Brian Fung

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Everyone knows Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are the next big things, but the when, what, where and how remain undefined. You can even fairly ask “why?” VR certainly appeals to those in all corners of the entertainment industry, promising to embellish everything from family blockbusters to hard-core pornography.

More sober applications also abound. Imagine people being able to step into a sort of time machine and experience what the Holocaust or slavery was truly like. Or perhaps a modern catastrophe, like the aching wound that is Aleppo, could be simulated. It would be akin to “walking through the news,” and it might sensitize the masses–or, perhaps, have the opposite effect. Maybe it will diminish the immensity of the moral horror to a fleeting experience that can be entered and exited, just another thing to do before binge-watching a sitcom. 

Deceased loved ones could be “kept alive” with the tool, allowing the living to continue a relationship of sorts with them (which chills me). Soldiers could “return” to the battlefield to work past PTSD. Older folks would have the option of visiting with their younger selves. None of these scenarios is beyond belief.

In an excellent Wall Street Journal article, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Michael Alison Chandler and Brian Fung explore VR’s possibilities as well as its potential ethical and emotional pitfalls. An excerpt:

Over the past two years, technology giants and Hollywood have poured millions of dollars into virtual reality in the hope that the medium will transform gaming and entertainment. But a growing crop of filmmakers, policymakers, researchers, human rights workers and even some law enforcement officials see a broader societal purpose in the emerging medium’s stunning ability to make people feel as if they have experienced an event firsthand.

These advocates cite research that shows virtual reality can push the boundaries of empathy and influence decision-making about issues ranging from policing to the environment. But they’re also facing new questions about the unintended consequences of an early-stage technology that may doing harm to users by putting them in situations that seem all too real.

This summer, a 15-person film crew flew to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek to record the horrors of the Holocaust in virtual reality as part of an effort to preserve the memory of the atrocity for future generations. They filmed a scene in which viewers who don a VR headset can enter a gas chamber, escorted by a three-dimensional hologram of a living survivor.

“We don’t actually know whether it’s this empathy machine or whether, if you have an immersive experience, you traumatize your users,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which is creating the Holocaust simulations in partnership with virtual reality start-ups. “There’s also a danger that when you have so many extreme experiences, that you become desensitized.”•

Whenever I read something about VR, I immediately wonder what Jacob L. Moreno, the student of Freud who invented the psychodrama (and hypnodrama) would have done with the tool. It’s definitely necessary to be wary of how living in the virtual could impact our behavior in the actual, because no matter how much we’ve gotten into traditional films, TV shows and paintings, VR is a further immersion and will affect our brains differently. But I assume some patients (e.g., soldiers with PTSD) could be aided by such technology. 

Below are two videos of Moreno in action at psychodrama theaters (the first in 1964, the second in 1948), places where individuals could act out scenarios from their lives within a group dynamic, hopefully gaining insight into their behavior, especially the self-destructive kind.

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The idea that manufacturing jobs will persist because humans and machines will work in a sort of freestyle-chess collaboration is a lie for two reasons. Firstly, even such a silicon-carbon tandem would necessitate a serious reduction in positions. Secondly, it’s only a matter of time until the part of labor still in our hands will disappear. Eventually almost any work that can be done equally well or better by machines will be ceded to them.

The big question is how quickly will that happen. Across decades, such a drain in jobs can be absorbed, but an accelerated transition will likely cause serious cultural and political upheaval, as we’ve seen perhaps most acutely in 2016 with Trump and Brexit and all manner of worrisome nativism. We’ve begun to point fingers at one another instead of discussing the real threat to economic security–that outsourcing no longer means work moving out of countries but rather out of species.

From Brian Fung at the Washington Post:

For decades, a big trend in manufacturing has been the gradual automation of the factory floor. Robots play a major role in making advanced products today — they’re fast, clean and efficient. But Tesla chief executive Elon Musk wants to take this to a whole new level with the factory producing the upcoming, low-cost Model 3, turning “the machine that makes the machine” into an “alien dreadnought.”

Not literally. The factory isn’t going to become self-aware and turn on its masters; after all, Musk is an avowed skeptic of the kind of general artificial intelligence that could enable killer machines. But the term “alien dreadnought,” Musk told analysts on a conference call Wednesday, refers to what the factory will look like once it’s fully developed in around five years. Its visage will likely inspire something between wonder and terror.

“It’s like, ‘What the hell is that?'” said Musk.

The machine will ultimately be so complex that no humans will be expected to operate it directly, or to participate in the actual building of each Model 3.

“You really can’t have people in the production line itself,” said Musk. “Otherwise you’ll automatically drop to people speed.”•

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Despite the fears of really brilliant people like Stephen Hawking, superintelligent machines aren’t likely to enslave or eradicate humans anytime soon. It’s not impossible that eventually brains can be put into machines (and vice versa), but none of us will be alive to see that day. Hopefully our descendants will make good decisions.

The more pressing problem is that Weak AI has a good chance over the next few decades to eliminate millions of solid jobs, and then what do all the truckers, cabbies, delivery drivers, front-desk people, bellhops, fast-food workers and others do? It’s been said that we should retrain them for positions that are more analytical and cerebral, but that’s easier said than done. Some will be left behind by the sweep of history. How many?

In Brian Fung’s smart Washington Post piece “Everything You Think You Know About AI Is Wrong,” the writer tries to identify the challenges ahead and the course we can take to meet them. An excerpt:

So who is going to lose their job?

Partly because we’re better at designing these limited AI systems, some experts predict that high-skilled workers will adapt to the technology as a tool, while lower-skill jobs are the ones that will see the most disruption. When the Obama administration studied the issue, it found that as many as 80 percent of jobs currently paying less than $20 an hour might someday be replaced by AI.

“That’s over a long period of time, and it’s not like you’re going to lose 80 percent of jobs and not reemploy those people,” Jason Furman, a senior economic advisor to President Obama, said in an interview. “But [even] if you lose 80 percent of jobs and reemploy 90 percent or 95 percent of those people, it’s still a big jump up in the structural number not working. So I think it poses a real distributional challenge.”

Policymakers will need to come up with inventive ways to meet this looming jobs problem. But the same estimates also hint at a way out: Higher-earning jobs stand to be less negatively affected by automation. Compared to the low-wage jobs, roughly a third of those who earn between $20 and $40 an hour are expected to fall out of work due to robots, according to Furman. And only a sliver of high-paying jobs, about 5 percent, may be subject to robot replacement.

Those numbers might look very different if researchers were truly on the brink of creating sentient AI that can really do all the same things a human can. In this hypothetical scenario, even high-skilled workers might have more reason to fear. But the fact that so much of our AI research right now appears to favor narrow forms of artificial intelligence at least suggests we could be doing a lot worse.•



China and Apple have risen to new heights simultaneously, and that’s not completely a coincidence. Steve Jobs’ products were manufactured in Foxconn factories and sold for prices that would have been impossible had they been made in a more developed country like, say, America. While the Chinese couldn’t afford the products initially and settled for knockoffs, during the Tim Cook era they’ve embraced the genuine iPhone with both hands. 

Apple’s recent announcement that it would invest $1 billion in a Chinese ride-hailing company may have seemed odd on the surface, but down below it was an investment in driverless, Chinese markets and, ultimately, markets all over the world. Whether the wager pays off is years from being known, but it is an informed gamble.

From Brian Fung at the Washington Post:

Apple’s backing of the ride-hailing company makes sense for a host of reasons. The blossoming partnership could insulate the U.S. tech giant from a global slowdown in iPhone sales. It may lead to even greater visibility for Apple in China, something it has spent years pursuing even as the country has frustrated other foreign tech companies. And the deal could help Apple understand how to build better online services, an area where the company has had mixed success but is increasingly exploring with ventures such as Apple Pay and Apple Music. (Besides, the vast majority of Apple’s $233 billion in cash and securities is parked overseas. Investing that money in the United States would come with a hefty tax bill.)

Through the deal, Apple is expected to gain access to highly valuable data on the 11 million trips a day made through Didi. That information will be immensely useful, not only for Apple’s traditional business selling phones and computers in China, but also for its attempts to design a vehicle that could someday appeal to drivers around the world, analysts say.

“This valuable data is critical to all manufacturers interested in developing a fully autonomous future,” said Tony Lim, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The learnings from China can be applied here in the U.S. and other industrialized nations.”•

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Robert Bigelow wants to be a realtor to the stars–literal stars

The Space Act just passed by Congress makes it legal (in this country, at least) for U.S. companies to keep anything they mine from asteroids, other planets, etc. The entrepreneur Bigelow wants the government to go further and give him permission to develop inflatable real estate on a patch of the moon.

From Brian Fung at the Washington Post: 

Under the SPACE Act, which just passed the House, businesses that do asteroid mining will be able to keep whatever they dig up:

Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.

This is how we know commercial space exploration is serious. The opportunity here is so vast that businesses are demanding federal protections for huge, floating objects they haven’t even surveyed yet. …

Technically the FAA’s jurisdiction covers launches and reentries only — but under a request from hotel and aspiring aerospace mogul Robert Bigelow, that power could grow.

You see, Bigelow wants to experiment with inflatable habitats that will allow people to live in space. By getting an FAA launch license that gives him access to space, Bigelow would be able to stake out an exclusive piece of the moon.

Space law experts believe that this exclusive territory could be very, very big. That’s because under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, crewed vehicles are entitled to operate inside a 125-mile “non-interference” zone designed to keep astronauts safe, Joanne Gabrynowicz, the former editor of the Journal of Space Law, told Harvard Political Review. If the same standard were applied to commercial space operations on lunar or other extraterrestrial bodies, then Bigelow could become a leader in the first major land rush of outer space.•

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