Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the tag “robots”

Worst Idea Ever


I assume by now you’ve heard about the ban on AI weapons proposed in a letter signed by over 1000 AI experts, including Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and Stephen Hawking. The letter was presented last week at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires.

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 rest of us have been occupied with threats of various kinds of autonomous vehicles (cars, trucks, drones), and we failed to see what was right around the corner. Autonomous weapons are more than battlefield robot-soldiers (unlikely) or gun-toting drones (likely). And weapons are more than guns.

Robots have no qualms about sacrificing themselves. It’s a different kind of warfare when the weapons deliverer is the weapon. It’s kamikaze on steroids.

Only now do I realize, after writing a dozen posts about autonomous autos, that they and their ilk are merely stalking horses for the worst idea ever. Autos were just the beginning. Add long haul trucks, obviously, because they’re already being tested.

How about local trucks? Post Office? UPS? How about city buses? School buses? Don’t forget Amazon’s drones. Can larger autonomous drones replace helicopters? For news? Police surveillance? Medivacs?

Look at it another way. Instead of using robots to replace humans, autonomous vehicles are replacing the entire job, e.g., driving a truck. The idea behind all these autonomous devices is to get the public used to the concept, so they won’t question any of them, even those that go way over the top.

Aside from giving the people in control more control using the leverage of computers, there’s the general degradation of the populace by making them less valued than the robots that replace them.

How did humans come to this insane position? Here’s how. People who control the machines think not only are they so much smarter than other people (e.g., the ones they want to replace with robots), they think they can make computers smarter than other people. This is the AI they seek.

And there are some so enamored of intelligence in any form that if they succeed at making a superhuman artificial intelligence—one even smarter than themselves—they will bow down and worship it. Even as it destroys them.

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Enchanted Objects


In David Rose’s Enchanted Objects, he posits four technological futures. I wrote about the first of these, Terminal World, a few weeks ago. He says it’s about “glass slabs and painted pixels.”

The second of these futures is Prosthetics, where we transform into our “Superhuman selves.” The third is Animism, a world filled with “swarms of robots.” (See last week’s post.)

Finally, he offers Enchanted Objects, a world where “ordinary objects are made extraordinary.” Not surprisingly, Rose is a big deal at MIT’s famed Media Lab and is immersed in the latest technological gadgets. Obviously, this is his preferred future.

The book is subtitled, “Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things,” but the last is its true focus. Things, says Rose and many others looking to shape our technological future, will be connected via the Internet to other things and especially to our computers, tablets, and smart phones.

And I’m sure they will be. As to whether this will be the dominant technology of the future, I have my doubts. Although the author favors the term “enchanted” to describe these, I’m sure we could all agree these are enhanced objects.

Like any added feature to any product, only the market can judge its success or failure. The key question for Rose’s preferred future is, will people pay the additional cost?

No matter how much a feature or set of features adds to a product, will enough people buy it if there’s a comparable product with less features for less money? In other words, enhancement is a luxury, not a necessity.

If you press Apple buyers, they will say its products are enchanted. Apple’s last quarter was the most most profitable of any company. Ever. More than half of that profit came from one product (iPhone) in one country (China).

This success has more to do with Apple’s image and marketing (and Chinese culture) than the iPhone’s features and price, which are comparable to other smart phones. Buyers may have desired enchantment, but didn’t have to pay more.

While Rose has a vested interest in a future filled with enchanted objects, others are invested in each of the other alternatives he presents. The inevitable result will be a mixture of all four.

It’s easy to see the trend to glass slabs. The future of prosthetics is less clear, as is that of robots . Even less obvious is how they all will join The Internet of Things. Some things may succeed as Enchanted Objects, but I don’t think they’ll dominate.

The Eye Of The Beholder


Children believe their dolls and action figures have personalities and feelings. We accept it when they project even more “life” onto animated robotic toys. But in both cases we expect them to outgrow this phase. After all, it is childish to believe such things.

Yet, robots are becoming more life-like every day. Inevitably, the people who interact with them will not only see them as “alive” but very much like us. And we will not find it childish.

Part of our mind will know they are only machines. Another part of our mind will be inclined to treat them as equals. For some of us, they will seem greater than equal—our superiors.

Such a variety of reactions inevitably will generate debates about whether these robots are alive. Most people won’t realize the reality they’re debating is only their perception.

You may feel your relationship to your robot is real, but it’s only a fiction you’ve created. As in many human to human relationships, we tend to project the qualities we desire on the other. So it will be with human to robot relationships.

Knowing the underlying psychology, it’s easy for the robot-makers to create software that takes advantage of how easily we are fooled. Or more accurately, how easily we fool ourselves.

Not incidentally, the better the software is at deception, the more money it will make. The average robot owner will not realize how simple it is to write such software. In fact, it is far simpler to write than the software I’m using now, i.e., this word processor.

The reality of programming for human-robot relationships is that it is less work—and more profitable—to write software to help users deceive themselves as to how the robot “feels” about them.

Given this reality, which type of software can we expect to be written for our robots? You may imagine the future will be new and wondrous, but I suggest you reread Brave New World.

