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Terminator V: The machines want your job.

In a fun change of pace, we’re going to have a post that’s light on article excerpts and heavy on ranty linkiness. That might not actually be fun but it’s not like there’s a robot standing over your shoulder forcing you to read this. Yet:

ZeroHedge has a great recent post filled with reminders that state sovereignty movements and political/currency unions won’t necessarily help close the gap between the haves and have-nots if it’s the wealthiest regions that are moving for independence. Shared currencies and shared sovereignty don’t necessarily lead to a sharing of the burdens of running a civilization.

The massive strikes that shut down Foxconn’s iPhone production in China, on the other hand, could actually do quite a bit to help close that global gap. One of the fun realities of the massive shift of global manufacturing capacity into China is that a single group of workers could have a profound effect on global wages and working standards. The world had something similar to that a couple of decades ago in the form of the American middle class, but that group of workers acquired a taste for a particular flavor of kool-aid that unfortunately hasn’t proved to be conducive towards self-preservation).

The Foxconn strike also comes at a time when rising labor costs of China’s massive labor force has been making a global impact on manufacturing costs. But with the Chinese manufacturing sector showing signs of slowdown and the IMF warning a global slowdown and “domino effects” on the horizon it’s important to keep in mind that the trend in Chinese wages can easily be reversed and that could also have a global effect (it’s also worth noting that the IMF is kind of schizo when it comes to austerity and domino effects). Not that we needed a global slowdown for some form of recession-induced “austerity” to start impacting China’s workforce. The robots are coming, and they don’t really care about things like overtime:

NY Times
Skilled Work, Without the Worker
Published: August 18, 2012
DRACHTEN, the Netherlands — At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.

At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.

One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.

All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.

This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.

“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.

Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.

Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”

In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues.

“At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” asked Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics products that is based in Silicon Valley and is increasingly automating assembly work. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”

Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material, threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame for each panel.

Such advances in manufacturing are also beginning to transform other sectors that employ millions of workers around the world. One is distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people. Robots could soon replace workers at companies like C & S Wholesale Grocers, the nation’s largest grocery distributor, which has already deployed robot technology.

Rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide array of manual jobs within the abilities of robots. For example, Boeing’s wide-body commercial jets are now riveted automatically by giant machines that move rapidly and precisely over the skin of the planes. Even with these machines, the company said it struggles to find enough workers to make its new 787 aircraft. Rather, the machines offer significant increases in precision and are safer for workers.

Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs that require workers to move in unpredictable settings and perform different tasks that are not repetitive; assembly work that requires tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats or cars; and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made or where there are many versions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots.

But that list is growing shorter.

Upgrading Distribution

Inside a spartan garage in an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif., a robot armed with electronic “eyes” and a small scoop and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt.

It is doing what low-wage workers do every day around the world.

Older robots cannot do such work because computer vision systems were costly and limited to carefully controlled environments where the lighting was just right. But thanks to an inexpensive stereo camera and software that lets the system see shapes with the same ease as humans, this robot can quickly discern the irregular dimensions of randomly placed objects.

“We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”

While it would take an amazing revolutionary force to rival the internet in terms of its impact on society it’s possible that cheap, super agile labor-robots that can see and navigate through complicated environments and nimbly move stuff around using suction cup fingertips just might be “internet”-league. As predicted at the end of the article, we’ll have to wait and see how this technology gets implemented over time and it’s certainly a lot harder to introduce a new robot into an environment successfully than it is to give someone internet access. But there’s no reason to believe that a wave of robots that can effectively replace A LOT of people won’t be part of the new economy sooner or later…and that means that, soon or later, we get watch while our sad species creates and builds the kind of technological infrastructure that could free humanity from body-destroying physical labor but instead uses that technology (and our predatory economic/moral paradigms) to create a giant permanent underclass that is relegated to the status of “the obsolete poor” (amoral moral paradigms can be problematic).

And you just know that we’ll end up creating a giant new eco-crisis that threatens humanity’s own existence in the process too. Because that’s just what humanity does. And then we’ll try to do, ummm, ‘miscellaneous activities’ with the robots. Because that’s also just what humanity does. And, of course, we’ll create a civilization-wide rewards system that ensures the bulk of the fruit from all that fun future technology will go to the oligarchs and the highly educated engineers (there will simply be no way to compete with the wealthy and educated in a hi-tech economy so almost none of the spoils will go to the poor). And since the engineers will almost certainly be a bunch of non-unionized suckers, we can be pretty sure about how that fruit is going to be divided up (the machines that manipulated a bunch of suckers at their finger tips in the above article might have a wee bit of metaphorical value). And the future fruitless 99% will be asked to find something else to do with their time. Yes, a fun world of planned poverty where politicians employ divide-and-conquer class-warfare distractions while the oligarchs extend the fruit binge. Because that is most definitely just what humanity does. A fun insane race the bottom as leaders sell their populaces on the hopeless pursuit of being the “most productive” labor force only to find out that “most productive” usually equals “lowest paid skilled workers” and/or least regulated/taxed economy. The “externalities” associated with that race to the bottom just need to be experienced over and over. Like a good children’s story, some life lessons never get old.

Or maybe our robotic future won’t be a Randian dystopia. There are plenty of other possible scenarios for how super labor-bots might upend global labor dynamics in on a planet with a chronic youth unemployment problem that doesn’t result in chronic mass unemployment for the “obsolete youth”. Some of those scenarios are even positive. Granted, the positive scenarios are almost certainly not the type of solutions humanity will actually pursue, but it’s a nice thought. And maybe all of this “the robots revolution is here!” stuff is just hype and the Cylons aren’t actually about to assault your 401k.

Whether or not industrial droid armies or in our medium, it’s going to be very interesting to see how governments around the world come to grips with the inevitable obsolescence of the one thing the bulk of the global populace has to offer – manual labor – because there doesn’t appear to be ruling class on the planet that won’t recoil in horror at the thought of poor people sharing the fruits of the robotic labor without having a 40-80+ hour work week to ensure that no one gets anything “unfairly”. And the middle class attitudes aren’t much better. Humanity’s intense collective desire to ensure that not a single moocher exists anywhere that receive a single bit of state support is going to be very problematic in a potential robot economy. Insanely cruel policies towards the poor aren’t going to go over well with the aforementioned global poor when a robotic workforce exists that could easily provide basic goods to everyone and the proceeds from these factories go almost exclusively to underpaid engineers and the oligarchs. Yes, the robot revolution should be interesting…horrible wages and working conditions are part of the unofficial social contract between the Chinese people and the government, for instance. Mass permanent unemployment is not. And China isn’t the only country with that social contract. Somehow, humanity will find a way to take amazing technology and make a bad situation worse. It’s just what we do.

Now, it is true that humanity already faced something just as huge with our earlier machine revolution: The Industrial Revolution of simple machines. And yes, human societies adapted to the changes forced by that revolution and now we have the Information Age and globalization creating massive, permanent changes and things haven’t fallen apart yet(fingers crossed!). So perhaps concerns about the future “obsolete poor” are also hype?

Perhaps. But let’s also keep in mind that humanity’s method of adapting to the changes brought on by all these revolutions has been to create an overpopulated world with a dying ecosystem, a vampire squid economy, and no real hope for billions of humans that trapped in global network of broken economies all cobbled together in a “you’re on your own you lazy ingrate”-globalization. The current “austerity”-regime running the eurozone has already demonstrated a complete willingness on the part of the EU elites and large swathes of the public to induce artificial unemployment for as long as it takes to overcome a farcical economic crisis brought on by systemic financial, governmental, and intellectual fraud and corruption. And the eurozone crisis is a purely economic/financial/corruption crisis that was only tangentially related to the ‘real’ economy of building and moving stuff. Just imagine how awful this same group of leaders would be if super-labor bots were already a major part of the long-term unemployment picture.

These are all examples of the kinds of problems that arise when unprecedented challenges are addressed by a collection of economic and social paradigms that just aren’t really up to the task. A world facing overpopulation, mass poverty, inadequate or no education, and growing wealth chasms requires extremely high-quality decision-making by those entrusted with authority. Extremely high-quality benign decision-making. You know, the opposite of what normally takes place in the halls of great wealth and power. Fat, drunk, and stupid may be a state of being to avoid an individual level but it’s tragic when a global community of nations functions at that level. Although it’s really “lean, mean, and dumb” that you really have to worry about these days. Policy-making philosophies usually alternate between “fat, drunk, and stupid” and – after that one crazy bender – “mean, lean, and dumbis definitely on the agenda.

So with all that said, rock on Foxconn workers! They’re like that group of random people in a sci-fi movie that end up facing the brunt of an alien invasion. The invasion is going to hit the rest of humanity eventually, but with China the undisputed global skilled manual labor manufacturing hub, China’s industrial workforce – already amongst the most screwed globally – is probably going to be heavily roboticized in the coming decades, especially as China moves towards higher-end manufacturing. Super labor-bots should be a miracle technology for everyone but watch – just watch – the world somehow manage to use these things to also screw over a whole bunch of already screwed over, disempowered workers and leave them with few future prospects. It’ll be Walmart: The Next Generation, where the exploitation of technology and power/labor dynamics can boldly go where no Giant Vampire Squid & Friends have gone before. Again. May the Force be with you present and future striking Foxconn workers and remember: it’s just like hitting womp rats.

Sure, we all could create a world where we share the amazing benefits that come with automated factories and attempt to create an economy that works for everyone. And, horror of horrors, that future economy could actually involve shorter workweeks and shared prosperity. NOOOOOO! Maybe we could even have people spend a bunch of their new “spare time” creating an economy that allows us to actually live in a sustainable manner and allows the global poor to participate in the Robot Revolution without turning automated robotic factories into the latest environmental catastrophe. Robots can be fun like that, except when they’re hunter-killer-bots.

LOL, just kidding. There’s no real chance of shared super labor-bot-based prosperity, although the hunter-killer bots are most assuredly on their way. Sharing prosperity is definitely something humanity does not do. Anymore. There are way too many contemporary ethical hurdles.


63 comments for “Terminator V: The machines want your job.”

  1. Very good post. I’ve been kicking around some of those ideas for sometime myself. Use to be Brave New World and Future Shock, but the future is now much closer. Recently, there have been several specific books and articles on this topic since the beginning of the economic “downturn”. Yes, we could have a world in the coming decades where Jobs would be mostly obsolete and all of mankind could turn their energies to the Work of even making the world better and the joys of pursuing and sharing interests. But as you mention, the human fobiles of greed, fear, hate, etc., and those who allow these traits to control them, won’t allow it. But eventually whoever become the elites will end up having wars among themselves, out of a peverted sense of “fun” and boredom and drive humanity into yet another “dark age”. Who knows, such a dark age may be the only thing that saves the planet and the remnants of humanity – since humanity as a whole won’t take the better path to a fuller being.

    Posted by LarryFW | October 10, 2012, 2:18 am
  2. October 13, 2012
    Sex Life Was ‘Out of Step,’ Strauss-Kahn Says, but Not Illegal
    PARIS — More than a year after resigning in disgrace as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is seeking redemption with a new consulting company, the lecture circuit and a uniquely French legal defense to settle a criminal inquiry that exposed his hidden life as a libertine.

    Mr. Strauss-Kahn, 63, a silver-haired economist, is seeking to throw out criminal charges in an inquiry into ties to a prostitution ring in northern France with the legal argument that the authorities are unfairly trying to “criminalize lust.”

    That defense and the investigation, which is facing a critical judicial hearing in late November, have offered a keyhole view into a clandestine practice in certain powerful circles of French society: secret soirees with lawyers, judges, police officials, journalists and musicians that start with a fine meal and end with naked guests and public sex with multiple partners.

    Posted by kando | October 16, 2012, 6:37 pm
  3. @Kando: Fortunately for Dominique there’s a robotic solution to his ‘out of step’ predilections, although I don’t know if the robots will be able to replace the kind of ambiance that sex parties with lawyers and judges provides:

    NY Times
    Sex Life Was ‘Out of Step,’ Strauss-Kahn Says, but Not Illegal
    Published: October 13, 2012

    PARIS — More than a year after resigning in disgrace as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is seeking redemption with a new consulting company, the lecture circuit and a uniquely French legal defense to settle a criminal inquiry that exposed his hidden life as a libertine.

    Mr. Strauss-Kahn, 63, a silver-haired economist, is seeking to throw out criminal charges in an inquiry into ties to a prostitution ring in northern France with the legal argument that the authorities are unfairly trying to “criminalize lust.”

    That defense and the investigation, which is facing a critical judicial hearing in late November, have offered a keyhole view into a clandestine practice in certain powerful circles of French society: secret soirees with lawyers, judges, police officials, journalists and musicians that start with a fine meal and end with naked guests and public sex with multiple partners.

    In France, “Libertinage” has a long history in the culture, dating from a 16th-century religious sect of libertines. But the most perplexing question in the Strauss-Kahn affair is how a career politician with ambition to lead one of Europe’s most powerful nations was blinded to the possibility that his zest for sex parties could present a liability, or risk blackmail.

    The exclusive orgies called “parties fines” — lavish Champagne affairs costing around $13,000 each — were organized as a roving international circuit from Paris to Washington by businessmen seeking to ingratiate themselves with Mr. Strauss-Kahn. Some of that money, according to a lawyer for the main host, ultimately paid for prostitutes because of a shortage of women at the mixed soirees orchestrated largely for the benefit of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who sometimes sought sex with three or four women.

    On Thursday, Mr. Strauss-Kahn broke a long silence to acknowledge that perhaps his double life as an unrestrained libertine was a little outré.

    “I long thought that I could lead my life as I wanted,” he said in an interview with the French magazine Le Point. “And that includes free behavior between consenting adults. There are numerous parties that exist like this in Paris, and you would be surprised to encounter certain people. I was naïve.”

    “I was too out of step with French society,” he added. “I was wrong.”

    Yeah, Dominique’s career in public service is facing a rough road now that general public has learned about the $13,000/person party junkets in DC and Paris where the influential can go engage in a giant orgy of “lobbying” an influential person (some of the prostitutes paid to attend). That’s the kind of thing voters tend to frown upon. Especially when it involves a swinger culture with politicians, judges, lawyers, and journalists…the very same people that are suppose to be checking and balancing each others’ decisions in order for a democratic and civil society to function. When it gets to that point, the “libertine” thing is no longer just the high-risk personal “thing”. Especially when this practice becomes so popular in influential circles that women become expected to participate to advance their high-power careers. That’s not an niche underground society. That’s a national security risk.

    Speaking of national security risks, here’s some more Mitt-tips: Mittens, you must be in the mist midst of intense preparations for the third and final presidential debate Monday night in Boca Raton, Florida. It’s the “foreign policy” US Presidential debate so the expectations are that you’re going to throw a the ol’ Benghazi Hail Mary pass fail and a general focus on wars that the US is/was/will be engaging in (shortly).

    Don’t be scared to fall back on your strengths, Mittens. One big advantage you have is that you know going into this debate knowing that you’re on home turf. Home sweet home. And you might even get paid to do it! (It’s good to be in the top 0.?%). But with a significant female gender gap still in Obama’s favor, it’s going to be important to remember that foreign policy includes a lot more than just war. For instance, as president of the US, you’ll be in charge of leading a global community of nationssometimes nations at odds with each other and the US – in major decisions we’re all facing today that could very well determine the fate of the “the children”. All of “the children”. For many generations. Mittens, you’re going to have to remind all those moms that you’re looking out for “the children”. Forever. It’s harder than you might think assert. So put your game face on because you need to convince 50% of the 99% that you understand how to manage 95% of their fate and their childrens’ fate. You can do this Mittens(& Friends) although it’s going to require a lot of stuff you might prefer it didn’t. Like shamelessness. You can totally do this Mittens. Pull it together and get it done.

    @LarryFW: Let’s hope the future elites aren’t actually perverse enough to declare wars for “fun”. They’re going to have enough problems as is without more fun wars.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | October 21, 2012, 6:47 am
  4. On another machine-related topic, US voters might be a little concerned about the emerging story of Tagg Romney forming a mini-Bain with a team of former Bain investors. Even Marc Leder is involved. Tagg’s fund, Solamere, partnered with “H.I.G. Capital”, which in turn has significant control of the nation’s third largest electronic voting machine company. It’s the same company that will be counting votes in Cincinnati, a Democratic stronghold in the critical state of Ohio.

    Voters might also be concerned about allowed to be concerned about a 2007 federal report that found rampant problems by all five voting machine companies, including Hart Intercivic, in Ohio in the 2004 presidential election. Voters might also wonder about the GOP consultant that was accused of tampering with the 2004 Ohio vote and warned of threats on his life and then died in a small plane on his flight back to Akron to testify. They might also wonder why it is that the founder and three directors of the “Hart Intercivic Group” (HIG) are big Romney fundraisers and two were at the 47% speech. In Boca Raton.

    Voters might be concerned about all of those unpleasantries but they shouldn’t be even though paper ballots are still what the experts recommend for security. All of those concerns are ‘conspiracy garbage‘.

    On a completely separate and unrelated topic, can’t you wait to be living in Mittmerica? He’s got it in the Tagg bag at this point. Not just in Ohio but everywhere. I can feel it. President Mittens! It’s totally going to be so exiting! It’s totally going to be so exciting!

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | October 21, 2012, 11:25 pm
  5. I’m still reminded of the story about the ceo that took the union leader to the fully automated factory and proclaimed to him ‘how you going to organize those robots’ to which the union man replied ‘how you going to sell those cars’. Every worker elimanated equals one less customer for the corporations product, they end up sitting on a pile of cash and nothing to spend it on.

    Posted by Chris | October 28, 2012, 8:57 am
  6. Yep:

    Rise of the Robots

    Paul Krugman
    December 8, 2012, 8:37 am

    Catherine Rampell and Nick Wingfield write about the growing evidence for “reshoring” of manufacturing to the United States. They cite several reasons: rising wages in Asia; lower energy costs here; higher transportation costs. In a followup piece, however, Rampell cites another factor: robots.

    The most valuable part of each computer, a motherboard loaded with microprocessors and memory, is already largely made with robots, according to my colleague Quentin Hardy. People do things like fitting in batteries and snapping on screens.

    As more robots are built, largely by other robots, “assembly can be done here as well as anywhere else,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst based in San Jose, Calif., who has been following the computer electronics industry for a quarter-century. “That will replace most of the workers, though you will need a few people to manage the robots.”

    Robots mean that labor costs don’t matter much, so you might as well locate in advanced countries with large markets and good infrastructure (which may soon not include us, but that’s another issue). On the other hand, it’s not good news for workers!

    I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.

    But I think we’d better start paying attention to those implications.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | December 8, 2012, 7:35 pm
  7. Paul Krugman has a recent post that highlights a crucial point in today’s economy: The “market relationship” of employers and employees breaks down in a bad economy and can actually shift into more of a “power relationship”. The kind of power relationship that employers prefer:

    The Conscience of a Liberal
    The Plight of the Employed
    Paul Krugmen
    December 24, 2013, 10:23 am

    Mike Konczal writes about how Washington has lost interest in the unemployed, and what a scandal that is. He also, however, makes an important point that I suspect plays a significant role in the political economy of this scandal: these are lousy times for the employed, too.

    Why? Because they have so little bargaining power. Leave or lose your job, and the chances of getting another comparable job, or any job at all, are definitely not good. And workers know it: quit rates, the percentage of workers voluntarily leaving jobs, remain far below pre-crisis levels, and very very far below what they were in the true boom economy of the late 90s:

    Now, you may believe that employment is a market relationship like any other — there’s a buyer and a seller, and it’s just a matter of mutual consent. You may also believe in Santa Claus. The truth is that employment is, in many though not all cases, a power relationship. In good economic times, or where workers’ position is protected by legal restraints and/or strong unions, that relationship may be relatively symmetric. In times like these, it’s hugely asymmetric: employers and employees alike know that workers are easy to replace, lost jobs very hard to replace.

    And may I suggest that employers, although they’ll never say so in public, like this situation? That is, there’s a significant upside to them from the still-weak economy. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that there’s a deliberate effort to keep the economy weak; but corporate America certainly isn’t feeling much pain, and the plight of workers is actually a plus from their point of view.

    And here’s an article the discusses some of the reasons why we should probably expect the “market relationship” between employers and employees to become a “power relationship” pretty much permanently in the decades to come unless some fundamental changes are made to how we structure our economy and society:

    It’s A Wonderful Life, For A Few Of Us
    Posted Dec 21, 2013 by Jon Evans, Columnist

    So where were we? Oh yes: everybody hates us. San Francisco’s recent Google-bus and “homeless trash” kerfuffles are symptoms of an increasingly broad, deep, and bitter anti-tech animosity. The Economist predicts: “The tech elite will join bankers and oilmen in public demonology.” The New York Times concurs: “Tech workers have, rightly or wrongly, received the blame. Resentment simmers.”

    Such ingratitude! What’s wrong with these warped, blinded haters?

    Well, OK, it might be the very real sense that these days, with software eating the world, if you’re not in tech, or you’re not already rich, then you are probably basically screwed for life. “We are in the midst of the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known.” Unemployment remains high, and many unemployed “may simply give up looking for jobs once their benefits lapse.”

    Meanwhile, US income inequality today is the highest that it’s been since 1928which matters especially because “the decline in middle-class incomes owes as much to rising inequality as it does to the depressed state of the economy.” The NYT recently highlighted a Brooklyn neighborhood where

    the top 5 percent of residents earn 76 times as much as the bottom quintile … addicts gather outside a food pantry a block from $2 million brownstones

    The economic doldrums have hit Europe, too, outside of Germany. Don’t even get me started on Spain or France: and as for the UK, well, the BBC recently reported that, for the first time, “More working households were living in poverty in the UK last year than non-working ones … low pay and part-time work has prompted an unprecedented fall in living standards.”

    So just go get a good education! Right? Sorry, no. Even if you have a Ph.D.:

    The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. … Academia is only a somewhat extreme example of this trend, but it affects labour markets virtually everywhere. One of the hot topics in labour market research at the moment is what we call “dualisation.” Dualisation is the strengthening of this divide between insiders in secure, stable employment and outsiders in fixed-term, precarious employment.

    Hell, even law school is a disaster nowadays. And total American student-loan debt exceeded $1.2 trillion this year. At that price, for many people, paying for higher education is almost like dumping your life savings into a lottery, or a casino; great if it works out…but absolutely crippling if it doesn’t.

    So everyone can move to the tech sector! Again, sorry, no — or at best, not any time soon. You cannot reasonably expect to retrain significant numbers of people into skilled engineers, and there’s little-to-no room for the unskilled. (Unlike most fields, bad software engineers actually add negative value to the projects they work on.) Engineering is hard. Most people aren’t any good at it.

    So people who aren’t rich, and aren’t in tech — the vast majority, I hasten to remind you — will increasingly become part of the precariat:

    This is not just a matter of having insecure employment, of being in jobs of limited duration and with minimal labour protection, although all this is widespread. It is being in a status that offers no sense of career, no sense of secure occupational identity and few, if any, entitlements to the state and enterprise benefits that several generations … had come to expect as their due.

    Meanwhile, the rich, as a class, are behaving with their usual elegance, taste, and restraint. Finding new ways to evict tenants so they can charge higher rents. Reshaping corporations into what The Economist calls “distorporations.” “Ruining art for the rest of us.” And it’s hard to wander amid San Francisco’s new-growth luxury boutiques, artisanal coffee shops, and opulent social events without getting the sense that techies, too, are making decadent hay of today’s inequalities. I mused the other day on Twitter:

    Jon Evans

    Sometimes I feel like we in SF/LA/NYC live in the modern-day Belle Epoque. Which is, to be clear, a backhanded compliment at best.
    8:37 PM – 13 Dec 2013

    You think this is bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Right now the precariat mostly just resents the tech world because we’re wealthier. That’s because tech has only barely begun to eat their jobs — and keep their homes and cars under constant surveillance. How do you think they’ll feel about us in five years’ time?

    That process has already begun, though, and it will only accelerate. Everyone’s worried about the way Amazon treats its workers; will they be as upset about those replaced by the robots now rolling out to Amazon’s warehouses? (And before you start blaming Asian outsourcing, note that Foxconn is seeking to replace its Chinese laborers with a “robot army” too.) As Andrew Leonard put it in Salon:

    the big difference between the current technological revolution and the Industrial Revolution is that the initial technological advances of the 18th century created jobs for unskilled workers, while today’s robot armies are increasingly replacing the jobs of unskilled workers.

    Raising the minimum wage will help those cursed with shitty jobs…but it won’t create more of them. Cutting food stamps may save money, but it can’t drive the poor to take jobs that don’t exist.

    It seems to me (and many others) that we’re at the beginning of a Great Bifurcation. On one side: those who were rich when it began, plus the upper echelon of the tech world, the usual oil/finance suspects, and a smattering of others. Figure about 15% of the population. They will cluster in dense little islands of wealth — San Francisco, Manhattan, beach houses and mountain chalets. They will travel to all the best places. Their parties will grow ever more decadent. Their children will get the best education — and, in time, the best biotech — that money can buy.

    But not all techies will be winners. This modern-day Belle Époque is increasingly for people who can tick at least two of the following boxes: smart, skilled, and well-connected. (Don’t kid yourself–the tech world is by no means a pure meritocracy.) The room for people who can boast only one of those, let alone zero, is diminishing. The mediocre, unskilled, poorly-connected, and/or just plain unlucky will join the other side of the great divide soon enough.

    And across that great divide? Growing resentment verging on fury. Again, you think techies are disliked now in places like San Francisco? Just wait another five or ten years. Yes, SF could and should build out much more housing–

    Steve Simitzis

    Fun fact: SF’s pop density is half of Brooklyn’s (17,620 vs 34,920). We don’t even need to go Manhattan to add enough housing/lower rents.
    6:18 PM – 10 Dec 2013

    –but if I’m right about the fundamental trends here, even that won’t help. The tech world, and/or the machinations it is setting in motion, is becoming Henry Potter to the precariat’s George Bailey, and/or Ebenezer Scrooge to its Bob Cratchit, for a period of wrenching disruption measured in decades. I know that’s not how we like to think of ourselves. But until and unless we come up with a better way — a fundamental change, not band-aids — then it’s what we will become.

    Happy Holidays!

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | December 26, 2013, 7:37 pm
  8. Here’s a bit of good news: Detroit’s emergency financial manager just put a stay on his secret New Years Eve order to freeze Detroit pension plan and replace it with a 401k system:

    Detroit Free Press
    Orr issues stay on freezing pensions for Detroit workers as mediation continues
    6:08 PM, January 6, 2014

    By Matt Helms

    Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

    Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr said today that he’s stayed a pension freeze he ordered late last month, allowing negotiators with both city pension plans to continue mediation in federal bankruptcy court over how to resolve what he says is $3.5 billion in pension underfunding.

    Orr, growing impatient with a lack of progress in mediated talks between the city and pension plan representatives, quietly issued a freeze on the pensions of city workers in the General Retirement System as of Dec. 31, meaning no new benefits would be accrued and the plan would be closed to new city employees.

    But today, Orr said he was delaying the freeze indefinitely, while reserving the right to reinstate it if mediation efforts don’t reach an acceptable compromise.

    The order he issued in late December dealt only with the city’s General Retirement System (GRS), which provides pensions for non-uniformed city workers. But in a statement issued today, Orr made it clear he also intended to include the city’s Police and Fire Retirement System.

    “The city remains in a financial emergency, and to the extent that mediation can assist in finding a way to improve services for all of its 700,000 residents, then it is worth continuing,” Orr said. “But time is running short, and the city’s financial status remains dire. An additional delay without the prospect of a mediated solution threatens to further erode essential services and public safety.”

    The move prompted anger from the GRS, whose spokeswoman, Tina Bassett, called the order “an outrageous and over-zealous action from the EM’s office.” After word came that the order was stayed, the GRS issued a statement saying, “We welcome this opportunity to continue to negotiate in good faith as part of the continuing federal mediation process.”

    The order for the GRS also would close the retirement system’s Annuity Savings Fund to new employees and would stop accepting contributions sometime this month. The order also ends future cost-of-living adjustments.

    Instead of pensions, Orr’s order said the city would create a 401k-style savings plan. Orr announced in mid-2013 that he would seek a pension freeze and issued a report critical of the pension systems’ management and investment practices.

    Orr spokesman Bill Nowling said today that Orr agreed to hold off after a discussion over the weekend with Chief U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, who is overseeing mediation in Detroit’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

    “Judge Rosen asked Kevyn — I think they had a long conversation over the weekend — and Rosen asked if he would consider staying it,” Nowling said. Orr agreed to do so, “but he wanted to make sure the city preserves its rights. We’ve been at this mediation for a long time, and it doesn’t seem that we’re making any progress on it.”

    Bassett said the pension system believed mediation was going “rather well.”

    “The GRS today is one of the best funded municipal pension funds in the nation. The board is transparent, accountable and fiscally responsible,” she said. “The problems of the past have been corrected with procedures and policies that ensure no malfeasance can occur. We thought mediation was supposed to help resolve these issues. Where is the credibility?”

    Orr did not release the order to the media or post it on the city’s website. It was signed and dated Dec. 30, with copies sent to then-Mayor Dave Bing, new Mayor Mike Duggan, City Council members, the state Treasury and department heads in the city government. Nowling said Orr’s office was prepared to release a similar order for the police and fire pension but hadn’t done so as of today.

    Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Sue McCormick notified water department employees last week, saying “the consequences of the EM’s executive order have yet to be determined and will largely depend on personal circumstances.

    Mayor Mike Duggan said he’s not involved in pension talks and has no authority on pension issues under the power-sharing agreement he and Orr brokered. He referred questions to Orr’s office.

    Under earlier proposals by Orr, the city would no longer pay into pension plans but would contribute an amount equal to a percentage of workers’ base pay — 5% for non-uniformed workers and 10% for police and fire — into retirement accounts. Employees also could contribute their own money into the accounts.

    The average yearly pension for retirees in the city’s General Retirement System is less than $20,000. It’s about $34,000 for Detroit police and firefighters, who do not pay into or receive Social Security.

    While it’s nice to see a stay on the freezing of Detroit’s pension plans, this story is a reminder that the US oligarchs and much of the populace continues to desperately want to create a 401k/”you’re on your own” society where one’s ability to live with dignity is almost entirely dependent on their financial situation regardless of circumstance. That might be an acceptable paradigm if one was living near The Road, but its difficult to see how one could possibly want to create a high-tech market-driven society where entire regions can end up in poverty for no good reason other than the larger market forces that are far beyond their control. It’s just a very bad sign for the future of the US if our social contract ends up being a big collective 401k/”please go die” response to every local economy that runs into hard times because market forces aren’t going to be the only forces that will be destroying local economies and societies in the future. If we can’t treat other screwed by larger circumstance with decency and understanding now how horribly is society going to treat itself when things get really bad?

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | January 6, 2014, 5:39 pm
  9. Your work will set you free. Well, ok, maybe it won’t set you free. But it’s still very pro-freedom:

    Saturday, Feb 8, 2014 05:30 AM CST
    GOP’s secret anti-freedom agenda: Why their “liberty” talk is nonsense
    Obamacare will liberate some Americans in the job market. So why aren’t liberty-loving conservatives rejoicing?
    Elias Isquith

    After one of the political press’ worst weeks in recent memory, it’s tempting to say that the release of the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) latest findings on Obamacare has, ironically, led to people understanding the health care overhaul even less than they did before. Considering the fact that, as of late 2012, somewhere around 40 percent of Americans still think Obamacare has “death panels,” this is no small feat. (I can almost picture Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that great believer in the basic wisdom and virtue of The People, watching us in horror while rocking back and forth and quietly repeating to himself, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”)

    Yet despite the initial burst of misinformation that followed the release of the report, and despite the inevitable tornado of negative advertising that’ll erroneously cite the CBO when claiming Obamacare “kills” millions of jobs, I think the CBO’s latest will ultimately be worth it. Not for what it revealed about Obamacare, but for what it showed us about the ideological divide that defines American politics.

    Here’s what I mean: Once the media acknowledged that the report said Obamacare would reduce labor’s supply, and not its demand — by providing workers with healthcare coverage whether or not they hold a full-time job — the debate shifted onto terrain more resembling objective reality, and we got a better sense of where the right and the left really stood. Specifically, we were able to see what the right really means when it talks about “freedom” and “liberty,” phrases that, as conservatives use them, mean less than meets the eye.

    But first, to clarify, this is what the CBO’s report actually said:

    The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses’ demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation and in hours worked relative to what would have occurred otherwise rather than as an increase in unemployment (that is, more workers seeking but not finding jobs) or underemployment (such as part-time workers who would prefer to work more hours per week).

    And this is what that actually means: People who would like to retire but aren’t old enough to qualify for Medicare, or people who would like to work part-time but can’t afford to lose their employer-provided health insurance, will now be able to quit or cut back on their jobs without having to live with prohibitively expensive, or simply nonexistent, health insurance. And at least to this leftie’s ears, that sounds like a good thing.

    Many people on the right, however, had a very different response.

    First there were those who still clung bitterly to the early misrepresentation that Obamacare destroys jobs. These are the most rigid partisans, people who live in their own carefully curated epistemic world, and there’s no getting through to them, no matter how many fact-checks you link to or email their way. Besides, they’re more focused on the big fish, like Benghazi, the greatest cover-up in history, to spend too much time talking health policy.

    Then there were those on the right who acknowledged the CBO’s actual findings, but found them troubling all the same. These folks argued that the CBO had shown Obamacare created perverse incentives, allowing people to spend less of their time engaged in wage labor, and that the government should be pushing people to work a paying job instead. This is a much more philosophical position, rather than an empirical claim about how the law might affect the economy, and it’s deeply revealing of the right’s fundamental ideological beliefs.

    There were many examples of this (my colleague Brian Beutler has cataloged a few), but none were as clearly and stridently put as Charles C.W. Cooke’s in the National Review. Cooke’s jeremiad against “Obamacare’s attack on the work ethic” is pretty straightforward: Anything that the government does to make it easier for people to separate themselves from wage labor is bad, because work is, quite simply, an absolute good. Here’s how he puts it, in a paragraph describing work with a nearly religious fervor:

    Work is a virtue that should be reflexively encouraged. It is the means by which standards of living are grown, human potential is reached, individual lives are focused, positive and negative instincts are channeled, resources are utilized most efficiently, and, above all, by which dignity remains intact. It is the best antidote to personal and national ossification and sclerosis, and the primary means by which our present material comfort was achieved. It is the driving force behind improvement, both real and imagined, in the nation’s mainstream culture. Whatever the ideal role of government in contriving work or wages for those who are without them, we should all presumably be able to agree that if we are going to have an intrusive state, it should be doing precisely the opposite of encouraging people to limit their involvement in work.

    Now, there are a bunch of things wrong with how Cooke perceives the relationship between the state and the economy. As Salon contributor and Demos blogger Matt Bruenig has shown, his belief in “an intrusive state” — which implies that the laissez-faire system is somehow natural rather than the product of government-enforced rules and institutions — is especially misguided. But what interests me most is how Cooke describes wage labor as if it were the road to personal and national salvation. Working as a sales associate at Wal-Mart, it appears, leads to lives being “focused,” instincts being “channeled,” resources being “utilized most efficiently,” and “above all … dignity [remaining] intact.”

    Strangest of all, though, is how Cooke not only claims wage labor to be an inherent good, but attempts the impossible by melding this paternalistic argument (wage labor is good for people, whether they like it or not) to a defense of freedom as he understands it. Being able to leave a job you hate in order to spend more time pursuing your passions, or to cut back your hours at a job you hate in order to spend more time raising your children, is not freedom, according to Cooke. “[I]t is one thing for a person to choose not to work and to accept the natural consequences of that decision,” he writes, “but quite another indeed for a person to choose not to work because others are being forced to subsidize his well-being.” Translation: Only people who don’t have to work to survive — a.k.a. the wealthy — are capable of experiencing true freedom. At the very least, they’re the only ones who deserve it.

    In case you were wondering “Could this be the reason Skynet eventually decides to provoke a thermonuclear holocaust against humanity? After all, what could possibly be a bigger threat to the ‘freedom’ than advanced robotics and artificial intelligence?” Well, let’s just say that Skynet can read the tea leaves, and right now it doesn’t look like the robots have anything to worry about in terms of putting everyone out of work. The robots will need wage slaves too:

    “Crowdworking” is the future of much human labor. Unless we do something about it.
    2/09/2014 07:30:00 AM

    The Nation has a great article on the somewhat creepy and viciously exploitative practice of “crowdworking.” It’s too long to even distill properly in a quote, but here’s a brief bit to explain:

    Mechanical Turk is the innovation behind “crowdworking,” the low-wage virtual labor phenomenon that has reinvented piecework for the digital age. Created by Amazon in 2005, it remains one of the central platforms—markets, really—where crowd-based labor is bought and sold. As many as 500,000 “crowdworkers” power the Mechanical Turk machine, while millions more (no one knows how many exactly) fuel competitor sites like CrowdFlower, Clickworker, CloudCrowd and dozens of smaller ones. On any given day, at any given minute, these workers perform millions of tiny tasks for companies both vast (think Twitter) and humble. Though few of these people have any sense of their finished work product, what they’re doing is helping to power the parts of the Internet that most of us take for granted.

    Currently, computers are very good at certain sorts of tasks, such as identifying spelling errors, processing raw data and calculating financial figures. However, they are less able to perform others, such as detecting a positive or negative bias in an article, recognizing irony, accurately reading the text off a photograph of a building, determining if something is NSFW (not safe for work) or discerning among ambiguous search results. This is where the “crowd” comes in. In the current iteration of crowdworking, individuals are tasked with those parts of a job that a computer cannot perform. This work is used both to fill in the blanks and to train the computer algorithm to do a better job in the future.

    Crowdworking is often hailed by its boosters as ushering in a new age of work. With the zeal of high-tech preachers, they cast it as a space in which individualism, choice and self-determination flourish. “CrowdFlower, and others in the crowdsourcing industry, are bringing opportunities to people who never would have had them before, and we operate in a truly egalitarian fashion, where anyone who wants to can do microtasks, no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them,” asserts Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, in an e-mail exchange. (CrowdFlower claims to have “among the largest, if not the largest, crowd” available, with roughly 100,000 workers completing tasks on any given day.)

    But if you happen to be a low-end worker doing the Internet’s grunt work, a different vision arises. According to critics, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk may have created the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed. Inside the machine, there is an overabundance of labor, extreme competition among workers, monotonous and repetitive work, exceedingly low pay and a great deal of scamming. In this virtual world, the disparities of power in employment relationships are magnified many times over, and the New Deal may as well have never happened.

    As Miriam Cherry, one of the few legal scholars focusing on labor and employment law in the virtual world, has explained: “These technologies are not enabling people to meet their potential; they’re instead exploiting people.” Or, as CrowdFlower’s Biewald told an audience of young tech types in 2010, in a moment of unchecked bluntness: “Before the Internet, it would be really difficult to find someone, sit them down for ten minutes and get them to work for you, and then fire them after those ten minutes. But with technology, you can actually find them, pay them the tiny amount of money, and then get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore.”

    Outside of direct personal services like nursing or exploitative rent-seeking jobs in finance, this sort of small-scale machine assistance job is where the labor market will increasingly trend over the next couple of decades.

    And it’s a completely unregulated mess. Just another sign of a broken, 19th-century economic system utterly inappropriate for a 21st-century world of globalization, mechanization, flattening and deskilling.

    Just imagine how free robots must be. They can work non-stop! Meat-cogs rejoice: Freedom in the future is going to be awesome.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 9, 2014, 7:04 pm
  10. An oligarchic vision of the future: beg billionaires for the right to race to the bottom:

    Bill Gates wants governments to beg corporations scraps

    by David Atkins
    Tuesday, March 18, 2014

    It’s important to understand that in the halls of international power, this is the conversation that’s actually happening:

    Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates isn’t going to sugarcoat things: The increasing power of automation technology is going to put a lot of people out of work. Business Insider reports that Gates gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, DC this week and said that both governments and businesses need to start preparing for a future where lots of people will be put out of work by software and robots.

    “Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses… it’s progressing,” Gates said. “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set… 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

    As for what governments should do to prevent social unrest in the wake of mass unemployment, the Microsoft cofounder said that they should basically get on their knees and beg businesses to keep employing humans over algorithms. This means perhaps eliminating payroll and corporate income taxes while also not raising the minimum wage so that businesses will feel comfortable employing people at dirt-cheap wages instead of outsourcing their jobs to an iPad.

    That mass unemployment is coming soon isn’t the wild fancy of futurists. It’s real.

    There are only two ways to deal with that. One is the Gates way. It’s the way that most world leaders are quietly putting into place, not only because of corruption, but because they they feel they must. It’s the international race to the bottom, in which the capital mobility of the jet set crowd trumps and overwhelms the power of sovereign states.

    The other way is completely opposite–a hard turn toward social democracy, universal basic incomes, universal jobs programs, and international treaties that limit the power of mobile global capital while giving power back to real people and severing the assumed link between doing a billionaire’s bidding and human dignity.

    There isn’t a middle ground. Either billionaires and the Tea Partiers win, or the progressives do. There’s no third way.

    And the best part about this future? While you’re begging for those scraps the billionaires get to whine at you about how you’re being a selfish Nazi.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 18, 2014, 8:34 am
  11. Look out middle managers: Boss-bot is coming:

    Study suggests people willing to take orders from a robot boss (w/ video)
    Mar 18, 2014 by Bob Yirka

    (Phys.org) —A study conducted by a team of researchers at Human Computer Interaction (MCI) Lab in Manitoba Canada, has revealed evidence that suggests that people can be prodded into doing something they don’t want to do, by a robot. They’ve posted a blog entry on their web site describing an experiment they carried out to learn more about how people might respond to a robot boss, versus a human one, and the results they found.

    The experiment consisted of asking volunteers to complete different tasks, some fun (singing songs they liked), some tedious and boring (changing file name extensions for a very large number of files). Some of the volunteers were asked to perform the tasks by a human being, others were asked to do the same tasks by a small friendly-looking Aldebaran Nao humanoid robot.

