The Robo-Apocalypse. Part 2.

 

Last week I talked about how the South Koreans have developed a 50 caliber toting, nearly autonomous weapon system and have sold a few dozen around the world. This week I feel obligated to finish up on my promise of the drone with a pistol. I discovered this from a WIRED article. It was a little tongue-in-cheek piece that analyzed a YouTube video and concluded that pistol-packing drone is probably real. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t believe that this is a really bad idea, including the author of the piece. Nevertheless, if we were to make a list of unintended consequences of DIY drone technology, (just some simple brainstorming) the list, after a few minutes, would be a long one.

This week FastCo reported that  NASA held a little get-together with about 1,000 invited guests from the drone industry to talk about a plan to manage the traffic when, as the agency believes, “every home will have a drone, and every home will serve as an airport at some point in the future”. NASA’s plan takes things slowly. Still the agency predicts that we will be able to get our packages from Amazon and borrow a cup of sugar from Aunt Gladys down the street, even in populated areas, by 2019.

Someone taking action is good news as we work to fix another poorly conceived technology that quickly went rogue. Unfortunately, it does nothing about the guy who wants to shoot down the Amazon drone for sport (or anyone/anything else for that matter).

On the topic of bad ideas, this week The Future Of Life Institute, a research organization out of Boston issued an open letter warning the world that autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence (AI) were imminent. The reasonable concern here is that a computer will do the kill-or-not-kill, bomb-or-not-bomb thinking, without the human fail-safe. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.” [Emphasis mine.]

The letter is short. You should read it. For once we have and example of those smart people I alluded to last week, the ones with compassion and vision. For virtually every “promising” new technology—from the seemingly good to the undeniably dangerous) we need people who can foresee the unintended consequences of one-sided promises. Designers, scientists, and engineers are prime candidates to look into the future and wave these red flags. Then the rest of the world needs to pay attention.

Once again, however, the technology is here and whether it is legal or illegal, banned or not banned the cat is out of the bag. It is kind of like a nuclear explosion. Some things you just can’t take back.

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The robo-apocalypse. Part 1.

Talk of robot takeovers is all the rage right now.

I’m good with this because the evidence is out there that robots will continue to get smarter and smarter but the human condition, being what it is, we will continue to do stupid s**t. Here are some examples from the news this week.

1. The BBC reported this week that South Korea has deployed something called The Super aEgis II, a 50-caliber robotic machine gun that knows who is an enemy and who isn’t. At least that’s the plan. The company that built and sells the Super aEgis is DoDAAM. Maybe that is short for do damage. The BBC astutely notes,

“Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, that ‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’, looks like it will soon be broken.”

Asimov was more than a great science-fiction writer, he was a Class A futurist. He clearly saw the potential for us to create robots that were smarter and more powerful than we are. He figured there should be some rules. Asimov used the kind of foresight that responsible scientists, technologists and designers should be using for everything we create. As the article continues, Simon Parkin of the BBC quotes Yangchan Song, DoDAAM’s managing director of strategy planning.

“Automated weapons will be the future. We were right. The evolution has been quick. We’ve already moved from remote control combat devices, to what we are approaching now: smart devices that are able to make their own decisions.”

Or in the words of songwriter Donald Fagen,

“A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision…1

Relax. The world is full of these fellows. Right now the weapon/robot is linked to a human who gives the OK to fire, and all customers who purchased the 30 units thus far have opted for the human/robot interface. But the company admits,

“If someone came to us wanting a turret that did not have the current safeguards we would, of course, advise them otherwise, and highlight the potential issues,” says Park. “But they will ultimately decide what they want. And we develop to customer specification.”

A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.
A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.

They are currently working on the technology that will help their machine make the right decision on its own., but the article cites several academics and researchers who see red flags waving. Most concur that teaching a robot right from wrong is no easy task. Compound the complexity because the fellows who are doing the programming don’t always agree on these issues.

Last week I wrote about Google’s self-driving car. Of course, this robot has to make tough decisions too. It may one day have to decide whether to hit the suddenly appearing baby carriage, the kid on the bike, or just crash the vehicle. In fact, Parkin’s article brings Google into the picture as well, quoting Colin Allen,

“Google admits that one of the hardest problems for their programming is how an automated car should behave at a four-way stop sign…”

Humans don’t do such a good job at that either. And there is my problem with all of this. If the humans who are programming these machines are still wrestling with what is ethically right or wrong, can a robot be expected to do better. Some think so. Over at DoDAMM,

“Ultimately, we would probably like a machine with a very sound basis to be able to learn for itself, and maybe even exceed our abilities to reason morally.”

Based on what?

Next week: Drones with pistols.

 

1. Donald Fagen, IGY From the Night Fly album. 1982
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Promises. Promises.

Throughout the course of the week, usually on a daily basis, I collect articles, news blurbs and what I call “signs from the future.” Mostly they fall into categories such as design fiction, technology, society, future, theology, and philosophy. I use this content sometimes for this blog, possibly for a lecture but most often for additional research as part of scholarly papers and presentations that are a matter of course as a professor. I have to weigh what goes into the blog because most of these topics could easily become full-blown papers.  Of course, the thing with scholarly writing is that most publications demand exclusivity on publishing your ideas. Essentially, that means that it becomes difficult to repurpose anything I write here for something with more gravitas.  One of the subjects that are of growing interest to me is Google. Not the search engine, per se, rather the technological mega-corp. It has the potential to be just such a paper, so even though there is a lot to say, I’m going to land on only a few key points.

A ubiquitous giant in the world of the Internet, Google has some of the most powerful algorithms, stores your most personal information, and is working on many of the most advanced technologies in the world. They try very hard to be soft-spoken, and low-key, but it belies their enormous power.

Most of us would agree that technology has provided some marvelous benefits to society especially in the realms of medicine, safety, education and other socially beneficial applications. Things like artificial knees, cochlear implants, air bags (when they don’t accidentally kill you), and instantaneous access to the world’s libraries have made life-changing improvements. Needless to say, especially if you have read my blog for any amount of time, technology also can have a downside. We may see greater yields from our agricultural efforts, but technological advancements also pump needless hormones into the populace, create sketchy GMO foodstuffs and manipulate farmers into planting them. We all know the problems associated with automobile emissions, atomic energy, chemotherapy and texting while driving. These problems are the obvious stuff. What is perhaps more sinister are the technologies we adopt that work quietly in the background to change us. Most of them we are unaware of until, one day, we are almost surprised to see how we have changed, and maybe we don’t like it. Google strikes me as a potential contributor in this latter arena. A recent article from The Guardian, entitled “Where is Google Taking Us?” looks at some of their most altruistic technologies (the ones they allowed the author to see). The author, Tim Adams, brought forward some interesting quotes from key players at Google. When discussing how Google would spend some $62 million in cash that it had amassed, Larry Page, one of the company’s co-founders asked,

“How do we use all these resources… and have a much more positive impact on the world?”

There’s nothing wrong with that question. It’s the kind of question that you would want a billionaire asking. My question is, “What does positive mean, and who decides what is and what isn’t?” In this case, it’s Google. The next quote comes from Sundar Pichai. With so many possibilities that this kind of wealth affords, Adams asked how they stay focused on what to do next.

“’Focus on the user and all else follows…We call it the toothbrush test,’ Pichai says, ‘we want to concentrate our efforts on things that billions of people use on a daily basis.’”

The statement sounds like savvy marketing. He is also talking about the most innate aspects of our everyday behavior. And so that I don’t turn this into an academic paper, here is one more quote. This time the author is talking to Dmitri Dolgov, principal engineer for Google Self-Driving Cars. For the whole idea to work, that is, the car reacting like a human would, only better, it has to think.

“Our maps have information stored and as the car drives around it builds up another local map with its sensors and aligns one to the other – that gives us a location accuracy of a centimetre or two. Beyond that, we are making huge numbers of probabilistic calculations every second.”

Mapping everything down to the centimeter.
Mapping everything down to the centimeter.

It’s the last line that we might want to ponder. Predictive algorithms are what artificial intelligence is all about, the kind of technology that plugs-in to a whole host of different applications from predicting your behavior to your abilities. If we don’t want to have to remember to check the oil, there is a light that reminds us. If we don’t want to have to remember somebody’s name, there is a facial recognition algorithm to remember for us. If my wearable detects that I am stressed, it can remind me to take a deep breath. If I am out for a walk, maybe something should mention all the things I could buy while I’m out (as well as what I am out of). 