Romancing the Bot


You probably missed it, but back in 2008 International Chessmaster David Levy wrote a book titled Love and Sex with Robots. Not just a chess expert, Wikipedia says Levy has written over 40 books, mostly on computer chess.

I missed it, probably because even though I was heavily into the links between computing, consciousness, artificial intelligence, robots, and mind/brain, I saw nothing of his book or work. (Or even his 2005 book, Robots Unlimited: Life in a Virtual Age).

When I learned of this book last week, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it in any book I’d read. Its Amazon page gave no references to any current work in the above-mentioned fields.

Last week was when I began Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011) and found mention of Levy’s book. Since I was posting about real versus virtual, why not add human and non-human?

I’ve known sex robots were around the corner, but love? Is he kidding? Anyway, these sex devices are much closer to their blow-up predecessors than anything human-like. Or they were.

The makers of “the world’s first sex robot,” Roxxxy, say it’s no more than a “life-size rubber doll . . . designed to engage the owner with conversation rather than lifelike movement.”

Introduced at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas this month, for less than ten large, Roxxy sounds far less satisfactory than the eponymous Her, of the new Spike Jonze movie.

No robot or real woman could compete with the fictional, idealized Her. This is a computer not only “designed to meet his every need,” but one that is also “human and intuitive.”

Human and intuitive software? Why put it in anything less than artificial humans? For “companions” you can touch and vice versa, see 1987’s Cherry 2000. So why talk with a computer?

The real question for us is, are we becoming less human by romancing the bot? Every year, we retreat further from the world. Can we continue and not become slaves of the machine?

Oh, did I forget to mention that David Levy believes these robots should not only be loved and laid but married! If he has his way, what’s next? Toasters going on strike for their rights?

Land, Sea, and Air


New Technology is not only everywhere, it is also everywhen, i.e., constantly In The News. Recently, there have been a couple of really big news stories about really big New Technology. Big enough to make George Takei (Mr. Sulu) say, “Oh, my.”

Let’s start with the big story of Amazon delivery by air using drones. Here’s a link to CBS, where the story first broke on “60 Minutes.” When revealed by Jeff Bezos to Charlie Rose, Charlie could only say, “Oh, my God.”

My first reaction was a little less impressed. I said it was probably a ploy by Amazon as leverage for dealing with the Teamsters Union (the guys who drive all those trucks).

Of course, I have no proof either way, but check out this page at Amazon. There, you can choose from dozens of drones from $15 to $500. Maybe Jeff was just trying to sell more drones.

As for Delivery Drones, don’t bet on it. There are simply too many obstacles to overcome. E.g., how would you like your neighbor to get a couple of Amazon air deliveries every day?

As for sea-going tech news, we have the mysterious Google barges. This link to their official explanation is now gone, as Google adds to the mystery. Who knows Google’s real intent.

These barges could be located anywhere (east or west coasts). Being modular, they could serve many concurrent functions. Put them in enough water, and they could be deep-sixed in minutes.

I’ve covered sea and air, but what about land? I’ve already written about automated vehicles (from a different perspective) many times in this blog. Why couldn’t Amazon use them?

Robots load them at the nearest warehouse, and a robot-like device built into the Automated Package Delivery Vehicle (APDV) offloads the package at your house. And takes a picture of it at your door, then emails it to you with a time and date stamp.

For many reasons, this system would be limited to residential areas. No one should expect this complicated a system to function in cities for office buildings and apartment complexes.

APVSs are far more practical than drones, They are quicker and easier to implement, less dangerous, not as annoying, and have far fewer regulations to overcome. But in none of these areas—land, sea, or air—are there many jobs for humans.

Digital is Killing The Middle Class


In the previous two posts, I discussed the effects of digital products on the economy. When a digital product replaces a physical product, the result is lost resale opportunities plus the loss of supporting jobs.

These outcomes are after the fact, after the product has become digital. But digital also impacts jobs and the economy before the fact—in the digitalization of the processes that create physical products.

Digital does this in two ways: positively (decreased costs) and negatively (lost jobs). The latter is overwhelming the former. Why produce cheaper products if fewer people can afford them?

Machine production has a long history: from mechanization to automation to computerization to digitalization. Back when we were concerned about automation, we were told it would create more jobs than it destroyed. No one makes that claim anymore.

There are few manufacturing-related jobs where robots cannot replace people. However, the push for robots doesn’t end with the factories. Remember the Monty Python lumberjack song? Now, one robot logger performs the jobs of a whole gang.

Everyone has heard the adage about teaching a man to fish. Well, we’ve taught the robots how to fish. And if the fishermen are out of work, how can they buy the robot’s fish? Robots may be better than people for some jobs (speed, stamina, danger), but they don’t buy anything. The question is, who will?

As more production becomes digitized and more products become digital, the more jobs we lose. These days, the whole family must be breadwinners, no matter how small the crusts.

College used to be the entry to the middle class and above. Today, young people are going into debt for college degrees that land part-time jobs. They end up back home in their old room (or the basement)—if they’re lucky.

As the economy shrinks, so does the middle class—and vice versa. Products will continue to be made for those who can ante up. As fewer can meet the cost, fewer products will be made. This is the economic slippery slope from shrinkage to collapse.

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