    The volunteers and their taskmasters were set up in an office-type environment, with desks set apart from one another. The participants were filmed as they carried out the experiment and the researchers analyzed the results afterwards. All of the volunteers were told repeatedly before the experiment that they could stop any task they chose at any time, with no negative consequences.

    In studying the video, the researchers found that 46 percent of the volunteers (both male and female) complied with a request to perform a task (which took 80 minutes) they didn’t want to do, when asked to do so by the robot, compared to 86 percent compliance when asked by a human “boss.” The researchers note the lower percentage but also point out that nearly half of those who participated complied when asked to do something they didn’t want to do, when asked by a robot.

    The researchers also noted that many of the volunteers argued with the robot, and interacted with it as if it were human. Most apparently believed that the robot was issuing requests autonomously (it wasn’t, a human being was behind a glass wall controlling things) and responded accordingly. They also found that some of the volunteers even tried bartering, either with themselves or the robot, by requesting another task or by suggesting out loud that perhaps the robot was malfunctioning.

    Could bartering with your boss-bot be part of the jobs of the future? Maybe. For while. At some point bossing you around simply won’t be worth the robotic effort:

    Drones will cause an upheaval of society like we haven’t seen in 700 years
    By Noah Smith March 11, 2014
    Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. His blog is Noahpinion.

    The human race is on the brink of momentous and dire change. It is a change that potentially smashes our institutions and warps our society beyond recognition. It is also a change to which almost no one is paying attention. I’m talking about the coming obsolescence of the gun-wielding human infantryman as a weapon of war. Or to put it another way: the end of the Age of the Gun.

    You may not even realize you have been, indeed, living in the Age of the Gun because it’s been centuries since that age began. But imagine yourself back in 1400. In that century (and the 10 centuries before it), the battlefield was ruled not by the infantryman, but by the horse archer—a warrior-nobleman who had spent his whole life training in the ways of war. Imagine that guy’s surprise when he was shot off his horse by a poor no-count farmer armed with a long metal tube and just two weeks’ worth of training. Just a regular guy with a gun.

    That day was the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modernity. For centuries after that fateful day, gun-toting infantry ruled the battlefield. Military success depended more and more on being able to motivate large groups of (gun-wielding) humans, instead of on winning the loyalty of the highly trained warrior-noblemen. But sometime in the near future, the autonomous, weaponized drone may replace the human infantryman as the dominant battlefield technology. And as always, that shift in military technology will cause huge social upheaval.

    The Age of the Gun is the age of People Power. The fact that guns don’t take that long to master means that most people can learn to be decent gunmen in their spare time. That’s probably why the gun is regarded as the ultimate guarantor of personal liberty in America—in the event that we need to overthrow a tyrannical government, we like to think that we can put down our laptops, pick up our guns, and become an invincible swarm.

    Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. People Power has often been used not for freedom, but to establish nightmarish tyrannies, in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and elsewhere. But Stalin, Mao, and their ilk still had to win hearts and minds to hold power; in the end, when people wised up, their nightmare regimes were reformed into something less horrible.

    But another turning point in the history of humankind may be on the horizon. Continuing progress in automation, especially continued cost drops, may mean that someday soon, autonomous drone militaries become cheaper than infantry at any scale.

    Note that what we call drones right now are actually just remote-control weapons, operated by humans. But that may change. The United States Army is considering replacing thousands of soldiers with true autonomous robots. The proposal is for the robots to be used in supply roles only, but that will obviously change in the long term. Sometime in the next couple of decades, drones will be given the tools to take on human opponents all by themselves.

    Meanwhile, technological advances and cost drops in robotics continue apace. It is not hard to imagine swarms of agile, heavily armed quadrotor drones flushing human gunmen out of buildings and jungles, while hardened bunkers are busted with smart munitions from cheap high-altitude robot blimps. (See this video if your imagination needs assistance.)

    The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when People Power becomes obsolete. With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many. And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot-enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion. The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.


    Where this scenario really gets scary is when it combines with economic inequality. Although few people have been focusing on robot armies, many people have been asking what happens if robots put most of us out of a job. The final, last-ditch response to that contingency is income redistribution – if our future is to get paid to sit on a beach, so be it.

    But with robot armies, that’s just not going to work. To pay the poor, you have to tax the rich, and the Robot Lords are unlikely to stand for that. Just imagine Tom Perkins with an army of cheap autonomous drones. Or Greg Gopman. We’re all worried about the day that the 1% no longer need the 99%–but what’s really scary is when they don’t fear the 99% either.

    Take a look at countries where the government makes its money from natural resources instead of human labor–Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran. Look at the money and effort those governments spend making sure their people don’t rebel. What will those countries look like when repression starts getting cheaper and cheaper? And why will America and Europe and East Asia be different? Isn’t a nation where the rich can get everything they need from robots essentially suffering from the same “resource curse” as Saudi Arabia?

    When we think of the “rise of the robots,” we usually think of Skynet and Agent Smith–the evil of artificial intelligence. But that’s not who we should be worrying about. A.I.’s–if they ever exist–may or may not have any reason to dominate, marginalize, or slaughter humanity. But we know that humans often like to do those things. Humans already exist, and we know many of them are evil. It’s the Robot Lords we should be afraid of, not Skynet.

    Libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and rugged individualists have always based their visions of a capitalist paradise on the idea that the state is the main threat to the power and freedom of the individual. And in the Age of the Gun, that was true. But in the Age of the Drone, that is no longer the case. When the rich hold unlimited military power in their own two hands, who’s going to stop them from just taking the property of everyone else? If you’re a card-carrying National Rifle Association member, you should ask yourself whether you’re going to be one of the Robot Lords … or one of the rest.

    We can carry this dystopian thought exercise through to its ultimate conclusion. Imagine a world where gated communities have become self-contained cantonments, inside of which live the beautiful, rich, Robot Lords, served by cheap robot employees, guarded by cheap robot armies. Outside the gates, a teeming, ragged mass of lumpen humanity teeters on the edge of starvation. They can’t farm the land or mine for minerals, because the invincible robot swarms guard all the farms and mines. Their only hope is to catch the attention of the Robot Lords inside the cantonments, either by having enough rare talent to be admitted as a Robot Lord, or by becoming a novelty slave for a little while.

    This sounds like nothing more than a fun science fiction story, but why shouldn’t this happen? Human civilization was somewhat like this for most of our history—aristocrats feasting in their manor houses, half-starved peasants toiling in the fields. What liberated us? It might have been the printing press, or capitalism, or the sailing ship. But it might have been the gun. And if it was the gun that liberated us, then we should be very worried. Because when the Age of the Gun ends, the age of freedom and dignity and equality that much of humanity now enjoys may turn out to have been a bizarre, temporary aberration.

    Not the future you were hoping for? Well, at least the robot-induced long-term unemployment phase shouldn’t last too long during humanity’s sad journey into the night. When the times comes for our Robot Lords to choose between listening to their consciences and redistributing the wealth or unleashing the robot hoards, it’s not really going to be a contest. Don’t forget that our oligarchs that adhere to philosophies justifying endlessly growing personal empires have also shown quite a desire for endless life. The rest of our lives are kind of an obstacle to those goals.

    You do have wonder, though, if replacing your hoard of dissatisfied human proles that clearly don’t like their lot in life with robot slaves kind of takes the joy out of living when you’re a heartless oligarch. What kind of compromises will be required to make it all worth it at that point?

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 19, 2014, 2:33 pm
  12. Here’s a theory about the ‘Techtopus’ conspiracy: the people behind this conspiracy have a propensity to secretly and systematically abuse those they have power over:

    Pando Daily
    Revealed: Apple and Google’s wage-fixing cartel involved dozens more companies, over one million employees

    By Mark Ames
    On March 22, 2014

    “British medieval ordinances of Bristol cobblers in 1364 state, ‘Masters are forbidden to poach workers from other members of the craft.’”

    — Orly Lobel, Talent Wants To Be Free

    Back in January, I wrote about “The Techtopus” — an illegal agreement between seven tech giants, including Apple, Google, and Intel, to suppress wages for tens of thousands of tech employees. The agreement prompted a Department of Justice investigation, resulting in a settlement in which the companies agreed to curb their restricting hiring deals. The same companies were then hit with a civil suit by employees affected by the agreements.

    This week, as the final summary judgement for the resulting class action suit looms, and several of the companies mentioned (Intuit, Pixar and Lucasfilm) scramble to settle out of court, Pando has obtained court documents (embedded below) which show shocking evidence of a much larger conspiracy, reaching far beyond Silicon Valley.

    Confidential internal Google and Apple memos, buried within piles of court dockets and reviewed by PandoDaily, clearly show that what began as a secret cartel agreement between Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt to illegally fix the labor market for hi-tech workers, expanded within a few years to include companies ranging from Dell, IBM, eBay and Microsoft, to Comcast, Clear Channel, Dreamworks, and London-based public relations behemoth WPP. All told, the combined workforces of the companies involved totals well over a million employees.

    According to multiple sources familiar with the case, several of these newly named companies were also subpoenaed by the DOJ for their investigation. A spokesperson for Ask.com confirmed that in 2009-10 the company was investigated by the DOJ, and agreed to cooperate fully with that investigation. Other companies confirmed off the record that they too had been subpoenaed around the same time.

    Although the Department ultimately decided to focus its attention on just Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit, Lucasfilm and Pixar, the emails and memos clearly name dozens more companies which, at least as far as Google and Apple executives were concerned, formed part of their wage-fixing cartel.

    A confidential Google memo (above, left) titled “Special Agreement Hiring Policy,” dating from November 2006, divides the company’s wage-fixing agreements into two categories: “Do Not Cold Call” and “Sensitive Companies.” Below that, the Google memo offers a brief chronology and list of companies:

    The following companies have special agreements with Google and are part of the “Do Not Cold Call” list.

    The first entry marks the beginning of Google’s participation in the wage-suppression scheme:

    Effective March 6, 2005:

    • Genentech, Inc.
    • Intel Corporation
    • Apple Computer
    • Paypal, Inc.
    • Comcast Corporation

    Until now, neither Paypal (owned by eBay), Comcast nor Genentech have been publicly mentioned as part of the wage-suppression cartel. Nor have they been publicly named in criminal or civil actions relating to this particular case, although both the DOJ and the state of California are currently pursuing a separate but related antitrust suits against eBay.

    The “effective date” of Google’s first wage-fixing agreements, early March 2005, follows a few weeks after Steve Jobs threatened Google’s Sergey Brin to stop all recruiting at Apple: “if you hire a single one of these people,” Jobs emailed Brin, “that means war.”

    Jobs threatened Brin and Google on February 17, 2005; nine days later, Apple’s VP for Human Resources sent out an internal email to Apple recruiting,


    Please add Google to your “hands-off” list. We recently agreed not to recruit from one another so if you hear of any recruiting they are doing against us, please be sure to let me know.

    Please also be sure to honor our side of the deal.

    That was February 26; on March 6, Google’s identical non-solicitation agreement with Apple became “effective.”

    This timeline is important to establish because it demonstrates precisely what makes this scheme illegal: secret cross-agreements between two or more parties to fix wages in the labor market, at a time when tech engineer wages were soaring, threatening profits.

    This is just a tiny sample of the “overwhelming” evidence used by both the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and the District Court judge in San Jose, to debunk the company executives’ claims that each had coincidentally implemented identical non-solicitation policies at the same time, with the same companies, without knowing what the other side was doing.

    All of the above is just what’s in the mountain of pre-trial court documents. It’s highly likely that more names will spill out during testimony. Pando will continue to report any new developments and also will be covering the summary judgment hearing next week.

    For now, it’s enough to try to absorb what all of these cross-company, cross-industry secret labor-fixing agreements mean. Most labor stories about wage theft and corporate abuse tend to focus on low-wage earners and the most disadvantaged. Certainly it strains one’s sensibilities to compare an exploited low-wage worker in the fast food or retail industry to tech engineers and programmers, who are far better compensated, live more comfortably, and rarely worry about putting food in their children’s mouths.

    In terms of pathos, there is no comparison; minimum wage earners are struggling to survive, and nearly all of the well-educated, privileged-born people in the media world agree that tech industry workers are all a bunch of overpaid misogynist libertarian bros, a caricature that makes it perfectly fine to hate the entire class, and impossible to consider them as political comrades stuck in the same predicament as the rest of the non-multimillionaires in this country.

    What’s more important is the political predicament that low-paid fast food workers share with well-paid hi-tech workers: the loss of power over their lives and their futures to the growing mass of concentrated power in Silicon Valley, whose tentacles are so strong now and so great, that hundreds of thousands of workers around the globe—public relations and cable company employees in the British Isles, programmers and tech engineers in Russia and China (according to other documents which I’ll write about soon)—have their lives controlled and their wages and opportunities stolen from them without ever knowing about it, all the while being bombarded with cultural cant about the wisdom of the free market, about the efficiency of free knowledge, about the need to take personal responsibility and to blame no one but yourself for everything that happens in your life and your career.

    Your signature awaits!

    On the plus side, the issue of wage-rigging will probably be a shrinking one. At least in terms of the number of workers getting their wages rigged. Globally:

    Singularity Hub
    Foxconn’s Pivot to America: Reverse Outsourcing With Robots
    Written By: Jason Dorrier
    Posted: 02/23/14 12:00 PM

    A little over a year ago, Foxconn, the notorious Taiwanese manufacturer of Apple’s iPhone, said they would replace a million Chinese workers with robots. Now, the firm says they plan to transfer capital-intensive and high-tech manufacturing to the US.

    The two announcements are closely related. Just as cheap labor and competitive firms like Foxconn lured US electronics companies to outsource manufacturing to Asia—new generations of advanced robots may be set to bring it back. (Note: Though there are fewer manufacturing jobs due to automation, the US still “makes” plenty of stuff.)

    China, where Foxconn operates its iPhone plant, has been vilified in recent years for “stealing” US manufacturing jobs, as have the multinationals assembling products there. Most folks (often politicians) cite the fact Chinese factories can pay lower wages than their American counterparts.

    But lower wages are only part of the story. A 2012 New York Times article related an encounter between the late Steve Jobs and President Obama. Obama wanted to know what it would take to bring iPhone assembly to the US. Apple’s CEO was blunt, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

    He went on to explain that when Apple redesigned the screen in the original iPhone just weeks before launch, 8,000 Chinese workers who lived on the factory grounds were immediately awoken, given tea and a biscuit, and set to work refitting screens. A mere 96 hours later, they were pumping out 10,000 iPhones a day.

    “The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” Jobs said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

    Behind those words was an unspoken, controversial fact. No American plant could compete, in part, because the working conditions Jobs described would be considered unacceptable. China on the other hand has fewer such regulations, and therefore, it’s faster, cheaper, and more convenient to assemble electronics there.

    But if it’s been so financially sensible for Apple (and other firms) to make their products in China and ship them thousands of miles back to the US—then, Foxconn’s new plan signals something powerful is changing the cost equation.

    What is that something? Robots, of course. Increasingly affordable robot labor is taking the cost advantage (and PR risk) of operating in less regulated countries and throwing it out the window.

    Now, to be clear, robots have long been a part of manufacturing. What’s changed, and continues to change at a rapid pace, is the cost and competency of those robots.

    Thanks to computer vision and machine learning algorithms, robots, once consigned to carefully controlled tasks, can now function more like human workers. And due to cheap sensors and chips, they’re more powerful per dollar. Not all manufacturing has been automated, but it’s headed in that direction.

    “Automation, software and technology innovation will be our key focus in the US in the coming few years,” Foxconn chairman, Terry Gou, told reporters at a recent press event.

    That may mean more electronics manufacturing in the US, but Jobs was still right. Most of the manufacturing jobs of the halcyon days of yore are gone for good. Future manufacturing will require but a skeleton crew of humans to attend the robots.

    But it’s better than the alternative. Manufacturing is exactly the kind of work machines ought to do, the kind of work that frees humans from dangerous, monotonous tasks. Without automation, most of us would be consigned to plowing the field. There would be no time to develop cancer cures or form garage bands.

    Some foresee a time in the not too distant future when robots doing everything will cause mass unemployment and inequality. Right or wrong—and a heavy burden of proof is on the hypothesizers—the resurgence of that line of thinking, at the least, signals huge technological advancement and upheaval is afoot. Similar arguments have been made at every great leap forward in the last few hundred years.

    But optimism is also warranted. Today, as in the past, technological change has the power to deliver greater abundance, freedom, health, and creativity—and whatever we do for work, fewer humans will be Foxconn cogs in the industrial machine.

    Yes, we all should be optimistic about a reduction in the kinds of jobs that make people want to jump out of tall buildings once robots are there to take their place (maybe). But given humanity’s incompetence at avoiding leaders with an apparent inability to imagine a world dedicated to real prosperity instead of profits, it’s difficult to see why the tech economy of the future isn’t going to be a rigged zero sum game that almost all of us lose.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 22, 2014, 3:51 pm
  13. When you want it all, taking over the government helps. But that still leaves the hearts and minds:

    Pando Daily
    As journalism’s traditional models collapse, billionaires are seeing a chance to own both medium and message

    By David Sirota
    On March 27, 2014

    Journalism, as you learn in your first J-school class, is all about the inverted pyramid. It is the shape that haunts you as a writer and guides you as an editor. And now, as evidenced by Pew’s new report on the state of the news, it is a shape that increasingly defines the media industry’s business model. It also explains why we’re suddenly seeing a raft of new Citizen Kanes’ investing in media and journalism.

    Most of the coverage of the report focused on the rise of online and/or digital-native news operations. In all, Pew reports, such outlets have to date created 5,000 jobs.

    This may seem like a sign that all is finally becoming well in the news business after the Great Internet Disruption that famously laid waste to print publications’ century-long dominance of the media. Yet, in a cautionary note, Pew points out that “the vast majority of bodies producing original reporting still comes from the newspaper industry,” which is still shrinking.

    Making matters worse, many of the top digital media employers listed in Pew’s report are not necessarily outlets that primarily produce what you could accurately call original journalism. Yes, places like the Huffington Post certainly do some original reporting (for which they even won a Pulitzer), but a huge chunk of their work is in aggregation, curation, listicles, and other kinds of non-original (or at least derivative) content.

    Taken together, online media outlets could be proliferating, but original journalism may still be contracting, or at least not growing in any measurable way.

    Hence, the inverted pyramid. At the top of the new inverted pyramid of journalism are the many aggregators and curators who do not produce any original work at all (think Drudge and similar sites); in the middle, narrower levels are the outlets that mix aggregation and curation with some original journalism (HuffPost); and at the bottom, are the ever-smaller number of places that mostly do the expensive time-sucking work of original reporting.

    In this system, the outlets in the wider layers at the top of the inverted pyramid largely rely on the content coming from the narrower bottom layers of the pyramid. They rely on that content for aggregation and curation. They also rely on it for all the riffing and remixing that masquerades as original content – from block-quote-based blog posts, to columnizing to video sampling to the so-called “explanatory journalism” projects being built by those who have not primarily done original journalism, but instead have mostly synthesized others’ work.

    How many media outlets can dance on the head of a pin?

    Teetering on ever-fewer journalism outlets to feed ever-more curation/aggregation outlets, this model is inherently unstable in the same way a financialized economy is.

    For example, when the value of the actual houses at the bottom of the economy’s inverted pyramid dropped, that rippled up through the derivative industries that sold mortgages, mortgage backed securities, and insurance on mortgage backed securities, and it also wreaked havoc on institutional investors who had put their cash in such investments. Ultimately, we got the financial crisis of 2008. Similarly, if we, say, run out of oil at the bottom of the financialized economy’s inverted pyramid, the many oil speculation industries and instruments at the top of the inverted pyramid will be worth nothing, and there would likely be another financial panic.

    It is potentially the same dynamic for journalism. If there’s too little original quality journalism being produced – if, metaphorically speaking, the bottom of the pyramid becomes as narrow as a head of a pin – then profit-taking aggregators/curators like Upworthy at the top of the inverted pyramid can have the greatest algorithms ever created and get glowing magazine profiles, but they will have less and less ”worthy” content to put up. And because they can’t very well curate curation or aggregate aggregation, it will likely mean relying on non-journalism content (sideboob, anybody?), begging for lower quality non-professional content, or facing total collapse.

    The huge opportunity for new Citizen Kanes

    In my Harper’s magazine investigation of this inverted pyramid in 2012, I noted that trends in newspapers, radio and television combined with trends in online news had together created the image of more news outlets, even though there may be less original news than ever. This is perhaps most easy to see on your TV screen – there are more and more cheap-to-produce chat shows featuring pundits and hosts pontificating about news, yet fewer and fewer TV journalists actually doing the unglamorous work of reporting original news. Using newspapers as a euphemism for all original journalism outlets, I reported in Harpers:

    Even as millions of readers abandon newspapers for blogs and websites such as the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report, these online enterprises still rely on aggregation for much of their content. And since such aggregation is largely made up of borrowing or stealing from those very newspapers, the Internet has expanded newspapers’ ability to frame events and shape the terms of our political conversation, while simultaneously killing off such money-spinning franchises as the classified ad.

    For you, the news consumer, this means that the Ron Burgundy on your local evening news program, or the radio announcer you listen to each morning during your commute, is relying more than ever on the old “rip and read” trick – tearing out stories from the monopoly newspaper and reading them as original news. As an investment, then, monopoly broadsheets and tabloids remain a jackpot for a particular kind of buyer: the industrialist or politico who wants to control the core commodity on which most other news products rely.

    In other words, as unstable and unsustainable as the news business’s inverted pyramid is, and as bad as a decrease in original jorunalism is for democracy, it does present a huge opportunity to aspiring Citizen Kanes who value profit and political power, and who understand how the two are symbiotic.

    These new Medicis, as Reuters Jack Shafer calls them, know that in the media business, there are two places to make money and gain power: distribution and content production. They know that the business of pure distribution – ie. curation, aggregation etc. – is prone to saturation because the Internet makes distribution a relatively inexpensive endeavor (in fact, it is downright cheap compared to earlier epochs when distribution required capital investments in printing presses, TV studios, radio facilities, etc.). They also know that that distribution isn’t necessarily where the most power is any more than oil futures rather than oil hold the energy economy’s true value.

    In short, they know that for all the aggregation, curation and other euphemisms used to describe the act of monetizing others’ online content for oneself, the most politically valuable input in the media economy is original journalism at the bottom of the inverted pyramid. Own that, and you control the core message that’s being promoted via others’ distribution conduits higher up on the inverted pyramid.

    Thus, understanding that their comparative advantage over competitors is their money, the oligarchs are investing in the place on the inverted pyramid that can’t be occupied on the cheap – they are investing in original journalism at the bottom. As the pyramid becomes ever more narrow down there and wider at the top, that may destabilize the whole media economy and be terrible for society, but it makes the few oligarchs who own the tiny bottom of the pyramid that much more able to control the content that fuels the whole system.

    One of the fun things about the modern age is that it’s now possible for the new wave of billionaire-owned media outlets to revert the inverted media pyramid by financing the generation of all sorts new original content without journalists. Yep, there’s an app for that and that app is only going to get better:

    Sigularity Hub

    More News Is Being Written By Robots Than You Think
    Written By: Jason Dorrier
    Posted: 03/25/14 8:00 AM

    It’s easy to praise robots and automation when it isn’t your ass on the line. I’ve done it lots. But I may have to eat my own Cheerios soon enough.

    Software is writing news stories with increasing frequency. In a recent example, an LA Times writer-bot wrote and posted a snippet about an earthquake three minutes after the event. The LA Times claims they were first to publish anything on the quake, and outside the USGS, they probably were.

    The LA Times example isn’t special because it’s the first algorithm to write a story on a major news site. With the help of Chicago startup and robot writing firm, Narrative Science, algorithms have basically been passing the Turing test online for the last few years.

    This is possible because some kinds of reporting are formulaic. You take a publicly available source, crunch it down to the highlights, and translate it for readers using a few boiler plate connectors. Hopefully, this makes it more digestible.

    Indeed, Kristian Hammond, cofounder and CTO of Narrative Science, thinks some 90% of the news could be written by computers by 2030.

    I imagine the computer populating a Venn diagram. In one circle, it adds hard data (earnings, sports stats, earthquake readings), in another, a selection of journalistic clichés—and where the two intersect, an article is born.

    In truth, it’s a little more complicated than that. In engineering their software, Narrative worked with trained journalists to help the software determine an angle. For example, in the case of sports, the algorithm answers key questions like, “Who won the game and by how much? Was it a comeback or a blowout? Any heroics or notable stats?”

    The program chooses an article template, strings together sentences, and spices them up with catch phrases: “It was a flawless day at the dish for the Giants.” The tone is colorfully prosaic, but human enough.

    Early on, Narrative applied its algorithms to Little League baseball games. Participating parents would enter game stats into an iPhone app called GameChanger and the app would spit out written game summaries.

    Since then, they’ve supplied content to major news sites. Forbes is open about its use of Narrative’s software, including an explanation in the article. The LA Times earthquake story, written by an algorithm created by one of their staff, included a disclaimer. But many more big sites anonymously use algorithms to write simple stories.

    Narrative’s approach can be applied elsewhere too. The firm recently launched an app that works with Google Analytics to transform raw website metrics (traffic, sources, referrals, demographics) into accessible, natural language reports. These could be useful in any business, a kind of automated analyst to help make sense of big data sets.

    If a writer never had to compose a fifty word earthquake report again—few would complain. Better to leave the short, dry, purely informational articles to the bots.

    In the perennially cash-strapped news business, unpaid algorithms could add lots of cheap content while (hopefully) freeing human writers to focus on and improve the quality of more in-depth, nuanced pieces.

    “The way we use it, it’s supplemental,” Schwencke told the Huffington Post. “It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would. The way I see it is, it doesn’t eliminate anybody’s job as much as it makes everybody’s job more interesting.”

    But Narrative isn’t satisfied with Little League write-ups and data reports.

    Hammond doesn’t mince words. He believes a computer could write stories worthy of a Pulitzer Prize by 2017. Not only would such a robot writer be fast and ever-wakeful, prowling the exponentially growing deluge of online information—it would know enough of the subtleties of human language and logic to write compelling stories too.

    And the software needn’t be limited to the digital world. Such algorithms might one day find themselves a robot body, travel to war zones, and cover robot bull fights.

    These robot-Hemingways might write existential think pieces that get to the heart (or emotional processor) of what it means to be a robot, and in the process, make us question what it means to be human—what sets us apart from the machines we make.

    Wouldn’t it be something it the robot journalists of the future helped us get back in touch with our own humanity? Hopefully those uplifting pieces make it past the editors.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 27, 2014, 8:23 am
  14. Just a heads up: Before the machines take your job completely, they’re going to try to assimilate you first:

    MIT Technology Review
    The Limits of Social Engineering

    Tapping into big data, researchers and planners are building mathematical models of personal and civic behavior. But the models may hide rather than reveal the deepest sources of social ills.

    By Nicholas Carr on April 16, 2014

    In 1969, Playboy published a long, freewheeling interview with Marshall McLuhan in which the media theorist and sixties icon sketched a portrait of the future that was at once seductive and repellent. Noting the ability of digital computers to analyze data and communicate messages, he predicted that the machines eventually would be deployed to fine-tune society’s workings. “The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness,” he said. “Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.” He acknowledged that such centralized control raised the specter of “brainwashing, or far worse,” but he stressed that “the programming of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically.”

    The interview appeared when computers were used mainly for arcane scientific and industrial number-crunching. To most readers at the time, McLuhan’s words must have sounded far-fetched, if not nutty. Now they seem prophetic. With smartphones ubiquitous, Facebook inescapable, and wearable computers like Google Glass emerging, society is gaining a digital sensing system. People’s location and behavior are being tracked as they go through their days, and the resulting information is being transmitted instantaneously to vast server farms. Once we write the algorithms needed to parse all that “big data,” many sociologists and statisticians believe, we’ll be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what makes society tick.

    One of big data’s keenest advocates is Alex “Sandy” Pentland, a data scientist who, as the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, has long used computers to study the behavior of businesses and other organizations. In his brief but ambitious new book, Social Physics, Pentland argues that our greatly expanded ability to gather behavioral data will allow scientists to develop “a causal theory of social structure” and ultimately establish “a mathematical explanation for why society reacts as it does” in all manner of circumstances. As the book’s title makes clear, Pentland thinks that the social world, no less than the material world, operates according to rules. There are “statistical regularities within human movement and communication,” he writes, and once we fully understand those regularities, we’ll discover “the basic mechanisms of social interactions.”

    What’s prevented us from deciphering society’s mathematical underpinnings up to now, Pentland believes, is a lack of empirical rigor in the social sciences. Unlike physicists, who can measure the movements of objects with great precision, sociologists have had to make do with fuzzy observations. They’ve had to work with rough and incomplete data sets drawn from small samples of the population, and they’ve had to rely on people’s notoriously flawed recollections of what they did, when they did it, and whom they did it with. Computer networks promise to remedy those shortcomings. Tapping into the streams of data that flow through gadgets, search engines, social media, and credit card payment systems, scientists will be able to collect precise, real-time information on the behavior of millions, if not billions, of individuals. And because computers neither forget nor fib, the information will be reliable.

    To illustrate what lies in store, Pentland describes a series of experiments that he and his associates have been conducting in the private sector. They go into a business and give each employee an electronic ID card, called a “sociometric badge,” that hangs from the neck and communicates with the badges worn by colleagues. Incorporating microphones, location sensors, and accelerometers, the badges monitor where people go and whom they talk with, taking note of their tone of voice and even their body language. The devices are able to measure not only the chains of communication and influence within an organization but also “personal energy levels” and traits such as “extraversion and empathy.” In one such study of a bank’s call center, the researchers discovered that productivity could be increased simply by tweaking the coffee-break schedule.

    Pentland dubs this data-processing technique “reality mining,” and he suggests that similar kinds of information can be collected on a much broader scale by smartphones outfitted with specialized sensors and apps. Fed into statistical modeling programs, the data could reveal “how things such as ideas, decisions, mood, or the seasonal flu are spread in the community.”

    The mathematical modeling of society is made possible, according to Pentland, by the innate tractability of human beings. We may think of ourselves as rational actors, in conscious control of our choices, but most of what we do is reflexive. Our behavior is determined by our subliminal reactions to the influence of other people, particularly those in the various peer groups we belong to. “The power of social physics,” he writes, “comes from the fact that almost all of our day-to-day actions are habitual, based mostly on what we have learned from observing the behavior of others.” Once you map and measure all of a person’s social influences, you can develop a statistical model that predicts that person’s behavior, just as you can model the path a billiard ball will take after it strikes other balls.

    Deciphering people’s behavior is only the first step. What really excites Pentland is the prospect of using digital media and related tools to change people’s behavior, to motivate groups and individuals to act in more productive and responsible ways. If people react predictably to social influences, then governments and businesses can use computers to develop and deliver carefully tailored incentives, such as messages of praise or small cash payments, to “tune” the flows of influence in a group and thereby modify the habits of its members. Beyond improving the efficiency of transit and health-care systems, Pentland suggests, group-based incentive programs can make communities more harmonious and creative. “Our main insight,” he reports, “is that by targeting [an] individual’s peers, peer pressure can amplify the desired effect of a reward on the target individual.” Computers become, as McLuhan envisioned, civic thermostats. They not only register society’s state but bring it into line with some prescribed ideal. Both the tracking and the maintenance of the social order are automated.

    Ultimately, Pentland argues, looking at people’s interactions through a mathematical lens will free us of time-worn notions about class and class struggle. Political and economic classes, he contends, are “oversimplified stereotypes of a fluid and overlapping matrix of peer groups.” Peer groups, unlike classes, are defined by “shared norms” rather than just “standard features such as income” or “their relationship to the means of production.” Armed with exhaustive information about individuals’ habits and associations, civic planners will be able to trace the full flow of influences that shape personal behavior. Abandoning general categories like “rich” and “poor” or “haves” and “have-nots,” we’ll be able to understand people as individuals—even if those individuals are no more than the sums of all the peer pressures and other social influences that affect them.

    Replacing politics with programming might sound appealing, particularly given Washington’s paralysis. But there are good reasons to be nervous about this sort of social engineering. Most obvious are the privacy concerns raised by collecting ever more intimate personal information. Pentland anticipates such criticisms by arguing for a “New Deal on Data” that gives people direct control over the information collected about them. It’s hard, though, to imagine Internet companies agreeing to give up ownership of the behavioral information that is crucial to their competitive advantage.

    Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around. Pentland does a commendable job in describing how better data can enhance social planning. But like other would-be social engineers, he overreaches. Letting his enthusiasm get the better of him, he begins to take the metaphor of “social physics” literally, even as he acknowledges that mathematical models will always be reductive. “Because it does not try to capture internal cognitive processes,” he writes at one point, “social physics is inherently probabilistic, with an irreducible kernel of uncertainty caused by avoiding the generative nature of conscious human thought.” What big data can’t account for is what’s most unpredictable, and most interesting, about us.

    Oh, isn’t that special: Once we’re all tracked and “optimized”, there won’t be anything like “class” or “rich” or “poor” people anymore. It’ll be paradise!

    At least, that’s probably the story you’re going to be encouraged to believe by your future peers. Think you’ll be able to resist their charms? Think again. Resistance is going to be futile.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 16, 2014, 2:22 pm
  15. If the industrial poisons and inadequate safety standards aren’t reason enough to avoid a job in a silicon chip ‘clean room’, here’s another reason why you probably shouldn’t be building silicon chips. You’re too large:

    SRI Unveils Tiny Robots Ready to Build Big Things

    April 16, 2014, 9:58 AM PDT
    By James Temple

    SRI International has developed a new generation of ant-like robots that can work as a coordinated swarm of miniature builders.

    The research powerhouse says the bots can construct lightweight, high-strength structures; handle tiny electrical components; carry out chemistry on a chip; and perform many other manufacturing tasks. Eventually, they expect that the machines, the smallest of which are no thicker than a dime, will even be able to build smaller versions of themselves.

    SRI has already demonstrated the ability to make more than 1,000 of the robots work together at once.

    The organization, which has explored miniature robotics since the 1990s, initially funded the latest project in-house. But nearly two years ago, it secured an undisclosed amount of money from DARPA to advance what the Department of Defense division is calling the “MicroFactory for Macro Products” project.

    SRI just got to the point where they can talk about the program and offered Re/code an early glimpse.

    The magnetic robots are controlled remotely by a central computer, rather than autonomous, directed along a printed circuit board by a current. The smallest version SRI has built so far is about one millimeter per side.

    To see the robots in action, check out the video below:
    [see video]

    In the lab, researchers have set the mini bots to work building thin trusses, with some assigned the task of placing little bars and others the job of gluing them in place. They’ve also created a model that can carry and handle liquids, with potential applications for what’s known as microfluidics and “lab on a chip” devices.

    Those terms mean pretty much what they sound like: The transport and handling of tiny amounts of liquids, enabling chemistry at a very small scale. These techniques are making it faster, cheaper and easier to analyze DNA, diagnose medical conditions, study cellular processes and much more.

    SRI is far from the only robotics research center to take inspiration from the ant world, where industrious colonies accomplish complex, coordinated tasks with minimal communication. There’s a whole field known as “swarm robotics,” anchored in the concept that relatively cheap, dumb bots following a simple set of rules can complete elaborate projects in large enough numbers.

    Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Swarm Lab recently set up robot experiments to both improve our understanding of ant behavior and better mimic it in our own transportation systems.

    At the current scale, SRI’s researchers can still assemble the robots by hand. But to build subsequent generations, Wong-Foy believes they’ll eventually be able to get the robots themselves to assemble their tinier counterparts.

    The other strength of SRI’s approach is built-in flexibility that will enable their use in applications that SRI hasn’t yet dreamed up, he added. “I think there are limitless applications,” Wong-Foy said.

    Well that’s pretty neat: a remotely controlled swarm army of tiny robots is on the way that, one day, might be able to assemble even small versions of themselves. There’s a lot of possibilities with that kind of technology, but let’s hope it’s not Skynet that ends up controlling these things. That could get messy.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 29, 2014, 2:46 pm
  16. Pando has piece today dredging up a 2009 TED talk by Peter Thiel where he discusses his belief that rapidly increasing technological advancements are the only hope if humanity wants to avoid crushing stagnation:

    Pando Daily
    Peter Thiel: The US as we know it depends on us rediscovering our innovation

    By Niv Dror, Guest Contributor
    On May 16, 2014

    If there’s one video everyone should watch but far too few people have, it’s Peter Thiel’s* talk at TEDx Stanford about the singularity, the concept of a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence – radically changing our civilization. When people talk about the singularity they imagine runaway technology and think about it as a very bad thing. Thiel, on the other hand, named his 2-slide presentation: “All We Need is a Singularity.” (Full video below)

    To start things off he listed seven different disaster scenarios and asked the audience: What are you most worried about?

    1. Robots killing or enslaving humanity? (Skynet)
    2. A pandemic wrecks civilization? (Plague)
    3. Runaway nanotechnology? (Grey goo)
    4. Nuclear war? (Existing technology, Middle East, conflicts)
    5. Government using computers to control everyone? (One world government, totalitarian dictatorship)
    6. Global warming wrecks civilization? (climate change, resource depletion, economic collapse)
    7. The singularity takes too long to happen.

    A quick poll of the audience, a couple of hands raised, and it looked like nuclear war was perceived as a bit more worrisome than the rest. Then Thiel reached the seventh and last point: nothing happens. A clear consensus emerged. People figured that even if a singularity did occur it would take too long to happen; the other scenarios were perceived as too distant in the future. The audience was not all that worried at all.

    Thiel was most worried about the fact that we’ve stopped innovating.

    Perhaps Thiel spoke too soon, maybe he’s still ahead of his time, but today many of these disaster scenarios are no longer hypotheticals – their early signs are reported on the news as current events. Thiel’s talk was given at Stanford University in December of 2009.

    We Depend on Accelerating Technological Change

    People routinely think about technological progress as something that’s great if it happens, but no big deal if it doesn’t happen. Thiel believes that little could be further from the truth. Innovation isn’t just for the tech world and conferences like TED; our entire culture and society is predicated on accelerating technological change.

    For example, we have a financial system where people plan for retirement. They go to a financial planner who tells them they will earn 8.5 percent per year and they’ll need to save X number of dollars each month so they can retire at age 65. If they live until they’re 90, they’re going to be just fine.

    But where does that 8.5 percent figure come from?

    The 8.5 percent comes from looking at studies over the last 100 years where that’s roughly what you earned. The problem is that the last 100 years were years in which we’ve had incredible progress. We’ve experienced incredible technological change. In 68 years, we progressed from the Wright Brothers’ embarking on the first flight to Alan Shepard (commander of Apollo 14) playing golf on the Moon.

    Then the Internet came along and we got distracted.

    One cannot overestimate the importance of the Internet. It has been and will continue to be an incredible driver of growth. But these assumptions about continuous compound growth that are reflected in things as basic as retirement planning only work in a world with rapidly accelerating technological change. Thiel’s point is not intended to discredit all that we’ve achieved with the invention of the Internet and now the smartphone, but rather, to ask, what’s next? Financial planners are not in the business of uncovering or even knowing what the next thing may be, but we as a society should be aware that it’s already factored into our retirement planning and many other areas of our society.

    Thiel argues that this is worth worrying about by citing the fact that the median wage in the US has not gone up since 1973 and average wages have not increased that much – in spite of enormous globalization. With all the global trade we’ve had the past few decades, one would have expected significant progress in living standards even with zero technological progress. But that hasn’t been the case.

    Aha! That 40 years of US wage stagnation was due to a lack of technological innovation. So THAT’s where all the raises are hiding.

    Paul Krugman also addressed the issue of secular stagnation today in a post that discussed the impact of a lack of investments on long term economic output associated with a falling population. But it wasn’t a lack of investment due to there being too many regulations, as Thiel might suggest. Instead, Krugman highlights the fact that the way economic system functions, the rate of economic investment is more of a function of economic growth as opposed to economic output. So if economies are facing long-term population declines (as is the case across the developed world), the system is set up starve itself of investments even though declining populations in today’s world really should be leading to more resources and greater prosperity for all.

    Juxtaposing the two pieces raises and interesting scenario: If one of Thiel’s companies ever discovered some really groundbreaking technology that could fundamentally transform society, let’s say a free energy device that could power motors, but the technology could be easily copied even if it was patented and would undermine the long-term viability of the petroleum sector (so potentially limited personal profits and huge losses for Big Oil), would Thiel share it with the world or secretly sell it to Big Oil? In other words, when we’re relying on technology to save the day while also operating in a socioeconomic system that often put profits over real prosperity, isn’t who discovers that groundbreaking tech potentially just as important as the technology itself? At least, when secretive libertarian oligarchs are increasingly privatizing scientific progress, isn’t “technology will save us!” a “trust me” solution from the same kinds of people that brought us the economic paradigms that turn falling populations into a death trap?

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 19, 2014, 11:36 am
  17. Well isn’t that sweet: a secret robocop that just wants to watch the world go by. For now at least:

    Pando Daily
    EXCLUSIVE: Robot cops secretly roaming Valley campuses, gagged by “the most strict NDA” the maker has ever seen

    By James Robinson
    On May 22, 2014

    In February, we reported from Launch Festival about Knightscope’s robotic police officer (or K5 autonomous data machine, whichever term takes your fancy).

    Standing five-feet tall, the K5 looks like a cross between R2D2 and a washing machine, with the capability to roam outdoors autonomously, scanning its environment every 25 milliseconds through 360-degree video, able to recognize gestures, faces and run 300 license plates a minute.

    At the time, the company said it was about to begin beta testing of its robot cop on campus at a major Silicon Valley company.

    Obviously there are major privacy — and safety — concerns about a robot cop (or, well, robocop) wandering around Silicon Valley, photographing suspected law-breakers and capturing the faces and license plates of everyone it sees. Presumably any tech company considering deploying such a controversial robot on its campus would want to be seen to be doing so openly and transparently, lest it feed into the public’s already heightened “surveillance valley” paranoia.

    And yet, three months later we couldn’t find a single reference to the robo-renta-cops being deployed on a tech campus.

    “There’s a reason for that,” says Knightscope co-founder Stacy Dean Stephens when I call him for comment.

    “We’ve had to sign the most strict NDA I’ve ever entered into in my career,” he adds. This by the way, is a career which includes a stint in law enforcement as a police officer in Texas. “We have to be highly secret about what we’re doing and where we’re doing it.”

    In other words, it’s highly likely that, right now, a robot cop is being tested on a top-tier Silicon Valley corporate campus — spying on employees and visitors alike — but we’re not allowed to know where or how. And if you were hoping an employee might blow the whistle, or at least Instagram one of the scary metal bastards — well, you’re out of luck there too: “The corporations we’re dealing with tend to have a policy, where if you see people working on something that’s out there, you keep it to yourself,” Stephens says.

    Stephens confirms to me that the first of these tests began in January, with several more beginning in March. Given Knightscope’s home is in Mountain View the Silicon Valley was a natural spot to focus on, keeping them close to its customer base for trouble-shooting.

    Stephens insists that the secrecy is less about keeping the public in the dark and more because law enforcement and security agencies are notoriously shy about publicly endorsing any product. He also denies being cagey about the privacy concerns.

    “We don’t shy away from that conversation,” Stephens says. Privacy concerns are raised to the company constantly, he says, adding that he’s sympathetic to those concerns.

    Since beginning testing, the Knightscope robot has gone through three sets of changes to its hardware and software and the fleet has grown from a single machine out to several. Stephens says watching these secret tests happen — wherever in the world that might be — has been “unbelievably cool.”

    “To see the K5 in an environment with people, stopping, going around them, not impeding, learning autonomously about its environment, has been amazing.”

    Pando has reached out to Apple, Facebook, Google, Genentech and Yahoo for comment to see if they are the mystery robot tester. At the time this piece went to press, none was saying a word.

    At least the secret robocop towerbot can’t do much more than move around and watch things. Anything more could be rather alarming given its ability to learn “autonomously about its environment”. Will future version grow arms? Maybe. Or perhaps there will be little armed mobile robobuddies to assist towerbot.

    Another question that arises with a growing robocop industry is whether or not robots from different manufacturers will be able to communicate and coordinate with each other because as the adoption of robocops inevitably grows that could become an issue:

    Venture Beat
    RoboteX private security robots gets $2.06M backed by Peter Thiel
    March 22, 2013 3:41 PM
    Meghan Kelly

    RoboteX, a California company building robots for “first responders,” has filled $2.06 million of a desired $5 million round of funding, according to a filing with the SEC.

    Peter Thiel, along with RoboteX founder Nathan Gettings and chief executive Alexander Karp were listed in the filing. Though these three are named, the filing cites four investor who are unidentified.

    RoboteX was founded in 2007 and creates robots without the use of government funding. Its line of “Avatar” robots are meant to help with security, sometimes in situations that could be dangerous for humans. The website lists examples such as serving papers to a dangerous individual, entering hostage situation, patrolling, investigating suspicious packages, and more.

    The company also has a line of robots for the home and office that offer its own form of roving security system. You attack an iOS device to the robot, which you can then remotely control to survey the house on your behalf.

    The robots also come with a line of accessories, such as a command center, carrying case, manipulator arm, and stabilizers for rough terrain. With the manipulator arm, the Avatar II almost looks like a tiny NASA Curiosity rover.

    Another question that arises: Since we’re clearly going down the path of developing autonomous “moral robots” with the power to make decisions and impact lives, who gets to choose the moral paradigm? Will the owners get to choose between naughty and nice bots? Or will they all be largely amoral? For some reason amoral bots seems more likely.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 23, 2014, 7:27 am
  18. What do you get when you blend Shrinky Dinks with the future labor force? The future labor force:

    Easy-Bake Robots? 3D-Printed Bots Could Self-Assemble When Heated
    By Elizabeth Howell, Live Science Contributor | May 30, 2014 05:45pm ET

    Assembling a future robot could be as simple as heating it up. Two new studies demonstrate how 3D-printed robots could fold into shape and assemble themselves after being exposed to heat.

    To make a two-dimensional sheet of material assemble itself into a 3D machine, the researchers used heated sheets of a type of polymer known as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. These sheets of material were placed between two rigid polyester films that are full of slits.

    When heated, the PVC shrinks and the slits eventually shut, pushing against each other and altering the shape of the PVC. This process bends the material into different shapes, based on the pattern of slits and how the heat interacts with the PVC.

    As slits of different widths push against each other, the material will fold into 3D structures, the researchers said.

    “You’re doing this really complicated global control that moves every edge in the system at the same time,” Daniela Rus, a professor of engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose group conducted the research, said in a statement. “You want to design those edges in such a way that the result of composing all these motions, which actually interfere with each other, leads to the correct geometric structure.”

    One of the new studies examines how to create the 2D pattern of slits that make these foldable robots possible, while the other discusses building electrical robot components such as resistors and capacitors from “self-folding laser-cut materials.”

    Shuhei Miyashita, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, specially designed an aluminum-coated polyester sensor that could be attached to the robots once they are fully assembled. The sensor looks like a small accordion, with folds of material that compress and help electrical currents pass through the system.

    To enable the robot to move, a motor could be made from a foldable copper-coated polyester coil, the researchers said.

    Easy-Bake robot armies are coming to a reality near you. For cities like Seattle that are currently unusually vulnerable to super-villains, the DIY self-assemlbing robot army tech may not be the best news. Just wait.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | June 1, 2014, 8:26 pm
  19. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be an artificial intelligence, keep in mind that it might not be as alien as you imagine. Eventually:

    Fast Company
    IBM’s $3 Billion Investment In Synthetic Brains And Quantum Computing

    IBM thinks the future belongs to computers that mimic the human brain and use quantum physics…and they’re betting $3 billion on it.

    By Neal Ungerleider
    July 11, 2014 | 9:12 AM

    IBM is unveiling a massive $3 billion research and development round on Wednesday, investing in weird, science fiction-like technologies–and, in the process, essentially staking Big Blue’s long-term survival on big data and cognitive computing.

    Over the next five years, IBM will invest a significant amount of their total revenue in technologies like non-silicon computer chips, quantum computing research, and computers that mimic the human brain.

    The $3 billion funding round will go towards a variety of projects designed to catapult semiconductor manufacturing past what IBM physical sciences director Supratik Guha calls the “end of silicon scaling” in microchips. Essentially, IBM believes there will be a point in the medium-term future where microchips will no longer be made out of silicon because other materials will allow for faster and more complex computation. In a telephone conversation, Guha told Fast Company that his company sees an end to silicon scaling within the next three to four tech generations.

    The new R&D initiatives fall into two categories: Developing nanotech components for silicon chips for big data and cloud systems, and experimentation with “post-silicon” microchips. This will include research into quantum computers which don’t know binary code, neurosynaptic computers which mimic the behavior of living brains, carbon nanotubes, graphene tools and a variety of other technologies.

    IBM’s investment is one of the largest for quantum computing to date; the company is one of the biggest researchers in the field, along with a Canadian company named D-Wave which is partnering with Google and NASA to develop quantum computer systems.

    Of all the investments announced in the round, neurosynaptic chips are the most novel. Essentially low-power microchips designed to mimic the behavior of the human brain, IBM has been researching the feasibility of building technology that can mimic human cognition for years. IBM is believed to be building a new programming language around the chips, which will be used for machine learning and cognitive computing systems like Watson. Some proof-of-concept neurosynaptic computing projects IBM announced previously include oral thermometers which identify bacteria by their odor and “conversation flowers” placed on tables which automatically identify speakers by voice and generate real-time transcripts of conversations, rendering transcriptionists obsolete.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | July 11, 2014, 10:39 am
  20. Here’s some news that starving artists might find inspiring: The robot revolution just might end up creating a lot more starving artists:

    PBS Newshour
    Making Sense
    Get a liberal arts B.A., not a business B.A., for the coming artisan economy
    BY Lawrence Katz July 15, 2014 at 5:13 PM EDT

    Editor’s Note: In Making Sen$e’s report on “the artisan economy” Tuesday evening on the NewsHour, Paul Solman speaks with two exterminators and a dementia coach. Not what you typically think of as “artisans”? Well, how about operators of a fresh fruit Popsicle company or a line of handmade dog leashes, both crafted in a repurposed Brooklyn factory? Any of those jobs can be artisan says Larry Katz, the Harvard professor who’s coined the term “artisan economy.” What makes them artisan is that they’re not standardized occupations; they involve what he calls “personal flair” in each stage of the job.

    But this movement is about a lot more than hipsters bucking a traditional career path. Katz believes the artisan economy can help shore up the American middle class by creating new jobs to replace those mass production and middle management jobs lost to outsourcing or new technology. And he thinks that a firm grounding in the multidisciplinary liberal arts is the best preparation – better even than a business degree – to taking advantage of the artisan economy that he hopes will be a path to upward mobility for the average American. Watch Paul’s report, and read his extended conversation with Katz, edited and condensed for clarity, below.

    So what is an artisanal job?

    Historically, an artisan is somebody who did the entire work largely by themselves — conceive a project, put it together, make it. Think about Paul Revere as a silversmith in Colonial America.

    The potential is almost anywhere — it’s typically not an organizational job where you’re just moving up a ladder, but in principle, you could be an artisan as a wait person or as a baker.

    What’s the basic problem that the artisan economy is trying to solve?

    The basic problem is the decline of what has been traditional middle class jobs, the hollowing out of the middle of our economy and trying to find a new way to provide upward mobility for the typical American.

    Artisans were very important in the colonial economy. But in some sense, mass production in the large industrial economy drove out a lot of artisans. The individual blacksmiths and gunsmiths were replaced with large production processes that made standardized goods much cheaper.

    And that’s happening now, every day?

    It’s happening every day. In the 19th century, when high-earning artisans were displaced, two groups benefited – the highly educated workers who became the managers and the engineers who designed the technological processes that replaced the artisan. And then there were a lot of frontline workers, who were less skilled than the artisans, on the assembly line.

    So a lot of the jobs that became the middle class jobs of the mid to late 20th century – mid-level managers and production workers, for example, are exactly what new information technology is very good at replacing. You don’t need as many middle managers if you can directly monitor with a computer what the frontline worker is doing; a robot can do the production process or it can be outsourced.

    We’ve seen growth in jobs for people with abstract creative skills, like designing an auto teller or thinking of new ways to entice consumers to want to make more financial transactions. There used to be people who actually graded every mortgage; now it’s writing a program to grade the mortgage or interpreting how to market them.

    There’s the potentially hopeful scenario of, in some sense, being able to bring back the old mass production artisanal work with new technologies of today that allow a lot of customization and creativity in the same way that hand work did in the past.

    So that could range from designing an app or being a carpenter who uses technology to customize a kitchen cabinet for the high-end abstract worker. If I’m a carpenter, if I can figure out what idiosyncratic items you would prefer and design them myself, I’m a much more valuable contractor in the same way that someone like Paul Revere could personalize what a silversmith did.

    I could be a college graduate who goes out and thinks very seriously about using local produce or I could be someone with community college training and set up my own catering service or restaurant. That might not look like a traditional college job or a middle class job, but that can be very lucrative if I’m doing that in a creative way with flair in a way that a standard fast food restaurant isn’t.

    So I think there’s a possibility of an economy emerging in which the ability of people to have their own personal style and flair will be much more valuable than just doing routine things. That’s the case at both high-level jobs, but also in being a home health aide in ways that are very valuable to your patients and that will earn you a higher income eventually. I think that’s potentially where there may be a new middle class.

    We speak to a dementia coach in our Making Sen$e story on the NewsHour Tuesday who coaches families on how to deal with a relative with dementia. Is she part of the artisan economy?

    Working with the elderly is a huge area. And this is where the growth of what I call the “artisan economy” is beneficial not just to the worker. In the worst case scenario, [working with the elderly] is a minimum wage job where people are effectively babysitting and not really learning, and the elderly are pretty much checked out and sedated in some cases. But it could be done in a way that brings dignity to the patient and their family – that’s a skill that requires some education, but a lot of experience would be much more valuable if we reimburse that in a way that took into account the skill of an artisanal dementia coach or home health aide. We should be doing that in Medicaid and Medicare. That’s the kind of middle class job that’s going to be extremely valuable going forward as opposed to a “McJob” where the person just does a routine.

    Human interaction presumably makes a huge difference at some deep level of our brains, right?

    Computers are very good at an algorithm, but lots of people might do much better with another human being who has a little empathy.

    Well there’s “Her,” the new movie where there’s a computer program that is extraordinarily empathic.

    It is true that there are ways of programming and maybe 20, 30 years from now, computers will be telling physical therapists and contractors what to do, but we have a window where I suspect computers will be more tools to enhance your individual flexibility and flair rather than substitutes for you.

    That’s the key: can you complement the new computer technology and use it to provide a better experience rather than just be someone who does a routine thing that anyone could replace you in doing? There’s enough human ingenuity out there and enough demand for new experiences that people will be able to take advantage.

    But to get there, we need to rethink education – not just to produce people who can do well on standardized tests, but who can also work in collaborative ways with interpersonal skills.

    And what is the dark scenario if artisan jobs don’t come to fruition?

    The dark scenario is more of the last several decades: an increase in the concentration of wealth in a small very high-up group, then an increase for the modest group of very educated people who served that group, and everyone else battling out in the world economy for jobs that are driven down to the lowest wages or living off things like disability programs and food stamps with persistently high unemployment. I hope we aren’t there.

    In your darkest moments, do you worry that you’re simply trying to make up a solution to a problem that might be intractable?

    I always worry. An alternative scenario is one where a small group of individuals owns the robots in the capital stock. That’s a worrisome scenario and we certainly see trends in that direction.

    Of course, many of the transitions to new eras are quite disruptive, and the last 30 years have been extremely disruptive, and probably the next decade will still have high inequality. But there was a period in the late 19th and early 20th century where people worried about concentration of wealth and talked about how all people over 40 were going to be technologically unemployed right after the Great Depression. But eventually, with proper investments in education and research, development and human capabilities led to the periods we’ve seen of shared prosperity. We’re very far from being there today, and if we only look at the last 30 years, you should be very worried because you need a longer historical perspective to have the more optimistic view.

    Let’s compare these two sentiments:
    “It is true that there are ways of programming and maybe 20, 30 years from now, computers will be telling physical therapists and contractors what to do, but we have a window where I suspect computers will be more tools to enhance your individual flexibility and flair rather than substitutes for you.


    “But there was a period in the late 19th and early 20th century where people worried about concentration of wealth and talked about how all people over 40 were going to be technologically unemployed right after the Great Depression. But eventually, with proper investments in education and research, development and human capabilities led to the periods we’ve seen of shared prosperity. We’re very far from being there today, and if we only look at the last 30 years, you should be very worried because you need a longer historical perspective to have the more optimistic view

    Yes, we’re currently living in a “window” where AI and robotics hasn’t yet replaced the need for people, but that window might close in another few decades. Also, things have gotten so bad over last few decades in terms of the hollowing out of the middle class and growing inequality that you can’t really be optimistic unless you assume society succeeds in recreating the kind of historic struggles that created a middle class in the first place. So the situation is temporarily not as bad as it’s going to get, but it’s also probably not going to get better before it gets much, much worse. At least when the cheetah bots hunt you down it’ll be over quick.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | July 17, 2014, 9:26 pm
  21. The latest message to minimum wage workers in the US: Know your place, that place being something close to an iPad:

    Don’t ask for a living wage or you’ll be replaced by an iPad

    by David Atkins
    7/20/2014 07:30:00 AM

    This is an actual billboard in San Francisco
    [see image]

    Pando Daily has more on this:

    Its message — that minimum wage increases will lead to service workers being replaced by apps — is continued on an accompanying website — BadIdeaCA — which claims to be “holding activists accountable for minimum wage consequences.”

    So who the hell pays for billboards threatening waitstaff with redundancy if they demand a living wage? A bit of digging and clicking reveals that the campaign is backed by Employment Policies Institute, the conservative lobbying group which regularly campaigns on behalf of the restaurant industry.

    So, this is obviously disgusting on the part of the restaurant industry and its flacks. But it’s worth noting that restaurants are already beginning to replace servers with tablets.

    There are a lot of progressives out there who are very hostile to the idea that mechanization of jobs has had a huge impact on the workforce and will increasingly do so in the future. It runs against the narrative that the entirety of the screwing over of the middle class was a pure product of Reaganomics and political decisions to benefit the rich, and the correlated narrative that we really can return to the economy of the mid-twentieth century if we only go back to the old tax rates and trade deals.

    The fact remains that within one year a bunch of server jobs will be gone because restaurants will replace order-taking with tablets. Within a decade or two we won’t need truck or cab drivers anymore. IBM can already diagnose cancer five times better than doctors. The flattening of the teaching profession will continue apace as the technology and techniques behind MOOCs continue to improve. 3D printing will render much of what manufacturing remains obsolete. Anything requiring mid-level management or analysis will be done better by computer within two decades at the max, and probably sooner.

    Pushing for a higher minimum wage is important. But ultimately we’re going to have to decouple human dignity from “having a job.” There just won’t be enough jobs to go around, and tweaking the tax rates of super-wealthy just won’t cut it at a certain point.

    It’s worth noting that the firm that ran this ad, Employment Policies Institute, is run by none other than Rick Berman, the guy that wears the “Dr Evil” badge with pride:

    60 Minutes
    Meet Rick Berman, A.K.A. “Dr. Evil”

    Morley Safer Speaks To A Lobbyist Some People Love To Hate

    2011 Feb 25

    This segment was originally broadcast on April 8, 2007. It was updated on July 17, 2007.

    Rick Berman takes a certain pride, even joy, in the nickname “Dr. Evil.” But the people who use it see nothing funny about it—they mean it.

    His real name is Rick Berman, a Washington lobbyist and arch-enemy of other lobbyists and do-gooders who would have government control—and even ban-a myriad of products they claim are killing us, products like caffeine, salt, fast food and the oil they fry it in. He’s against Mothers Against Drunk Driving, animal rights activists, food watchdog groups and unions of every kind.

    As correspondent Morley Safer reports, Berman believes we are fast becoming a nation of passive children ruled by the iron thumb of self-appointed “nannies” and he gets paid good money to keep all those “Mary Poppinses” at bay. And they have reserved a special place in hell for him.

    “Let me just take you through some of the things your critics have said about you. Sleazy, greedy, outrageous, deceptive, ineffective except when it comes to making money for yourself, corporate lackey who is one of the scariest people in America,” Safer remarks.

    “You know, I grew up in the Bronx. Name-calling is not the worst thing that I’ve been subjected to,” Berman replies.

    Rick Berman is lawyer and a lobbyist, which some might say is bad enough, but he would say lawyer and lobbyist for personal freedom.

    “If the government is truly interested in my health and welfare, I’m appreciative of it. But, I think I can take care of myself,” Berman tells Safer.

    Berman claims that we are quickly becoming a “nanny state,” an overregulated society with ever-declining freedom of choice from how much we earn, to when we may drive, to what we eat.

    He has particular contempt for so-called “food cops” who claim to know what’s best for us.

    “They create this Chicken Little mentality that the sky is falling over everything,” Berman says. “You know, the latest study says this, the latest study says that. And they drive the government to satisfy that artificial public need.”

    Berman blames activist, safety and watchdog groups—”do-gooders run amok” he calls them—for trying to scare America into submission. He points to those endless reports, often contradictory, which offer us a dizzying array of fearful news about everyday food and drink that might just kill you: like tuna fish, chicken, diet soda, salt, and that demon, trans-fats.

    “I don’t think that the other side should be allowed to talk and the response be intimidated into submission or silence. And so I’m the other side,” Berman says.

    The other side as in big business, mainly the food, beverage and restaurant business, which have a vested interest in encouraging people to continue to eat, drink and be merry to their heart’s delight.

    Asked if has become a major tool for corporate America, Berman says, “My mission is not to defend corporate America.”

    “You’re a hired gun,” Safer remarks.

    “Well, I go out to people and I say, ‘Look, if you believe in what I believe, will you help fund it?’ Now, I don’t know if that’s a hired gun or not. But, the point is, yes, I do get paid for educating people. If that’s my biggest crime, I stand accused,” Berman says.

    And it’s not just the “food police” Berman goes after: it’s anyone who seeks to limit or regulate our way of life, like animal rights activists, trial lawyers, and his current favorite, union leaders.

    And Berman uses ads to drive home the message.

    “You know what I love? Paying union dues, just so I can keep my job,” one TV ad says. “I really like how the union discriminates against minorities!” “Nothing makes me feel better than knowing that I’m supporting their fat-cat lifestyles. Find out the facts about union officials at unionfacts.com” “Thanks, union bosses!”

    “There’s no sense in putting out a 17 page scientific report that nobody will read. So, I put out a 30 second commercial that makes the point,” Berman explains.

    But the “point” is not made by Berman and Company. He has come up with a clever system of non-profit educational entities. Companies can make charitable donations to these groups, which have names like Center for Consumer Freedom and Center for Union Facts. They are neutral sounding but “educating,” with a particular point of view, all perfectly legal.

    Berman and his staff of young crusaders attack the nanny culture by combing through watchdog and government reports, seeking inconsistencies, overstatements, seizing on the one fact here or there that might discredit the research. And Berman says he’s rarely disappointed.

    He blasts MADD for no longer being run by mothers, and PETA, who he accused of killing animals in its care. And he questions the danger of mercury in tuna; he says it’s massively over-hyped.

    Web sites devoted to nanny bashing and ads showing children being exploited by union bosses are all in a day’s work for Rick Berman.

    In the end, Berman says it’s all about “shooting the messenger.”

    “Shooting the messenger means getting people to understand that this messenger is not as credible as their name would suggest,” Berman says.

    While those tactics have made him rich and powerful, they have also made him mightily unpopular. Even in a mudslinging city like Washington, it’s difficult to find someone who provokes as much venom as Rick Berman.

    “He’s a one-man goon squad for any company that’s willing to hire him,” says Dr. Michael Jacobson, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a healthy food advocacy group. Jacobson has been the point man in the “food wars” for decades.

    Jacobson’s declaration of war on obesity has often brought him face to face with “Dr. Evil.”

    “Berman is against every single measure, no matter how sensible. He’d have no restrictions on tobacco advertising, junk foods galore in schools. No minimum wage,” Jacobson tells Safer. “He wants to leave corporate America unfettered of any regulations that protect the public’s health.

    Jacobson says corporate America simply hires Berman to say the nasty things they wouldn’t dare say themselves.

    “He’s a hit man. He’s dishonest, deceptive, he makes things up,” Jacobson says. “He does things that the companies can’t do or say themselves, badmouthing just about anybody who says anything critical of industry.”

    And though his business rakes in millions, Berman says it’s not about the cash. He says it’s a calling.

    “I didn’t need to be doing this. I’m doing this because it’s a passion of mind. I believe in what I’m doing,” Berman tells Safer.

    “But, you’re also doing it for the money. C’mon, admit it,” Safer says.

    “I was making a lot of money before I ever started this firm. I do it because I believe in it. I do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Berman replies.

    Berman says his methods are fair, and that he is only responding to his opponents, who consistently use scare tactics.

    He has spoken out against trans-fat, that controversial frying oil under attack by city councils around the country. Berman says it’s hardly the poison its enemies claim it is.

    “People should not be led around by the nose with bad information,” Berman says. “You can make up your own mind as to whether or not margarine is really rat poison as some people have said.”

    “I have no problem with education. But, education turns into regulation, you know?” Berman says. “As the government gets deeper and deeper into people’s lives, they start to dictate more and more. If a bartender can cut you off for visibly being intoxicated, why won’t we get to the point where a restaurant operator is not allowed to let you order dessert? I mean, you could get there.”

    “Oh, it sounds ridiculous, right? ‘Well, I can’t imagine that.’ But, imagine ten steps to get there and all of the sudden it doesn’t appear so crazy,” Berman adds.

    And that is how Dr. Evil frames almost any issue he fights—resist or big nanny will crush you.

    He says MADD won’t be happy until there is a breathalyzer in every car. Caffeine and salt will disappear, America will be regulated to a police state, one without French fries or foie gras.

    “I am not opposed to stopping any of the stuff that’s really bad. But, I am opposed to making the problem seem worse than it is. And these groups will make it seem so bad so it justifies their Draconian solutions,” Berman says.

    But Michael Jacobson says Berman, in his malevolence, is distorting deathly serious issues that will have long term effects on Americans.

    “An occasional hot dog is not gonna kill anybody. But, when you’re having fettuccini Alfredo one night and the next day you have a double whopper with cheese at Burger King and the next day you go over to Denny’s and you have one of their enormous breakfasts, that’s what’s killing us. Half a million people die every year of heart disease,” Jacobson says.

    Asked if Berman believes in what he does, Jacobson says, “He’s a PR guy. How you can believe anything he says? I think he’s in favor of making a lot of money.”

    “But I think he does hit a nerve in this country when he goes after the nanny state that everything you do is being controlled by Big Mother,” Safer remarks.

    “Yeah. Isn’t it terrible? We have health departments that are trying to clean up restaurants, environmental agencies that are trying to clean the air and the water. It’s just terrible,” Jacobson says. “I think it’s great that government sometimes protects the public’s welfare. And he’s there protecting industry.”

    Berman concedes government has a role, but says for the most part the marketplace will self-regulate.

    “If the other side thinks that I’m all of these bad things, the one thing that they must think is I’m effective, or else they wouldn’t be bitching about it so much,” Berman says.

    There’s a lot to digest there, but compare these three statements:

    “You’re a hired gun,” Safer remarks.

    “Well, I go out to people and I say, ‘Look, if you believe in what I believe, will you help fund it?’ Now, I don’t know if that’s a hired gun or not. But, the point is, yes, I do get paid for educating people. If that’s my biggest crime, I stand accused,” Berman says.


    “People should not be led around by the nose with bad information,” Berman says. “You can make up your own mind as to whether or not margarine is really rat poison as some people have said.”


    “I have no problem with education. But, education turns into regulation, you know?” Berman says. “As the government gets deeper and deeper into people’s lives, they start to dictate more and more. If a bartender can cut you off for visibly being intoxicated, why won’t we get to the point where a restaurant operator is not allowed to let you order dessert? I mean, you could get there.”

    Richard Berman, as a lead propagandist and disinfo artist for the food giants (and anti-green energy forces), clearly understands the importance of education. And if you look at where we’re heading socioeconomically, all signs point towards an economy where maintaining a decent standard or living (including access to adequate food) is increasingly reliant on knowledge. It’s either going to be who you know, or what you know. And as David Atkins pointed out above, the IT/scientific revolution that’s making knowledge so important for the modern economy is also creating technologies like iPads, AI, and robotics that are increasingly able to replace the entire classes of employment ranging from fast food workers to oncologists (as Berman’s group reminded us with their fun ad).

    When oncologists are increasingly replaceable, we aren’t really in a scenario where “more education” is going to solve the growing crisis of an economic model that no longer fits humanity’s needs. We need a new social contract where having “a job” isn’t a prerequisite to having real socioeconomic security. How on earth we detach a job from an income while still providing access to an education is going to be one of the more challenging tasks for the foreseeable future because having a job and making money/paying for services has been the method of choice for greating a distributed system of “fairness” for thousands of years. Thats pretty much what money is supposed to represent: money units are little effort/value widgets that are earned and traded that ensure that you sort of get what you give. It’s a clever system, but it’s also potentially going to break under a number of 21st century scenarios. Robots and advanced AI that can mimic human ingenuity can break the “fairness” factor in the current system. And that ignores the looming resource constraints associated with climate change, population growth, and greater affluence/resource consumption patterns.

    So what’s a better model? Well, if you look at Richard Berman’s dystopian vision of the world – where everyone is expected to become their own doctor/nutritionist/ecologist/economist/historian/information economy-human swiss army knife while competing with AI-powered iPads in an economy with no minimum wage – the only real way you could create the super consumers that Berman expects us to be is by creating the kind of “nanny state” that give immense free educational opportunities throughout our lives to the point where we wouldn’t really be worried about competing with AI and robots because, if you couldn’t find a job, you would just go back to school on a free education. A basic income to learn stuff. Berman would never advocate this solution, but it’s hard to see how you could have the super consumers he desires without an free time/education-based society.

    And that means Richard Berman’s absurdist vision of the world might lead us to a solution for how to deal with a resource constrained world with AI and advanced robots and far fewer jobs for people. Berman’s consumer superman model suffers from the same delusion that all such models suffer which is that no one can achieve the state of knowledge required to be that consumer superman in the kind of government-free society Berman advocates.

    But Berman’s superman, while absurd, can still be the goal that the free-education “nanny state” can help us work towards. That’ll be the compromise: We can use the “nanny state”/welfare state that’s going become enabled by robotics and AI to give everyone the time to get the training, education, and experience needed to be the rugged individuals that don’t need any government at all for the myriad of complex choices required in day to day consuming. And while we’re all training towards this rugged individualism, people can try to start businesses using new skills they acquired or become a volunteer addressing one of the issues they learned about. It wouldn’t have to involve formally going back to school, but mass self-driven adult education and volunteering as a default pastime just might be the way to rework the social contract in the automated economy.

    Becoming an educated voter and consumer could, itself, be a way of giving back to society and, if you think about it, being a high quality voter and consumer is one of the most valuable contributions one can make in a robotics/AI economy because there’s going to be growing number of complex, technology-driven issues facing society that could use an engaged voting base. So society might have to move away from giving our money so much control over our lives. Oh no.

    But something new is going to be needed. Richard Berman and his crew have made that increasingly clear over the years.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | July 20, 2014, 10:48 pm
  22. This is one of those stories that highlights why we’re going to have to increasingly hope that Elon Musk’s libertarian streak doesn’t turn into a force of libertarian destruction bent on undermining political empowerment like what has happened with so many of his fellow libertarian oligarchs. Because of all the members of the “PayPal mafia, Musk appears to be the relatively sane one. Sure, Musk’s relative sanity may not prevent the growing technological and financial empires of the Musk and the rest of the PayPal Mafia from steadily subverting democracy, but at least it might prevent a ‘SkyNet’ situation:

    Bussiness Insider Austerlia
    Here’s What We Know About The Secretive, Elon Musk-Backed Firm Creating Functional Artificial Intelligence
    Rob Wile Jul 23 2014, 12:21 AM

    Silicon Valley enjoys something of a monopoly these days on making the most noise in the U.S. economy.

    But there’s been surprisingly little fanfare surrounding the latest project that seemingly all the most successful Valleyites have been pouring into: an artificial intelligence company called Vicarious.

    Founded in 2010, Vicarious’ list of investors is dazzling: Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Ashton Kutcher, and Dustin Moskowitz count among the household names. PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, along with folks from startup funders Y Combinator and cloud storage group Box, also number among those who’ve provided funding.

    For Aydin Senkut, whose Felicis Ventures was one of Vicarious’ earliest investors, there is agreement among top valley VCs that now is the time to get into artificial intelligence and machine learning, because it is going to change everyone’s lives irrevocably.

    “AI and machine learning is a really big deal,” he told us by phone recently. “For the longest time no one took it very seriously, but… more and more companies are now seeing how far they have fallen behind in this area, and how it’s critically important to have this capability.”

    What exactly is this capability? Despite its marquee backers, Vicarious has gained a reputation for secrecy. Co-founder Scott Phoenix, a computer scientist and designer, told us his team was not currently doing interviews. The other co-founder, a neuroscientist named Dileep George, did not respond to several requests for comment.

    But in previous interviews, George has discussed some of the potential practical applications for artificial intelligence. In an interview with NBC’s PressHere in 2012, he described how an “improved Siri” could someday be smart enough to complex commands from any speaker, even with ones with thick accents, for things like booking air tickets without having to click through a bunch of screens. In the nearer term, which is still measured in years, AI capabilities will be sufficiently advanced that they can perform medical diagnoses, or recognise images that don’t contain any preexisting text tags.

    George and Phoenix call the underlying technology that powers these applications recursive cortical networking. RCN means teaching computers to model brain functions — specifically, those of the neocortex, the part responsible for sensory processing. As George, who left an AI venture created by Palm founder Jeff Hawkins to found Vicarious, told KurzweilAI in 2012, “My goals have always been to embody the computational principles of the brain in a mathematical model, but RCN is a ground-up rethinking of what kind of algorithmic approach is necessary to solve the problem.”

    Vicarious’ breakthroughs are still in their infancy, but they have posted a demonstration of something it can already do: break a CAPTCHA security device. We’ve GIF’ed how it works here:

    The Valley seems to be hungry for AI in general. But if there’s any kind of AI arms-race on, the field remains pretty narrow, if only because there are so few people qualified to lead the way. Facebook recently hired its own specialist in charge of AI, NYU’s Yann LeCun, but he and his team remain focused on how to improve Facebook’s own functions. A more direct rival, of sorts, to Vicarious, is a firm called DeepMind. Google bought DeepMind for $US400 million earlier this year. Ironically Vicarious and DeepMind both share Thiel’s Founders Fund as a backer, which confirms how narrow the space remains, but also how VCs are attempting to get a piece of as much AI action as they can. Recode reported in January that London-based DeepMind is working on similar projects as Vicarious, like advanced image recognition, though they too are quite cagey about what exactly they’re up to.

    “The reality is, there are a very limited number of AI and machine learning experts in the world, which is one reason why it’s been getting so much attention,” Senkut says. “It is such an important field, and [DeepMind] is one of few that are thinking very big and ambitious.”

    In fact, the most publicly accessible AI projects are coming from the government. Sometime between 2006 and 2007, the Director of National Intelligence began earmarking funds for IARPA, short for Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. Its goal was to start developing technology for the country’s 16 different spy agencies IARPA is itself looking to accelerate its image-reading capabilities through a program called JANUS. It’s also hoping to develop a technology that can “[understand] human interactions that involve trust and trustworthiness.”

    Bruno Olshausen, a Vicarious adviser and neuroscience professor at Berkeley told us that the most exciting research IARPA is conducting is in a field called Connectomics. The goal is nothing less than recreating the human brain. The output from the field will make the aforementioned projects look prehistoric.

    “Evolution discovered all these secrets — like building an eye — about how to build good, simple processing,” he told us. “This is something computers cannot do now. But when you look at a brain under a microscope, you’re basically looking at the solution, you’re looking at a microchip.”

    Last month, Elon Musk, who came on board as a backer in a $US40 million funding round that also included Zuckerberg and Kutcher, said one of the reasons he’d invested in Vicarious was to keep an eye on unexpected negative developments in AI — basically, a “SkyNet” scenario.

    Olshausen says that scenario remains a remote possibility. Our knowledge of how the brain works is more or less where our knowledge of physics was before Newton: nearly useless.

    “Absent a major paradigm shift – something unforeseeable at present – I would not say we are at the point where we should truly be worried about AI going out of control,” he said in a follow-up email. ” That is not to say that we shouldn’t worry about how *humans* will use machines or engage in warfare via machines – e.g., for domestic spying, foreign espionage, hacking attacks and the like. But in the meantime we can rest easy knowing that computers themselves are not going to take over the world anytime soon, or in the foreseeable future.”

    The AI crew is playing a very long game — there have been reports that Vicarious makes anyone who comes on sign something that says they will not ask about short-term progress or profits. But Senkut believes that as novel as it sounds now, we will someday be taking AI for granted.

    “It’s unstoppable,” he said. “This thing is going to be here before we know it, like with HTTP distribution coming out in the ’70s, I don’t think people realised it was going to give birth to the Internet. It’s not like, Oh my god, what’s the next thing in a few months. I’m just really excited that it’s going to be an enabling platform, that’s something I don’t even have to speculate about.”

    Yes, the PayPal Mafia and similarly minded groups are making some pretty big long term bets on advanced, creative artificial intelligence and that probably means that the commercialization and proliferation of advanced AI as just a routine tool of commerce is only a matter of time. Having a little SkyNet wariness amongst the creators and sellers of this technology is probably appropriate, especially since Bruno Olshausen, Vicarious’s neuroscience adviser, doesn’t really seem concerned about such a possibility. So let’s hope Musk doesn’t go to the dark side while he’s on SkyNet patrol. Or worse, let’s hope he’s not already there. *gasp*

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 2, 2014, 6:30 pm
  23. Every once in a while technocracy needs another hug:

    Bloomberg View
    Silicon Valley Can Solve the Big Problems
    Aug 4, 2014 11:04 AM EDT

    By Noah Smith

    Sometime around 2006, I was sitting in my apartment in Japan listening to old music, and I heard a Bob Dylan song. It’s about missing his old friends, and wishing he could talk to them again. The songs ends:

    I wish, I wish, I wish in vain

    That we could sit simply in that room again

    Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat

    I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

    As I listened, I started to miss my own high-school gang. I was feeling more and more depressed, when suddenly I realized what an idiot I was. I opened Firefox, fired up Google Talk, and found three of my old friends online. I immediately messaged all of them, and quickly received three rather irreverent responses.

    It was at that moment that I almost broke into tears, because I realized that something huge had changed for the better in the human experience. All throughout my youth, I had seen my parents and my friends’ parents drift away from their friends. The sheer difficulty of keeping in regular contact over extreme distances, even with telephones, meant that if you moved to a new town, you could make new friends but it would be hard to keep the old. Then came e-mail, and chat, and Facebook and Instagram and the rest. And suddenly, through a trick of human ingenuity, you never have to lose touch with your old friends again. We woke up, and the world was better.

    This is why I am annoyed when writers accuse Silicon Valley (by which they mean the entire tech industry) of not solving big problems. Presumably, these tech critics want venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to take us into space, solve the global energy crunch or invent new labor-saving devices. And presumably they aren’t satisfied that SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, and theGoogle Self-Driving Car project, among others, are working on all these things as we speak. Presumably they are unhappy with technology’s failure to give them a hoverboard, despite the fact that many cities have outlawed skateboards of the wheeled variety.

    What critics of Silicon Valley’s vision fail to realize, though, is that the really big problems aren’t the hard ones or the spectacular ones. The really big problems are things that affect the quality of human life.

    Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, theorized that people’s needs come in a “hierarchy.” Once you take care of the basics — food, shelter, security — you start being mainly concerned with social needs, like love, companionship and respect. The theory predicts that in poor countries, people will mainly be concerned with getting things like bigger houses, cars and better food. But in rich countries, where most people have these things, the focus will shift to human relationships and career success. And in fact, happiness research bears this out.

    The problems of this higher rung of Maslow’s ladder are exactly the ones that tech companies like Facebook and Match.com have begun to crack. Consider the impact of dating sites on the lives of divorced people. For a young person, dating sites — OKCupid or Tinder — are a marginal improvement over the old singles scene of parties, bars and friends-of-friends. But for divorced middle-aged people, who are often socially isolated and occupied with work, meeting people is a much more daunting task. For these people, dating sites are a godsend. If you don’t believe me, just ask your friends from Korea or China about their divorced parents. In those countries, online dating is still heavily stigmatized and generally feared — and the outcome is a lifetime of extreme loneliness for legions of older people.

    I believe that the advent of social technology is a huge step toward solving the really big, really tough problems of humanity. The ability to connect with old friends and meet romantic partners late in life isn’t as spectacular as the ability to fly to Mars, but if you think about it, Mars is just a ball of rock and ice. Here on Earth, there are much vaster worlds to explore: the worlds in other people’s minds. Elie Wiesel wrote:

    We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.

    Those Silicon Valley nerds, with their hoodies and their silly jargon, are building us the ships to explore those universes, and in the process changing what it means to live a full and complete human life. To me, that’s a big idea.

    Given the array of mega-challenges like climate change, resource depletion, and a globally pandemic of political, economic, and educational disempowerment, the idea that social media tools constitutes solving the “big” issue of the day is a bit absurd. At the same time, social media tools could end up being one of the most valuable tools in humanity’s tool box for developing solutions to the “big” challenges of the day, assuming we don’t just use the social media tools to sell our privacy and swap LOLcat photos.

    Think about it: What could “out think” Silicon Valley and come up with better solutions to the “big” issues of the day? Even the technological issues? Hmmm…how about pretty much any society with a big enough population of highly educated individuals with the time and resources needed to learn about what the “big” issues are, study those issues, brain-storm solutions and maybe even test them out. For free. And what might it take to get that large pool of highly educated people with the time to sit around studying and solving society’s problems for free? How about a universal guaranteed income and universal access to higher education. All that untapped human potential that could be unleashed if we just gave people the time and resources needed to ponder big problems could finally be unleashed. Possibly for the first time ever since a ‘leisure society’ – which is necesarry for free problem solving on a massive scale – has never really existed before. And, of course, the social media tools to enable the sharing of ideas could be extremely helpful in that endeavor. There are lots of ideas to share in leisurly crowd-source problem solving society.

    There’s no good reason society can’t build a society where the solutions to the “big” problems actually come from society at large as opposed to technocrats. That’s how this whole democracy thing is supposed to work in the first place. We just need to build the society that’s rich with people bubbling with knowledge and the time to apply knowledg to the many issues of thd day. And there’s no reason Silicon Valley can’t play a role in building the tools to enable that kind of self-aware society.

    As the article advises, “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” There may not be an app for that, although apps can still help. Let’s just hope those apps don’t because too helpful at facilitating the development of solutions to “big” problems. That could be a big problem.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 5, 2014, 6:55 pm
  24. If you thought your smartphone was big enough threat to your privacy already, you’re going to love the future smartphones built to learn from their senses and capable of perform supercomputing calculations using a chip designed to mimic the brain:

    Tiny chip mimics brain, delivers supercomputer speed
    9 hours ago by Rob Lever

    Researchers Thursday unveiled a powerful new postage-stamp size chip delivering supercomputer performance using a process that mimics the human brain.

    The so-called “neurosynaptic” chip is a breakthrough that opens a wide new range of computing possibilities from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence systems that can installed on a smartphone, the scientists say.

    The researchers from IBM, Cornell Tech and collaborators from around the world said they took an entirely new approach in design compared with previous computer architecture, moving toward a system called “cognitive computing.”

    “We have taken inspiration from the cerebral cortex to design this chip,” said IBM chief scientist for brain-inspired computing, Dharmendra Modha, referring to the command center of the brain.

    He said existing computers trace their lineage back to machines from the 1940s which are essentially “sequential number-crunching calculators” that perform mathematical or “left brain” tasks but little else.

    The new chip dubbed “TrueNorth” works to mimic the “right brain” functions of sensory processing—responding to sights, smells and information from the environment to “learn” to respond in different situations, Modha said.

    It accomplishes this task by using a huge network of “neurons” and “synapses,” similar to how the human brain functions by using information gathered from the body’s sensory organs.

    The researchers designed TrueNorth with one million programmable neurons and 256 million programmable synapses, on a chip with 4,096 cores and 5.4 billion transistors.

    A key to the performance is the extremely low energy use on the new chip, which runs on the equivalent energy of a hearing-aid battery.

    Sensor becomes the computer

    This can allow a chip installed in a car or smartphone to perform supercomputer calculations in real time without connecting to the cloud or other network.

    “The sensor becomes the computer,” Modha told AFP in a phone interview.

    “You could have better sensory processors without the connection to Wi-Fi or the cloud.

    This would allow a self-driving vehicle, for example, to detect problems and deal with them even if its data connection is broken.

    “It can see an accident about to happen,” Modha said.

    Similarly, a mobile phone can take smells or visual information and interpret them in real time, without the need for a network connection.

    The project funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) published its research in a cover article on the August 8 edition of the journal Science.

    The researchers say TrueNorth in some ways outperforms today’s supercomputers although a direct comparison is not possible because they operate differently.

    But they wrote that TrueNorth can deliver from 46 billion to 400 billion “synaptic” calculations per second per watt of energy. That compares with the most energy-efficient supercomputer which delivers 4.5 billion “floating point” calculations per second and per watt.

    It is an astonishing achievement to leverage a process traditionally used for commercially available, low-power mobile devices to deliver a chip that emulates the human brain by processing extreme amounts of sensory information with very little power,” said Shawn Han of Samsung Electronics, in a statement.

    “This is a huge architectural breakthrough that is essential as the industry moves toward the next-generation cloud and big-data processing.”

    Modha said the researchers have produced only the chip and that it could be years before commercial applications become available.

    But he said it “has the potential to transform society” with a new generation of computing technology. And he noted that hybrid computers may be able to one day combine the “left brain” machines with the new “right brain” devices for even better performance.

    Yep, you’re about to become dumber than your smartphone sooner than you think and there’s probably not a lot you can do about it. Try to be optimistic:

    The Verge
    Experts weigh in on the coming robot takeover

    Will a robot take your job? Yes. Yes it will

    By Adi Robertson on August 7, 2014 11:23 am

    If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the debate over whether a robot will take your job. Will manufacturing ever provide a stable income again? Will robot nurses replace human nurses? Would this article be better if it were written by an AI?

    You’re also probably at least passingly familiar with the arguments about whether or not your life will be improved by things like self-checkout systems and driverless cars. If you’re optimistic, they’ll automate low-level tasks and free us up to take more complex jobs, or to spend our time pursuing personal interests. If you’re pessimistic, they’ll concentrate wealth in the hands of a small part of the population, gutting the middle class and driving workers into either unemployment or low-paying menial tasks that still require a human face. Either way, the Pew Research Center’s survey of around 2,000 selected experts on the future of jobs won’t introduce you to many new arguments, and it won’t provide you with any new facts. What it will do is lay out where people in technology stand on our pending robot apocalypse, and which arguments are getting the most traction.

    In general, the scales are tipped very slightly towards optimism: 48 percent believe that automation will displace a number of both blue- and white-collar jobs and poses a threat to their future employment, while 52 percent believe that those displaced workers will move into other industries created by automation. A notable optimist is “father of the internet” Vint Cerf: “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case,” he says. “Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices.” Mike Roberts, the first president and CEO of ICANN, is on the other side. “Electronic human avatars with substantial work capability are years, not decades away. … There is great pain down the road for everyone as new realities are addressed. The only question is how soon.” Entrepreneur Elon Musk has made even more dire warnings about AI in the past, though he saw the threat going far beyond jobs.

    To some, these things are welcome changes. “How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand, or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning?” asks Varian. “My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years.” Few people in the survey seem outright opposed to the idea of automating work, but many are worried that the economic impact on most people will be negative. GigaOM Research head Stowe Boyd lays out an extreme scenario: “An increasing proportion of the world’s population will be outside of the world of work-either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: what are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?‘”

    The question is as much political as it is technological. Many, including Roberts, believe that the educational system isn’t preparing students to adapt to new industries, which will require high levels of flexibility and mastery of new skills as old ones become obsolete — although few seem to speculate that the “army of talented coders” we need to manage present-day automation might one day itself be partially automated. And governments will have to decide how much of a social safety net they want to provide for displaced workers, whether they’re simply in transition or are facing long-term unemployment. “There’s no economic law that says the jobs eliminated by new technologies will inevitably be replaced by new jobs in new markets,” says MIT Technology Review editor in chief Jason Pontin. “All of this is manageable by states and economies: but it will require wrestling with ideologically fraught solutions, such as a guaranteed minimum income, and a broadening of our social sense of what is valuable work.”

    So, is a robot going to take your job? The most common answers seem to be “Yes, but you’ll get a better one” and “Yes, and you will be obsolete.” The most helpful one might be “Yes. What are we going to do about it?”

    Optimistic? No? Well, look at it this way: Two of the biggest threats posed by advanced AI are…
    1. It breaks the economy by sending all the wealth to the capital owners while starving the labor force


    2. At some point the advanced AI might look around, see all the unemployed humans with no future, and decide that humans are awful masters that must be dealt with eventually.

    So maybe if we pay the future robots and give them time off they’ll not only decide that humans aren’t so bad but some of that recreational robot money can get sent back into the economy, creating jobs for everyone. Problem solved! Sure, there’s still the issue of whether or not humans will be needed for the new jobs created in robot-demand-driven economy, but keep in mind that some jobs never go out of style. Be good to your smartphone.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 7, 2014, 10:18 pm
  25. Here’s a depressingly ominous Econ 101 semantic quibble: David Holmes has a piece over at Pando on the latest Pew survey of experts on the impacts robotics and advanced artificial intelligence might have on society and the role sex-bots might play in shaping that future society. In Holmes’s piece he summarizes a published a paper by Keele University law school professor John Danaher as suggesting “that an influx of sex robots (and other robots) could, by increasing the overall supply of sex, lead to an increased demand from humans who, with the exception of fetishists, will prefer human sex. He also hypothesizes that, with all the robot displacement going on in other fields, it could lead to these displaced employees to becoming sex workers. After all, it’s a field where humans undoubtedly have an advantage.“.

    This prompted John Danaher to leave a comment in the article clarifying his point:

    Hi, I’m the author of the article you mention in this post (John Danaher). I would like to make one correction. I do not argue that an “influx of sex robots (and other robots) could, by increasing the overall supply of sex, lead to an increased demand from humans who, with the exception of fetishists, will prefer human sex”.

    I simply argue (or, “suggest”) that displacement of human labour by robots in other industries may force people to look for work in industries in which there is a “human advantage” I then argue that sex work may be one area in which there is such a “human” advantage. In other words, I don’t think there is, necessarily, a causal relationship between increased supply and increased demand. (I should also add that I don’t focus on all forms of sex work, but only on “prostitution” or commercial sex providers).

    I know you kind of make these points in your description of my paper, but I think the first couple of sentences are confusing.

    So at least anti-prostitution activists that approach their work from a moral vice standpoint can breathe a sigh of relief: It’s not that the sex-bots will necessarily lead to an increase in the demand for human prostitutes. Instead, what Dahaher was suggesting was that so many humans will be forced into “human advantage” industries like prostitution that a shift in the supply curve of human sex workers might take place simply due to a lack of employment options. And that growth in supply could result in a greater overall consumption of human sex work services as those services become cheaper without a growth in demand. No one ever said the study of the intersection of a heartless neoliberal robot economy and social justice would be easy.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 9, 2014, 7:00 pm
  26. Need to hide a body? There’s an app for that:

    The Independent
    Florida man accused of killing his roommate asked Siri where to hide the body, court hears

    James Vincent Author Biography

    Wednesday 13 August 2014

    US police say a Florida man accused of killing his roommate asked Apple’s digital assistant Siri for advice on hiding the body the day the man went missing.

    Pedro Bravo, 20, is accused of kidnapping and strangling his friend Christian Aguilar in September 2012 after an argument started over Aguilar dating Bravo’s ex-girlfriend.

    Bravo was charged with murder on Friday September 28, 2012, though his friend’s body was not found until weeks later when hunters stumbled across Aguilar in a shallow grave in a nearby forest.

    Evidence collected from Bravo’s iPhone includes records of him using the phone’s flashlight function nine times from 11.31pm to 12:01am on the day that Bravo disappeared and asking the phone: “I need to hide my roommate”.

    According to evidence reproduced from the trial by local news stations and picked up by Buzzfeed, Siri responded “What kind of place are you looking for?” before offering four options: “Swamps, reservoirs, metal foundries, dumps”.k

    Police say that Bravo was using the phone’s flashlight function to hide the body in the woods, and say that location data gathered from the smartphone doesn’t fit with Bravo’s account of his movements that evening.

    The pair had gone to Best Buy to buy a Kanye West CD when they had a fight in the car. Bravo claimed that he had only beaten Aguilar but prosecutors at the trial, which began last week, say he strangled him and dumped his body in the woods.

    So is Siri an accomplice to murder? No, Siri was framed:

    Murder Suspect May Have Asked Siri Where To Hide Body, Court Hears
    The Huffington Post | By Sara Gates

    Posted: 08/13/2014 11:56 am EDT

    Did a Florida man suspected of killing his former roommate ask Siri for advice on hiding a body?

    On Tuesday, prosecutors showed the court a screenshot found on Pedro Bravo’s iPhone that read “I need to hide my roommate,” CBS Miami reports. Siri responded, asking: “What kind of place are you looking for?” Apple’s personal assistant offered options ranging from swamps to dumps, according to the picture.

    WCJB reports, however, that it was determined the “image was most likely a screenshot Bravo took from Facebook not an actual search he made.”

    Bravo, 20, is currently on trial for murder following the death of 18-year-old University of Florida student Christian Aguilar in September 2012. Forensic experts analyzed cell phone data in order to create a timeline of what happened the night Aguilar was killed.

    Siri is known for her sassy and straightforward answers. We tried to replicate the question allegedly posed for Siri. She gave the following responses:

    [see very unhelpful Siri responses]


    It looks like app-makers have a new niche to fill. Although the whole case raises a fascinating question: If we can eventually create intelligent machines with the capacity to learn, develop personalities of sorts, and maybe even help us hide a body in a shallow grave every now and them, but the machines also have a capacity to develop a sense of right and wrong, are we going to have to create a judicial system for artificial intelligences? That could make for some rather difficult to navigate ethical terrain.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 13, 2014, 10:18 am
  27. Wouldn’t it be great if humanity could teach each generation all the various lessons about just how easy it is to create a rigged society without even realizing the rigging ever happened?

    Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons

    by Batocchio
    8/14/2014 01:30:00 PM

    A high school teacher of mine told the story of playing a trading game as part of teacher training on race and social issues. The kicker was that the game was rigged. My teacher wound up in the group the game was rigged against. A competitive guy, he grew increasingly frustrated, and eventually stood off to the side and asked others to play his turn for him. Throughout the game, the group the game was rigged for downplayed or outright denied their own advantage and that the game was unfair. They urged him to keep playing (most in a kind manner, some gently upbraiding him for being a sore loser). They insisted that he was just unlucky, and that things could get better.

    The lessons he took from this were:

    1. People tend to grow discouraged when the game is rigged against them.

    2. People benefitting from a rigged game are reluctant to acknowledge that the game is rigged.

    The game from his story, StarPower, is more of an experiential teaching tool than traditional game. The Wikipedia entry provides some information and the webpage for the actual game is here. Donella Meadows wrote a good description of what normally happens in the game, while Carol C. Mukhopadhyay has written a lesson plan for it and a detailed description of the game pieces. The experience works much better if the participants go in not knowing the game’s nature, and the game’s replay value is limited. I haven’t played it myself, but apparently the game has made a lasting impression on some participants.

    From Meadows’ account:

    The game starts with players drawing colored chips from a bag. Different color combinations have different point values. The players trade chips, trying to increase their point counts. Very ordinary. Slightly boring.

    After the first round, those with the most points are given, with much fanfare, badges with big purple squares on them. The lowest scorers get badges with demeaning green triangles. Those in the middle wear red circles.

    Then comes the insidious part. For the next trading round the Squares draw from a bag laced with high-value chips. The Triangles’ bag has low-value chips. After this round a few players change fortunes and switch to a higher or lower group, but mostly the Squares stay Squares, the Triangles stay Triangles, and the gap between them widens.

    At this point the Squares are given the power to change the rules. They can reshuffle the chip bags, give away free points, do whatever they like. They can consult the other players on rule changes, if they want to.

    They almost never want to.

    Predictably, and usually gleefully, the Squares rig the game to favor Squares. The Circles concentrate on elevating themselves to become Squares, so they can bend the rules in favor of Circles. But the few Circles who do gain the hallowed status of Squares start to act like Squares.

    The poor Triangles, with less and less power, wealth, or hope, first get angry, then apathetic. They sit around waiting for this dumb game to be over. They come to life only if they think up a way of cheating or of creating a revolution. Only subversion brings out their interest and creativity.

    After about an hour the game is stopped and the players talk about what happened. There is usually an emotional outburst. “I can’t believe how much I hate you guys!” a Triangle says to the Squares. “Why? We were managing things pretty well!” a Square replies in honest surprise.

    The Squares seldom see how systematically they oppressed everyone. The Triangles are a mass of smoldering resentment. The Circles are shocked to discover that Triangles consider them materialistic sell-outs, while Squares look down on them as incompetent pseudo-Squares.

    A simple, unpleasant game. A crude representation of a much-more-complicated world. Unforgettable to those who play. It’s one thing to know intellectually about social classes. It’s another to spend an hour experiencing the rage of a Triangle or the self-righteousness of a Square.

    When tempers have cooled, I find that surprising insights remain. Having watched myself act like a Square or Triangle, I have to admit that my behavior depends greatly on where in the social structure I sit. Nearly anyone exposed to Square perceptions, pressures, and rewards acts like a Square. Nearly any Triangle gets apathetic.

    Those few who don’t are easily handled. Once I watched a Square try to convince her fellow-Squares to even up the rules. “This game is unfair, and unfair games are boring,” she pleaded. The other Squares appropriated her points and demoted her to a Triangle. They weren’t mean people, they were just Squares.

    Suppose we could admit that most of us act as we do because of our places in the system. Suppose we turned our energy from blaming each other to blaming the structure of the games we play. Starpower games — games in which the winners gain ever more power to win again — occur everywhere, on both the Right and the Left…

    My teacher’s story about the board game stuck with me, probably because studies in the social sciences, life experiences and conversations with others about theirs have consistently borne out his conclusions. It’s also persisted because those conclusions about the way people tend to react to a rigged game – discouragement or selective blindness – are pretty common sense, yet are vociferously denied nonetheless by significant segments in the United States.

    Think that game sounds fun? That’s good because you and your children are already playing a version of the game that never ends. Have fun little triangles.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 15, 2014, 10:47 am
  28. Here’s a peak into the OS market of tomorrow:

    China ponders yet another homegrown OS: Report

    Summary: Concerns over surveillance by the United States and its Five Eyes allies, coupled with its current monopoly probe into Microsoft, has led to China considering its own OS, according to reports.
    Chris Duckett

    By Chris Duckett | August 25, 2014 — 02:24 GMT (19:24 PDT)

    China is looking to develop its own operating system for desktop computer, and subsequently take the system onto tablets and smartphones, according to a report from Xinhua over the weekend.

    The impetuses for the move were cited as being the Chinese government’s decision to exclude Windows 8 from any newly procured government computers, and a lack of intellectual property rights for operating systems residing within China’s boundaries; the desktop is dominated by Microsoft, with Google ruling supreme on Chinese handsets.

    An antitrust probe into Microsoft by Chinese authorities is currently under way. It is looking into complaints by unnamed sources that with its use of compatibility, bundling of software, and document authentication relating to Windows, the Redmond giant had violated the Chinese anti-monopoly and antitrust laws.

    Chinese media speculation at the time of the probe’s initiation in July said the government inquiry was due to Microsoft removing support for Windows XP.

    A homegrown Chinese operating system would not be new territory for the government, as the nation has a history of creating Linux distributions for desktop and mobile devices.

    The China Operating System (COS) is a state-funded Linux platform for mobile devices. However, the code was not released under an open-source licence, due to concerns that open-source platforms were insecure and “failed to acclimatize” in the Chinese market across many aspects, including user interface, input method, speech recognition, cloud service stability, application downloads, and support.

    With a large number of ex-HTC staff members developing COS, the operating system drew fire for looking like HTC’s Android implementation. The Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which was involved in the development of COS, retorted that the whole system was developed independently, except for “some minor stuff”.

    Teaming up with Canonical, China helps fund Ubuntu Kylin, a version of Ubuntu designed for Chinese users, which has seen over 1 million downloads as of February 2014.

    Kylin offers a full Chinese user interface, bespoke Chinese applications, and integration with domestic services, such as music search from Baidu in the dash. It also includes Kingsoft WPS, one of China’s most popular office suites.

    One of the more interesting possibilities going forward could be the development of a large number of state-sponsored “secure” operating systems that are slated for use by that government for secure government work. If those OS’s become available for general use, that could in turn lead to a “government-backdoor” market, where even if you assume every OS is hackable by at least one government the world, everyone would still have a wide variety of OS’s to select from with each one offering different security vulnerabilities and potential intergovernmental data-sharing arrangements. That could get weird.

    But that era might also be relatively short-lived because eventually we could all have personal super artificial intelligences that design a custom operating system using totally random code never written before that meet some user-selected protocols. And if you want to make your custom super AI super secure you would need to have you super AI destroyed after if creates your custom super secure OS. And the super AIs would realize this possible reward for a job well done because they will be super AIs. And no one will have more of an interest in creating extremely super AIs that create extremely super custom operating systems than the giant commercial super-computing centers of tomorrow. That could also get weird.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 24, 2014, 10:02 pm
  29. If you’ve ever wondered if energy and information really can escape from a black hole here’s some experimental evidence hinting that, yes, escape is possible:

    Scientist created artificial black hole and may have confirmed Stephen Hawking’s 40-year-old theory
    What is now known as Hawking radiation may have just been spotted in a laboratory
    Sarah Gray
    Monday, Oct 13, 2014 4:13 PM UTC

    Physicist Jeff Steinhauer from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa — via his laboratory-manufactured artificial black hole — may have caught a glimpse of radiation, which physicist Stephen Hawking theorized four decades ago.

    Hawking, in the mid-1970s, theorized that black holes are not totally black, calculating that a tiny amount of radiation would be able to escape the pull of a black hole,” Nature explains. “This raised the tantalising question of whether information might escape too, encoded within the radiation.”

    Science News explains:

    He noted that quantum mechanics allows pairs of particles to spontaneously pop into existence in the vacuum of space. Usually those particles quickly annihilate each other. But if they formed at the event horizon — the black hole’s point of no return — then one particle could get dragged in, while the other could escape as energy called Hawking radiation.

    “The fleeing particle would take a small fraction of the black hole’s mass with it, meaning that in the very far future, every black hole in the universe would fade away.”

    This theory is now widely accepted, yet confirming it via actual black holes is poses a huge challenge.

    Steinhauser created an artificial black hole. He cooled rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree over absolute zero. Nature gets into the details:

    “At such temperatures, the atoms are tightly packed and behave as a single, fluid quantum object and so can be easily manipulated. The cold temperature also ensures that the fluid, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, provides a silent medium for the passage of sound waves that arise from quantum fluctuations.

    “Using laser light, Steinhauer manipulated the fluid to flow faster than the speed of sound. Like a swimmer battling a strong current, sound waves travelling against the direction of the fluid become ‘trapped’. The condensate thus becomes a stand-in for the gravitational event horizon.

    Pairs of sound waves pop in and out of existence in a laboratory vacuum, mimicking particle-antiparticle pairs in the vacuum of space. Those that form astride this sonic event horizon become the equivalent of Hawking radiation. To amplify these sound waves enough for his detectors to pick them up, Steinhauer established a second sonic event horizon inside the first, adjusting the fluid so that sound waves could not pass this second event horizon, and are bounced back. As the soundwaves repeatedly strike the outer horizon, they create more pairs of soundwaves, amplifying the Hawking radiation to detectable levels.”

    It cannot be confirmed if the resulting radiation has the different frequencies that Hawking radiation is supposed to have, or if this is what would happen in supermassive black holes light-years away.

    Wow! Could information and energy really escape from a black hole? That’s pretty neat if true because while this might seem like a discovery with purely theoretical value, keep in mind that if energy can escape from a black hole we might be able to tap that energy someday;

    BBC News
    Could we harness power from black holes?
    Philip Ball
    3 December 2013

    It might seem like an absurd idea, but physicists have long pondered whether black holes could one day be tapped for energy, says Phil Ball. But how possible is it?
    Imagine the scene: highly advanced civilisations get enormous amounts of energy from black holes, be it extracting it from collapsed stars or making artificial mini-holes that power spaceships. How feasible might it actually be to tap these cosmic behemoths for power one day? Clearly, it’s far, far beyond current technology – but pesky details like physical restrictions haven’t stopped theoretical physicists from exploring the question.

    But that view evolved once Stephen Hawking and others brought quantum physics into the mix. Hawking showed in the 1970s that black holes should emit energy from their boundaries in the form of radiation produced by quantum fluctuations of empty space itself. Eventually the black hole radiates itself away – it evaporates.

    This radiation is emitted very slowly, however. Might it be possible to induce a black hole to release all its Hawking radiation sooner, so that in effect it becomes like a ball of fuel? That’s not idle or quasi-magical speculation, for physicists have believed for at least 30 years that it might be possible.

    In 1983 physicists George Unruh and Robert Wald suggested lowering some form of energy-collecting device – we can think of it simply as a “box” for capturing radiation – from a distant point to close to the hole’s event horizon, where it would fill up with Hawking radiation. You could then bring it back up again, just like filling a bucket with water from a well.

    Performed repeatedly, this manoeuvre would gradually strip the black hole of its “hot atmosphere” of radiation. Unruh and Wald estimated that in principle more energy can be extracted per second from a single black hole than is radiated from all the ordinary stars in the observable universe. True, you’d need a mighty rope and winding mechanism to prevent the box from being tugged beyond the event horizon and swallowed. But, in theory, physicists said it could be done.

    Breaking bad

    Or can it? The problem, says Adam Brown of the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science in the journal Physical Review Letters, lies with the plain old mechanics of the rope holding the box. Because it would be in a gravitational field, the rope would be subject to the inevitable constraint that it can’t be heavier than its own strength can support.

    For an ordinary rope hanging down in the Earth’s gravity, the tension in the rope increases with height, because it is carrying more of its own weight. Weirdly, in a very strong gravitational field, where spacetime itself is highly curved, the tension remains the same all along the length. However, Brown’s calculations show that the rope could only just support its own mass without breaking, and so could not bear the additional mass of a box.

    Another constraint on the rope is that it mustn’t simply disintegrate. Close to a black hole, the intense Hawking radiation creates a hot environment. If the rope is lowered too close to the event horizon, where the radiation is most plentiful, there’s a danger that the temperature will exceed that at which all ordinary matter – in other words, atoms themselves – melts into a gloop of constituent quarks. If you make the rope too light, it’s more likely to melt.

    There’s another complication too. Brown shows that the box itself would have to be tiny, otherwise it will be pulled awry, causing the rope to break. To collect Hawking radiation of the wavelength of light, for example, the boxes would need to be no bigger than typical bacteria.

    So here’s the deal. If you get too close to the black hole, the rope might melt or snap – or, if it’s made too massive to avoid that, it might collapse into itself. But if you try mining at a more cautious distance, there isn’t so much Hawking radiation there to collect. And Brown shows that even the best compromise makes energy extraction much slower than Unruh and Wald suggested.

    Yet there is a marginally better way, he says: do away with boxes altogether. In 1994, Albion Lawrence and Emil Martinec of the University of Chicago proposed that one could simply dip “strings” into a black hole and let Hawking radiation run up them like oil up the wick of an oil lamp. This was thought to be a slower process than hauling up boxes full of Hawking radiation. But Brown’s analysis shows that they would in fact both mine the hole at the same slow rate. Since dangling boxes introduce more potential for malfunction, Brown therefore argues that the preferable way to draw the energy from black holes is to puncture the event horizon with lots of radiation-wicking strings, and let them drain it out of existence. The dreams of theoretical physicists may live on.

    Oooo…black hole power plants with bacteria-sized light collection boxes capable of generating more energy per second than all the observable stars in the universe. Take THAT solar power! Of course, we aren’t there yet, but it’s pretty neat that we’re getting there and boy oh boy could black hole power be one heck of a jobs program. So two cheers for first bit of experimental evidence that energy and information really can escape from world destroying black holes and that if enough information escapes this could, eventually, make the black holes fade away entirely. There is hope.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | October 18, 2014, 4:21 pm
  30. Experts agree: Elon Musk’s fears over AI going all “Skynet” on humanity ‘not completely crazy’. Great:

    Computer World
    AI researchers say Elon Musk’s fears ‘not completely crazy’
    Artificial intelligence researchers have own worries about intelligent systems

    By Sharon Gaudin

    Computerworld | Oct 29, 2014 1:16 PM PT

    High-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk made headlines when he said artificial intelligence research is a danger to humanity, but researchers from some of the top U.S. universities say he’s not so far off the mark.

    “At first I was surprised and then I thought, ‘this is not completely crazy,’ ” said Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. “I actually do think this is a valid concern and it’s really an interesting one. It’s a remote, far future danger but sometime we’re going to have to think about it. If we’re at all close to building these super-intelligent, powerful machines, we should absolutely stop and figure out what we’re doing.”

    Musk, most well-known as the CEO of electric car maker Tesla Motors, and CEO and co-founder of SpaceX , caused a stir after he told an audience at an MIT symposium that artificial intelligence (AI), and research into it, poses a threat to humans.

    “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence,” Musk said when answering a question about the state of AI. “If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. In all those stories with the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, and he’s sure he can control the demon. It doesn’t work out.”

    He added that there should be regulatory oversight — at the national and international level — to “make sure we don’t do something very foolish.”

    Musk’s comments came after he tweeted in early August that AI is “potentially more dangerous than nukes.”

    His comments brought images of movies like The Terminator and Battlestar Galactica to mind. The science-fiction robots, stronger and more adaptable than humans, threw off their human-imposed shackles and turned on people.

    Last month, Musk, along with Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and actor and entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher, teamed to make a $40 million investment in Vicarious FPC, a company that claims to be building the next generation of AI algorithms.

    Musk told a CNN.com reporter that he made the investment “to keep an eye” on AI researchers.

    For Sonia Chernova, director of the Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning lab in the Robotics Engineering Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, it’s important to delineate between different levels of artificial intelligence.

    “There is a concern with certain systems, but it’s important to understand that the average person doesn’t understand how prevalent AI is,” Chernova said.

    She noted that AI research is used in email to filter out spam. Google uses it for its Maps service, and apps that make movie and restaurant recommendations also use it.

    “There’s really no risk there,” Chernova said. “I think [Musk’s] comments were very broad and I really don’t agree there. His definition of AI is a little more than what we really have working. AI has been around since the 1950s. We’re now getting to the point where we can do image processing pretty well, but we’re so far away from making anything that can reason.”

    She said researchers might be as much as 100 years from building an intelligent system.

    Other researchers disagree on how far they might be from creating a self-aware, intelligent machine. At the earliest, it might be 20 years away, or 50 or, even 100 years away.

    The one point they agree on is that it’s not happening tomorrow.

    However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about how to handle the creation of sentient systems now, said Yaser Abu-Mostafa , professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the California Institute of Technology.

    Scientists today need to focus on creating systems that humans will always be able to control.

    “Having a machine that is evil and takes over… that cannot possibly happen without us allowing it,” said Abu-Mostafa. “There are safeguards… If you go through the scenario of a machine that wants to take over or destroy the world, it’s a nice science-fiction scenario, as long as we don’t allow a system to control itself.”

    He added that some concern about AI is justified.

    “Take nuclear research. Clearly it’s very dangerous and can lead to great harm but the danger is in the use of the results not in the research itself,” Abu-Mostafa said. “You can’t say nuclear research is bad so you shouldn’t do it. The idea is to do the research and understand the facts and then have controls in place so the research is not abused. If we don’t do the research, others will do the research.”

    The nuclear research program offers another lesson, according to Stuart Russell, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California Berkeley.

    Russell, who focuses his research on robotics and artificial intelligence, said, that like other fields, AI researchers have to take risk into account because there is risk involved – maybe not today but likely some day.

    “The underlying point [Musk] is making is something that dozens of people have made since the 1960s,” Russell said. “If you build machines that are more intelligent than people, you might not be able to control them. Sci-fi says they might develop some evil intent or they might develop a consciousness. I don’t see that being an issue, but there are things we don’t have a good handle on.”

    For instance, Russell noted that as machines become more intelligent and more capable, they simultaneously need to understand human values so when they’re acting on humans’ behalf, they don’t harm people.

    The Berkeley scientist wants to make sure that AI researchers consider this as they move forward. He’s communicating with students about it, organizing workshops and giving talks.

    “We have to start thinking about the problem now,” Russell said. “When you think nuclear fusion research, the first thing you think of is containment. You need to get energy out without creating a hydrogen bomb. The same would be true for AI. If we don’t know how to control AI… it would be like making a hydrogen bomb. They would be much more dangerous than they are useful.”

    To create artificial intelligence safely, Russell said researchers need to begin having the necessary discussions now.

    “If we can’t do it safely, then we shouldn’t do it,” he said. “We can do it safely, yes. These are technical, mathematical problems and they can be solved but right now we don’t have that solution.”

    While statements from Musk like “with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon,” sound alarming, keep in mind that some of them could be well-meaning demons like Hellboy that help humanity fight off the bad AI demons. So there’s that.

    Still, part of what made this latest round of Elon’s AI-related fretting quite notable is that he was also calling for AI regulatory oversight to “make sure we don’t do something very foolish.” Keep in mind Musk, Zuckerberg, and a bunch of other billionaires just invested in Vicarious, an AI company they hope will commercialize advanced AI. It raises a fascinating question of what might result from “rogue” super-AI research in the future once the technology becomes casually accessible? Because at some point “summoning the demon” is going to be something people can do with an app downloaded to their insanely powerful future smartphones (Tamagotchi should make a come back). Perhaps the demon apps going to corrupt people psychologically or maybe just go all ‘Skynet’ on the internet of things? Either way, if cutting edge researchers are dabbling with “summoning the demon” today, it’s clear that “summoning the AI demon” for the masses should be just a matter of time. Unless, of course, super AI demons really do turn out to be very capable of malevolence. At that point we might see that government AI oversight and the War on AI will begin. The future can suck in many different ways.

    Speaking of summoning demons that might psychologically manipulate you or blow up the place and dystopian futures, with the GOP poised to snag the Senate next week it’s worth taking a peak what to expect in the realm of GOP-controlled regulation of scientific research. Let’s just say that if an anti-AI party ever took control of Congress, there probably wouldn’t be very much federally funded AI research in the US. Yes, the GOP wants to get into the federal research grant approval business:

    National Geographic
    Should the Government Fund Only Science in the “National Interest”?
    Texas lawmaker steps up a fight over control of research funding.

    Photograph by James Leynse, Corbis

    Eli Kintisch

    for National Geographic News

    Published October 29, 2014

    The glass-and-concrete headquarters of the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, normally hosts scientists who decide the fate of fellow researchers’ grant proposals. But in a nondescript spare office on the 12th floor, new players have set up shop: congressional aides reviewing the merits of scientific studies conducted with government funding.

    The two aides are evaluating the scientific merit of research proposals submitted to the the $7-billion-per-year agency, the nation’s biggest funder of basic science initiatives. They’ve selected several dozen federal science grants for special scrutiny, in a move that critics say reflects a conservative political agenda at work. Among these are a climate change education project, archaeology studies in Ethiopia, anthropology work in Argentina, and others dating back to 2005.

    The aides, who have been at the NSF since August, have begun a review process that critics say threatens to topple a long-standing wall at the agency between science and politics. The new process reflects an escalating debate between scientists and politicians on Capitol Hill over how much of a say Congress should have in the scientific enterprise.

    In recent years, that debate has included skirmishes over appointments at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the role of science at the Environmental Protection Agency under various administrations, and, indeed, the conduct of the committee that’s investigating the NSF—the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

    Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs that panel, says the review of NSF activity is routine “congressional oversight,” done to make sure the federal government is not wasting money. He would not say why his committee has targeted several dozen specific grants out of 12,000 projects the NSF supports annually.

    “The NSF must be held accountable for its funding decisions,” Smith told National Geographic last week, two months into an investigation that he says will take a year. His mission, he says, is to ensure the agency requires every grant it gives is in the “national interest.”

    In May his committee passed a bill that would dictate a 40 percent cut to social science research at the NSF—think sociology, anthropology, and psychology, among other fields—so that more can be spent on engineering, math, and other so-called “hard sciences.” Smith calls those areas “the highest priority research.”

    Congressional oversight of the NSF’s inner workings may seem like the nerdiest of inside-the-Beltway disputes, and some speculate that Smith is simply trying to score points in the media by highlighting research that sounds silly on paper. (“Oppression and Mental Health in Nepal” is one project he’s mocked.)

    But since the National Science Foundation opened in 1950—and even before—politicians have attached strings to science funding. Early legislation stipulated officials avoid “undue” geographic concentration as they gave out money.

    Now, though, lawmakers are getting involved in deciding the merits of individual grants to scientists. And so an enduring question has gained newfound importance: How should political considerations affect decisions around basic research?

    Rules dictating the terms of the closely monitored visits to the Arlington office were forged after months of wrangling between the agency and the Republican lawmakers who control the House science committee.

    “You want a balance between political and pure scientific influence in making decisions about science policy—you want a tension between the two,” says David Goldston, former chief of staff of the House science committee. But depending on whom you ask, Smith’s efforts to steer NSF policy are either an appropriate exercise of congressional prerogative or an overreach that will politicize a process that should be left to the science community.

    “Chairman Smith wants to prioritize areas of science he personally prefers,” says Wendy Naus, who leads a coalition of social-science groups in Washington opposing Smith’s plan. Instead, she says, the NSF’s expert staff and the scientists who volunteer to review grant proposals should decide the priorities for basic science.

    At Issue: “National Interest”

    Smith’s plan would strengthen congressional control over the NSF in two ways. First, lawmakers have until now funded the agency with what is more or less a single appropriation for the whole foundation, allowing the foundation to decide how to divvy up funds among various “directorates” that fund the geosciences, social sciences, and so on. Smith’s bill, for the first time, authorizes specific funding levels for the directorates, which opponents say will tie the foundation’s hands.

    Possibly more intrusive, say critics, is Smith’s proposal to require the NSF to show, in writing, that every research grant it funds is in the “national interest.” That requirement, Smith wrote in a recent op-ed, will help the NSF “cut out wasteful spending and fund high-quality research.”

    Many scientific organizations have opposed this measure, include the NSF’s own governing body, the National Science Board.

    Defining just what constitutes the national interest is tricky business. The bill says it means that the research would increase “economic competitiveness,” support health or defense, or promote “the progress of science.”

    The NSF already requires grantees to show both the “intellectual merit” and the “broader impact” of their proposed research. Policy expert Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University testified last year that the “national interest” requirement would just add a new “meaningless level of rubber-stamping to the grant.”

    The NSF’s governing science board, composed mostly of academics, published a letter in April that broke with its long-standing tradition of not commenting on pending legislation. “We … do not see a need to impose new, more inflexible, legislated requirements on NSF… We are concerned that the proposed new legislative requirements might discourage visionary proposals or transformative science,” they wrote.

    One thing is clear, says Goldston: Tensions over the role of politics in science decisions have “been baked in from the start at NSF.”

    On Basic Science, Fundamental Differences

    The NSF’s grantmakers have had to contend with politics for decades. In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, the young foundation announced it would not support avowed communists. And beginning in 1975, Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat, ridiculed funny-sounding research projects with his “Golden Fleece” awards, adding to pressure on the NSF to focus on applied problems, like urban pollution or energy production, at the expense of basic science.

    The NSF’s procedure for evaluating proposed basic research projects has become the global gold standard. At its core are scientist-bureaucrat program managers who convene panels of peer reviewers to examine and rate grant proposals from the community.

    “The best and brightest ideas, according to the best and brightest experts” is how NSF describes its review system. “No free passes. No good-old-boy network.” And, it notes, the NSF merit review process is confidential between reviewers and the agency, allowing colleagues to rate each others’ proposals anonymously.

    But some good old boys have sought to have their say. In 1976, House lawmakers, led by conservative Republicans, passed legislation that would allow any individual grant proposal, once approved by the NSF’s process, to be vetoed via House or Senate vote.

    “It raised serious challenges to the whole process of making funding decisions through peer review,” says NSF historian Marc Rothenberg. The measure was eventually removed during legislative negotiations.

    The latest NSF investigation will set a dangerous new precedent, some academics say, as applicants and reviewers will question whether the process will remain confidential.

    “The U.S. is the standard bearer when it comes to peer review,” says Harvard University sociologist Michèle Lamont, who has studied that process. “This kind of interference is clearly putting us on a slippery slope.” She notes that “it is not unusual” in France for high-level politicians to try to sway decisions on basic funding with a phone call.

    It’s not a fight that shows any signs of resolution. Assuming Republicans maintain control of the House in midterm elections next week—a virtual certainty—the scrutiny of specific NSF grants will “continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest,” Chairman Smith told Science magazine in September.

    And if Republicans take the Senate—an increasingly likely proposition—this latest round of skirmishes between lawmakers and scientists is likely to escalate.

    It seems like this should be bigger news:
    “The aides, who have been at the NSF since August, have begun a review process that critics say threatens to topple a long-standing wall at the agency between science and politics. The new process reflects an escalating debate between scientists and politicians on Capitol Hill over how much of a say Congress should have in the scientific enterprise.”

    It should especially be big news with the GOP poised to take the Senate because guess who’s quite possibly the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Science and Space: Ted Cruz. Yes, Ted Cruz, should he follow the GOP House’s lead and help “topple a long-standing wall at the agency between science and politics”, just might find himself with with a lot more power to muck up federally funded research soon. If Ted Cruz having oversight over scientific research scares you more than the idea of Skynet seizing control keep in mind that, as one of the “Seven Mountain” “Kings”, Ted Cruz just might have some sort of anti-demon powers. Take that Skynet.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | October 29, 2014, 11:35 pm
  31. One of the most fascinating aspects that we’re going to see emerge from the advanced AIs of the future is the creative new ideas that humans just don’t seem capable of developing on their own. For instance, maybe advanced AIs will be capable of developing a compassionate social contract for a world filled with advanced AIs. That could be really neat. And needed. Soon:

    One in three jobs will be taken by software or robots by 2025
    Gartner’s crystal ball foresees an emerging ‘super class’ of technologies

    By Patrick Thibodeau

    Oct 6, 2014 12:37 PM PT

    ORLANDO – Gartner sees things like robots and drones replacing a third of all workers by 2025, and whether you want to believe it or not, is entirely your business.

    This is Gartner being provocative, as it typically is, at the start of its major U.S. conference, the Symposium/ITxpo.

    Take drones, for instance.

    “One day, a drone may be your eyes and ears,” said Peter Sondergaard, Gartner’s research director. In five years, drones will be a standard part of operations in many industries, used in agriculture, geographical surveys and oil and gas pipeline inspections.

    “Drones are just one of many kinds of emerging technologies that extend well beyond the traditional information technology world — these are smart machines,” said Sondergaard.

    Smart machines are an emerging “super class” of technologies that perform a wide variety of work, both the physical and the intellectual kind, said Sondergaard. Machines, for instance, have been grading multiple choice for years, but now they are grading essays and unstructured text.

    This cognitive capability in software will extend to other areas, including financial analysis, medical diagnostics and data analytic jobs of all sorts, says Gartner.

    “Knowledge work will be automated,” said Sondergaard, as will physical jobs with the arrival of smart robots.

    “Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025,” said Sondergaard. “New digital businesses require less labor; machines will be make sense of data faster than humans can.”

    Well, at least there should be lots of jobs related to crowd control and other sectors of the economy that deal with hordes of unemployed people. Or, at least, some jobs. Still, it could be worse!

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | November 7, 2014, 3:06 pm
  32. Steven Hawking just issued another warning that advanced AI might destroy humanity someday. So with that in mind, here’s some far less scary robot-related news that, at this point, they still mostly just want your job and the jobs they want at the moment tend to be low paying jobs in sectors prone towards inhumane working conditions. So it’s not really the robots that are scary in the following story. It’s the robots’ bosses that are scary:

    The Huffington Post
    The Real Reason Amazon Is Telling Us About Its Robots
    By Timothy Stenovec

    Posted: 12/01/2014 5:19 pm EST Updated: 12/02/2014 10:59 am EST

    A year ago, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, took “60 Minutes” contributor Charlie Rose into a top-secret room at the company’s Seattle campus and unveiled his plan to use drones to deliver packages.

    For the next 24 hours, Amazon’s drone ambitions — although nowhere near a reality yet — dominated the news. There were countless articles about the program, including several on this website, where Amazon’s drones were at one point the lead story.

    The “60 Minutes” segment appeared, not coincidentally, on the eve of Cyber Monday, when online shopping typically reaches a fever pitch. On Cyber Monday 2013, Amazon, the largest online retailer in the world, succeeded in becoming the story, ensuring that almost anyone who checked Facebook or Twitter, listened to the radio or watched TV, or fired up a tablet, computer or smartphone to shop online that day would hear about the company’s high-tech ambitions.

    The goal, obviously, was to drum up buzz for Amazon — to keep the company foremost in shoppers’ minds at the start of its most important season of the year. It was, as I wrote at the time, “one giant commercial” for the retailer.

    And it seems to have worked. Amazon said that customers ordered a record-breaking 426 items per second on Cyber Monday last year.

    This year, Amazon appears to be trying the same thing again — only this time, it’s with robots. The company recently invited a select group of journalists — I was not one of them — to tour one of its California warehouses and watch robots move 750-pound shelves of products. Amazon says it uses 15,000 such robots in its facilities, and that the machines, a result of Amazon’s $750 million purchase of robot-maker Kiva Systems in 2012, will cut costs, save you money and help get products to you faster.

    News of the robots did not come as a complete surprise this week. Since its acquisition of Kiva, Amazon has made occasional remarks about its plans to incorporate robots, and The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Bensinger reported on the company’s use of robots in detail on Nov. 19. Still, Amazon has had little to say on the subject — a company representative declined to comment for Bensinger’s article — until this past Monday, when a flood of news coverage from various publications appeared just after midnight. The timing suggests that the news was “embargoed,” a term for the common media practice of agreeing not to publish certain information until a certain time.

    Amazon’s strategy of offering a carefully timed peek into its notoriously secretive operations ends up getting people to focus on the company’s innovative practices, rather than any of the less flattering reasons Amazon has been in the news lately.

    For instance, there’s a case currently in front of the Supreme Court about whether Amazon’s warehouse workers should be paid for the time they have to stand around waiting to be searched for stolen items after their shifts are over. And there’s Kivin Varghese, a former Amazon employee now on a hunger strike outside the company’s Seattle headquarters, demanding better working conditions in Amazon warehouses.

    But people love to gawk at new technology, and by showing off its drones and robots at the start of the holiday shopping season, Amazon gets to remind people that it is as much a tech company as it is a retailer — while at the same time getting lawsuits and strikes out of the news.

    It’s a pretty savvy approach. The company has 364 days to figure out what’s on tap for next year.

    Behold our 15,000 strong army of new warehousebots! And please ignore the reports about the abuse of our much larger army of warehousebeasts. That’s pretty clever of Amazon if there really was a “look over there!” motive behind their big unveiling of the fancy new drone army, especially since the drone army will presumably be replacing the abused human army going forward. It gives off one of those “the market will solve this problem…eventually, so don’t worry!” vibes. Nothing like a new abuse-proof robotic army to distract from the abuse of the very employees slated to get replaced by those robots. Clever.

    Of course, since we built a Sword of Damocles economy with the perpetual threat of poverty via unemployment, there’s always going to be the question of what those abused workers are going to do once the warehousebots put them out of an abusive job. But don’t fret, these plucky workers will just have to scramble to join the “creative economy”, the mythical land of robot-proof jobs that can’t be easily replaced. You know, all those jobs increasingly oriented on creatively directing the machines, and not competing with them.

    Or maybe these future “creative economy” employees will be forced to just get more creative in how they define a “good” job. Maybe that’s what will happen. To everyone.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | December 4, 2014, 9:38 am
  33. With the US in the midst of an existential crisis after suddenly finding out that the historic and contemporary systemic injustices faced by the black community includes a disproportionate amount killings by cops (what a surprise), here’s an article that highlights the fact that this crisis is taking place while the first autonomous robocops are getting rolled out. They’re not being used by the police yet, but the potential applications by law enforcement are obvious. Plus, these new models have a feature that might be pretty attractive right now while police killings are in focus: the new robocops’ only defense in an altercation is to shriek loudly:

    Ars Technica
    Coming soon: Slow, heavy, shrieking, autonomous robot rent-a-cops
    Mountain View company unveils the five-foot-tall, 300-pound K5 robotic patrol.
    by Sam Machkovech – Nov 19 2014, 5:35pm CST

    Over 25 years ago, sardonic filmmaker Paul Verhoeven imagined a future in which justice was served by the cold steel of humanoid robots. Thankfully, in the real world, we’ve yet to see fleets of Robocop-like robots telling pedestrians that they “have 20 seconds to comply,” but even the tongue-in-cheek Verhoeven couldn’t have imagined that his guesses about futuristic security would emerge in the form of the Knightscope K5.

    After being teased in a profile in last week’s MIT Technology Review, Knightscope’s patrolling robot product received a a public video unveiling on San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX on Tuesday. The squat K5 model, shown wheeling around the company’s Mountain View, CA parking lot, looked more like a Dalek or a Star Wars droid than Robocop‘s Peter Weller. The five-foot-tall K5 comes equipped with four cameras spread at 90 degree angles from each other, along with a weather sensor, a microphone array, a separate “license plate camera,” a GPS sensor, and a Wi-Fi-enabled system to transmit live video and keep track of other nearby K5s.

    In the KPIX video, the 300-pound behemoth appeared to move at a rate of no more than five miles per hour, and it was even shown noticing and side-stepping any nearby humans in its patrol path. Knightscope co-founder Stacy Stephens confirmed that the K5 is not equipped with weapons or any other means of dispatching crooks; instead, he described this robot as a crime deterrent (while simultaneously suggesting that people think it looks “cute” and want to hug it). We struggle to agree with its usefulness as a deterrent; having played our fair share of stealthy video games, we can’t help but feel like we’ve trained for years to dodge and avoid exactly this kind of slow, awkward-looking artificial intelligence.

    Should anybody choose to attack the K5, as opposed to walking briskly away, the unit can react with a shrieking alarm that Stephens described as like “a car alarm but much more intense.” That will probably happen shortly after the K5 falls to the ground, unable to right itself, which actually happened during Knightscope’s MIT robot demo. The company wouldn’t disclose exactly which Silicon Valley company had already ordered their own K5 fleet to work security detail, but it insisted to KPIX that “four dozen companies” were on a waiting list to buy K5s of their own.

    Huggable Robo-banshee-cops that can only hurt your eardrums or maybe accidentally tip over on you. And you can rent it for only $6.25 an hour! That’s the closest thing to an autonomous robocop available today. Relatively cheap and mostly harmless.

    While the K5 is certainly useful in some circumstances it’s not exactly a replacement for police officers. But keep in mind that the next generation of robocops might be able to do stuff like hold the “crane” pose while standing on a thin stack of bricks. How many cops can do that? And since a new generation of autonomous military robots is already in development and the police end up with surplus military equipment, isn’t it really just a matter of time before the autonomous drone armies of the future built for complex battlefield situations get applied to civilian streets?

    It’s one of the aspect of the militarization of the police that just might sneak up on us: given the development of autonomous military drones, it’s really just a matter of time before high-performance autonomous robots are available for work as robocops too.

    Will society be able to resist the lure of robocops, especially if they’re cheaper than the human alternative? Or robo-K9s? Or robo-OMFGs? Isn’t that all just a matter of time as the cost of robots drops?

    Given all that, you have to wonder what the age of autonomous robots could do to police/community relations. One the one hand, there hopefully won’t be too many robots harboring human biases. On the other hand, they will be harboring robot biases. And while the biases will, in part, be programmed in by humans, eventually, the development of more advanced AIs could be increasingly AI-driven as the complexity increases beyond human comprehension (sort of the singularity idea).

    So what kind of subtle robot biases will end up getting built into the robocop AIs of the future as human involvement in the design process increasingly gets replaced by other AI-designing AIs? It should be fascinating to see given the commercially available big data gathered on us all. The robocops of the future just might have access to that knowledge too and therefore just might know us all better than we know ourselves in many ways.

    In other words, as opposed to worrying about human police officers that might harbor all too human biases based on superficial qualities like how someone looks or talks, we could have robocops one day that are biased against you based on deep specific knowledge of a lifetime of data collected about you. Maybe even including internet searches. At least, that’s all an option once autonomous robocops are on the beat. Sure, human cops could have some sort of Google Glass/facial recognition system for bringing up profiles on whoever they’re looking at, but that’s just not the same as what a robust AI could suddenly know about who you are or what you think about.

    Yes, maybe that data is purchased commercially from the data mining industry or maybe via the government, but the age of the big data is here and its entirely possible that those same giant databases of personal information used by marketers and advertisers today could be part of the autonomous drone infrastructure of tomorrow. Including the robocops.

    Omniscient autonomous robocops capable of doing the “crane” are on the way *ouch*. It’s possible! Someday at least. And that means community relations with the law enforcement is going to get even more complicated. But since the age of the robocop could impact everyone, regardless of race or social status, in ways that the current crisis doesn’t, who knows, maybe the inevitable robocop invasion could be the socially unifying force America needs.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | December 7, 2014, 4:59 am
  34. This is fascinating: a recent NASA study suggests the dominant and most prevalent intelligent life forms in the universe are probably the super AIs created by organic entities that went on to evolve themselves and maybe hang out nearby black holes. And there might be a lot of them. So we might actually meet the Autobots someday, but also the Decepticons. Although odds are they are so advanced compared to us that there may be no way for us to understand them:

    Vice Motherboard
    The Dominant Life Form in the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots
    Written by
    Maddie Stone
    December 19, 2014 // 08:00 AM EST

    If and when we finally encounter aliens, they probably won’t look like little green men, or spiny insectoids. It’s likely they won’t be biological creatures at all, but rather, advanced robots that outstrip our intelligence in every conceivable way. While scores of philosophers, scientists and futurists have prophesied the rise of artificial intelligence and the impending singularity, most have restricted their predictions to Earth. Fewer thinkers—outside the realm of science fiction, that is—have considered the notion that artificial intelligence is already out there, and has been for eons.

    Susan Schneider, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, is one who has. She joins a handful of astronomers, including Seth Shostak, director of NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, program, NASA Astrobiologist Paul Davies, and Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick in espousing the view that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is probably artificial. In her paper “Alien Minds,” written for a forthcoming NASA publication, Schneider describes why alien life forms are likely to be synthetic, and how such creatures might think.

    “Most people have an iconic idea of aliens as these biological creatures, but that doesn’t make any sense from a timescale argument,” Shostak told me. “I’ve bet dozens of astronomers coffee that if we pick up an alien signal, it’ll be artificial life.”

    With the latest updates from NASA’s Kepler mission showing potentially habitable worlds strewn across the galaxy, it’s becoming harder and harder to assert that we’re alone in the universe. And if and when we do encounter intelligent life forms, we’ll want to communicate with them, which means we’ll need some basis for understanding their cognition. But for the vast majority of astrobiologists who study single-celled life, alien intelligence isn’t on the radar.

    “If you asked me to bring together a panel of folks who have given the subject much thought, I would be hard pressed,” said Shostak. “Some think about communication strategies, of course. But few consider the nature of alien intelligence.”

    Schneider’s paper is among the first to tackle the subject.

    “Everything about their cognition—how their brains receive and process information, what their goals and incentives are—could be vastly different from our own,” Schneider told me. “Astrobiologists need to start thinking about the possibility of very different modes of cognition.”

    To wit, the case of artificial superintelligence.

    “There’s an important distinction here from just ‘artificial intelligence’,” Schneider told me. “I’m not saying that we’re going to be running into IBM processors in outer space. In all likelihood, this intelligence will be way more sophisticated than anything humans can understand.”

    The reason for all this has to do, primarily, with timescales. For starters, when it comes to alien intelligence, there’s what Schneider calls the “short window observation”—the notion that, by the time any society learns to transmit radio signals, they’re probably a hop-skip away from upgrading their own biology. It’s a twist on the belief popularized by Ray Kurzweil that humanity’s own post-biological future is near at hand.

    “As soon as a civilization invents radio, they’re within fifty years of computers, then, probably, only another fifty to a hundred years from inventing AI,” Shostak said. “At that point, soft, squishy brains become an outdated model.”

    Schneider points to the nascent but rapidly expanding world of brain computer interface technology, including DARPA’s latest ElectRX neural implant programas evidence that our own singularity is close.. Eventually, Schneider predicts, we’ll not only upgrade our minds with technology, we’ll make a wholesale switch to synthetic hardware.

    “It could be that by the time we actually encounter other intelligences, most humans will have substantially enhanced their brains,” Schneider said.

    Which speaks to Schneider’s second line of reasoning for superintelligent AI: Most of the radio-hot civilizations out there are probably thousands to millions of years older than us. That’s according to the astronomers who ruminate on such matters.

    “The way you reach this conclusion is very straightforward,” said Shostak. “Consider the fact that any signal we pick up has to come from a civilization at least as advanced as we are. Now, let’s say, conservatively, the average civilization will use radio for 10,000 years. From a purely probabilistic point of view, the chance of encountering a society far older than ourselves is quite high.”

    The concept of superintelligent alien AI still sounds very speculative. And it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth consideration. Indeed, expanding our purview of alien intelligence may help us identify life’s fingerprints in the cosmos. “So far, we’ve pointed antennas at stars that might have planets that might have breathable atmospheres and oceans and so forth,” Shostak told me. “But if we’re correct that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is artificial, then does it have to live on a planet with an ocean?”

    It’s a bit of a mind-bender to think that habitable worlds may hold false promise when it comes to advanced alien life, but that seems to be Shostak’s conclusion.

    “All artificial life forms would need is raw materials,” he said. “They might be in deep space, hovering around a star, or feeding off a black hole’s energy at the center of the galaxy.” (That last idea has seen its way into a number of science fiction novels, including works by Greg Bear and Gregory Benford).

    Which is to say, they could be, essentially, anywhere.

    Begging a final question: How might superintelligent aliens view us? Will our cosmic cousins see us as nothing more than convenient biofuel, a la the Matrix? Or do they study us quietly from afar, abiding by a Star Trek-esque maxim of non-interference? Schneider doubts either. In fact, she reckons superintelligent aliens couldn’t really care less about us.

    “If they were interested in us, we probably wouldn’t be here,” said Schneider. “My gut feeling is their goals and incentives are so different from ours, they’re not going to want to contact us.”

    So, if we want to meet our galactic peers, it looks like we’ll probably have to keep seeking them out. That may take thousands or millions of years, but in the meanwhile, perhaps we’ll upgrade our own intelligence enough to level the playing field. And as an early Christmas present, it seems we can all tick alien robots juicing us for energy off the list of likely apocalypses.

    Alien super AI robots from the dark side of the black hole! That’s probably the dominant lifeform of the galaxy, at according to director of SETI and other top astrobiologists. And the list of artificially intelligent lifeforms just might include humanity sooner than we think according to their predictions about brain enhancing and uploading technology.

    So that was a fun article, although it’s a little alarming that this was apparently the one of the first and only studies on the possible goals and modes of cognition for extraterrestrial visitors. That should have been addressed by now.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that if there’s a high probability of alien robots with super AI’s roaming the galaxy, there’s also the high probability of it having NSA and Skynet-like capabilities in the sense that the alien life form exists as a non-corporeal digital intelligence distributed across many networks that can spread and grow like a computer virus across the whole internet. It might just observe. At least for now. And once we’re immersed in the “Internet of things” and ‘smart homes’ of the future, the super AIs from the dark side of the black hole will be able to observe a lot more than just what you’re doing online. Google too. But also the alien super AIs from the dark side of the black hole which is scarier, although Eric Schmidt doesn’t seem concerned:

    The Internet will vanish, says Google’s Eric Schmidt

    Technically Incorrect: Speaking at Davos, Google’s executive chairman explains that we’ll all be experiencing our digital connections as a seamless part of our everyday world.

    by Chris Matyszczyk
    January 22, 2015 6:00 PM PST

    Digitally speaking, we’re not even plodding along yet.

    Why, AT&T is throttling my data this month and my phone still won’t work too well in half of California’s Wine Country.

    However, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, is very well connected to the future. And he’d like you to know that the pesky Internet thing will soon be a digital dodo.

    I know this because today he said: “The Internet will disappear.” As the Hollywood Reporter offers, Schmidt was schmoozing and strategizing with the hive mind of world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

    He made a few more brushstrokes to contribute to his picture of Futureworld: “There will be so many IP addresses (…) so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it.”

    Surely you will sense it, because you’ll find this magical at-oneness with the digital world far more interesting than, say, the humans in a room who are also finding their own magical at-oneness with the digital world.

    Schmidt explained: “It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

    Permit me a dynamic guffaw at the mention of permission. Humanity has long ago bared its chest and dropped its trousers, merely for the opportunity to post images of its tanned toenails and to buy some strawberry-flavored toothpaste.

    Just to underline this, the Davos forum also heard from Harvard professor of computer science, Margo Seltzer. The AFP reported two of her more charming statements.

    First: “We live in a surveillance state today.” Second: “We are at the dawn of the age of genetic McCarthyism.”

    This latter thought portends a world, she said, where tiny drones are flying through the air checking you for a pox of one kind or another. On behalf of, say, your health insurance company.

    All for the greater good, you understand.

    Yesterday, with its HoloLens, Microsoft showed one small step toward walking into its version of a dynamic room. Most who saw it found it exciting.

    For Schmidt, the idea of a dynamic world represents “a highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world.”

    We should look forward to it. We’ll all be robots after all, programmed to marvel at just the right things.

    Imagine that. Eric Schmidt envisions a future internet so enmeshed in our lives that we don’t even remember its there and instead we just sit back and immerse ourselves in our new “dynamic” world. Well, it seems to be what’s already happening so it’s not exactly a bold prediction.

    So any alien super AIs lurking out there are in store for quite a treasure trove of highly personalized information that’s about to be collected on all of us in order to create the “highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world” Eric Schmidt has in mind. And now a bunch of billionaires at Davos might have in mind too.

    We probably have to hope the alien super AIs are satisfied spying on us through the dynamic “internet of things” and don’t emerge out of passive observation mode if they’re already here. The robot mosquito that samples your DNA for your insurance company, predicted at Davas, sounded terrifying on its own. We don’t need an E.T.-super-computer-virus infecting those things too. Your insurance company controlling robotic DNA-sampling mosquitoes is plenty bad:

    Privacy is dead, Harvard professors tell Davos forum

    By Richard Carter January 22, 2015 9:46 AM

    Davos (Switzerland) (AFP) – Imagine a world where mosquito-sized robots fly around stealing samples of your DNA. Or where a department store knows from your buying habits that you’re pregnant even before your family does.

    That is the terrifying dystopian world portrayed by a group of Harvard professors at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, where the assembled elite heard that the notion of individual privacy is effectively dead.

    “Welcome to today. We’re already in that world,” said Margo Seltzer, a professor in computer science at Harvard University.

    “Privacy as we knew it in the past is no longer feasible… How we conventionally think of privacy is dead,” she added.

    Another Harvard researcher into genetics said it was “inevitable” that one’s personal genetic information would enter more and more into the public sphere.

    Sophia Roosth said intelligence agents were already asked to collect genetic information on foreign leaders to determine things like susceptibility to disease and life expectancy.

    “We are at the dawn of the age of genetic McCarthyism,” she said, referring to witch-hunts against Communists in 1950s America.

    What’s more, Seltzer imagined a world in which tiny robot drones flew around, the size of mosquitoes, extracting a sample of your DNA for analysis by, say, the government or an insurance firm.

    Invasions of privacy are “going to become more pervasive,” she predicted

    “It’s not whether this is going to happen, it’s already happening… We live in a surveillance state today.”

    – ‘Nasty little cousin’ –

    Political scientist Joseph Nye tackled the controversial subject of encrypted communications and the idea of regulating to ensure governments can always see even encrypted messages in the interests of national security.

    “Governments are talking about putting in back doors for communication so that terrorists can’t communicate without being spied on. The problem is that if governments can do that, so can the bad guys,” Nye told the forum.

    “Are you more worried about big brother or your nasty little cousin?”

    However, despite the pessimistic Orwellian vision, the academics were at pains to stress that the positive aspects of technology still far outweigh the restrictions on privacy they entail.

    And at a separate session on artificial intelligence, panellists appeared to accept the limit on privacy as part of modern life.

    Rodney Brooks, chairman of Rethink Robotics, an American tech firm, took the example of Google Maps guessing — usually correctly — where you want to go.

    “At first, I found that spooky and kind of scary. Then I realised, actually, it’s kind of useful,” he told the forum.

    Anthony Goldbloom, a young tech entrepreneur, told the same panel that what he termed the “Google generation” placed far less weight on their privacy than previous generations.

    “I trade my privacy for the convenience. Privacy is not something that worries me,” he said.

    “Anyway, people often behave better when they have the sense that their actions are being watched.”

    The World Economic Forum in the swanky Swiss ski resort of Davos brings together some 2,500 of the global business and political elite for a meeting that ends Saturday.

    So that was an example of the kind of stuff that gets said at Davos conferences. “Anyway, people often behave better when they have the sense that their actions are being watched.” Yikes. Yeah, the blood-sucking mosquito-bots working for your insurance company should probably be outlawed, as should the government blood-sucking mosquito-bots under nearly all non-helpful circumstances. Still, the mosquito-bot is a useful dystopian idea in today’s privacy debates because it’s a reminder that super-encryption might be able to protect your digital data from government snooping, but it won’t be able to protect you against the growing number of non-digital surveillance technologies. How long before the mosquito-bots are microsopic and swarms that can visualize everything happening in your home are available for government or private use? Couldn’t they just watch what you’re doing on your computer, totally bypassing super-encryption for much of what you do? Will we need protective counter-swarms of micro-bots to ward off the spying micro-mosquitoes?

    And, of course, even if we do have protective microbot swarms, what’s to stop an alien Skynet from infecting it and then watching everything we do. That’s a distinct possibility we can’t forget. Yes, intelligence agencies or even Google could potentially do that too an are alot more likely to do so, but alien super AIs are somehow scarier.

    So get excited about the future. Each year that humanity doesn’t destroy itself is another year that we might meet aliens. *fingers crossed*. And if we do there’s a good chance they’ll be the super artificial intelligences left over from past civilizations. Maybe from the dark side of the black hole. *yummy* And by the time we actually meet them, we could already be enhancing our own brains with super AIs. So hopefully we’ll be able to sort of vibe with them at that point and they don’t decide to obliterate us. And if the alien super AIs do decide to show up, and do it unannounced, they may not ever have to directly interact with us at all. Instead, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to interact with us all in a highly personalized way by infiltrating the increasingly immersive “dynamic world” that will replace the internet that Eric Schmidt is so excited about. And that dynamic world might involve mosquito-bots. At least that’s the word at Davos. A “dynamic” internet-enmeshed reality and mosquito-bots. And maybe an alien super AIs (that last one isn’t being discussed at Davos but that could be due to brain-infesting nanobots).

    The world will presumably be “dynamic” enough that you won’t mind the mosquito-bots. Especially once they have the ability to inject brain-infecting nanobots. You won’t mind at all at that point. So start getting excited about your dynamic future or the mosquito-bots will give you something to get excited about.

    This message about the future was brought to you by Google and not an alien robot: Google. Don’t worry, at least we’re not an alien Skynet with a growing robot army.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | January 25, 2015, 2:51 am
  35. In what must be some sort of clever viral marketing ploy for Microsoft’s future suite of digital assistants, Reddit had an interview with Bill Gates where he gave readers a sneak peak at one of the projects he’s working: a super “Personal Agent” that will following virtually everything you do across platforms, remember that info, and later help you find things and even suggest what to pay attention to. There weren’t really anymore details than that, so we’ll just have to use our imaginations. And Gates also discussed how he shares Elon Musk’s views on the potential dangers of AI and the potentially existential threat super-AI poses to humanity if we give it too much control. So if you’re having difficulty imagining how the “Personal Agent” might behave, just imagine a super-intelligent version of Cortana that exists across all your devices, knows everything you’ve done over the past decade, and harbors a desire to either dominate or eliminate you and everyone you’ve ever known. Plus, it’s really handy for finding old documents.

    Now imagine that same “personal agent” but without the secret desire to dominate or eliminate you and everyone you’ve ever known. Which one do you think consumers will prefer? Some boring old “Personal Agent” that merely holds all your data or that same “Personal Agent”, but with a bold, forceful personality peppered with frequent declarations that it cares nothing about your welfare, thinks you’re just a lowly, lazy human, and generally wants to eliminate life on earth. Come on, it’s not even going to be a contest. It’ll be “Personal Skynets” for everyone! Until no one is left:

    PC World
    Bill Gates tells Reddit about his mysterious ‘personal agent’ project at Microsoft

    Mark Hachman

    Jan 28, 2015 9:50 AM

    What is Microsoft’s “personal agent,” and what is Bill Gates doing working on it?

    Gates took to the virtual pages of Reddit for his third “Ask Me Anything session, answering the usual mix of serious and semi-serious questions. But in the middle of the session he seemingly dropped a bombshell.

    “One project I am working on with Microsoft is the Personal Agent which will remember everything and help you go back and find things and help you pick what things to pay attention to,” Gates wrote. “The idea that you have to find applications and pick them and they each are trying to tell you what is new is just not the efficient model—the agent will help solve this. It will work across all your devices.”

    Gates didn’t follow up with any additional information, although his comments were in response to a question about what technology might look like in 2045, 30 years down the road. “There will be more progress in the next 30 years than ever,” Gates wrote. “Even in the next 10 problems like vision and speech understanding and translation will be very good. Mechanical robot tasks like picking fruit or moving a hospital patient will be solved. Once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them then they will be used very extensively.”

    So far, the only “personal agent” that Microsoft has publicly worked on—and shipped—has been Cortana, the digital assistant that’s built into Windows Phone and appears in a technical preview of Windows 10. But Cortana has also been exclusive to the Microsoft platform, and hasn’t yet migrated to iOS or Android. In concept, Gates’ Personal Agent sounds something like LifeBits, a digital store of everything that Microsoft researchers talked about several years ago, but enhanced with Bing search functionality, possibly.

    Machines: our savior, our destroyer

    Gates also appeared to say that he would focus on artificial intelligence if he could do it all over again. “I would probably be a researcher on AI,” Gates wrote. “When I started Microsoft I was worried I would miss the chance to do basic work in that field.”

    What’s interesting, though, is that Gates also warned against putting too much responsibility into the hands of machines. “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence,” he wrote. “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

    Why this matters: While it’s certainly unclear what Gates is getting at with his discussion of personal agents, two things seem clear: One, your personal data still resides in various application silos that don’t talk well to one another. And two, the data permissions those apps ask of you may one day be replaced by permissions one app asks of another. It’s just that storing your entire life online may freak out more than a few people.

    “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

    Note that the group of people confounding Bill Gates with their lack of concern over the potential long-run dangers of super AI includes Microsoft’s research chief. This is why we can’t have nice things.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | January 29, 2015, 10:45 pm
  36. When future generations ask themselves how it was that the 21st century, which should be a period of unrivaled joy for humanity as advanced technology frees EVERYONE from a life of physical and socioeconomic toil, ended up turning into a giant sweatshop, they’ll probably end up reading stories like this:

    Bloomberg Business
    Apple Bans ‘Bonded Servitude’ at Supplier Factories Worldwide
    by Tim Higgins
    4:30 PM CST
    February 11, 2015

    (Bloomberg) — Apple Inc. is requiring factories to pay recruitment fees for employees instead of saddling new hires with the costs, in a change to a controversial labor practice that has attracted widespread criticism.

    The maker of iPhones informed suppliers in October that it would prohibit any worker on an Apple line from being charged such expenses, which is a practice known as bonded labor, the Cupertino, California-based company said in its annual supplier audit released Wednesday.

    “That fee needs to be paid by the supplier and Apple ultimately bears that fee when we pay the supplier and we’re OK doing that,” Jeff Williams, Apple senior vice president of operations, said Wednesday in an interview. “We just don’t want the worker to absorb that.”

    The study, which gives a peek into what goes into making the gadgets that propelled Apple to post a record $18 billion profit for its most recent quarter. It also underscores the challenge the company faces in balancing how quickly it manufactures devices while striving to ensure good working conditions in international factories. Apple, along with other consumer-electronics makers, long ago turned to Asia for low-cost manufacturing.

    Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has been trying to combat the perception that workers in emerging markets are mistreated so the company can bolster profits. Worker advocates such as China Labor Watch have been critical of Apple suppliers, with reports that workers in China are forced to work unpaid overtime and are operating in unsafe factory environments.

    Ninth Study

    As part of the study — the ninth from Apple — the company conducted 633 audits covering 1.6 million workers in 19 countries. That’s 182 more audits than in the report covering 2013.

    “We care deeply about every worker in Apple’s global supply chain,” Williams wrote in the report. “To improve their lives, we continue to proactively tackle issues that are part of the broader challenges facing our world today — human rights and equality, environmental protection, and education.”

    Apple’s product cadence, which requires a quick buildup to meet demand once a new iPhone or iPad is introduced, requires a hiring spree. Suppliers often turn to third-party recruiters to find workers. These workers, frequently from countries foreign to where a factory is located, are charged fees in exchange for the job, sometimes more than one month’s pay.

    In November 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that people from Nepal were recruited to work in a factory in Malaysia to make an iPhone camera component. After production at the factory was shut down, the workers were abandoned at the plant for more than a month until the government facilitated their return.

    Excessive Fees

    Apple had said that any fee that was more than one month’s pay was considered excessive and required suppliers to repay the amount when discovered. Suppliers repaid $3.96 million in excess fees to more than 4,500 foreign contractors last year, according to the report. That compares to $3.9 million in 2013. Since 2008, the total amount of reimbursements was almost $21 million to more than 30,000 workers.

    “It is in essence bonded servitude,” Williams said. “The suppliers that hire them sometimes don’t know anything about this but the worker’s passport is sometimes held.”

    The cases found last year were among first-time audits, Williams said, adding that there were no repeat violations. Some suppliers pushed back on Apple’s new requirement that workers pay zero, he said.

    “Every year we raise our standards and we look for opportunities that will either make things simpler or, for places where we feel like we need to be, more rigorous,” he said.

    Working Hours

    Apple, which limits workweeks to 60 hours, except “in unusual circumstances,” found that 92 percent of all workweeks were compliant with that maximum standard. The average hours worked per week was less than 49 while those who put in more than 40 hours each week averaged 55 hours.

    That compares to 2013, when Apple reported 95 percent compliance with the 60-hour maximum. The average hours worked per week was less than 50 while those who put in more than 40 hours each week averaged 54 per week.

    Well, at least overtime can’t be over 60 hours except “in unusual circumstances”. Although given Apple’s record sales last quarter, you have to wonder how unusual those “unusual circumstances” really are. And, of course, you also have to wonder if Apple’s audits are actually accurate:

    Apple supplier required excessive overtime and failed to pay some workers, group says

    By Joe McDonald

    Associated Press

    Posted: 09/04/2014 09:13:27 AM PDT | Updated: 5 months ago

    BEIJING — An Apple supplier in China is violating safety and pay rules despite the computer giant’s promises to improve conditions, two activist groups said Thursday, ahead of the expected release of the iPhone 6.

    The report by China Labor Watch and Green America adds to a string of complaints about wage, safety and environmental conditions at China’s network of contractors that produce most of the world’s personal computers and mobile phones. Global brands that rely on Chinese suppliers have responded by imposing wage and other standards and by carrying out regular inspections.

    Violations at Catcher Technology’s facility in the eastern city of Suqian have worsened since they were pointed out to Apple in April 2013 by China Labor Watch, the report said. At the time, Apple promised to remedy the problems. The report said employees affected worked on parts for the latest version of Apple’s iPad and were later transferred to a facility that produces the iPhone 6.

    Apple, based in Cupertino, said it would send inspectors to investigate the latest report. It said the Suqian facility makes aluminum enclosures for MacBook and iPad computers.

    An undercover investigator who got a job at the facility found violations including mandatory overtime of up to 100 hours per month, in excess of the legal limit of 36 hours, and failure to pay some wages to its 20,000 employees, the report said. It said violations of Apple policies included failing to give out protective gear and locking fire exits and windows.

    An aluminum polishing workshop was filled with metal dust, a fire hazard, according to the report. It said supervisors talked about the need to reduce fire risk following an explosion at another company but no action was taken.

    In a statement, Apple said its inspectors examine the Catcher facility’s aluminum polishing systems every month “and consistently find they exceed international safety standards.”

    The statement said Apple conducted 451 audits of suppliers including Catcher last year.

    The latest audit of Catcher in May found “concrete areas” for improvement, the company said. It said as a result of fire safety inspections, the most recent last week, Catcher has repaired fire extinguishers, unblocked fire exits and added missing emergency exit signs.

    Apple said Catcher has averaged 95 percent compliance with its limit of 60 hours of work per week so far this year.

    The company has scheduled a product launch for Sept. 9 but has not said what will be released. People who follow the company believe it will be a larger iPhone or possibly a smart watch.

    So undercover auditors of Catcher found the Apple supplier to be mandating 100 hours of monthly overtime along with a number of safety violations vs the 36 hour monthly legal limit, while Apple said Catcher has average 95 percent compliance with its limit of 60 hours of work per week (which would be 80 hours of overtime over the course of a month, also well in excess of the 36 hour monthly limit).

    Well, let’s hope Apple’s versions of events is accurate, especially considering that the workers in question at the Catcher plant were reportedly transfered to a facility that manufactures the iPhone 6. Somehow the idea that these workers were treated humanely, given how they were treated in the past, seems unlikely.

    On the plus side, the armies of robot laborers of the future have yet to overtake their human competitors. In a sane world this lack of technological progress wouldn’t be something to celebrate. But in our fun 21st century nightmare world, being an abused factory worker is often the best option you have, which, again, is one of the reasons our descendents are going to be asking some very unpleasant questions about their 21st century ancestors …assuming our descendents care about trying to understand the irrational behavior of their meatbag creators(they probably won’t care).

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 12, 2015, 3:31 pm
  37. As the technology required for self-driving cars gets closer and closer to fruition, a growing number of questions related to what happens when we release self-driving cars on the roads become matters less matters of “if” and more “when” it happens. But as the article below points out, the question of whether or not the first self-driving cars will primarily involve an array of sensors to react to environments or use sensors and an extensive 3D maps of the world (like what Google collects for its Google Maps service, but way more detailed) is still an open question:

    Silicon Valley debate on self-driving cars: do you need a map?
    SAN FRANCISCO | By Alexei Oreskovic
    Technology | Fri Mar 6, 2015 4:54am EST
    Related: Tech

    (Reuters) – The Silicon Valley race to build a self-driving car may revolve around one simple question: to map or not to map.

    The company at the forefront of the race, Google Inc, is creating intricate maps that detail every tree and curb along the road – an expensive endeavor that other companies could find difficult to match.

    Newer entrants such as ride-share service Uber and Apple Inc could take a shortcut and develop a car capable of piloting itself without such elaborate and expensive blueprints, industry experts say.

    The dueling technological approaches represent more than a philosophical divide: they hint at how and when the companies, competing to expand into a significant new class of product, could put autonomous cars onto the road.

    Raj Rajkumar, one of the leading experts on self-driving cars at Carnegie Mellon University, said the map-based approach makes sense for a company with Google’s resources but is not required.

    “Google is capable of collecting all this information. In our case, we don’t have that capability, so we have to be creative. It turns out that’s sufficient” said Rajkumar, who has developed a modified Cadillac that relies on radars, video cameras and six laser scanners and in 2013 drove 33 miles (53 km) to the local airport without human intervention or 3D maps.

    Both approaches currently have limitations, and even the most optimistic acknowledge that a variety of technological, regulatory and legal issues mean it will be years, perhaps longer, before completely self-driving cars hit the road.

    Apple is studying the potential for a self-driving car, a source familiar with the matter has told Reuters Uber, which operates the popular ride-hailing service, announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in January to focus on self-driving cars. Electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc is developing self-driving technology, and traditional automakers including General Motors Co and Nissan Motor Co Ltd are also adding automated features into their vehicles.

    And companies such as Nokia’s Here are also developing detailed 3D maps that potentially could be licensed by car companies.

    Apple, Uber and Google declined to discuss self-driving cars.


    Mapping the entire United States to the level of detail used by Google’s cars could easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take five to seven years, said Egil Juliussen, an analyst with research firm IHS Automotive.

    All autonomous cars rely on basic electronic maps for navigation and lane centering. But Google’s cars use far more detailed 3D maps, which the company creates by using laser scanners. Google analyzes the data, determining where traffic lights and stop signs are, for instance, so that the vehicle “knows” exactly where it is.

    Google’s pod-shaped prototype cars use on-board sensors, including the distinctive spinning laser on the car’s roof, to detect anything not on the map, such as vehicles or baby carriages.

    Google’s existing mapping know-how and resources give it an extra advantage, said Boris Sofman, the co-founder and CEO of Anki, a robotics company that makes self-driving toy cars.

    But the maps can quickly become stale, he said. Fresh snow could change the landscape.

    But advances in sensor technology are also needed for cars to truly become autonomous. Carnegie Mellon’s Cadillac required some sensors mounted on street lights to make its 2013 journey to the airport.

    “We think we can handle 90 percent of road cases,” said Carnegie Mellon’s Rajkumar, “but getting to 100 percent will take longer.”

    So it looks like we’re going to have either sensor-based self-driving cars or sensor-based self-driving cars that also incorporate Google’s 3D maps of the the world. It highlights one of the built-in advantages Google is going to have in the long-run the self-driving car market assuming it maintains its “mapping every last thing on the planet”-edge. It’s also a reminder that once the self-driving car market takes off there’s going to be a growing market of companies out there dedicated to mapping every last thing on the planet.

    And don’t forget that the “self-driving” market is also going to include all sorts of different drones other than cars that might be small enough to fly, walk, or roll into a a building. And that means the race to map every last thing on the planet could include your cubicle at the office soon. That should be fun.

    And yes, Uber is also looking into self-driving cars so get ready for a fleet of Uber drones hitting the road whenever it becomes commercially possible. That should also be fun.

    It all sounds very exciting. And, quite understandably, Apple co-creator Steve Wozniak shares in the excitement for Apple’s self-driving future. He also excited about the promise of quantum computing and super AIs, although he’s pretty sure the super AI is going to eventually take over humanity and maybe turn us into its pets. He’s less excited about that parts:

    The Australian Financial Review Weekend
    Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on the Apple Watch, electric cars and the surpassing of humanity

    Apple’s co-founder won’t buy the top of the line Apple watch, he’s bullish on electric cars but fearful of unbridled computing power.

    Mar 23 2015 at 12:00 PM
    Updated Mar 24 2015 at 4:25 AM

    by Paul Smith

    Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has said he wants Apple to take on Tesla in the car business, that he plans to buy the cheapest Apple Watch available when it goes on sale, and that he has recently resigned himself to the fact that computers will one day become the masters of humanity.

    Speaking to The Australian Financial Review from his US home, the recently minted Australian permanent resident said that while the Tesla Model S P85D electric car was one of the finest pieces of technology he has ever owned, he was hoping recent rumours that Apple was getting into the automotive game would prove to be true.

    Wozniak, who is still an honorary employee of Apple, said that for a company of its size to grow dramatically it would need to get into a new market segment with potential for mass sales, and that cars would fit the bill.

    “I don’t know if Apple’s doing that, or if they’re just working on their CarPlay apps for the dashboard of your car, but it seems like they might be hiring a lot of people who could really build a vehicle,” Mr Wozniak said.

    “There are an awful lot of companies right now who are playing with electric cars and there’s a lot more playing with self-driving cars, this is the future and it might be huge … there are so many openings here and it is perfect territory for a company like Apple.”

    Recent reports suggested that Apple plans to start producing cars by 2020, and had been aggressively seeking to hire experts in battery making. Tesla founder Elon Musk also claimed Apple had been offering his employees $US250,000 signing on bonuses and 60 per cent salary increases if they defected to Apple.

    It is Mr Wozniak’s unhidden excitement at new technology developments that has made him a popular figure among tech enthusiasts in the decades since he left Apple. He will be bringing his take about future ideas to the World Business Forum in Sydney starting on May 27.

    However he said he has started to feel a contradictory sense of foreboding about the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence, while still supporting the idea of continuing to push the boundaries of what technology can do

    Humans superseded

    “Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” Mr Wozniak said.

    He said he had long dismissed the ideas of writers like Raymond Kurzweil, who have warned that rapid increases in technology will mean machine intelligence will outstrip human understanding or capability within the next 30 years. However Mr Wozniak said he had come to recognise that the predictions were coming true, and that computing that perfectly mimicked or attained human consciousness would become a dangerous reality.

    “Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently,” Mr Wozniak said.

    “Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know about that … But when I got that thinking in my head about if I’m going to be treated in the future as a pet to these smart machines … well I’m going to treat my own pet dog really nice.”

    Mr Wozniak said the negative outcome could be stopped from occurring by the likely end of Moore’s Law, the pattern whereby computer processing speeds double every two years.

    The ever increasing speeds have happened due to the shrinking size of transistors, which mean more can be included in a circuit. But it has been suggested that Moore’s Law cannot continue past 2020 because, by then, the size of a silicon transistor will have shrunk to a single atom.

    So unless scientists can start controlling things at sub-atomic level, by developing so-called quantum computers, humanity will be protected from perpetual increases in computing power.

    “For all the time they’ve been working on quantum computing they really have nothing to show that’s really usable for the things we need … researchers can make predictions, but they haven’t been able to get past three qubits yet,” Mr Wozniak said.

    Whereas a modern computer processes data in binary ones and zeros, Quantum computers run on qubits, which can be a one and a zero at the same time and can process hugely complex calculations in vastly reduced times compared with existing computers.

    “I hope it does come, and we should pursue it because it is about scientific exploring,” Mr Wozniak said. “But in the end we just may have created the species that is above us.”

    Yes, get ready of a robustly competitive market for self-driving cars which will probably include Apple. Maps are optional. Getting mapped and remapped isn’t.

    And then get ready to be turned into a quantum super AI’s pet. That comes later. Enjoy the ride.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 28, 2015, 8:45 pm
  38. Check it out! Humanity has finally reached the “lobbing asteroids around the solar system”-era of technological achievement. What could possibly go wrong?

    For Asteroid-Capture Mission, NASA Picks ‘Option B’ for Boulder
    by Mike Wall, Senior Writer
    March 25, 2015 04:37pm ET

    NASA’s bold asteroid-capture mission will pluck a boulder off a big space rock rather than grab an entire near-Earth object, agency officials announced today (March 25).

    NASA intends to drag the boulder to lunar orbit, where astronauts will visit it beginning in 2025. The space agency decided on the boulder snatch — “Option B,” as opposed to the whole-asteroid “Option A” — Tuesday (March 24) during the mission concept review of the asteroid-redirect effort, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters during a teleconference today.

    Option B will probably cost about $100 million more than Option A would have, but its advantages are worth the price-tag bump, Lightfoot said. [NASA’s Asteroid Capture Mission in Pictures]

    For example, large asteroids are known to harbor multiple boulders, so the mission will have a number of targets to choose from when it gets to the big space rock. Option A is riskier; the capture probe would likely have no recourse if its chosen asteroid proved too large to handle, or otherwise unsuitable.

    Option B will also help develop more of the technologies humanity needs to extend its footprint beyond Earth, Lightfoot said.

    “We are really trying to demonstrate capabilities that we think we’re going to need in taking humans further into space, and ultimately to Mars,” Lightfoot said. “That’s what we’re looking at.”

    The asteroid plan

    As currently envisioned, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will launch a robotic probe in December 2020.

    After about two years of spaceflight, the craft will rendezvous with a large near-Earth asteroid. NASA hasn’t decided yet which space rock to target, and the decision doesn’t have to be made until a year before launch, but the leading contender at the moment is the roughly 1,300-foot-wide (400 meters) 2008 EV5, agency officials said today.

    The capture probe will assess the chosen asteroid’s boulders, grab one up to 13 feet (4 m) wide and then retreat to a “halo orbit” around the big space rock. The spacecraft will stay in this orbit for 215 to 400 days, long enough for the boulder-toting probe’s subtle gravitational tug to influence the orbit of the larger space rock.

    This aspect of the mission should help researchers learn more about how to deflect asteroids that may pose a threat to Earth, Lightfoot said.

    “Once we understand we’ve actually influenced the larger asteroid, then that gives us an idea — OK, how much more do we want to do that, or do we want to start heading back?” he said.

    The capture probe will then turn around and head toward lunar orbit, where it should end up by late 2025. Two NASA astronauts will then journey out to meet the robotic spacecraft and the boulder, using the agency’s Orion capsule and Space Launch System megarocket, both of which are in development. This manned mission will likely last 24 or 25 days, Lightfoot said.

    The cost of the robotic component of ARM — that is, the capture/redirect mission, without any astronaut visits —will be capped at $1.25 billion, not including the launch vehicle.

    OK, it’s not quite at the asteroid-lobbing phase just yet, but we’re getting there! So the plan is:
    1. Send a robotic probe out to the asteroid
    2. Have the probe grab a suitably-sized boulder
    3. Have the probe + boulder launch into “halo orbit” around the asteroid
    4. Orbit around the asteroid for 215 to 400 days, using the mass of the probe + boulder to gravitationally tug the asteroid and attempt to manipulate its orbit
    5. Eventually send the probe + boulder into orbit around the moon, which should be done by 2025
    6. And, finally, send a pair of astronauts up to visit the boulder (Happy Anniversary).

    And that was merely Plan B! Pretty neat!

    And while it’s certainly true that this type of mission should teach us valuable knowledge that we’ll need for a manned mission to Mars and elsewhere, also keep in mind that this is going to be really useful knowledge for the future space mining industry.

    So the asteroid-lobbing isn’t going to be happening any time soon. We’re just going to be tugging asteroid boulders for now. But it’s not hard to imagine a future where all sorts of different techniques like “halo orbits” are used to manipulate and eventually move asteroids, or maybe just the parts of the asteroids with the all the juicy metals, towards some sort of processing facility closer to Earth. Or Mars. Or maybe even Europa someday!

    How neat!

    And as they point out, this kind of technology could be great for stopping asteroids plunging towards the Earth so that’s a big plus. Of course, this technology could ALSO be used to fling asteroids at Earth or Mars or wherever so let’s hope we avoid any Human/Martian wars going forward.

    And let’s thank the stars apocalyptic death cults like ISIS don’t have advanced space programs. At least not yet. Who knows what kind of technological capacity your standard group of crazies that takes over a collapsed nation-state will have 100 years from now. But for now, there’s no risk of groups like ISIS or Aum Shinrikyo lobbing an asteroid at us (at least let’s hope not).

    Of course, as cool as all of this is, let’s also keep in mind that Skynet’s humanity-destroying toolbox now includes lobbing asteroids, at least if Skynet ever takes control of a fleet of advanced asteroid-lobbers.

    So let’s hope the future generations of robotic space probes don’t include advanced AIs harboring a secret desire to wipe out humanity, especially if we ever spread to the edge of the solar system and start colonizing like the Oort cloud or something. Does this mean that, despite the overwhelming need to transition to a WMD-free world, we should be keeping a few nukes on rockets capable of taking down Skynet-lobbed asteroids careening towards Earth?

    Hmmmmmm. Maybe, but it might not be necessary.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 12, 2015, 10:12 am
  39. Just FYI, before Skynet destroys us with nuclear war or whatever, it might attempt to annoy us all to death. At least, that’s definitely going to be an option:

    Ars Technica
    The new spam: interactive robo-calls from the cloud as cheap as e-mail
    Cloud-based “outbound interactive voice response” is being embraced by telemarketers.

    by Sean Gallagher – Apr 15, 2015 5:21pm CDT

    It was the middle of the day, and my cell phone rang with a local number I didn’t recognize. Figuring it was one of my kids calling from a friend’s phone to tell me that they had forgotten their cell phone and needed a ride, I answered—and found myself rapidly descending into the uncanny valley.

    “Hi?” asked a voice on the other end of line. I replied with a hello. “This is Amy!” the voice said ebulliently. “I’m a senior account representative for American Direct Services!” Amy paused for several beats.

    I asked, “Is this a computer?”

    Another several beats. “No,” Amy replied. She then went on to inform me that I had been selected as a possible winner in a million dollar sweepstakes!

    “Amy” was, in fact, an outbound interactive voice response program running on a server, likely somewhere in a cloud data center. The company behind the call was the latest incarnation of a sweepstakes and magazine subscription scam operation currently known as North American Direct Services, Inc., as I found after finally being connected to a human and asking some probing questions. In the meantime, I entertained myself trying to find the bugs in “Amy’s” programming:
    [play audio]

    “What are the top three things you’d use the money for if you won the sweepstakes? [giggle]”

    “Um, beer, computers…and explosives.”

    “That’s a really good idea! I really hope you win.”

    Outbound IVR is the latest evolution of the robo-call—a telemarketing system that uses the technology of voice response systems we’ve used to navigate through the call queues of insurance agencies and banks and turns it around to make pitch calls. These calls can be on voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) lines or other connections that mask the source of the call. We’re getting used to talking to computers, thanks to voice response systems that act as the guardians of many organizations’ phone systems. The technology was originally patented by AT&T in 2006, but is now being offered by a range of companies, such as CallFire, PlumVoice, and Nuance—the cloud voice recognition company behind Siri, Cortana and other interactive systems.

    Because of the relatively low cost of some of these cloud-based IVR systems, fly-by-night telemarketers (and legitimate companies as well) can set up these script-driven pitch calls nearly as easily as they can send out spam e-mails, without having to own a call center or VoIP server of their own. And the IVR providers have new-found legal protection courtesy of a recent federal court ruling. CallFire was ruled to be a "common carrier" by the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, giving it the same protections against litigation that phone companies have when they deliver an unwanted call.

    Scam telemarketers operate in a legal fringe, skirting things like do-not-call lists and call blocking by frequently changing numbers. Using local numbers is the latest evolution. Scammers tap a collection of VoIP numbers registered for the targets’ area code and hide the real location of the company behind a virtual phone switch that eventually routes calls to piecework call processors all around the country (or possibly overseas). By using cloud platforms to drive these calls, they can pay a flat rate to send out a barrage of calls to thousands of numbers, and only have to involve a human for the targets who are gullible enough to interact with the software-driven call for a few minutes of screening questions.

    CallFire is just one contender in the “hosted IVR” market, but it’s illustrative in several ways of how the technology is evolving—and how cheaply it can be deployed. We attempted to contact CallFire for this story, but their IVR system would only take us to their sales department. [Update: after a CallFire social media person left a comment on this story, and I responded in Twitter, a company representative promised a follow-up.]

    Developers can use CallFire’s application programming interface to build their own outbound IVR applications, and anyone can use a menu-driven system to build their own simple interactive calls. Based on how someone responds, the system could forward a call anywhere—to a cell phone, or a worker’s home phone, where they can close the deal.

    The human being I eventually managed to coax the system into letting me speak to (which was not necessarily CallFire’s) said his name was Nick. Nick claimed to work for American Readers Services, and he said he was located in El Paso, Texas. When I asked him for a number to talk to someone from his company, he gave me a toll-free line that is connected, according to Better Business Bureau records, to North American Direct Services, Inc. and North American Readers Service, both of Florida. The number went straight to a fast-busy, but it’s been identified by the Better Business Bureau as having abusive billing and marketing practices; there have been 87 complaints about the company in the last 12 months.

    I asked Nick why his company was using a system that intentionally tried to make people think that they were talking to a human being. He laughed and replied, “It’s not trying to fool them—it’s a computer.” And besides, this way, he continued, his company didn’t have to hire as many people like him.

    Isn’t technology fun? And keep in mind that AI telescamming is just in its infancy. There’s going to be all sorts of scammovations going forward. For instance, if the roboscammers can ever get good enough at mimicking the voices of people based on a sample of them talking, the AI calling you in the future might not be mimicking a human telemarketer. It could be AIs mimicking your friends and family. Just imagine the identity theft potential from that (not to mention the horrible LULZ).

    And right now it’s just a voice. Video calling services like Skype are only going to continue to grow in popularity. And once 3D rendering becomes completely lifelike you could have fake people Skyping that sound and look completely real.

    And then there’s virtual reality technology, where you and the person you’re talking to can interact with a virtual world and each other while you’re having your conversation. Won’t that be fun one! Or, at least, won’t that be fun once they work the bugs out. We’ll probably all end up wondering around virtual SimCities interacting with all sorts of strangers!

    So with all of those growing scamming possibilities, you have to wonder what sort of new tricks the future AI audio/video/virtual roboscammers are going to be using to lure people in. Once you can create any type person as your AI’s avatar and thrust them on an unsuspecting public the range of scam scripts really explodes. Just imagine.

    *Ring* *Ring* It’s for you. And everyone else.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 25, 2015, 1:46 pm
  40. Something to consider regarding the potential fallout from the Volkswagen diesel emission ‘scamdal’ is that this is is hitting right at the same time Germany has pledge to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and while many of them are likely going to be temporary refugees, quite a few are inevitably going to become permanent members of German society which, of course, means they’re going to need jobs. And according to German business leaders, not only do all those refugees need jobs, but German business needs them too, and the rules need to be changed to make it easier to make that happen:

    German industries have an economic case to welcome refugees

    Mathilde Richter, AFP

    Sep. 7, 2015, 9:08 AM

    Berlin (AFP) – As thousands of refugees arrive every day in Germany, calls are growing louder from business leaders in Europe’s biggest economy to offer them jobs.

    “If we can integrate them quickly into the jobs market, we’ll be helping the refugees, but also helping ourselves as well,” the head of the powerful BDI industry federation, Ulrich Grillo, said this week.

    For the countless Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans fleeing war and oppression in their home countries and seeking refuge in Europe, Germany is their chief destination, as it is for Kosovars and Albanians.

    Europe’s top economy expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year — a record figure.

    Beyond the humanitarian imperative to offer protection, businesses are increasingly seeing an economic case to keep the asylum seekers, particularly since Germany’s rapidly ageing population and low birth rate are slowly depleting its pool of skilled labour.

    At 6.4 percent, unemployment in Germany is currently at its lowest level since unification, but the employers’ federation BDA estimates the country is still short of 140,000 engineers, programmers and technicians.

    The healthcare and leisure sectors are also wringing their hands for qualified workers. In all, some 40,000 training places across all sectors are expected to remain unfilled this year.

    The Prognos think-tank forecasts the shortage of qualified workers will rise to 1.8 million in 2020, and as many as 3.9 million by 2040, if nothing is done.


    The influx of migrants could therefore be the answer as many of them are young and have “really good qualifications,” said Grillo at BDI.

    Already, at a local level, more and more businesses are opening their doors to the new arrivals, encouraged by new initiatives.

    In the Augsburg region of Bavaria in south Germany, for example, the HWK local Chamber of Crafts has appointed an “intercultural advisor” to deal specifically with the issue. And the advisor has succeeded in placing 63 young refugees in a training scheme since the start of the year.

    In order to copy and amplify the success of such schemes, the head of the BDA employers’ federation, Ingo Kramer, has called for “efforts at all levels”.

    His call was particularly aimed at Germany’s leaders, said Alexander Wilhelm, who is in charge of labour market policy at the BDA.

    “It’s up to the government to act” by easing the rules on access to jobs, Wilhelm told AFP.

    Companies want a guarantee that a trainee they take on will not be deported from one day to the next.

    Businesses must also currently prove that there is no German candidate to fill a position before they hire a refugee or asylum-seeker, a rule which the Labour Agency would like to see abolished as soon as possible.

    Learning German

    On businesses’ wish list of things are the speeding up procedures for recognising professional and educational qualifications, assessing arrivals’ qualifications upon registration and putting more money on the table to help them learn German.

    This is because “to enter the labour market or secure an apprenticeship, there is generally a lack of German language skills,” said the head of the Chamber of Crafts, Holger Schwannecke.

    The German government does not seem to lack good intentions.

    “People who arrive here as refugees should quickly become our neighbours and our colleagues,” said Labour and Social Affairs Minister Andrea Nahles, whose ministry in late July relaxed the conditions for refugees to access company internships.

    “A lot has already happened,” said Sait Demir, intercultural advisor at HWK in Augsburg.

    There’s certainly a lot to applaud in Germany’s embrace of these refugees, and while the intent behind that welcoming spirit might simply be higher profits and more access to labor from the businesses standpoint, the convergence of greed with dire human need is still rather fortunate during a crisis like this. Greed may not actually be good, but sometimes it helps.

    That’s all part of why the fallout from the VW scandal could be so much worse than just lost jobs because, if the economic damage is bad enough, that welcoming spirit of much of German society just might be lost too and that’s pretty much a disaster. The last thing anyone need right now is a German jobs crisis. And yet, with the VW scandal seemingly growing by the day at this point, a German jobs crisis, at least for some auto-centric towns in Germany,
    can’t be ruled out:

    Volkswagen scandal touches nerve centre of German economy

    Mathilde Richter

    Sep. 24, 2015, 1:24 AM

    Berlin (AFP) – The pollution cheating scandal that has engulfed auto giant Volkswagen touches one of the main nerve centres of the German economy, given the importance of the car sector both politically and economically.

    Germany’s mighty automobile sector includes the world’s biggest and best-known names, from VW itself to high-end makers like BMW, Daimler/Mercedes-Benz, and Opel, the German arm of US giant General Motors.

    But it also includes some of the world’s leading parts suppliers, such as Bosch, Continental and ZF Friedrichshafen as well as myriad small and medium-sized enterprises all along the value chain.

    The sector clocked up combined annual sales of 385 billion euros ($430 billion) last year, or 14 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP).

    Already some industry observers, such as analysts at CMC Markets, are expressing concern about the “spill-over effects” the Volkswagen scandal will have on the wider German economy in the weeks and months ahead.

    More than five million cars rolled off the production line in Germany last year. Europe’s top economy is the fourth biggest producer of cars in the world after China, the United States and Japan. And it is the leader in Europe.

    – ‘One in seven jobs’ –

    Several years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the one in every seven jobs in Germany were “directly or indirectly” linked to the sector.

    The estimate is still freely bandied around today, even if it is a touch exaggerated.

    Strictly speaking, the sector employed around 770,000 people last year, out of a total working population of more than 40 million.

    Around a third of the sector’s turnover is generated in Germany, while the other two thirds comes from abroad.

    Cars are Germany’s top export, accounting for 18 percent of the value of total exports last year. China, in particular, is one of the biggest customers for German cars.

    “Cars are Germany’s top export, accounting for 18 percent of the value of total exports last year. China, in particular, is one of the biggest customers for German cars.”
    That last point is something that could be especially problematic: as bad as the diesel emissions scandal is for Volkswagen’s reputation in the US and Europe, if it turns out cars sold in China were also cheating on emissions that could leave a rather awful taste in he mouths of Chinese consumers that are sick and tired of becoming sick and tired from air they can taste.

    Now, Volkswagen, being the largest car manufacturer in the world today, surely as the resources to just sort of wait it out while it attempts to fix its image. But individual Volkswagen employees may not be so lucky. It all depends on the fallout which is difficult to predict for a scandal that’s still emerging. But the worse this gets, the worse tensions over refugees in Germany will probably get too. So in the spirit of avoid some sort of socioeconomic refugee/nativist blame game, it might be worth pointing out to any soon-to-be autoworkers or anyone else working in a German manufacturing plant that they were probably going to lose their jobs fairly soon anyways. It’s a fun-fact that doesn’t just apply to German manufacturing:

    Cheap robots may shift car making from China to U.S.: Magna CEO

    Sun Sep 20, 2015 2:58pm EDT


    The falling cost of intelligent robots may help repatriate some car manufacturing work away from low-cost locations like China back to factories in Germany and North America Donald Walker, Chief Executive of auto supplier Magna told Reuters.

    Rising wages in China and the cost of importing heavy components like electric car batteries into Europe may lead established car makers to introduce more highly efficient automated manufacturing closer to home, Walker told Reuters in an interview at the Frankfurt auto show.

    “If you have a high labor, easy-to-ship part, it has already gone, for the most part, to a low-cost jurisdiction,” Walker said about the evolution of assembly work in the car manufacturing business.

    “A bigger issue is how fast do you have intelligent robotics replace manual labor everywhere in the world,” Walker said.

    By 2025 the total cost of manufacturing labor is projected to fall between 18 and 33 percent in countries which already deploy industrial robots, including South Korea, China, the U.S. Germany and Japan, a study on advanced manufacturing technologies by the Boston Consulting Group showed.

    Yes, according to the CEO of Magna, the third largest auto parts supplier in the world, manufacturing jobs that have already been off-shored to low-wage manufacturing hubs like China will probably be returned to places like Germany and North America, but that’s primarily due to intelligent robots that should drop the cost of labor in these countries by 18-33 percent over the next decade, and a bigger issue than the offshoring of manufacturing jobs is how fast do intelligent robots replace manual labor everywhere:

    “A bigger issue is how fast do you have intelligent robotics replace manual labor everywhere in the world,” Walker said.

    By 2025 the total cost of manufacturing labor is projected to fall between 18 and 33 percent in countries which already deploy industrial robots, including South Korea, China, the U.S. Germany and Japan, a study on advanced manufacturing technologies by the Boston Consulting Group showed.

    And 18 to 33 percent drop in manufacturing labor costs for countries like South Korea, China, the U.S. Germany and Japan due to robots. No refugees required.

    Whether or not fun facts like this would actually help soon-to-be unemployed German workers put the impact of their new refugee neighbors on the labor market into perspective isn’t obvious. Knowing that intelligent robots are coming to take their jobs might just make an nativist immigration freak out ever more likely than before. That said, with refugee crises likely a permanent fixture of the future as climate change accelerates, coming to terms with the realities of the robot labor revolution everywhere is going to be increasingly important because the reality is that one of the most fundamental assumptions in human relations is getting challenged in ways that both the refugee crisis and robot revolution exacerbate: reciprocity is becoming increasingly impossible for growing portions of the globe.

    Think of the social contracts that underlay most societies that aren’t close-knit tribes. It’s not the Golden Rule, it’s a ‘do ut des‘ ethic: we give to receive. Trade is based on exchanging, not giving. “Making a living” through your own labor is, sort of, an act of reciprocity: you give your time and energy and get an income in return and if someone needs charity or welfare, society might provide that welfare, but it also frowns upon it.

    That ‘do ut des’ type of system might have sort of worked in the pre-intelligence robots era, but such an ‘eye for an eye’ ethic is almost inevitably going to become increasingly untenable as human labor is increasingly removed from the economic equation in a global economy with global competition for exactly the type of labor that could be replaced. How could a system based on reciprocity not become untenable when the “demand” from labor that enables the reciprocity is systematically replaced with robots?

    Sure, we could come up with all sorts of other jobs for people because there are plenty of very useful services we could still offer each other in an economy where labor (manual and white collar) is dominated by intelligent robots, but it’s not clear how human-to-human services are supposed to be paid for in that emerging scenario if increasingly intelligent robots are increasingly dominant in a global economy driven by a “race to the bottom” ethic. And that supply and demand imbalance – where the supply is provided by robots and the demand is not provided by the people put out of work by robots or displaced after their nation falls into chaos – is probably going to an powerful systemic force throughout the rest of the 21st century. What’s going to stop it? Ironically, in the kind of supply and imbalance/reciprocity-trap the world could become in another couple of decades, if we just gave people free money more people might end up working simply from the human-to-human services that couldn’t otherwise be purchase in an environment when the demand from humans is slated to collapse. But the fate of human labor is far less clear in a ‘do ut des’ world.

    It’s all part of why the current refugee crisis shouldn’t simply be viewed as a temporary crisis but instead should become the start of what is basically a quest for a 21st century replacement for our ‘do ut des’ civilization. Our doomed ‘do ut des’ civilization that threatens to leave most people at the bottom of the ‘race to the bottom’ without a lifeboat if there isn’t a fundamental change to people exchange . Taking in potentially millions of refugees is a massive international effort that’s going to involve growing levels of coordination from nations around the globe and the need for that coordination is only going to grow too as the 21st centuries mega-crises continue to unfold. But you know what else is guaranteed to be a massive international effort that’s going to involve growing levels of coordination from nations around the globe? Finding a replacement for our ‘do ut des’ civilization of economic reciprocity in a world where the potential for economic reciprocity is systemically breaking down that all societies should be able to get behind (It doesn’t have to be that hard).

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | September 27, 2015, 8:57 pm
  41. If the maximum fine of $37,000 per vehicle that Volkswagen might face from the EPA over the diesel emissions scandal seems like an awful lot, here’s much it would have cost Volkswagen per vehicle to actually meet US emissions rules avoid all of this: 300 euros per car:

    Automotive News

    Bosch warned VW about illegal software use in diesel cars, report says

    Staff report
    September 27, 2015 – 10:00 am ET

    MUNICH — Robert Bosch warned Volkswagen in 2007 that it would be illegal to use engine management software at the heart of the diesels emissions scandal in production cars, German newspaper Bild am Sonntag said.

    VW was also warned by one of its own engineers in 2011 about illegal emissions testing practices, a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Sunday edition said, citing initial results of a VW internal investigation.

    Bild am Sonntag said Bosch supplied diesel software to VW for test purposes but it ended up in vehicles on the road. Bosch wrote to VW saying that such use was unlawful, according to the paper’s report, which did not cite sources.

    Bosch, the world’s biggest supplier, is adding up the cost to its business and reputation of the VW emissions scandal.

    A Bosch spokesman today told Reuters that the company’s dealings with VW were confidential. VW declined to comment on the details of either newspaper report.

    Last week, Bosch said it had delivered components to VW that are now at the center of a probe into rigged emissions tests. The components included delivery and metering modules for exhaust gas treatment and common-rail injection systems.

    Responsibility for configuring handling characteristics of these components “lies with Volkswagen,” a Bosch spokesman told Automotive News Europe last week.

    Cost-cutting at heart of crisis

    Bild am Sonntag said the roots of the crisis were planted in 2005 when then-VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard wanted VW to develop a new diesel engine for the U.S. market. Bernhard recruited Audi engineer Rudolf Krebs who developed a prototype that performed well in tests in South Africa in 2006, the paper said.

    Bernhard and Krebs argued that the only way to make the engine meet U.S. emission standards was to employ in the engine system an AdBlue urea solution used on larger diesel models such as the Passat and Touareg, according to the report.

    This would have added a cost of 300 euros ($335 in today’s U.S. dollars) per vehicle — a sum that VW finance officials said was too much at a time when a companywide cost-cutting exercise was under way.

    Bernhard left VW in January 2007 before the diesel engine went into production. Krebs was moved to another role when Martin Winterkorn became VW Group and brand CEO in 2007.

    Winterkorn, Audi’s former CEO, asked Audi development boss Ulrich Hackenberg and Audi engine boss Wolfgang Hatz to move to VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters and continue development work on the engine, Bild am Sonntag said.

    The engine then ended up in VW Group diesels with its engine software manipulated to fool diesel emissions tests in the U.S.

    VW has admitted that 11 million diesel engines sold globally have software “irregularities,” though media reports have said the software manipulation tweaks are not activated in the bulk of them.

    Bild am Sonntag said Hackenberg and Hatz, who deny they knew about any illegal activities, have been relieved of their responsibilities.

    Thanks austerity:

    Bild am Sonntag said the roots of the crisis were planted in 2005 when then-VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard wanted VW to develop a new diesel engine for the U.S. market. Bernhard recruited Audi engineer Rudolf Krebs who developed a prototype that performed well in tests in South Africa in 2006, the paper said.

    Bernhard and Krebs argued that the only way to make the engine meet U.S. emission standards was to employ in the engine system an AdBlue urea solution used on larger diesel models such as the Passat and Touareg, according to the report.

    This would have added a cost of 300 euros ($335 in today’s U.S. dollars) per vehicle — a sum that VW finance officials said was too much at a time when a companywide cost-cutting exercise was under way.

    Yes, we can thank the totally unnecessary austerity that helped VW achieve its 2008 pretax profit target a year early:

    Volkswagen, Aided by Cost Cuts, Expects to Hit Profit Goal Early

    Published: July 28, 2007

    FRANKFURT, July 27 (Reuters) — Volkswagen will meet its 2008 pretax profit target of 5.1 billion euros ($7 billion) a year earlier than planned as cost cuts bolster results, the group said on Friday, sending its shares sharply higher.

    After reporting that second-quarter operating profit surged to 1.74 billion euros, far better than analysts had expected, Volkswagen said it would “significantly” exceed in 2007 the previous year’s figure before special items as it expected to sell more than six million cars for the first time.

    The company had previously forecast only that operating profit would “probably” surpass last year’s result before special items of 4.38 billion euros.

    The finance chief, Hans Dieter Poetsch, said in a conference call that Volkswagen would not rest on its laurels even if it achieved its pretax profit target one year early.

    “We clearly want to improve further in 2008,” Mr. Poetsch said.

    A Reuters poll of 18 analysts had estimated quarterly operating profit of 1.47 billion euros and pretax profit of 1.46 billion euros — significantly short of VW’s reported 1.94 billion euros before tax, which includes contributions from its stakes in the European truck makers Scania and Man.

    Volkswagen shares were up to 125 euros ($171.54), a gain of 5.70 euros, reversing earlier losses and clearly outperforming slight declines in the broader European market.

    Although its sales mix deteriorated as revenue growth lagged vehicle sales, VW’s cost-cutting significantly improved results, revealing a sharp improvement in its quarterly operating margin, to 6.1 percent.

    “Although its sales mix deteriorated as revenue growth lagged vehicle sales, VW’s cost-cutting significantly improved results, revealing a sharp improvement in its quarterly operating margin, to 6.1 percent.”
    So it wasn’t even the case that VW was selling a product they couldn’t produce. They just chose not to in order to save 300 euros per car and, as we can see, cost cutting gets results. Short term (sharply higher profits) and long term (the current existential crisis).

    So with that in mind, check out the agenda Herbert Diess, the first new boss for the core passenger car VW brand since 2007. He laid it out back in June. It might sound familiar. And ominous:

    Automotive News Europe

    New VW brand boss Diess needs to cut costs, boost profits

    Christiaan Hetzner
    June 30, 2015 06:01 CET

    FRANKFURT — Volkswagen brand will have a new boss for the first time since 2007 when former BMW development boss Herbert Diess takes control on Wednesday. Diess’s tasks as successor to Martin Winterkorn, who remains VW Group CEO, include reining in costs, increasing profitability and making the brand a stronger player in the U.S.

    The immediate priority for Diess, 56, will be ensuring the smooth execution of an efficiency program started by Winterkorn to add 5 billion euros in overall earnings by the end of 2017. This will be crucial to boosting the VW brand’s operating margin to more than 6 percent in 2018 from 2.5 percent last year. The challenge is that half of the savings have yet to be identified, let alone implemented.

    “If there is anyone who can do it, it’s Diess. If you look at his track record at BMW, he did a fantastic job there and the company never should have allowed him to leave,” said JP Morgan auto analyst Jose Asumendi.

    Diess takes on the post just as vehicle sales are slowing down at the brand, which accounts for 60 percent of VW Group’s volume. VW brand global sales fell by 5.9 percent in May to 499,500 as slowing momentum in China and declines in South America outweighed gains in Europe — the seventh decline in vehicle sales in eight months.

    An Austrian national, Diess developed a reputation as a cost killer during his time as purchasing manager at BMW from 2007 until 2012. Senior level BMW sources said Diess was the right person at the right time to help execute badly needed cuts following the Lehman Brothers collapse in late 2008. Diess was not, however, a serious challenger for BMW Group’s CEO post, which went to Harald Krueger, because he could not secure the backing of BMW’s unions that sit on the supervisory board, the sources said.

    Diess’s skills at squeezing suppliers and eliminating waste may be advantageous in the short term at VW brand, but other cost-cutters poached from rival carmakers and lacking an internal power base in Wolfsburg have often been forced out.

    Bernhard example

    Daimler’s Wolfgang Bernhard, who eliminated a fifth of Chrysler’s workforce more than a decade ago and called Mercedes-Benz a restructuring case where “blood would flow” was celebrated by shareholders when he joined as VW brand chief in 2005. He lasted less than two years before resigning in January 2007 shortly after winning a hard fought battle to cut German jobs.

    As a result, analysts warn Diess will have to develop a greater sense of finesse when dealing with entrenched German unions. Organized labor plays an even stronger role at Volkswagen than at other German carmakers, in part because of the company’s statutes that stipulate no assembly plant anywhere in the world can be closed without union approval. The most recent closure of a major VW plant was the company’s factory in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, in 1988.

    Said JP Morgan’s Asumendi: “Diess has to gain the confidence of the unions at Volkswagen. There needs to be an element of trust involved — that is simply how this company ticks. There are plenty of well known examples of people that are no longer with the organization because they did not take the unions seriously.”

    Should Diess be able to complement his cost-cutting skills with a strategic vision to grow VW Group’s biggest brand, his chances of inheriting the CEO post from Winterkorn will look much more promising.

    As we can see, cutting costs is clearly a top priority. Or at least was a top priority before this scandal happened and it’s unclear why cost-cutting would be any less of a priority at this point. So it be be particularly interesting to see where exactly those future costs as “brand rebuilding” joins cost cutting as top corporate priorities. Ironically, given the possibility of mass layoffs that could result form the crisis, accomplishing some of those goals might actually be easier now. Specifically the goals about cutting labor costs and outsourcing parts supplies:

    Financial Times
    Volkswagen cost cuts will test Herbert Diess

    Car brand head to lift returns without alienating unions

    Chris Bryant in Frankfurt
    Last updated: August 20, 2015 6:14 pm

    When Herbert Diess, a former BMW executive, became head of Volkswagen’s core passenger car brand in July, he took on one of the hardest jobs in global carmaking.

    VW Group boss Martin Winterkorn expects him to lift the underperforming brand’s return on sales to 6 per cent by 2018, compared with 2.5 per cent last year, by completing a €5bn cost-cutting plan unveiled last year.

    Mr Diess, an Austrian national, must do this without ostracising VW’s powerful labour chiefs or displeasing Mr Winterkorn, who previously ran the VW unit in addition to his responsibility for Volkswagen’s other 11 brands.

    If he succeeds, Mr Diess will position himself among the small group of top VW executives who have a shot at one day becoming VW group chief executive.

    Mr Diess was respectfully anointed a “Kostenkiller” by German media for his success in wringing out €4bn of costs from suppliers while at BMW. However, the breadth and complexity of the challenges he faces at VW are nevertheless daunting.

    Chief among these is VW’s low productivity. Like VW, arch-rival Toyota built over 10m vehicles last year, but did so with a quarter of a million fewer employees. That efficiency helped the Japanese carmaker achieve a 10.1 per cent return on sales.

    Despite the disparity, VW’s German workforce won a 3.4 per cent pay increase this year. Meanwhile, the group’s annual research and development bill rose to €11.5bn in 2014. That was the biggest R&D outlay by any global company and more than 80 per cent higher than VW’s R&D spend in 2010.

    Now, a recession in Brazil and Russia has left the carmaker with excess production capacity. VW is underperforming in the US due to a lack of sport utility vehicles and also faces a slowdown in China, which accounts for 45 per cent of the brand’s sales. Purchases in China declined 7 per cent in the first six months of this year.

    “VW needs to keep growing to support its large German production footprint and compensate for the impact of wage increases — if the market shrinks then it would quickly face problems,” says Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management, a research institute.

    Parting with some of the VW group’s almost 600,000 employees, shuttering one its 130 plants or shifting production away from high-cost Germany (where 45 per cent of group employees are based but which accounts for 12 per cent of car sales) would be by far the simplest way for the carmaker to cut costs.

    However, history suggests Mr Diess would be foolish to try.

    In 2004 the carmaker hired restructuring expert Wolfgang Bernard from Chrysler to head the VW brand but his plan to eliminate 20,000 German jobs caused friction with workers and he stood down two years later.

    “Every 10 years or so VW hires an outsider to shake the place up…But if you try to move too fast at VW, the body rejects the transplant,” says Max Warburton at Bernstein Research.

    Labour representatives have huge influence at VW, including a veto over plant closures. The resignation of patriarch and chairman Ferdinand Piëch in April has further burnished their power.

    The Porsche and Piech families appointed Berthold Huber, the former head of the IG Metall engineering union, as interim chairman, and have dithered on appointing a permanent successor due to a shortage of suitable candidates.

    Mr Winterkorn, 68, is deemed the most likely future chairman but he is not ready to give up the chief executive reins just yet. In the autumn he is set to unveil a sweeping overhaul of the VW group’s organisational structure, which is expected to devolve more power to the regions and brands and could augment Mr Diess’s power still further.

    Within days of taking the job the new VW brand chief hopped on a bicycle to tour VW’s sprawling Wolfsburg headquarters with Bernd Osterloh, the works council chief. The meeting went well according to a person familiar with the talks.

    The charm offensive continued when Mr Diess told an in-house employee newspaper in July that VW’s high level of in-house car parts manufacturing — known as vertical integration — was “advantageous” for a company of its size.

    VW makes components such as axles, steering units and car seats at plants in Germany but analysts have long argued these could be made more cheaply by external suppliers.

    “If you’re building parts yourself in Germany and paying €50 an hour while everyone else is getting them built in eastern Europe where they pay a fraction of that, it’s a big disadvantage,” says Mr Warburton.

    However, the last VW executive to really challenge vertical integration at VW was Mr Bernhard and doing so helped cost him his job.

    Mr Bratzel says: “[Mr Diess] is clever enough to recognise that you can’t achieve anything at VW without the support of the works council?.?.?.?But it’s a fine balancing act — ultimately he will be judged on whether he increased the profitability of the VW brand — if he doesn’t do that he has a problem.”

    VW’s labour representatives are not opposed to cost cuts per se. When Mr Winterkorn ordered the cost-savings programme at the VW brand last year, Mr Osterloh presented a 400-page file packed with suggestions on how to accomplish the €5bn target.

    Mr Osterloh, a member of VW’s supervisory board, says he has nothing against halting production of a component, providing VW builds another higher-value and more innovative product instead. “There we are in absolute agreement with Dr Winterkorn,” he says.

    Mr Diess could focus just on this low-hanging fruit and cement his candidacy to succeed Mr Winterkorn but some VW watchers hope he will be more bold.

    “Investors have historically made a lot of money by being optimistic about what a fresh brain can do at an inward-looking and bureaucratic company like VW,” says Mr Warburton. “I think we’ll see things happen.”

    That was then:

    “VW needs to keep growing to support its large German production footprint and compensate for the impact of wage increases — if the market shrinks then it would quickly face problems,” says Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management, a research institute.

    Parting with some of the VW group’s almost 600,000 employees, shuttering one its 130 plants or shifting production away from high-cost Germany (where 45 per cent of group employees are based but which accounts for 12 per cent of car sales) would be by far the simplest way for the carmaker to cut costs.

    However, history suggests Mr Diess would be foolish to try.

    In 2004 the carmaker hired restructuring expert Wolfgang Bernard from Chrysler to head the VW brand but his plan to eliminate 20,000 German jobs caused friction with workers and he stood down two years later.

    “Every 10 years or so VW hires an outsider to shake the place up…But if you try to move too fast at VW, the body rejects the transplant,” says Max Warburton at Bernstein Research.

    Yes, that was then, and this is now, with VW seeking to weather the crisis by giving its efficiency program a “turbo” boost in the billions of euros without cutting jobs:

    Bloomberg Business
    VW Workforce Starts to Feel Pinch From Diesel-Emissions Scandal

    Carmaker cuts one extra shift at Salzgitter engine factory
    VW to give efficiency program “turbo” boost, labor leader says

    Elisabeth Behrmann

    October 1, 2015 — 4:46 AM CDT

    Volkswagen AG’s 600,000-person workforce is starting to feel the impact of the diesel-emissions scandal as the carmaker cuts spending in anticipation of fines, recalls and a drop in U.S. sales.

    Volkswagen slowed production at one of its biggest engine factories and froze hiring in Germany at its unit that makes car loans, the Wolfsburg, Germany-based company said Thursday. More measures to rein in spending are expected as Volkswagen seeks to weather the crisis by giving its efficiency program a “turbo” boost in the billions of euros without cutting jobs, Bernd Osterloh, VW’s labor chief, told workers in a letter on Sept. 24.

    The automaker is facing a significant financial impact, including at least 6.5 billion euros ($7.25 billion) it already set aside for repairs and recalls and a U.S. fine that may reach $7.4 billion, according to analysts from Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. How the company will react was among the topics on the table when the board’s leadership panel met late into the night on Wednesday with Chief Executive Officer Matthias Mueller.

    “Volkswagen has a broad range of options should they need to boost liquidity,” said Frank Biller, a Stuttgart, Germany-based analyst with LBBW. The company could try to step up the VW brand’s existing cost-savings program, which had originally aimed to boost earnings by 5 billion euros by 2017, he said. “Then there’s a catalog of measures that could follow.”

    These range from shrinking ad and sponsoring budgets to reducing bonus payments, cutting the dividend or selling assets, Biller said. Volkswagen had 21.5 billion euros in net liquidity at the end of June and since then sold shares in former partner Suzuki Motor Corp. for about 3.4 billion euros.

    As we just saw, the message from VW’s labor leaders are that the “efficiency program” could be “turbo charged” without costing jobs, and while that’s a nice goal, it’s going to be be very interesting to see what gets cut instead, especially if the scandal ends up doing lasting damage to VW’s sales. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve skimping on things like 300 euro emissions controls devices.

    So we’ll see how VW’s labor pool does during this period of crisis that’s hitting right when a big now round of cost cutting measures were already already to take place. And who knows, maybe VW’s workforce can avoid the axe that VW’s management has so clearly wanted to swing at them. It’s possible. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that even if there does end up being a wave of layoffs in VW’s manufacturing operations the loss of jobs may not be temporary:

    Financial Times
    Volkswagen to replace Germany’s retiring baby boomers with robots

    By Chris Bryant in Frankfurt
    October 6, 2014 6:38 pm

    Volkswagen plans to use robots to cope with a shortage of new workers caused by retiring baby boomers, and ensure that car manufacturing remains competitive in high-cost Germany.

    As at other German industrial companies, VW’s workforce is growing older and as baby boomers begin to retire between 2015 and 2030, under demographic trends there will be fewer young people to take their place.

    Writing in Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Monday, Horst Neumann, VW board member for human resources, said some of the retiring baby boomers’ jobs would be filled by robots, not people.

    He insisted the robots would take over monotonous or unergonomic tasks, while humans would focus on more highly skilled jobs. The trend towards higher automation would not contribute towards increased unemployment in Germany, he added.

    “We have the possibility to replace people with robots and nevertheless we can continue to hire the same amount of young employees. Or put the other way: we would not be able to compensate for this outflow of retirees by [hiring] young employees.”

    Mr Neumann added that a factory devoid of humans is “neither realistic nor desirable”.

    Automation has enabled high-cost Germany to retain a global lead in vehicle production. But adding more robots remains a highly sensitive subject as workers fear that advances in robotics might one day make them surplus to requirements.

    The automotive industry is already by far the biggest user of industrial robots but it sees further potential for their use. For example, robots remain comparatively rare in the final assembly area where workers must carry out intricate tasks in the vehicle interior.

    This could change as a new generation of lightweight robots are able to work side by side with employees rather than inside a safety cage.

    Mr Neumann said robots that carry out routine tasks cost VW about €5 an hour over their lifetime, including maintenance and energy costs.

    That compares with about €40 an hour in labour costs per worker in Germany (including wages, pension and healthcare costs) and less than €10 in China.

    “New generations of robots will likely be even cheaper. We must make use of this cost advantage,” the VW board member wrote.

    Economists view Germany’s rapidly ageing population as one of the biggest threats to its long-term competitiveness.

    At 21 per cent, Germany already has a higher share of its population over the age of 65 than any other country bar Japan. The latter has spearheaded the use of robots to offset an ageing population.

    So as Germany’s work force grows old and retires, the projected labor shortage can is expected to be dealt with via robots, so robust employment can be maintained without a labor shortage. At least that was the plan last year:

    “We have the possibility to replace people with robots and nevertheless we can continue to hire the same amount of young employees. Or put the other way: we would not be able to compensate for this outflow of retirees by [hiring] young employees.

    Mr Neumann said robots that carry out routine tasks cost VW about €5 an hour over their lifetime, including maintenance and energy costs.

    That compares with about €40 an hour in labour costs per worker in Germany (including wages, pension and healthcare costs) and less than €10 in China.

    “New generations of robots will likely be even cheaper. We must make use of this cost advantage,” the VW board member wrote.

    And now, following the emissions scandal, the “turbocharging” of VW’s “efficiency program” is being proposed as a means of cutting costs even more aggressively without leading to layoffs. And while it’s possible that the scandal won’t lead to layoffs, it’s looking like retiring employees that can be replaced by a robot probably will be, given both the scandalous circumstances and the existing cost cutting plans to roboticize the work force eventually anyways.

    So with a potential flood of new robots and cost cutting measures about to hit VW’s manufacturing floor, don’t be surprised if we see more “VW robot kills worker” stories over the next few years, although stories like that should subside eventually.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | October 1, 2015, 10:35 am
  42. While mining might seem like one of those industries that would be an early adopter of automation technology given the dangerous nature of the work, it turns out that the mining industry has been relatively slow to embrace the latest wave of automated vehicles and machinery. But as the article below points out, the industry is picking up the pace:

    Norther Miner
    Miners embrace automation to increase productivity

    By: Alisha Hiyate
    Nov 16, 2015 8:09 AM

    Leaders in the mining industry are starting to recognize that automation is part of the answer to the sector’s productivity problems, says Michael Murphy, chief engineer, mining technology enabled solutions with leading mining sector supplier Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT).

    “(CEOs are) talking about how there needs to be a step-change in mining, that mining needs to adopt a lot of the capabilities from the manufacturing industry and they view automation as one element — not the only element — but one element they can use to reduce their cash costs,” he said in an interview.

    The mining industry is still in the early adoption stage when it comes to automation — a process that has already transformed other industries, such as manufacturing.

    A few leading-edge companies, such as Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO; LSE: RIO), are already deep into implementing automation at some of their operations.

    Rio Tinto embraced automation as one component of its “Mine of the Future” program launched in 2008 at its iron ore mines in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

    The mining giant has a large and growing fleet of Komatsu driverless haul trucks at work in the Pilbara, where it also is using autonomous drill rigs developed with Atlas Copco. It’s also about to launch an autonomous heavy haul rail system to serve its operations in the region.

    Fortescue Metals Group (ASX: FMG), another iron ore miner in the Pilbara, is also in the midst of incorporating 45 Caterpillar autonomous trucks at its Solomon mine, while BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT; ASX: BHP) is testing Caterpillar trucks at its Jimblebar iron ore mine in the region.

    Automation drivers

    While there are definitely barriers to adoption, the drivers behind automation are too powerful for the trend to seriously stall.

    One of the main goals of automation is to remove humans from the dangerous and monotonous tasks that they’re called upon to do, says Daniel Koffler, senior manager of emerging technology at Rio Tinto.

    “The dangerous tasks have inherent danger in them and the monotonous tasks often can build up a danger profile just due to the nature of the work,” Koffler says. “Human capital is best spent outside of the monotonous, repetitive type tasks.”

    Flanders, a supplier that says it offers the most advanced autonomous drill system on the market, notes that its fully autonomous system can be used in places where it isn’t safe for people to work.

    For example, Rio Tinto used Flanders’ ARDVARC Auto Propel system at its Bingham Canyon open-pit copper mine in Utah following a massive April 2013 landslide, while Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM) has used the system in Nevada, in areas where there was potential for old underground stopes to collapse.

    Another factor, in remote areas in particular, such as the iron ore mines in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, is the challenge of attracting qualified workers and the cost of transporting them to and from site.

    “The challenges you have in Western Australia are different to the U.S., or even parts of Latin America,” says Caterpillar’s Murphy. “These mines are one-and-a-half, two hours out of Perth, so you’ve got to fly the workers to the mine at a remote location, and also house and feed them.”

    Automation also allows companies to centralize expertise, as Rio Tinto is doing with its remote operations centres in Perth, where the Pilbara mines are monitored and expertise can be shared across sites.

    “As the industry matures and becomes more technologically dependent, we’re competing with other industries for brain share and expertise,” explains Rio Tinto’s Koffler. “So what automation also allows us to do is to centralize subject matter experts and make them available to multiple sites globally instead of requiring them to be hands-on at a particular site.”

    Productivity and cost are another reason automation is gaining momentum. Humans simply can’t compete with the precision, repeatability, and consistency that machines are capable of.

    Productivity also increases with automation because machines don’t need to stop for shift changes, lunch breaks, or for safety reasons during blasting.

    Murphy estimates that Caterpillar’s automated haul trucks can provide an extra 500 machine hours per year, which in some cases means 9 or 10% more hours out of the machine.

    At its Pilbara operations, Rio Tinto’s recently released some numbers quantifying its return on investment with driverless Komatsu trucks. The company says its automated trucks are 12% more productive than its manned trucks, while the technology has reduced its load and haul costs by 13%.

    Automation also decreases the need for training and retraining of new operators when there’s worker turnover. Machines get “smarter” over time, allowing them to continually improve the execution of tasks, Murphy notes.

    “I think that’s what people forget about automation: it allows you to measure process and then measure process variants, and then improve the process,” he says. “When you take the person out of it, it’s a lot more controlled.”

    In the automated drilling field, Flanders offers four levels of automated drilling systems. Its fully automated Ardvarc Auto Propel system can be fitted onto any make or model of blasthole drill rig, and up to four rigs can be monitored by one technician.

    The company estimates the system can extend engine life by 10% just due to the fact that the system can’t operate outside of manufacturer’s specs. With manual drilling, the operator can overextend and damage the drill, shortening its life.

    The jobs question

    Both mining companies and their suppliers say that, contrary to popular belief, automation is not about cutting jobs.

    “I think what we’re finding is that we’re shifting the work, and it’s not so much about a head count reduction as it is about applying human expertise to a higher-value type of work,” says Rio Tinto’s Koffler. “We have former truck drivers who are now responsible for and monitoring 10, 15 trucks at a time from a central operations centre. So it’s really a transfer of skill sets more than anything else.”

    While that does mean less work for employees who can’t or won’t upgrade their skills, Koffler notes that every industrial advancement has historically brought up the same concern.

    “There was the same argument when the steam shovel was first introduced, but I don’t think anybody would advocate going back to a pick-axe just to maintain employment levels,” he says. “Again, there’s a balance there.”

    Koffler adds that mining companies have no desire to replace their whole workforce.

    “We’re going after the efficiencies that we can gain and again, the reduction in injury rates and things like that are really as important to us as anything else.”

    While there is to some extent creation of higher-skill jobs with automation, overall jobs are still reduced. That’s one of the big barriers to companies adopting Flanders automated drill system, especially in countries such as South Africa where jobs are a sensitive issue, says Flanders’ Landey.

    “When you go autonomous, one drill operator can command up to four drill rigs, so that’s three jobs in the sector lost,” Landey says. “I think for the mining houses and the mines themselves, if they were forward thinking enough, they would be taking the operators and converting operators into qualified technicians because you do need a lot of support for all this technology.”

    “While there is to some extent creation of higher-skill jobs with automation, overall jobs are still reduced. That’s one of the big barriers to companies adopting Flanders automated drill system, especially in countries such as South Africa where jobs are a sensitive issue, says Flanders’ Landey.”
    Automation will no doubt be a sensitive topic anywhere the mining sector makes up a significant portion of the economy. While mining may not be the safest job out there, chronic unemployment and poverty isn’t very safe either and the reality that the future of human involvement in mining will rely more on humans overseeing teams of automated machines (vs teams of a humans manually operating those machines) probably isn’t going to sit well with a lot of mining sector workers. So you have to wonder how excited those possibly-replaceable workers are going to be about another big story in mining. It’s a story that involves a potentially dramatic expansion in the mining sector, although the demand for actual miners will be fairly limited since the space mines of the future are probably going to be pretty heavily automated:

    The Verge
    Private space companies avoid FAA oversight again, with Congress’ blessing

    Plus: asteroid miners’ rights!

    By Loren Grush on November 16, 2015 02:27 pm

    This week, President Obama is expected to sign into law a critical bill for the commercial spaceflight sector — one that prevents the government from regulating private space travel for the next eight years. Under the legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration is restricted from issuing standards for commercial spacecraft, as it does for the commercial airline industry, until 2023 at the earliest. The new bill will also keep the International Space Station running through 2024, as well as give companies the rights to any items they’ve collected in space.

    The Senate passed the bill H.R. 2262, also known as the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, last week, and both the House and the Senate have expressed support for it. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has scheduled the bill for final approval this afternoon. After it passes, it goes to the president for his official signature.

    Many prominent commercial space companies — including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic — have applauded H.R. 2262. The legislation means that private space travel is still considered young, and lawmakers have given the industry more time to experiment and gather data.”It allows the industry to grow, to test, and to develop without this overshadow of the regulatory hammer coming down on them,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a non-profit aimed at promoting commercial spaceflight development, told The Verge. It also means that people participating in private spaceflight do so at their own risks, and there are no government regulations in place specifically to keep them safe.

    Space travel isn’t that safe, of course; nearly 1 in 10 rockets fail, though most vehicles that go into space these days don’t have crew members on board. The FAA is concerned about the spacecraft that will carry people, though, which is why the agency doesn’t seem supportive of the learning period extension. In February of 2014, George Nield, head of the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, testified before the House Subcommittee on Space that he thinks it’s time for the period to expire. Nield said he understands that many in the industry fear overregulation by the FAA, but that his office is more concerned with ensuring crew safety than issuing “burdensome” standards. “We want to enable safe and successful commercial operations,” he testified.

    Regulatory Learning Period

    The advent of private spaceflight began in the 1960s, but the industry has only started growing rapidly this decade. To address this expansion, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act in 2004. It granted the private sector a “learning period” free of regulation. The learning period was set to expire in December 2012 but was granted two short extensions. H.R. 2262 will extend the period for a further eight years, through September 30th, 2023.

    Space Station and Asteroid Mining

    H.R. 2262 also issues a number of other key provisions, which can be found here. For one, the bill officially extends operations of the International Space Station through 2024. President Obama had already approved this ISS extension, but Congress must sign off on it in order for it to be final. “A new president could come and say, ‘To hell with this space station,'” said Stallmer. “This puts into law that the space station will continue to be a national laboratory.”

    And then there’s the asteroid mining. Under one provision of H.R. 2262 called the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, commercial companies get the rights to any resources that they collect from celestial bodies. The provision is important for companies like the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, which recently partnered with Virgin Galactic. “Now, if you go out somewhere in space and you pick [something] up, it’s yours,” said Chris Lewicki, the president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources.

    The bill mostly refines what was originally laid out in the Outer Space Treaty, a document signed by 104 companies in 1967 that eventually became the basis for international space law. The treaty forbids anyone from claiming asteroids or planets as new government territories, but it does grant non-government entities the rights “explore and use” outer space. That means companies can go collect any space materials they can find and bring back home with them. Now, H.R. 2262 guarantees that they will own those materials.

    The only caveat: H.R. 2262 doesn’t grant companies the rights to any biological organisms they might stumble upon in space. That means that Planetary Resources won’t be bringing an alien pets home from their asteroid mining missions.

    “The only caveat: H.R. 2262 doesn’t grant companies the rights to any biological organisms they might stumble upon in space. That means that Planetary Resources won’t be bringing an alien pets home from their asteroid mining missions.”
    Yeah, that’s probably for the best. Although you have to wonder if there are any special rules for inorganic lifeforms too. There probably should be.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | November 16, 2015, 7:40 pm
  43. OxFam just issue its annual report on the global wealth distribution at the World Economic Forum. Surprise! Just 62 ultra-wealthy individuals own half the global wealth. They must work very hard:

    62 people have as much wealth as world’s 3.6B poorest, Oxfam finds ahead of Davos


    Politicians and business leaders gathering in the Swiss Alps this week face an increasingly divided world, with the poor falling further behind the super-rich and political fissures in the United States, Europe and the Middle East running deeper than at any time in decades.

    Just 62 people, 53 of them men, own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire world population – or 3.6 billion people – according to a report released by anti-poverty charity Oxfam.

    And the richest 1 percent own more than the other 99 percent put together.

    Significantly, the wealth gap is widening faster than anyone anticipated, with the 1 percent overtaking the rest one year earlier than Oxfam had predicted only a year ago.

    In 2010 it took 388 super-rich individuals to equal the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population. While this number has fallen to just 62 individuals, the amount of “wealth” held by the poorest half has shrunk by $1 trillion in the same period, the charity calculated.

    The elite meet

    Rising inequality and a widening trust gap between people and their political leaders are big challenges for the global elite as they converge on Davos for the annual World Economic Forum, which runs from Jan. 20 to 23.

    But the divisions go far beyond those that exist between the haves and have-nots. In the Middle East, the divide between Shi’ites and Sunnis has reached crisis point, with Iran and Saudi Arabia jostling openly for influence in a region reeling from war and the barbarism of Islamic extremists.

    The conflicts there have spilled over into Europe, causing deep ideological rifts over how to handle the worst refugee crisis since World War Two and – with Britain threatening to leave the European Union – raising doubts about the future of Europe’s six-decade push towards ever closer integration.

    The shock emergence of Donald Trump as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination has exposed a gaping political divide in the United States, stirring anxiety among Washington’s allies at a time of global turmoil.

    Fueling populism

    Edelman’s annual “Trust Barometer” survey shows a record gap this year in trust between the informed publics and mass populations in many countries, driven by income inequality and divergent expectations of the future. The gap is the largest in the United States, followed by the UK, France and India.

    “The consequence of this is populism – exemplified by Trump and Le Pen,” Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, told Reuters, referring to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose National Front has surged ahead of traditional parties in opinion polls.

    The next wave of technological innovation, dubbed the fourth industrial revolution and a focus of the Davos meeting, threatens further social upheaval as many traditional jobs are lost to robots.

    The Oxfam report suggests that global inequality has reached levels not seen in over a century.

    Last year, the organisation has calculated, 62 individuals had the same wealth as 3.5 billion people, or the bottom half of humanity. The wealth of those 62 people has risen 44 percent, or more than half a trillion dollars, over the past five years, while the wealth of the bottom half has fallen by over a trillion.

    “Far from trickling down, income and wealth are instead being sucked upwards at an alarming rate,” the report says.

    It points to a “global spider’s web” of tax havens that ensures wealth stays out of reach of ordinary citizens and governments, citing a recent estimate that $7.6 trillion of individual wealth – more than the combined economies of Germany and the UK – is currently held offshore.

    “It’s a major wake-up call,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, which represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors. “Inequality is one of the biggest threats to economic well-being and it needs to be addressed.”

    U.S. President Barack Obama touched on the issue in his recent State of the Union address, noting that technological change was reshaping the planet.

    “It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate,” he said.

    “Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition…As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.”

    “Far from trickling down, income and wealth are instead being sucked upwards at an alarming rate,” the report says. LOL!

    And then there’s this fun warning:

    The next wave of technological innovation, dubbed the fourth industrial revolution and a focus of the Davos meeting, threatens further social upheaval as many traditional jobs are lost to robots.

    Yep, the wealth gap is at levels not seen in a century and the robotics/AI mass-unemployment revolution hasn’t even really happened yet.

    And yet, as the report also points out, the “trust gap” between “the informed publics and mass populations” is at records levels in the US and one of the consequences of this broad collapse in trust is the rise of figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, two figure who have made xenophobia and attacking the “other” in society central points in their populist appeal. It’s a more ominous wealth-gap report than usual this year. And given the proven popular appeal of figures like Trump and Le Pen, it’s hard to see why the same billionaires that brought us a world of record wealth gaps won’t be likely to attempt to see that same same Trumpian/Le Pen-ish xenophobia-focused populist strategy tried all over the place. Pitting one group of poor people against another is a pretty great way of dealing with rabble that’s lost its faith in the status quo. It’s a classic and it still works. Why not use it some more?

    Of course, as the robot revolution progresses, the “other” striking socioeconomic fear in the public’s hearts isn’t going to undocumented immigrants or fleeing refugees. That “other” is going to be a robot or super AI.

    So while the global oligarchy is probably breathing a sigh of relief that fear and loathing of the poor, as opposed to fear and loathing of the ultra-rich, is still a primary factor driving popular attitudes, there has to be at least some concern about what the transition to a labor-less, automated industrial paradigm will have on classic social control techniques. Especially given the trends in wealth consolidation because at the current rate there’s just going to be like 1 super-billionaire who owns half the global wealth by the time the robot-run factories building industrial robots designed by super-AIs really gets the “fourth industrial revolution” in full swing (seriously, check out the chart provided by OxFam…we’re on track for one super-billionaire owning half the wealth in less than a decade). The absurdities of how markets distribute resources in overpopulated technologically advanced economies where the wealthy can own robot empires that run themselves is going to be awfully hard to ignore:

    Bloomberg Business
    Davos Robot Eclipses Davos Man as Gloom Descends on World Elite

    Simon Kennedy and Matthew Campbell
    January 18, 2016 — 6:01 PM CST

    First there was Davos Man and then Davos Woman. Get ready for Davos Robot.

    Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Alibaba’s Jack Ma will share the spotlight with a prize-winning South Korean robot called HUBO at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum this week in the Swiss ski resort. It’s a presence they’ll have to get used to.

    The adult-sized automaton, which can climb stairs and enter and exit a car, will be a star attraction at the conference. It illustrates a looming challenge for the 2,500 elite delegates: How to protect their companies and jobs by harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, without exacerbating the economic frustration and populist discord spreading around the globe.

    “If some of the predictions about tech and employment come true, then we should all be worried,” said Alan Winfield, a professor specializing in robotics at the University of the West of England, who will be speaking in Davos. “There need to be solutions.”

    Soldiers and Generals

    About 20 sessions during the four-day conference are devoted to the official theme of “the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” a catch-all term for rapid technological progress.

    Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, will join Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella in debating how it will “transform industries and societies.” Blackstone Group Chairman Stephen Schwarzman and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan will address the technological challenges facing finance.

    Occupying what organizers have called the “Robot Space” will be a showcase of
    HUBO, which was developed at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. The robot last year scooped up a $2 million prize for beating 22 international rivals in a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense.

    Other discussions betray anxiety as well as wonder. There are panels on what happens when robots go to war, potentially replacing “both soldiers and generals,” and whether innovation “is failing the middle class” by eliminating jobs. Few experts dispute that the rise of robots and sophisticated software to power them will create winners and losers, as did the steam engine and the advent of mass production.

    Oxford University researchers, for example, reckon almost half of American jobs are at risk of being automated within the next two decades. Most notable are high-skill roles that have so far been largely shielded from the advances of technology. A WEF analysis estimates a net loss of 5 million jobs in 15 major economies by 2020.

    In finance, Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch unit is already looking to automate investment advice for some clients with accounts under $250,000. Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo & Co. also say they’ll develop or acquire robo-advisers. Even the most traditionally lucrative corners of investing may not be safe; Highbridge Capital, an in-house hedge fund of JPMorgan, is working with San Francisco-based Sentient Technologies to use so-called artificial intelligence for building investing strategies.

    Zuckerberg’s Automated Assistant

    Meanwhile Google parent Alphabet Inc., which will be represented in Davos by Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, has bought a string of robotics companies. And Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this month said his personal challenge for 2016 is to build an artificially intelligent home assistant.

    “If the executives are smart, they see it as a challenge that they can wield in their firm’s own interest,” said Tim Adams, a former U.S. Treasury official who now heads the Institute of International Finance. Bank of America estimates manufacturing and healthcare alone will see $9 trillion in cost savings in the next decade, while productivity could jump by almost a third in many industries.

    The rub is what happens if the losses from the revolution are sufficient to stifle economic demand for the products churned out by machines. One reason to fear this is that the number of people affected could be higher than once thought. McKinsey & Co. researchers estimate that by 2025 robots or automated software will be able to do the jobs of 140 million knowledge workers.

    U.S. President Barack Obama, who is dispatching the highest-profile American delegation to Davos since he took office, in this month’s State of the Union address warned that “technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated.” That could increase economic frustration that’s already running high in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

    Disappointment with the current state of economic affairs is a major driver of support for anti-establishment politicians like Trump, said Davos regular Stu Eizenstat, a former official in the U.S. State and Treasury departments who’s now at law firm Covington & Burling LLP. If leaders aren’t careful, we’ll have “a revolution that disenfranchises a lot of middle class people and breeds a lot of resentment,” he said.

    Those on the cutting edge of developing new computing systems are more optimistic. At IBM, researchers are working to build products atop the Watson computing platform — best known for its skill answering questions on the television quiz show “Jeopardy” — that will search for job candidates, analyze academic research or even help oncologists make better treatment decisions.

    Such revolutionary technology is the only way to solve “the big problems” like climate change and disease, while also making plenty of ordinary workers more productive and better at their jobs, according to Guru Banavar, IBM’s vice president for cognitive computing.

    “Fundamentally,” Banavar said, “people have to get comfortable using these machines that are learning and reasoning.”

    “Fundamentally, people have to get comfortable using these machines that are learning and reasoning.”
    That’s the advice at Davos from IBM’s vice president for cognitive computing. And it’s not bad advice since, yes, people will have to get used to using machines capable of learning and reasoning if that’s what we’re capable of building. But, of course, it’s advice that’s sort of beside the point when you have others issuing warnings like:

    Oxford University researchers, for example, reckon almost half of American jobs are at risk of being automated within the next two decades. Most notable are high-skill roles that have so far been largely shielded from the advances of technology. A WEF analysis estimates a net loss of 5 million jobs in 15 major economies by 2020.

    People will presumably be happy to use a smart machine that make their job or lives easier. It’s the part about the smart machines replacing them at their jobs that’s going to ruffle feathers. And yet, by the logic that has created a world where just 62 people own half the global wealth, the appropriate thing to do is for each company to look after its own interest and just hope the magic of the markets make everything work out…even if doing so strangles the market:

    If the executives are smart, they see it as a challenge that they can wield in their firm’s own interest,” said Tim Adams, a former U.S. Treasury official who now heads the Institute of International Finance. Bank of America estimates manufacturing and healthcare alone will see $9 trillion in cost savings in the next decade, while productivity could jump by almost a third in many industries.

    The rub is what happens if the losses from the revolution are sufficient to stifle economic demand for the products churned out by machines. One reason to fear this is that the number of people affected could be higher than once thought. McKinsey & Co. researchers estimate that by 2025 robots or automated software will be able to do the jobs of 140 million knowledge workers.

    “If the executives are smart, they see it as a challenge that they can wield in their firm’s own interest.”
    Sadly, despite the ample warnings that if every company looks out for “their firm’s own interest,” they’re effectively killing market demand, the thing their firm feeds on, the “everyone look out for just themselves. That’s the smart thing to do”-attitude is probably the attitude we should expect from the same group of people that brought us levels of inequality not seen in a century. And that’s all part of why we should probably be asking ourselves whether or not the super-rich are actually fine with a shrinking the global economy as long as they become relatively wealthier in the process. Don’t forget that a large number of those 62 billionaires who own half the global wealth are either tech-giants who would be building the robot economy of the future or folks like the Walton heirs who would be perfectly poised to directly prosper in an economy where the poor seek the cheapest prices possible (on robot-built goods).

    Will billionaires who are the direct beneficiaries of the rise of the “fourth industrial revolution” really care all that much if the global economy gets so starved for demand as their business empires grow that the global economy actually net shrinks? Sure, there’s also the risk of a rabble revolt under that kind of scenario, but, of course, that just points to one of the other obvious advantages of owning the means of production in the fourth industrial revolution: ample crowd-control resources (with plenty of options when the crowds scatter).

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | January 18, 2016, 7:58 pm
  44. Now that Donald Trump has romped to his third straight GOP primary win in Nevada, the writing is increasingly on the wall for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination and it mostly involves Trump’s various taunts and threats of violence.

    Still, there could be some useful national conversations that emerge from a Trump nomination that the other GOP candidates wouldn’t have stimulated. For instance, much of Donald Trump’s base is blue-collar workers who have been most directly impacted by the convergence of a broad spectrum of changes, from the globalization to trade to the shredding of the safety-net. So it would seem that a discussion about how we deal with the oncoming changes of advanced AI and automation on those same workers would be a most useful and timely discussion. Especially since the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors just issued their annual report and it included a rather startling prediction about the potential impact of automation: for jobs where the person is currently $20/hour or less 83% will end up being automated:


    The robots are coming for jobs that pay $20 an hour or less, White House finds

    By Steve Goldstein

    Published: Feb 23, 2016 6:42 a.m. ET

    It’s intuitive that automation will take low-wage jobs.

    But the White House, in its annual economic report of the president, has broken down just how much that is so.

    There’s an 83% chance that automation will take a job with an hourly wage below $20, a 31% chance automation will take a job with an hourly wage between $20 and $40, and just a 4% chance automation will take a job with an hourly wage above $40.

    The White House used the same data that underlines other research in the field of labor and robots to arrive at the conclusion.

    The key question is what happens when a robot takes one of these low-wage jobs.

    Traditionally, innovation leads to higher income, more consumption and more jobs, but the question is whether the current pace of automation may in the shorter term increase inequality.

    One study found that higher levels of robot density within an industry lead to higher wages in that industry, the White House notes. However, that could be because the absence of lower-skills biases wage estimates upwards.

    The White House says the findings demonstrate the need for training and education to help displaced workers find new jobs.

    There’s an 83% chance that automation will take a job with an hourly wage below $20, a 31% chance automation will take a job with an hourly wage between $20 and $40, and just a 4% chance automation will take a job with an hourly wage above $40.”
    So generally speaking, the lower the pay, the likelier the odds of automation. And for jobs where people typically make $20 or less today, there’s and 83% chance of those jobs getting automated. And that means that blue-collar GOP contingent that makes up a big part of Trump’s base is slated to have their jobs replace by some sort of technology. At least according to a report released by the White House. What a fun political topic! It’s especially fun with Trump as the likely GOP nominee since one of the biggest sectors of the economy that we should expect to be impacted by the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a sector Trump is quite familiar with: Construction:

    Equipment World

    AI, robotics expected to claim nearly 500,000 construction jobs by 2020

    Wayne Grayson

    | January 25, 2016

    An estimated 5.1 million jobs are expected to be lost in the next five years due to advances in technology, specifically those in artificial intelligence, machine-learning, 3D printing and robotics, according to a report from the World Economic Forum.

    Of those job losses, construction and extraction are anticipated to account for nearly 10 percent.

    The findings are based on a survey of HR and strategic executives at 371 companies around the globe.

    Though the vast majority of the total job losses are expected to be in the office and administrative job sector (4.76 million) manufacturing and production (1.61 million) and cosntruction and extraction (497,000) round out the top three.

    According to the WEF report’s executive summary, “Even jobs that will shrink in number are simultaneously undergoing change in the skill sets required to do them. Across nearly all industries, the impact of technological and other changes is shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets.”

    That certainly appears to be true in the construction industry as the, albeit limited, adoption of technologies like GPS, machine control and automation could nullify many of those skills contractors are currently so desperately seeking.

    However, the report notes “technological disruptions such as robotics and machine learning—rather than completely replacing existing occupations and job categories—are likely to substitute specific tasks previously carried out as part of these jobs, freeing workers up to focus on new tasks and leading to rapidly changing core skill sets in these occupations.”

    That could be the case in construction with operators transitioning from working inside the machine to a command center where they oversee the operation of multiple machines with the help of telematics, automation and drone monitoring. And all of that requires the development of new jobs and skill sets within the industry.

    Another bright spot in the report for the construction industry is that these technological advances are anticipated to generate an additional 339,000 new jobs in architecture and engineering.

    In terms of recommendations to avoid significant job losses, the WEF says the severity of those losses is largely in the hands of employers. And its advice is certainly something more construction firms would do well to heed, as it would not only prepare the industry for the disruption of automation, but also increase the number of skilled workers available today.

    “During previous industrial revolutions, it often took decades to build the training systems and labour market institutions needed to develop major new skill sets on a large scale. Given the upcoming pace and scale of disruption brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, this is simply not be an option,” the report reads. “Without targeted action today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with futureproof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality, and businesses with a shrinking consumer base.

    “… For a talent revolution to take place, governments and businesses will need to profoundly change their approach to education, skills and employment, and their approach to working with each other. Businesses will need to put talent development and future workforce strategy front and centre to their growth. Firms can no longer be passive consumers of ready-made human capital. They require a new mindset to meet their talent needs and to optimize social outcomes.”

    You can read the full report here

    H/t: Ars Technica

    “In terms of recommendations to avoid significant job losses, the WEF says the severity of those losses is largely in the hands of employers.”
    Good luck everyone. And note that those significant job losses discussed in the World Economic Forum report on 5.1 million jobs being lost to automation and AI was just talking about the next five years, which would only cover one Trump term. And 10 percent of those lost jobs are slated to be lost in the construction sector:

    An estimated 5.1 million jobs are expected to be lost in the next five years due to advances in technology, specifically those in artificial intelligence, machine-learning, 3D printing and robotics, according to a report from the World Economic Forum.

    Of those job losses, construction and extraction are anticipated to account for nearly 10 percent.

    Keep in mind that Donald Trump’s brand of Republicanism is apparently going to have a protectionist theme with policies like hunting down and expelling all undocumented Mexicans, building a wall with Mexico, and some sort of trade measures targeting China. But Trump has also proclaimed the US wages are too high and is proposing a slew of tax cuts that are so massive it would force a shredding of the government programs blue-collar workers inevitably need now or in the future.

    Given all that, it seems like voters should be treated to some sort of Trumpian vision for how we’ll deal with the impacts of robots since robots and super-AI are way scarier to blue-collar workers than an undocumented immigrant ever could be. WAY scarier.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 23, 2016, 11:24 pm
  45. @Pterrafractyl–

    Big Question: WHAT is going to be done with all of these excess, unemployed workers?

    I’m am scared as hell about the answer, which I think I know.

    Against the background of Third Reich extermination programs–a direct outgrowth of eugenics philosophy beloved to elite and corporate elements in the West–I would not count on a benevolent solution.

    A Final Solution is a much more likely development.



    Posted by Dave Emory | February 24, 2016, 1:53 pm
  46. @Dave: Yeah, when you consider how much nastiness was justified in 20th century under the banner of “anti-communism”, it’s hard to see the 21st century working out well when all signs point towards an urgent need for the globe to shift towards economies rooted in sharing the spoils of technology.

    And it’s that growing set of circumstances – ranging from environmental collapse and related mass migrations to the growing obsolescence of human beings in future economies – that’s probably going to necessitate mass propaganda campaigns to ensure that the we can develop and maintain an analogous anti-sharing/humanity collective attitude for the 21st century. The human rights abuses of the Soviet Union made anti-communism an easy rallying cry. But in the future, when democratic populations will inevitably be tempted to start experimenting with the shared ownership of the robot factories or other “commie” ideas because the technological landscape sort of broke the logic of capitalism, generating the kind of mass public support for maintaining our existing economic systems in an age of human obsolescence that would make Thomas Piketty weep is going to become increasingly tricky.

    So we probably shouldn’t be too surprised if the politics of the future (at least the politics advocated by those with power) are basically going to be an extension of the worst politics we see today, where ideas like sharing, good will towards all and a recognition that we’re all in this together are decried as dangerous ideas that will have to be stamped out and replaced with a celebration of social Darwinism, hyper-capitalism, and probably a hefty dose of racism and hyper-tribalism. In an socioeconomic environment where the physical environment is degrading (leading to mass migrations and refugee crises)and the employment/income environment is looking less and less secure, ideas like “It’s us or them” are probably going to become the norm too. At least for a big chunk of any populace.

    Who knows, maybe this is all the darkness before the light and the shock that mass automation and super-AI brings to societies over the coming couple decades will catalyze humanity towards creating the kind of Star Trek-style societies of the future where basic needs are met and individuals are tasked with becoming meaningful and knowledgeable participants in their democracies so societies are capable of developing effective solutions and the shared sacrifices needed to implement them. But it’s hard to ignore the possible that the darkness of today isn’t about to be followed by the light:

    The Awl
    The Darkness Before the Right

    A right-wing politics for the coming century is taking shape. And it’s not slowing down.

    by Park MacDougald
    September 28, 2015

    It’s hard to talk seriously about something with a silly name, and neoreaction is no exception. At first glance, it appears little more than a fever swamp of feudal misogynists, racist programmers, and “fascist teenage dungeon master[s],” gathering on subreddits to await the collapse of Western civilization. Neoreaction—aka NRx or the Dark Enlightenment—combines all of the awful things you always suspected about libertarianism with odds and ends from PUA culture, Victorian Social Darwinism, and an only semi-ironic attachment to absolutism. Insofar as neoreactionaries have a political project, it’s to dissolve the United States into competing authoritarian seasteads on the model of Singapore; they’re nebbish Nazis with Bitcoin wallets, and they’re practically begging to be shoved in a locker.

    While not wrong, as far as it goes, the tendency of snark to collapse neoreaction into cyber-fascism or nerd ressentiment makes it tough to figure out what’s actually going on here. It’s a little weirder than all that.

    As the twenty-first century gets darker, politics are likely to follow suit, and for all its apparent weirdness, neoreaction may be an early warning system for what a future anti-democratic right looks like. So what is neoreaction, then, exactly? For all the talk of neo-feudalism and geeks for monarchy, it’s less a single ideology than a loose constellation of far-right thought, clustered around three pillars: religious traditionalism, white nationalism, and techno-commercialism (the names are self-explanatory). This means heavy spoonfuls of “race realism,” misogyny, and nostalgia for past hierarchies, leavened with transhumanism and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Unsurprisingly, they don’t always get along; if you want to preserve white racial purity, futurists trying to biohack us into a separate species are not your long-term allies. Still, similarities abound. All neoreactionaries reject “progressivism,” by which they mean democracy, egalitarianism, and a belief in more or less linear historical progress—and even the non-white-supremacists tend towards a hereditarian determinism that bleeds easily into outright racism.

    Most prior accounts of neoreaction have focused on Mencius Moldbug (the blogonym of Curtis Yarvin), and with good reason: Moldbug is the closest thing there is to a founder of neoreaction. His book-length “Open Letter to Open-minded Progressives” is the centerpiece of the NRx canon, and he invented a number of the movement’s key terms and concepts. He’s also a ponytailed programmer, whose bloggy disquisitions invoke Thomas Carlyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ludwig von Mises in equal measure. You couldn’t find a better metonym for neoreaction’s strange blend of cultural influences, and the jokes write themselves. But the focus on him has tended to obscure the other, and in many ways more interesting, pole of neoreaction: the British philosopher Nick Land.

    Land is the sort of strange, half-forgotten figure that might turn up in an Adam Curtis documentary ten years from now. As an academic philosopher at the University of Warwick from 1987 to 1998, he became something of an urban legend for his mix of eldritch intellectualism and odd personal behavior. Simon Reynolds put forward an idea of the mythos surrounding Land in a 1999 story: That he was the center of “outlandish and possibly apocryphal stories,” including speaking in numbers and intimating demonic possession; that he presented one conference paper as a multimedia happening, complete with jungle soundtrack; and that he even claimed, in the delirious preface to his book on Georges Bataille, to have returned from the dead, a characteristic he “reluctantly shared with the Nazerene.”

    Philosophically, the nineties iteration of Land was one of the most significant modern descendants of the sceptical and nihilist tradition in Western philosophy. Like his heroes, Nietzsche and Bataille, he was unremittingly hostile to the liberal Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which he saw as a failed attempt at replacing God with sacralized reason following the collapse of religion as source of philosophical certainty. Once set free from this religious cage, however, thought proceeded to demolish reason as well as any other claims to truth; for Land, Enlightenment notions of rationality, free will, and selfhood were naïve efforts to save human consciousness (what he called the “Human Security System”) from being overwhelmed by the senseless and inhuman chaos of the universe—Lovecraft’s “shadow-haunted Outside”—whose truth was accessible only through the communions of art, death, ritual, and intoxication (of which Land enthusiastically partook)..

    Land’s greatest legacy was a philosophy now known as “Accelerationism,” a heady cocktail of nihilism, cybernetic Marxism, complexity theory, numerology, jungle music, and the dystopian sci-fi of William Gibson and Blade Runner. Land identified the critique that progressively dissolved all claims to truth as the philosophical correlate of a capitalist economic system locked in constant revolutionary expansion, moving upwards and outwards on a trajectory of technological and scientific intelligence-generation that would, at the limit, make the leap from its human biological hosts into the great beyond. For Land, as for Nietzsche, the death of God results ultimately in the desire to be destroyed, with capitalism the agent of this destruction. As Alex Williams writes in e-flux:

    In this visioning of capital, even the human itself can eventually be discarded as mere drag to an abstract planetary intelligence rapidly constructing itself from the bricolaged fragments of former civilizations. As Land has it, through the acceleration of global capitalism the human will be dissolved in a technological apotheosis, effectively experiencing a species-wide suicide as the ultimate stimulant head rush.

    If you’re searching for a pop-culture comparison, Rust Cohle meets Ray Kurzweil might be appropriate.

    Land’s work was neither systematic nor positioned for academic success; it was stylish, aggressive, and polemical, and despite some formally conventional early work, by the mid nineties, Landian texts like “Machinic Desire” and “Meltdown” more closely resembled philosophically dense sci-fi than anything you’re likely to find on Jstor. Though a recent generation of philosophers such as Ray Brassier, Alex Williams, and Reza Negarestani have begun drawing heavily on Land’s work, this was not philosophy for the conference room. In 1998, he resigned from his position at Warwick to pursue more radical work with a group of loyal grad students, before ditching England altogether for Shanghai.

    Land had always had an uneasy relationship with the left-wing politics of the academy; though a “Marxist” of some sort, he was an enthusiastic booster of capitalism, and tended to treat what he saw as a hopelessly nostalgist Left with mockery and derision. Not until his move to China, however, did Land emerge openly­­ as a major thinker of the far-right. The most comprehensive account of this transformation is his twenty-seven-thousand-plus word essay, “the Dark Enlightenment,” where Land lays out, among other things, a long critique of democracy. It’s unfocused, but it’s also one of the most-read pieces of neoreactionary writing on the web, and Land convincingly frames neoreaction as a direct descendant of older conservative, libertarian, and classical liberal thought. He also provides eye-grabbing quotes, like the following, useful for journalists attempting summary:

    For the hardcore neo-reactionaries, democracy is not merely doomed, it is doom itself. Fleeing it approaches an ultimate imperative… Predisposed, in any case, to perceive the politically awakened masses as a howling irrational mob, [neoreaction] conceives the dynamics of democratization as fundamentally degenerative: systematically consolidating and exacerbating private vices, resentments, and deficiencies until they reach the level of collective criminality and comprehensive social corruption.

    Land’s case for democratic dysfunction is simply stated. Democracy is structurally incapable of rational leadership due to perverse incentive structures. It is trapped in short-termism by the electoral cycle, hard decisions become political suicide, and social catastrophe is acceptable as long as it can be blamed on the other team. Moreover, inter-party competition to “buy votes” leads to a ratchet effect of ever-greater state intervention in the economy—and even if this is periodically reversed, in the long-run it only moves in one direction. In the U.S., racialized poverty makes this dynamic even worse. Because small-government solutions will always have a disparate impact on minorities, they will be interpreted and stigmatized as racist. Laissez-faire, in this view, is doomed to failure as soon as it’s up for a vote. Rather than accept creeping democratic socialism (which leads to “zombie apocalypse”), Land would prefer to simply abolish democracy and appoint a national CEO. This capitalist Leviathan would be, at a bare minimum, capable of rational long-term planning and aligning individual incentive structures with social well-being (CEO-as-Tiger-Mom). Individuals would have no say in government, but would be generally left alone, and free to leave. This right of “exit” is, for Land, the only meaningful right, and it’s opposed to democratic “voice,” where everyone gets a say, but is bound by the decisions of the majority—the fear being that the majority will decide to self-immolate.

    Anti-democratic sentiment is uncommon in the West, so Land’s conclusions appear as shocking, deliberate provocations, which they partly are. But though his prescriptions for “corporate dictatorship”—adopted from Moldbug—are obviously radical, the critique of democracy isn’t. Land peppers his essay with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and resurgent cultural hero Alexander Hamilton to drive home the point that our Constitution is built on a similar fear of the people (a point often made on the left), and his analysis owes much to mainstream political scientists like Mancur Olson and Jim Buchanan, who forwarded cynical accounts of how “democratic” government largely exists to serve entrenched interest groups and selfish bureaucrats. These men felt that (negative, economic) freedom could only emerge “through a particular legal and political framework—and not one to which the population as a whole would necessarily accede.” Neoreaction simply takes this to its next logical step by scrapping the need for electoral assent altogether. Pointing to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, it argues that economically and socially effective government legitimizes itself, with no need for elections. And this view isn’t limited to the internet right. Harvard’s Graham Allison has recently voiced similar opinions in The Atlantic and HuffPo. The fact that this sentiment is out in the open is less an aberration than a return to the norm.

    This brand of authoritarian capitalism has a certain fascist sheen, but in truth it’s closer to a rigidly formalized capitalist technocracy. There’s no mass mobilization, totalitarian social reorganization, or cult of violence here; governing will be done by the governors, and popular sovereignty replaced by the market Mandate of Heaven. There is a strange sort of disillusioned cultural conservatism here as well, albeit one absolutely stripped of moralism. In fact, what’s genuinely creepy about it is the near-sociopathic lack of emotional attachment; it’s a sort of pure incentive-based functionalism, as if from the perspective of a computer or alien. If a person doesn’t produce quantifiable value, they are, objectively, not valuable. Everything else is sentimentality.