Here’s what I think about. It seems to me that we are amassing two lists: the things we don’t want to think about, and the things we do. Folks like Google are adding things to Column A, and it seems to be getting longer all the time. My concern is whether we will have anything left in Column B.

 

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What games will we change next? Is your game one of them?

A few of weeks ago I was blogging about open sourcing, collaboration and how all these tectonic shifts change industries, professions and more. Then, there was a recent blog on the future of work and how even white collar jobs, the ones that everyone thought were bullet-proof, are targets for dissolution by artificial intelligence (AI). Could designers be targets as well? That was the subject of the first post I mentioned.

So a couple of things crossed my glance that could have a bearing on the design, manufacturing, collaboration, and what we think of as the traditional maker-economy. What bearing will it have? Who knows? I think we should keep an eye on them.

1. Not long ago, WIRED had an article and video on how a “regular guy” without any special “making” skills was able to fabricate, in his home, a fully functioning and untraceable AR15 automatic rifle. Of course, doing so is illegal, so after testing his weapon on the firing range he turned over the parts to the local police. It was all in the name of journalism. Check it out.

The fully assembled AR-15.  Photo: JOSH VALCARCEL/WIRED
The fully assembled AR-15. Photo: JOSH VALCARCEL/WIRED

2. I read an article in Harvard Business Review about the very interesting trend in business toward Network Orchestrators. According to HBR, “These companies create a network of peers in which the participants interact and share in the value creation. They may sell products or services, build relationships, share advice, give reviews, collaborate, co-create and more. Examples include eBay, Red Hat, and Visa, Uber, Tripadvisor, and Alibaba.”

What do these things have in common? They are potential game-changers. Heck, they’ve already changed the game. The bigger question for us is what game will they change next. Both models challenge traditional “expertise”. The expert, the specialist, the factory, the tradesman (and in some cases the authorities) are getting edged out. It has applications to just about everything including medicine and the work that we believed could only be done by the specialist. So what should we do about it? I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you this: We should be thinking about it.

Just sayin’.

 

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On better humans and bad bots.

News of breaking future technologies, the stuff at the crux of my research, accumulates as a daily occurrence, and this week is no different. Of note, Zoltan Istvan is (another) 2016 US presidential candidate, but this time for the Transhumanism party. Transhumanism, “(abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities”. 1 For those of you who didn’t know. Living forever is job one for the “movement.” Mr. Istvan is not likely to be in the debates but you can follow him and the rest of H+ at humanity+. org. I’ll reserve comment on this.

On another front, for those who think that once we get this human thing down right, that technology will save us and mischief will cease, there is this item from WIRED magazine UK. A couple of researchers at Google (that’s OK you can trust them) have “created an artificial intelligence that developed its responses based on transcripts from an IT helpdesk chat service and a database of movie scripts.” This AI is called a chatbot. Chatbot are computer programs designed to talk to you. You can try one out here.

According to WIRED’s James Temperton,

“The [Google] system used a neural network — a collection of machines arranged to mimic a human brain — to create its unnervingly human responses. Such networks use a huge amount of computing power and Google’s latest research shows their potential for improving how machines hold conversations.”

Apparently, it was the addition of the movie scripts that made the bot more contentious. Consider this exchange on morality:

“Human: I really like our discussion on morality and ethics …

Machine: And how I’m not in the mood for a philosophical debate.

Human: What do you like to talk about?

Machine: Nothing.”

Fun with programming. All of this points to the old adage, “Junk in is junk out.” In The Lightstream Chronicles the future version of this mischief is called twisting. Basically you take a perfectly good, well-behaved, synthetic human and put in some junk. The change in programming is generally used to make these otherwise helpful synths do criminal things.

The logo says it all.

This tendency we have as human beings to twist good ideas into bad ones is nothing new, and today’s headlines are evidence of it. We print guns with 3D printers, we use drones to vandalize, cameras to spy, and computers to hack. Perhaps that is what Humanity+ has in mind: Make humanity more technologically advanced. More like a… machine, then reprogram the humanness (that just leads to no good) out. What could possibly go wrong with that?

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism
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