wrecked childhood. But no one will speak specifically about any such events.•

Tags: , ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »