Samuel Gibbs

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“Elon Musk is a 21st-century genius — you have to listen to what he says,” asserted Richard Dawkins in a recent Scientific American interview, as one brilliant person with often baffling stances paid homage to another. The “21st-century” part is particularly interesting, as it seems to confer upon Musk a new type of knowledge beyond questioning. Musk, however, needs very much to be questioned.

Someone who teach himself rocketry as the SpaceX founder did is certainly very smart in a many ways, but it might really be better for America if we stopped looking to billionaires for the answers to our problems. Perhaps the very existence of billionaires is the problem? 

Musk has many perplexing opinions that run the gamut from politics to existential risks to space travel. Walter Isaacson has lauded him as a new Benjamin Franklin, but there’s no way the Founding Father would have cozied up to a fledgling fascist like Trump, believing he could somehow control a person more combustible than a rocket. Franklin knew that we all have to hang together against tyranny or we would all hang separately.

The plans Musk has for his rockets also are increasingly erratic and questionable. As he jumps his timeline for launches from this year to that one, there’s some question of whether humans should be traveling to Mars at all, especially in the near future. Why not use relatively cheap robotics to massively explore and develop the universe over the next several decades rather than rushing humans into an incredibly inhospitable environment?

Musk’s answer is that we are sitting ducks for an existential threat, either of our own making or a natural one. That’s true and always will be. Since going on a Bostrom bender a few years back, the entrepreneur’s main fear seems to be that Artificial Intelligence will be the doom of human beings. This dark future is possible in the longer term but no sure thing, and as I sit here typing this today climate change is a far greater threat. There’s no doubt Musk’s work with the Powerwall and EVs may help us avoid some of this human-made scourge — that is his greatest contribution to society, for sure — but his outsize concern about AI is distracting. Threats from machine intelligence should be a priority but not nearly the top priority.

Something very sinister is quietly baked into the Nick Bostrom view of Homo sapiens becoming extinct which Musk adheres to, which is the idea that climate change and nuclear holocaust, say, would still leave some humans to soldier on, even if hundreds of millions or billions are killed off. That’s why something that could theoretically end the entire species–like AI–is given precedence over more pressing matters. That’s insane and immoral.

The opening of a Samuel Gibbs Guardian article:

Elon Musk has warned again about the dangers of artificial intelligence, saying that it poses “vastly more risk” than the apparent nuclear capabilities of North Korea does.

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive took to Twitter to once again reiterate the need for concern around the development of AI, following the victory of Musk-led AI development over professional players of the Dota 2 online multiplayer battle game.

This is not the first time Musk has stated that AI could potentially be one of the most dangerous international developments. He said in October 2014 that he considered it humanity’s “biggest existential threat”, a view he has repeated several times while making investments in AI startups and organisations, including OpenAI, to “keep an eye on what’s going on”.

Musk again called for regulation, previously doing so directly to US governors at their annual national meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.

Musk’s tweets coincide with the testing of an AI designed by OpenAI to play the multiplayer online battle arena (Moba) game Dota 2, which successfully managed to win all its 1-v-1 games at the International Dota 2 championships against many of the world’s best players competing for a $24.8m (£19m) prize fund.

The AI displayed the ability to predict where human players would deploy forces and improvise on the spot, in a game where sheer speed of operation does not correlate with victory, meaning the AI was simply better, not just faster than the best human players.•

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Well, of course we shouldn’t engage in autonomous warfare, but what’s obvious now might not always seem so clear. What’s perfectly sensible today might seem painfully naive tomorrow.

I think humans create tools to use them, eventually. When electricity (or some other power source) is coursing through those objects, the tools almost become demanding of our attention. If you had asked the typical person 50 years ago–20 years ago?–whether they would be accepting of a surveillance state, the answer would have been a resounding “no.” But here we are. It just creeped up on us. How creepy.

I still, however, am glad that Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk and a thousand others engaged in science and technology have petitioned for a ban on AI warfare. It can’t hurt.

From Samuel Gibbs at the Guardian:

The letter states: “AI technology has reached a point where the deployment of [autonomous weapons] is – practically if not legally – feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”

The authors argue that AI can be used to make the battlefield a safer place for military personnel, but that offensive weapons that operate on their own would lower the threshold of going to battle and result in greater loss of human life.

Should one military power start developing systems capable of selecting targets and operating autonomously without direct human control, it would start an arms race similar to the one for the atom bomb, the authors argue. Unlike nuclear weapons, however, AI requires no specific hard-to-create materials and will be difficult to monitor.•

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Most scenarios of AI dominance end, for humans, with extinction, but Steve Wozniak no longer feels that way, believing we can lose the war but be happy captives–pets, even. His scenario seems unlikely. From Samuel Gibbs at the Guardian:

Apple’s early-adopting, outspoken co-founder Steve Wozniak thinks humans will be fine if robots take over the world because we’ll just become their pets.

After previously stating that a robotic future powered by artificial intelligence (AI) would be “scary and very bad for people” and that robots would “get rid of the slow humans,” Wozniak has staged a U-turn and says he now thinks robots taking over would be good for the human race.

“They’re going to be smarter than us and if they’re smarter than us then they’ll realise they need us,” Wozniak said at the Freescale technology forum in Austin. “We want to be the family pet and be taken care of all the time.” …

For Wozniak, it will be “hundreds of years” before AI is capable of taking over, but that by the time it does it will no longer be a threat to our existence: “They’ll be so smart by then that they’ll know they have to keep nature, and humans are part of nature. I got over my fear that we’d be replaced by computers. They’re going to help us. We’re at least the gods originally.”•

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Two clips from articles about robotics, one from the Guardian about human augmentation in the form of exoskeletons and the other from the WSJ about social robotics.


From Samuel Gibbs at the Guardian:

The exoskeleton has been designed to help paraplegics gain mobility but also to help stroke victims learn how to walk again. It is controlled by buttons on a set of walking sticks, but also with the weight of the wearer.

Leaning forward in a natural walking stances while rocking side to side triggers the steps in a very human-like non-robotic way. The exoskeleton detects how much power a person is putting in and fills the shortfall to maintain stability, but also to help people build their strength where they have it.

‘Our technology started in the military, carrying heavy loads and with our partners Lockheed Martin we’re still doing that. But we melded technologies from people for athletics and people with paralysis to aid people with stroke to walk again,’ said Harding.

‘Now we’re looking at industrial applications – for construction crews holding heavy tools or working on overhead surfaces. That’s our next stage to attack. In five years you’ll see exoskeletons on the building site and on the medical side, someone with paralysis will be using one to get around a party.•


From Geoffrey A. Fowler at the WSJ:

Robots with social skills have captured imaginations going back decades. But we don’t have anything like a C-3PO from Star Wars or Rosie from The Jetsons in our homes yet.

That could start to change. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, two pioneers in the field of social robotics said they are ready to begin selling personal robots. Their hope is that getting robots with basic capabilities like motion, video and voice recognition into homes will encourage developers to create the software that will make them feel like part of the family.

Aldebaran, founded by renowned roboticist Bruno Maisonnier, plans to begin selling its walking, talking 23-inch robot Nao to consumers in the next one to two years. Jibo, an 11-inch table-top robot with a swiveling body created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Cynthia Breazeal, will begin shipping to developers late this year and to homes in 2016.

‘It is now possible to build a social robot at a mass consumer price point,’ says Breazeal, whose company — also called Jibo — is selling the robot for $600.•

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Bacteria in your mouth has a direct path to your heart, but technology also wants a way to your beloved chest muscle. The opening of Samuel Gibbs’ new Guardian article about a bluetooth toothbrush:

“Oral B’s new app controlled Bluetooth 4.0 toothbrush makes sure you brush your teeth properly, lets your dentist peek at your brushing habits and personalises your brushing.

The toothbrush connects to the free Oral B app for the iPhone and Android, and will track your every brush stroke, collect data and chart your progress while giving you real-time guidance on how to get the job done faster and better.

‘It provides the highest degree of user interaction to track your oral care habits to help improve your oral health, and we believe it will have significant impact on the future of personal oral care, providing data-based solutions for oral health, and making the relationship between dental professionals and patients a more collaborative one,’ said Wayne Randall, global vice president of Oral Care at Procter and Gamble.

The smart bathroom

Oral B sees the connected toothbrush, launched as part of Mobile World Congress’s Connected City exhibition, as the next evolution of the smart bathroom.”


I frequently post videos from Boston Dynamics, the best and scariest robotics company on the planet. I’ve been surprised that Google or Amazon, with such deep pockets, didn’t acquire it, instantly becoming  leader in a sector that could help it with order processing and things far beyond that. But recently Google took the plunge and is now the company’s owner. What does it want from its newest division? From Samuel Gibbs at Guardian:

“Boston Dynamics is not the only robotics company Google has bought in recent years. Put under the leadership of Andy Rubin, previously Google’s head of Android, the search company has quietly acquired seven different technology companies to foster a self-described ‘moonshot’ robotics vision.

The acquired companies included Schaft, a small Japanese humanoid robotics company; Meka and Redwood Robotics, San Francisco-based creators of humanoid robots and robot arms; Bot & Dolly who created the robotic camera systems recently used in the movie Gravity; Autofuss an advertising and design company; Holomni, high-tech wheel designer, and Industrial Perception, a startup developing computer vision systems for manufacturing and delivery processes.

Sources told the New York Times that Google’s initial plans are not consumer-focused, instead aimed at manufacturing and industry automation, although products are expected within the next three to five years.”


From Boston Dynamics.


Petman’s best friend:

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