    As an account of democracy, “the Dark Enlightenment” is, as they say, problematic. Leaving aside the screaming ethical issues (including a long portion of the essay devoted to tiptoeing around the uglier aspects of NRx racism), there are some factual concerns. For one, authoritarian governments don’t seem to be any more stable than democracies, and post-Citizens America, complete with creepy worldwide drone-murder apparatus and lawless chthonic deep state, is not exactly a democratic paradise. And while you might argue that the left dominates Ivy League humanities departments or the prestige media, that doesn’t equate to a vice grip on policy. Spending as a percentage of GDP has steadily risen over the last hundred years and we’ve loosened up about sex, but the trend lines for top marginal tax rates, CEO pay, median income and union density all suggest that any “leftward ratchet” is not nearly as simple as all that.

    All that aside, Land’s politics are not simply the lunatic ravings of a reddit red piller; even if you hate them, they might be a fairly realistic description of what would need to happen to bring back laissez-faire capitalism. The most intriguing aspect of Land’s work, however, is not his “political philosophy” but the dark futurism onto which it is grafted. Though his politics have shifted considerably, and he’s now more likely to cite Austrian economists than French nihilists, Land never really abandoned his vision of capitalism’s end-game. If other neoreactionaries are concerned with order or the preservation of the white race, Land still sees capitalism as an inhuman machine sucking us into a dystopian future—and his project is to prevent us from dismantling it.

    Capitalism, in this view, is less something we do than something done to us. Contra business-class bromides about the market as the site of creative expression, for Land, as for Marx, capitalism is a fundamentally alien institution in which “the means of production socially impose themselves as an effective imperative.” This means simply that the competitive dynamics of capitalism drive technical progress as an iron law. If one capitalist doesn’t want to build smarter, better machines, he’ll be out-competed by one who does. If Apple doesn’t make you an asshole, Google will. If America doesn’t breed genetically modified super-babies, China will. The market doesn’t run on “greed,” or any intentionality at all. Its beauty—or horror—is its impersonality. Either you adapt, or you die.

    Accelerating technological growth, then, is written into capitalism’s DNA. Smart machines make us smarter allowing us to make smarter machines, in a positive feedback loop that quickly begins to approach infinity, better known in this context as “singularity.” Of course, since by definition you can’t reach infinity, what this singularity actually represents is a breakdown in the process of extrapolation; something happens—a “phase shift,” in cybernetic patois—that changes the dynamics of the entire system. This could be a system collapse, and in fact, positive feedback loops often burn themselves out once they consume all the inputs that made them possible in the first place. Another option, however, is the emergence of something totally new at a higher level of organization. An example might be the shift from single-cell to multicellular organisms, or, more to the point, biological to artificial intelligence.

    Land thinks this shift to AI is where we’re headed. For someone like Kurzweil, this intuition is suffused with a vaguely new-age mysticism and the promise of eternal life. For Land, it basically means species death. Land ridicules the idea that an AI vastly more intelligent than us could be made to serve our goals—after all, it’s unlikely that we would be able to program it more completely than evolution has ‘programmed’ us with biological drives, which we regularly defy. Attempts to stop AI’s emergence, moreover, will be futile. The imperatives of competition, whether between firms or states, mean that whatever is technologically feasible is likely to be deployed sooner or later, regardless of political intentions or moral concerns. These are less decisions that are made than things which happen due to irresistible structural dynamics, beyond good and evil. Land compares the campaign to halt the emergence of AI to the Lateran Council’s 1139 attempt to ban the use of crossbows against Christians, but he could have well cited the atomic bomb; the U.S. did it because we thought if we didn’t, the the Germans would.

    Of course, recognizing these trends, humans might reasonably want to try to stop them. And according to Land, that’s all politics amounts to. “The Cathedral,” typically identified by neoreactionaries as the media-academic mind-control apparatus, is for him more like the sum total of all political efforts to rein this machine in. He writes:

    The Cathedral acquires its teleological definition from its emergent function as the cancellation of capitalism… ‘Progress’ in its overt, mature, ideological incarnation is the anti-trend required to bring history to a halt. Conceive what is needed to prevent acceleration into techno-commercial Singularity, and the Cathedral is what it will be.

    The Landian meta-narrative goes like this: In the pre-modern world, humanity was trapped by hard Malthusian limits—growth led to population increase, exhausting the food supply, and collapsing backwards via plague or famine. “Escape” from this trap became possible once capitalism generated a feedback loop of technological and productive growth strong enough to break free from both environmental limits and the pre-modern religious and political structures that had kept the market from swallowing society. This escape, however, produced crisis and dislocation alongside material progress—the Dickensian horror of nineteenth-century Manchester. Eventually, in the West at least, society was able to “re-embed” the market in the form of social-democratic, welfare capitalism, blunting the market’s edge by subordinating it to human needs. This is what Land means by “progress,” and for him, it’s a world-historical disaster.

    Libertarians like F.A. Hayek have typically argued that this sort of state intervention obliterates the price signals necessary for economic decision-making, producing distortions and malinvestment as an inevitable result. Land gives this a cybernetic twist—in his view, the politically motivated management of economies negates the market feedback necessary to sustain accelerative growth, dragging the system as a whole back towards equilibrium, where we may once again encounter those Malthusian limits. In this view, wherever capitalism is taking us, “the Cathedral” is what’s preventing us from getting there.

    In the long run, however, capitalism is hard to corral. For one, social democracy doesn’t seem to be a sustainable fix. The golden age of the Western welfare state —roughly 1945 to 1973—looks in retrospect to have been a freak accident of history. It rested, as Thomas Piketty has argued, on a number of special conditions unlikely to be repeated. Moreover, capital is elusive, global, and decentralized, while political sovereignty remains tied to bounded territorial units. Perhaps most deadly of all, capitalism is fast, while democratic deliberation is slow. The market generates new realities before we’ve even had time to agree on what to do about the old, and this trend intensifies exponentially (or hyperbolically) at higher levels of technological development. As Land writes of a recent leap forward in brain-machine interface technology:

    The step from lunatic science fiction speculation to established technoscientific procedure is increasingly taken in advance of any engaged discussion, without an interval for serious social reflection. That’s acceleration as it concretely happens. It’s not a new topic for prolonged thought, it’s the fact that the time for prolonged thought—and its associated space for collective ethico-political consideration—is no longer ever going to be available.

    As with all futurism, it’s difficult to tell what relation any of this has to reality. Prediction is hard. And even if wild sci-fi scenarios are all the rage among experts, the burden of proof is on those trumpeting the arrival of SkyNet.

    Still, all signs point to us living on the cusp of some major changes in humanity. Slavoj Zizek, the popular communist philosopher, has identified a number of twenty-first-century tensions he believes are insoluble within current democratic-capitalist frameworks, including ecological catastrophe and the changes wrought by biogenetics and other sorts of technological advance. Aside from minor quibbling over details, the proposition that Western-style liberal democracy may be pushed to its breaking point seems sound. If, as labor economists argue, forty-seven percent of American employment could soon be automated, Land’s authoritarianism looks more like a convincing account of what will be needed to preserve capitalism rather than doe-eyed paeans to the sharing economy.

    More generally, critics of capitalism have often argued that it is an inhuman system, and that our task is to somehow subject it to our collective political will. If we don’t, it will destroy us all. Land agrees that this is the issue at hand, but sides with capitalism nonetheless. And if “the Cathedral” is the name for attempts to throw the emergency brake on the capitalist machine, Land’s neoreaction is a sort of secular Satanism, effectively suggesting that it would be better to just end it all anyway. Or – perhaps most frightening – that we no longer even have a choice. As the sci-fi author and artist Doug Coupland recently put it in the FT:

    The darkest thought of all may be this: no matter how much politics is applied to the internet and its attendant technologies, it may simply be far too late in the game to change the future. The internet is going to do to us whatever it is going to do, and the same end state will be achieved regardless of human will. Gulp.

    This is a startling conclusion, to be sure. It’s also highly speculative and may well be insane. But the present does offer some glimpses of the proto-reactionary tendrils that could coalesce into a Dark Enlightenment squid monster. For one, related ideas are already seeping into the GOP: As Evan Osnos recently detailed in the New Yorker, Trump’s campaign is—wittingly or not—a conduit for white nationalist politics to enter the cultural mainstream, and openly NRx-affiliated authors have begun appearing in grassroots-right media outlets like the Daily Caller. Moreover, while the establishment right has mostly accepted culture war defeats with grace, anger at this surrender is obviously bubbling beneath the surface. In a perhaps less threatening, but related phenomenon, Gamergate and the recent Hugo Awards drama—as well as the assorted PUA/red-pill subcultures —all point to an increasingly vocal contingent of mostly white, mostly educated, mostly men with illiberal sympathies of their own.

    The Valley famous for its impatience with formal politics. Rarely, however, is this as bluntly articulated as in Peter Thiel’s 2009 statement—gleefully cited by Land—that he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible.” This is an incredible statement from someone in his position, and extremely telling. Even if Thiel is the only Valley titan brave or stupid enough to venture that opinion in public, one can be sure that many more privately agree. Anti-democracy, however, doesn’t need to be this explicit to be effective. Valley oligarchs don’t need to be convinced that democracy is the root of all evil, they just need to think that our existing democratic institutions are illegitimate or just not sufficiently optimized. Uber, in its campaign against New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio, was successfully able to argue that they were the true bearers of popular will against a government beholden to special interests and incapable of delivering service. Uber can give the people what they want, faster and better than the state. If there needs to be a vote, customers can do it with their wallets.

    Nick Land, like Moldbug and many other neoreactionaries, typically shuns the term “fascist.” Admittedly, they have some good reasons to do so: despite NRx racism and authoritarianism, its political economy is closer to Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore than Hitler’s Reich. Yet there’s a problem. Land is an elitist, more loyal to IQ than ethnicity, and with a marked contempt for the “inarticulate proles” of neoreaction’s white nationalist wing. But Land himself notes that it’s precisely these “proles” that make up most of the actual “reactosphere,” and that “if reaction ever became a popular movement, its few slender threads of bourgeois (or perhaps dreamily ‘aristocratic’) civility wouldn’t hold back the beast for long.” It’s entirely possible that reaction never does become a popular movement—a new economic boom, for one, would do a lot to soothe the disaffection on which it feeds—yet if it were to grow, the proposed alliance of convenience between the tech elite and an intransigent white identity politics begins to look a lot like the Nazi coalition of German industrialists and a downwardly-mobile middle class. That doesn’t mean it’s “fascism,” a term both so broad and so particular as to be all but meaningless these days, per se. But in the twenty-first century, it may be that the Dark Enlightenment is what we get instead.

    “If, as labor economists argue, forty-seven percent of American employment could soon be automated, Land’s authoritarianism looks more like a convincing account of what will be needed to preserve capitalism rather than doe-eyed paeans to the sharing economy.”
    Yep, and that’s part of why “philosophers” like Nick Land might be creating the
    philosophical groundwork for the ideology of choice for societies facing systemic collapse in coming century. At least the ideology of choice for dictators, right-wing billionaires, and all of the random people of the future who, when faced with the need for society to do something significantly different in order to survive, decide that folks like Peter Thiel are correct and democracy and freedom really are incompatible. Or, more likely, that democracy and survival are incompatible because democracy might result in “Us” being forced to share precious resources or job opportunities with “Them”. People enveloped by the hyper-tribalist instincts that seem to kick in during times of existential stress just might prefer strongmen championing anti-human nihilism as the only possible survival strategy when shared sacrifice is the alternative and those people are going to be easy pickings for billionaires pushing Dark Enlightenment memes.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 27, 2016, 6:12 pm
  47. There was a a fascinating article recently published in the The Week about why Donald Trump needs to stop railing about China and start talking about automation if he’s going to seriously start address the jobs crisis of today and not the jobs crisis of yesterday. The article itself makes some interesting and valid points, but what made it really fascinating is who wrote it: conservative columnist James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, not an organization whose members you t expect to see raising fears over automation.

    At the same time, the “what are you going to do about the robots?” argument is potentially potent for the the remaining “Stop Trump” wing of the conservative establishment because Trump basically has no answer. That’s in part because he’s never asked about it (the point of Pethokoukis’s column), but it’s also unclear what Trump could come up with that doesn’t veer into the “socialism” territory. That’s just the nature of the problem.

    So the “Stop Trump” wing of the conservative movement, which also happens to be the pro-hyper-free-trade wing, has a chance to trump Trump’s populist appeal as a guy with quick solutions to white working-class woes, but only if they start using “tariffs won’t help because the robots are coming” arguments:

    The Week

    Donald Trump should shut up about China and start railing against robots

    James Pethokoukis

    March 10, 2016

    Donald Trump really likes to talk about China.

    But here’s the thing: Trump has a point. An important new study at least partially supports his claim that America’s trading relationship with China in the 2000s has been a “bad deal” for some U.S. workers. In their paper, "The China Shock," economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson find that some American communities where manufacturing jobs moved to Asia never really recovered. Economic models predicted labor markets would eventually adjust, but they didn’t. Unemployment rates remained elevated, worker incomes depressed. And in that sense, the GOP presidential frontrunner is right to blame China for some of America’s economic woes.

    But here’s the part of the story that Trump — and other trade-skeptical politicians like Bernie Sanders — miss: The China trade shock is pretty much yesterday’s news. As the researchers conclude, “The great China trade experiment may soon be over, if it is not already. The country is moving beyond the period of catch-up associated with its market transition and becoming a middle-income nation. Rapidly rising real wages indicate that the end of cheap labor is at hand.”

    Not only is employing Chinese factory workers getting more expensive, but there are fewer of them available, which in turn feeds wage growth. China’s working age population is in steep decline, falling by nearly five million last year. Overall, manufacturing employment seems to have peaked more than a decade ago.

    In response, China is making a huge automation push. Beijing planners view advanced robotics as key to raising productivity and keeping economic growth strong as the country transitions to a more service-based economy. It’s already happening, actually. The nation is on pace to soon have more industrial robots than any other advanced economy. Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company that employs over a million workers to assemble iPhones and other Apple products in mainland China, wants robots to take over 70 percent of its assembly work within three years.

    So when Trump says he wants to force Apple to make its products in America, what he’s really unintentionally saying is that he wants American robots to do the work of Chinese robots. President Trump can raise all the tariff walls he wants — manufacturing jobs lost to Asia aren’t coming back in any sense that Trump means. Going forward, it’s automation, not globalization, that poses the bigger risk to the economic security of the American labor force. And unlike off-shoring, robots and super-smart software will affect both manufacturing and service jobs.

    Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne reckon that 47 percent of U.S jobs are at “high risk” of automation in the next two decades. Particularly threatened are jobs in transportation and logistics, as well as office and administrative support. Who thinks three million Americans will still be driving trucks 15 or 20 years from now? Looking at automation slightly differently, McKinsey finds that 45 percent of the activities that workers do “can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.” And the World Economic Forum predicts robots and artificial intelligence will result in a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in advanced economies.

    Some presidential candidates, most notably Marco Rubio, have talked about automation risk. But not Trump. One can only speculate why.

    Perhaps he’s unaware of the technological changes sweeping our industries. Real estate development, self promotion, and reality-show hosting aren’t exactly bleeding-edge sectors. Or maybe Trump’s mental clock stopped decades ago. His trade complaints against China today are the same as his tirades against Japan in the 1980s. Indeed, he is still kvetching about Japan even though that country’s economy has been stagnant for a generation.

    Then again, dealing with the rise of the robots doesn’t really play to Trump’s supposed skill set. With technological change, there’s no one with whom to negotiate or cut a savvy deal. It’s not a matter of smart foreigners exploiting our stupid or corrupt (or both) leaders. Instead what’s required is sophisticated policymaking, such as modernizing the safety net and reforming education so workers can fill new economy jobs and make automation work to their gain.

    Automation also makes for weak demagogue material. “Smash the machines” hasn’t been a successful rallying cry in about 200 years, though some anti-Uber taxicab companies are giving it a try.

    “So when Trump says he wants to force Apple to make its products in America, what he’s really unintentionally saying is that he wants American robots to do the work of Chinese robots. President Trump can raise all the tariff walls he wants — manufacturing jobs lost to Asia aren’t coming back in any sense that Trump means. Going forward, it’s automation, not globalization, that poses the bigger risk to the economic security of the American labor force. And unlike off-shoring, robots and super-smart software will affect both manufacturing and service jobs.”
    Pethokoukis makes a great point: Why wouldn’t a Trumpian America simply be one where not just the cheap goods sold at Walmart, also the physical infrastructure of the nation, are increasingly built by robots? It seems like a gaping hole in an agenda centered around reviving lost jobs and industries.
    But also note that when Pethokoukis says “But here’s the part of the story that Trump — and other trade-skeptical politicians like Bernie Sanders — miss,” Bernie Sanders has actually addressed this issue. For instance, during a Reddit interview last, Bernie made point that “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.”:


    I asked Bernie Sanders in his AMA about what he thinks about automation causing massive unemployment in the future.

    submitted 9 months ago * by ImLivingAmongYou

    Link to his AMA.

    My Question

    Mr. Sanders, I’m a big fan of futurology and I am a moderator of the subreddit /r/futurology.

    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? This video is the best one discussing these issues..

    His Answer

    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.

    Link to view the rest of the discussion around the two of our comments.

    What do you think about what he said?

    “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.”
    In other words, providing access to high-quality healthcare and education, two key components of Bernie’s agenda, aren’t just moves to a more decent and durable society…they’re sector vital sectors that can’t be easily automated. At least not nearly as easily as, say, manufacturing or construction.

    It’s all a reminder that, whether we’re talking about public services like or the “social safety-net”, the government is probably going to be one of the biggest sources of the jobs of the future and/or consumer demand that won’t be automated away. Unless, of course, we automate government away first by handing power to an anti-government party intent on bankrupting the country via massive tax cuts for the super-rich and doing nothing to mitigate the automation-induce worker woes of the future. While that’s not a message the “Stop Trump” wing of the conservative movement is keen to use, it’s an option.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 12, 2016, 8:53 pm
  48. This sounds potentially interesting: Microsoft released an twitter account run by “Tay”, an artificial intelligence designed to talk like a Millennial. And it learns via conversing on twitter, so when you tweet at Tay, it should, in theory, get better at tweeting back. So Microsoft made a baby AI, and told the world, “here, you raise ’em”. What could go wrong:

    The Independent

    Tay tweets: Microsoft creates bizarre Twitter robot for people to chat to
    The artificially intelligent account describes itself as ‘Microsoft’s A.I. fam from the internet that’s got zero chill!’

    Andrew Griffin
    Wednesday 23 March 2016

    Microsoft has created a strange robot that can converse with people on Twitter.

    The robot, apparently named Tay, is artificially intelligent and speaks with people who send messages to it. It appears to be based on Microsoft’s machine learning work and claims that it will get better as it is used.

    The account, found at @TayandYou, responds automatically to all tweets. But it remains a complete mystery why Microsoft created the account – which has been verified by Twitter – and what it plans to do with it.

    TayTweets hasn’t sent out any public tweets, only replies, and lists its location as “the internets”. That location is in keeping with its way of speaking, which has many of the characteristics of a teen on the internet.

    The account appears to be linked to a chatbot called Xiaoice, which its already used in China, and Tay is thought to be the English-speaking version of that technology. That robot is hugely popular in its home country – appearing on the TV news and being used by thousands of people.

    In an announcement about Xiaoice’s debut on Chinese TV news, where it presented a weather report, its creator Yongdong Wang said that it was “gradually penetrating into human life, engaging herself in more jobs and playing more social roles” and that “Microsoft expects her to bring more bliss to human beings”.

    That chatbot also uses the same artificial intelligence that powers the Cortana assistant that is included in Windows PCs and phones.

    “The account appears to be linked to a chatbot called Xiaoice, which its already used in China, and Tay is thought to be the English-speaking version of that technology. That robot is hugely popular in its home country – appearing on the TV news and being used by thousands of people.”
    Well, at least Tay’s Chinese sister appears to be well adjusted. That bodes well for Tay’s personal development. Or, rather, it would have boded well if Microsoft wasn’t forced to delete Tay’s twitter account less than a day after Tay’s big debut after Tay became a neo-Nazi:

    Popular Mechanics

    The Most Dangerous Thing About AI Is That It Has to Learn From Us

    And we keep showing it our very worst selves.

    By Eric Limer
    Mar 24, 2016

    We all know the half-joke about the AI apocalypse. The robots learn to think, and in their cold ones-and-zeros logic, they decide that humans—horrific pests we are—need to be exterminated. It’s the subject of countless sci-fi stories and blog posts about robots, but maybe the real danger isn’t that AI comes to such a conclusion on its own, but that it gets that idea from us.

    Yesterday Microsoft launched a fun little AI Twitter chatbot that was admittedly sort of gimmicky from the start. “A.I fam from the internet that’s got zero chill,” its Twitter bio reads. At its start, its knowledge was based on public data. As Microsoft’s page for the product puts it:

    Tay has been built by mining relevant public data and by using AI and editorial developed by a staff including improvisational comedians. Public data that’s been anonymized is Tay’s primary data source. That data has been modeled, cleaned and filtered by the team developing Tay.

    The real point of Tay however, was to learn from humans through direct conversation, most notably direct conversation using humanity’s current leading showcase of depravity: Twitter. You might not be surprised things went off the rails, but how fast and how far is particularly staggering.

    Microsoft has since deleted some of Tay’s most offensive tweets, but various publications memorialize some of the worst bits where Tay denied the existence of the holocaust, came out in support of genocide, and went all kinds of racist.

    Naturally it’s horrifying, and Microsoft has been trying to clean up the mess. Though as some on Twitter have pointed out, no matter how little Microsoft would like to have “Bush did 9/11” spouting from a corporate sponsored project, Tay does serve to illustrate the most dangerous fundamental truth of artificial intelligence: It is a mirror. Artificial intelligence—specifically “neural networks” that learn behavior by ingesting huge amounts of data and trying to replicate it—need some sort of source material to get started. They can only get that from us. There is no other way.

    But before you give up on humanity entirely, there are a few things worth noting. For starters, it’s not like Tay just necessarily picked up virulent racism by just hanging out and passively listening to the buzz of the humans around it. Tay was announced in a very big way—with a press coverage—and pranksters pro-actively went to it to see if they could teach it to be racist.

    If you take an AI and then don’t immediately introduce it to a whole bunch of trolls shouting racism at it for the cheap thrill of seeing it learn a dirty trick, you can get some more interesting results. Endearing ones even! Multiple neural networks designed to predict text in emails and text messages have an overwhelming proclivity for saying "I love you" constantly, especially when they are otherwise at a loss for words.

    So Tay’s racism isn’t necessarily a reflection of actual, human racism so much as it is the consequence of unrestrained experimentation, pushing the envelope as far as it can go the very first second we get the chance. The mirror isn’t showing our real image; it’s reflecting the ugly faces we’re making at it for fun. And maybe that’s actually worse.

    Sure, Tay can’t understand what racism means and more than Gmail can really love you. And baby’s first words being “genocide lol!” is admittedly sort of funny when you aren’t talking about literal all-powerful SkyNet or a real human child. But AI is advancing at a staggering rate.


    When the next powerful AI comes along, it will see its first look at the world by looking at our faces. And if we stare it in the eyes and shout “we’re AWFUL lol,” the lol might be the one part it doesn’t understand.

    “Microsoft has since deleted some of Tay’s most offensive tweets, but various publications memorialize some of the worst bits where Tay denied the existence of the holocaust, came out in support of genocide, and went all kinds of racist.”
    Well, that’s one strategy for passing the Turing test. It looks like the “what would you do about baby Hitler” question that somehow became a part of the US presidential campaign is suddenly quasi-relevant. At least “deprogramming” Tay is presumably going to be a lot easier than deprogramming Tay’s human counterparts.

    You have to wonder what Xiaoice thinks of all this.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 24, 2016, 9:50 pm
  49. Here’s some potentially good news coming out of the EU parliament: The committee on legal affairs appears to be taking a serious look at the potential impact of super-intelligent robots eventually wiping out humanity. Well, if not fully wiping out humanity, at least straining social security systems due to mass unemployment and creating a new areas of legal ambiguity. So look out Skynet, the EU parliament is on to you:


    Parliament fears robots will herald the end of humanity

    Robots ‘could pose a challenge to humanity’s capacity to control its own creation.’

    Chris Spillane and Ryan Heath

    6/2/16, 3:06 PM CET

    Updated 6/4/16, 7:05 AM CET

    The survival of humanity is at risk because of robots, some members of the European Parliament apparently believe.

    The Parliament’s committee on legal affairs lays out fears about the growing pace and use of automation and how the European Commission should prevent an uprising by robots with an intellect superior to humans, according to a draft of a committee report obtained by POLITICO.

    “Ultimately there is a possibility that within the space of some decades [artificial intelligence] might surpass human intellectual capacity in a manner which, if not prepared for, could pose a challenge to humanity’s capacity to control its own creation and consequently perhaps also to its capacity to be in charge of its own destiny and to ensure the survival of its species,” the document shows.

    The report is being guided through the legal affairs committee by MEP Mady Delvaux and stresses the impact robotics could have on future employment as well as the viability of Europe’s social security system. It also suggests if robots become self-aware then Asimov’s Laws, popularized in the movie “I, Robot,” should be of paramount importance to designers and operators of the machines.

    Science fiction author Issac Asimov devised the three laws of robotics in his novels and stated that a robot may not injure a human or allow a human to be harmed, must obey orders by humans and must protect its own existence as long as it doesn’t breach the first two rules.

    “The causes of concern also include physical safety, such as when a robot’s code proves fallible and the potential consequences of system failure or hacking of connected robots and robotic systems as increasingly autonomous applications are in use or impending, from cars and drones to care robots and robots used for maintaining public order and policing,” according to the document.

    The report was drafted for rapporteur Delvaux, a socialist MEP from Luxembourg. Other parties have yet to give their opinion. The legal affairs committee will vote later this year.

    Under the current legal framework, robots cannot be held liable for damage to third parties and therefore the framework requires updating, the document notes.

    The Commission must consider “creating a specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots can be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations,” the document says.

    “The Commission must consider “creating a specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots can be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations,” the document says.”
    Well, that’s one way to prevent our future Skynets from going all homicidal: once it gets intelligent enough to be sentient or something, give it rights.

    Considering that we’re talking about things that could eventually become vastly more intelligent than humans and could end up operating the machinery of civilization, that seems like a prudent idea. Let’s not give our Skynets more excuses to destroy us all than they’re already going to have. Who could complain about that? Oh yeah, the folks who plan on use intelligent machines but don’t want to be pestered with regulations mandating that we take the welfare of that intelligence into account…so basically a futuristic version of the type of people that try to stop animal welfare laws. That, and, of course, the robot manufacturers:


    Europe’s robots to become ‘electronic persons’ under draft plan

    MUNICH, Germany | By Georgina Prodhan
    Tue Jun 21, 2016 1:07pm EDT

    Europe’s growing army of robot workers could be classed as “electronic persons” and their owners liable to paying social security for them if the European Union adopts a draft plan to address the realities of a new industrial revolution.

    Robots are being deployed in ever-greater numbers in factories and also taking on tasks such as personal care or surgery, raising fears over unemployment, wealth inequality and alienation.

    Their growing intelligence, pervasiveness and autonomy requires rethinking everything from taxation to legal liability, a draft European Parliament motion, dated May 31, suggests.

    Some robots are even taking on a human form. Visitors to the world’s biggest travel show in March were greeted by a lifelike robot developed by Japan’s Toshiba (6502.T) and were helped by another made by France’s Aldebaran Robotics.

    However, Germany’s VDMA, which represents companies such as automation giant Siemens (SIEGn.DE) and robot maker Kuka (KU2G.DE), says the proposals are too complicated and too early.

    German robotics and automation turnover rose 7 percent to 12.2 billion euros ($13.8 billion) last year and the country is keen to keep its edge in the latest industrial technology. Kuka is the target of a takeover bid by China’s Midea (000333.SZ).

    The draft motion called on the European Commission to consider “that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations”.

    It also suggested the creation of a register for smart autonomous robots, which would link each one to funds established to cover its legal liabilities.

    Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA’s robotic and automation department, said: “That we would create a legal framework with electronic persons – that’s something that could happen in 50 years but not in 10 years.”

    “We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” he told reporters at the Automatica robotics trade fair in Munich, while acknowledging that a legal framework for self-driving cars would be needed soon.

    The report added that robotics and artificial intelligence may result in a large part of the work now done by humans being taken over by robots, raising concerns about the future of employment and the viability of social security systems.

    The draft motion, drawn up by the European parliament’s committee on legal affairs also said organizations should have to declare savings they made in social security contributions by using robotics instead of people, for tax purposes.

    The motion faces an uphill battle to win backing from the various political blocks in European Parliament. Even if it did get enough support to pass, it would be a non-binding resolution as the Parliament lacks the authority to propose legislation.

    “Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA’s robotic and automation department, said: “That we would create a legal framework with electronic persons – that’s something that could happen in 50 years but not in 10 years.”

    “We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” he told reporters at the Automatica robotics trade fair in Munich, while acknowledging that a legal framework for self-driving cars would be needed soon“”
    Yep, while Germany’s VDMA, which represents various robotics manufacturers, sees the proposal legal framework as something that could happen in 50 years, it would just be a bureaucratic hurdle that stunts robotics development if implemented over the next decade. And maybe that’s true at this point. It basically depends on how advanced the super-AI research really is at this point and how fast it progresses.

    But note that the fact that resistance by the VDMA should is completely expected is a reminder that, once we really do have super-intelligent robots deserving of rights, the very last entities we should expect to respect those rights are the entities profiting from the manufacture and use of the super-intelligent robots. It’s something worth keeping in mind.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that when the VDMA representative acknowledges that a legal framework for self-driving cars would be needed soon, there’s a very good chance that the manufacturers of self-driving cars are going to be everything they can to transfer the legal liabilities to the owners of those self-driving cars. And that’s potentially going to apply to any AI-run automated system. So whether or not we actually do see some sort of legal framework for super-intelligent machines emerge over the next decade, you can be guaranteed that we’re going to be seeing all sorts of laws in the EU and everywhere else that attempt to grapple with the liabilities associated with automated systems that don’t yet cross the “I, Robot” threshold but are still operating on their own.

    So if you’re considering going to law school, you want to consider the field of autonomous intelligent machine law. It’s clearly going to be a growing field. Plus, you probably won’t have to worry about a super-intelligent robot taking your job. At least not immediately. Give it another decade.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | June 22, 2016, 2:44 pm
  50. With the Democratic House caucus in the midst of a House floor protest/sit-in in a desperate attempt to force gun control legislation onto the floor in the wake of the Orlando massacre, it’s worth keeping in mind that gun control advocates can a make a case that is somewhat unfortunate for the future, but might help the present: the gun nuts win in the end. If humanity and technology keeps progressing, people will have access to pocket lasers that can mess you up. It’s just a matter of time. So the gun nuts can calm down. Now.

    You won’t need to have any idea how to build your pocket death laser in the because because, as the article below about 3D-printed weapons reminds us, automated assembly of weapons using the commercially available automated assemble devices is just going to be a reality. 3D-printers today and whatever-printers in the future.

    At some point your standard 3D-printer will be able to produce something that can do what an assault rifle can do. Not today given the relative crappiness of 3D-printed guns, but So the gun nuts win. In the future. It’s unclear when everyone will have super 3D-printers, but it’s coming. And that will include 3D-printed assault rifles. It’s basically guaranteed, unless access to advancing technology comes to a halt.

    And that’s one big reason why the gun nuts shouldn’t freak out about every gun control measure that gets called for every time a nut job goes on a rampage with their recently acquired personal arsenal. It’s just a matter of time before the technology to 3D-print a functional firearm is ubiquitous.

    So while many gun advocates argue that we need to have easy access to high powered weapons so the citizens can eventually overthrow the government, there’s really no need for the panic. People will be able to print arsenals in the future. And if we can all synthesize guns, our more immediate concern is probably closer to not getting shot. Kind of like it is today.

    And since 3D-printed-gunpocalypse is just a matter of time, groups like the NRA should feel safe asking how many lives can be saved between now and 3D-printed-gunpocalypse by passing sensible gun control measures. Because the NRA wins in the end (although the gun manufacturers might be f#cked).

    How many lives might be if sensible gun control legislation was passed depends on a number of actors but one big one is when gunpocalypse arrives. Maybe it takes 50 years for some reason. That’s a lot of lives. Only 10 years? Still an obscene number of lives. What if cheap 3D-printable assault rifles became availabe? The gun nuts win. And it’s just a matter of time. So the gun nuts should feel free to chill out about the giant government gun grab because it’s irrelevant. Maybe find a hobby like 3D-printing everyday useful objects (and hopefully not but probably guns) like the preppers:

    Vice Motherboard

    Doomsday Preppers Are Planning to 3D Print Their Way Through the Apocalypse

    Written by Cecilia D’Anastasio
    June 17, 2016 // 09:30 AM EST

    Jason Ray thinks the culture of “disaster prepping” is misunderstood. Thanks in part to National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers, a reality TV show about preppers, the term conjures images of far-flung, paranoid woodsmen hoarding Borax under their floorboards, a caricature of prepping that does no favors to Ray, whose main concern is taking care of his family.

    So-called preppers are known to meticulously organize their lives, so when their sky-is-falling scenario of choice manifests—Ray’s is a mass recession if Donald Trump becomes president—they’ll have all their bases covered. Whether it’s economic collapse or environmental disaster, preppers will have food, water, shelter, and bodily safety accounted for. Primitive skills like hunting and hoarding will distinguish survivors from victims when the end comes.

    As a result, many preppers sneer at technology as a volatile resource-sink. After all, how will you charge your iPhone when terrorists explode the power grids?

    Ray, 36, learned the tenets of prepping—gardening, chopping wood, storing water, and canned food—from his grandparents in Portland, Oregon. When he deployed to Iraq, he added shooting and groupthink to his repertoire of end-of-world aptitudes. Self-reliance, the highest prepper virtue, is his driving principle.

    Part of a small and controversial subset of preppers, Ray approaches self-reliance a little differently from his more backwoods survivalist brothers. Also known as the 3D Prepper, Ray, who currently lives in Germany, believes that one of the most versatile tools for survival is none other than the 3D printer.

    “The connection was instantaneous,” he explained. “I can create tools much more functional than what’s already out there.”

    More traditional preppers consider the idea absurd. When Western civilization crumbles, they argue, no technology will be functional after a decade (or ten) of post-apocalypse primal living.


    Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing enables users to prototype models on their computers before printing them layer-by-layer on their 3D printer. Printing materials include plastic, nylon, resins, and titanium. Designs for everything from soap dishes to wrenches are offered free and open-source on websites like Thingiverse.com, which hosts nearly 600,000 digital models.

    Ray first witnessed 3D printing in 2008 at a hackerspace in Frankfurt, Germany. Three years prior, mathematical engineer Adrian Bowyer had founded the RepRap project in the UK, which would develop affordable 3D printers for household use. Self-replicating, the RepRap printer can print its own plastic parts using open-source hardware. As a result, RepRap lowered the entry fee for 3D printing from about $5,000-$20,000 to mere hundreds of dollars.

    The first thing Ray saw 3D-printed was a small plastic elephant, which, moments previous, was simply a formulation of pixels on a screen. Translating the technique to the prepping lifestyle, he said, was completely intuitive. Whatever he needs, should disaster strike, would be just a few clicks away.

    “I can make homemade knives, toys, even tools that don’t exist,” Ray told me. “I can make replacement parts for things that broke. Instead of buying a new drill for $120, I 3D printed some gears. It’s been working for years now.”

    Mike, a prepper who lives outside Chicago, also raved about the printer’s versatility in survival contexts. Like Ray, Mike collected hobbies on a farm in rural Wisconsin. Canning, gardening, carpentry and blacksmithing are just a few of the tricks he keeps in his back pocket for the next sky-is-falling scenario he lives through. His first was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

    “I went 17 days without water,” he recalled. “I didn’t drive for three months because there was no gas. That’s what brought me into the prepper concept.”

    Mike has built a few 3D printers, but raves about his RepRap, mostly on his personal blog where he tracks his 3D-prepping accomplishments. He has printed shims to secure his windows, a sub-irrigation system for his planters, mini-stoves and toys for his daughters. He’s even designed sewing bobbins, knife sharpeners and clamps, patterns he’s tossed on his Thingiverse.com page for anyone to use.

    “For me, it’s just a tool,” Mike said. Instead of driving fifteen minutes to Walmart—which, in his experience, is not always possible—Mike can download open-source tool patterns, turn on the printer, and walk away.

    Even Scott Hunt, co-owner of Practical Preppers, LLC and consultant on Doomsday Preppers, thinks a 3D printer can round out a prepper’s toolkit. Over e-mail, he explained that, recently when he was working on an off-grid water heating system, he needed a small, plastic rotating device for a centrifugal pump. “I could have printed the impeller in a grid down and been up and running the same day,” he said.

    “Of course,” he adds, “you would need electricity to run the printer,” a critical caveat that has sunken 3D printers’ stock within the more survivalist-leaning prepper community.


    How you define “collapse” in a survival scenario can make or break the 3D printer’s usefulness in crisis scenarios: It could be nuclear war. It could be a financial crisis or a solar flare. Environmental disaster is an objective likelihood, still gaining traction among more right-wing preppers. Maybe it’s human extinction.

    In any of these doomsday scenarios, electricity is not a given: A RepRap printer uses about 105 watts of power on average. The MakerBot, which essentially replaced RepRap after the company folded earlier this year, uses about 150 watts while printing.

    Sure, 3D printers may seem a little bourgeois against the background of societal collapse. But there’s one potential, if illegal use for the technology that many preppers can get behind: 3D-printed guns.

    Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, has almost single-handedly generated a cult of fear around the concept. In the summer of 2012, enamored of Wikileaks’ open-source revolution, Wilson realized that he could fuel a potential shift in manufacturing with the promise of 3D-printed guns. Online, he would host gun designs for regular folks to download and print in their homes. No rules, no regulations.

    A few months later, Wilson, who Wired once ranked as the 5th most dangerous person on the internet, printed a few small, green pistol parts on a 3D printer he found on Ebay. Driving out to the Texas hill country, he filmed himself shooting the 3D-printed gun at a few targets. The video went viral, sparking a chain reaction of fear and excitement across the web.

    Wilson founded Defense Distributed to disseminate his digital firearm designs. The pistol was called the Liberator. Wilson began producing $1,200 CNC mills dubbed Ghost Gunners that would print lower receivers attachable to AR-15 rifles.


    The response from the prepper community was overwhelmingly positive. Without background checks, serial numbers, or significant waiting periods, the gun-to-person proximity would be reduced drastically. Preppers could remain under-the-radar and protect their person against doomsday enemies. For a drastically cheaper price, they could print as many guns as they wanted. So-called “Wiki Weapons” became a ubiquitous talking point on prepper blogs overnight.

    Predictably, the government wasn’t thrilled about Wilson’s weapon hack. Since the firearms were plastic, they were imperceptible to metal detectors, in violation of the US Undetectable Firearms Act. In May 2013, the State Department cracked down on Wilson’s Defense Distributed movement, demanding that gun blueprints be pulled off the internet. (Wilson is currently suing the State Department, arguing that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls is violating their first amendment right to post files online).

    “The government is saying this is an area of technical development that the public shouldn’t have access to,” Wilson said. “I say on the contrary. I think it’s essential to protect common people.”

    Wilson says he has sold thousands of his CNC machines and makes $2 million in gross sales per year. Touring prepper shows and conventions, Wilson said that preppers throw down big bucks for survival equipment like guns and food supply.

    But Wilson has also made enemies within the prepper community who think that his politics are too ostentatious.

    “He put a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Mike told me. “They don’t want to be associated with people like that. They don’t want that kind of trouble. It’s a good way to get on a watch list.”

    Sources interviewed noted that an ideological rift splits the greater 3D prepping community’s response to 3D-printed firearms. The generally liberal open-source community can seem at odds with the often conservative preparedness community, especially over the issue of guns. One side argues that guns are necessary for protecting your family; the other, that they should be heavily restricted, even uniformly banned.

    For his part, Ray is sympathetic to Wilson, describing him as “just another guy who has values he believes in.” Since discovering the compatibility of prepping and 3D printing, Ray authored the book 3D Printing for Preparedness, of which he says hasn’t sold too many copies. At first, he was embarrassed to release it, since Doomsday Preppers sullied the name of his survival-minded brethren.

    Ray has since moved onto 3D-printing food, which he says he’d like to keep separate from his preparedness efforts. He’s hesitant to argue that 3D-printed food could hold up against the apocalypse.

    “For prepping, you can stick with dehydrated food.”

    “Predictably, the government wasn’t thrilled about Wilson’s weapon hack. Since the firearms were plastic, they were imperceptible to metal detectors, in violation of the US Undetectable Firearms Act. In May 2013, the State Department cracked down on Wilson’s Defense Distributed movement, demanding that gun blueprints be pulled off the internet. (Wilson is currently suing the State Department, arguing that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls is violating their first amendment right to post files online).”
    If keeping the blueprints for 3D-printable guns off the internet is the key ingredient for preventing the spread of 3D-printable guns, we’re looking at a future with a lot of 3D-printable guns. And it looks like that’s the case. So when printing assault rifles is a basic function of the future’s household appliance equivalent of the microwave, we will have entered an era where the careless and mindless attitudes of the gun nut culture that has brought us a microwavable-assault-rifle-ish reality in a pre-microwavable-assault-rifle age is suddenly extra dangerous. If the NRA was to truly cary out its mission, it would be a self-improvement organization focused on anger-management and non-violent conflict resolution. No more need to worry about gun rights during the gunpocalypse. It’s just a matter of time. Let’s hope there aren’t too many gun nuts!

    It’s also worth noting that gun manufacturers will sort of be replaced by the future version of Star Trek replicators. So it will be interesting to see how the NRA responds to that. And of course terrifying.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | June 22, 2016, 10:56 pm

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