Tag Archives: government
Artificial Intelligence Is Now a Pentagon Priority. Will Silicon Valley Help?
Cade Metz | The New York Times
“The consultants and planners who try to forecast threats think AI could be the next technological game changer in warfare. The Chinese government has raised the stakes with its own national strategy. Academic and commercial organizations in China have been open about working closely with the military on AI projects.”
The World’s Oldest Blockchain Has Been Hiding in the New York Times Since 1995
Daniel Oberhaus | Motherboard
“Instead of posting customer hashes to a public digital ledger, Surety creates a unique hash value of all the new seals added to the database each week and publishes this hash value in the New York Times. The hash is placed in a small ad in the Times classified section under the heading ‘Notices & Lost and Found’ and has appeared once a week since 1995.”
FUTURE OF WORK
Y Combinator Learns Basic Income Is Not So Basic After All
Nitasha Tiku | Wired
“In January 2016, technology incubator Y Combinator announced plans to fund a long-term study on giving people a guaranteed monthly income, in part to offset fears about jobs being destroyed by automation. …Now, nearly three years later, YC Research, the incubator’s nonprofit arm, says it plans to begin the study next year, after a pilot project in Oakland took much longer than expected.”
Robotics-as-a-Service Is on the Way and Invia Robotics Is Leading the Charge
Jonathan Shieber | TechCrunch
“The team at inVia Robotics didn’t start out looking to build a business that would create a new kind of model for selling robotics to the masses, but that may be exactly what they’ve done.”
How to Survive Doomsday
Michael Hahn and Daniel Wolf Savin | Nautilus
“Let’s be optimistic and assume that we manage to avoid a self-inflicted nuclear holocaust, an extinction-sized asteroid, or deadly irradiation from a nearby supernova. That leaves about 6 billion years until the sun turns into a red giant, swelling to the orbit of Earth and melting our planet. Sounds like a lot of time. But don’t get too relaxed. Doomsday is coming a lot sooner than that.”
NASA’s New Space Taxis
Mark Harris | Air & Space
“With the first launch in its Commercial Crew Program, NASA is trying something new: opening space exploration to private corporations and astronauts. The 21st century space race begins not as a contest between global superpowers but as a competition between companies.”
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In the next 30 years, virtually all net population growth will occur in urban regions of developing countries. At the same time, worldwide food production will become increasingly limited by the availability of land, water, and energy. These constraints will be further worsened by climate change and the expected addition of two billion people to today’s four billion now living in urban regions. Meanwhile, current urban food ecosystems in the developing world are inefficient and critically inadequate to meet the challenges of the future.
Combined, these trends could have catastrophic economic and political consequences. A new path forward for urban food ecosystems needs to be found. But what is that path?
New technologies, coupled with new business models and supportive government policies, can create more resilient urban food ecosystems in the coming decades. These tech-enabled systems can sustainably link rural, peri-urban (areas just outside cities), and urban producers and consumers, increase overall food production, and generate opportunities for new businesses and jobs (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The urban food value chain nodes from rural, peri-urban and urban producers
to servicing end customers in urban and peri-urban markets.
Here’s a glimpse of the changes technology may bring to the systems feeding cities in the future.
A technology-linked urban food ecosystem would create unprecedented opportunities for small farms to reach wider markets and progress from subsistence farming to commercially producing niche cash crops and animal protein, such as poultry, fish, pork, and insects.
Meanwhile, new opportunities within cities will appear with the creation of vertical farms and other controlled-environment agricultural systems as well as production of plant-based and 3D printed foods and cultured meat. Uberized facilitation of production and distribution of food will reduce bottlenecks and provide new business opportunities and jobs. Off-the-shelf precision agriculture technology will increasingly be the new norm, from smallholders to larger producers.
As part of Agricultural Revolution 4.0, all this will be integrated into the larger collaborative economy—connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things and powered by artificial intelligence. It will more efficiently and effectively use resources and people to connect the nexus of food, water, energy, nutrition, and human health. It will also aid in the development of a circular economy that is designed to be restorative and regenerative, minimizing waste and maximizing recycling and reuse to build economic, natural, and social capital.
In short, technology will enable transformation of urban food ecosystems, from expanded production in cities to more efficient and inclusive distribution and closer connections with rural farmers. Here’s a closer look at seven tech-driven trends that will help feed tomorrow’s cities.
1. Worldwide Connectivity: Information, Learning, and Markets
Connectivity from simple cell phone SMS communication to internet-enabled smartphones and cloud services are providing platforms for the increasingly powerful technologies enabling development of a new agricultural revolution. Internet connections currently reach more than 4 billion people, about 55% of the global population. That number will grow fast in coming years.
These information and communications technologies connect food producers to consumers with just-in-time data, enhanced good agricultural practices, mobile money and credit, telecommunications, market information and merchandising, and greater transparency and traceability of goods and services throughout the value chain. Text messages on mobile devices have become the one-stop-shop for small farmers to place orders, gain technology information for best management practices, and access market information to increase profitability.
Hershey’s CocoaLink in Ghana, for example, uses text and voice messages with cocoa industry experts and small farm producers. Digital Green is a technology-enabled communication system in Asia and Africa to bring needed agricultural and management practices to small farmers in their own language by filming and recording successful farmers in their own communities. MFarm is a mobile app that connects Kenyan farmers with urban markets via text messaging.
2. Blockchain Technology: Greater Access to Basic Financial Services and Enhanced Food Safety
Gaining access to credit and executing financial transactions have been persistent constraints for small farm producers. Blockchain promises to help the unbanked access basic financial services.
The Gates Foundation has released an open source platform, Mojaloop, to allow software developers and banks and financial service providers to build secure digital payment platforms at scale. Mojaloop software uses more secure blockchain technology to enable urban food system players in the developing world to conduct business and trade. The free software reduces complexity and cost in building payment platforms to connect small farmers with customers, merchants, banks, and mobile money providers. Such digital financial services will allow small farm producers in the developing world to conduct business without a brick-and-mortar bank.
Blockchain is also important for traceability and transparency requirements to meet food regulatory and consumer requirement during the production, post-harvest, shipping, processing and distribution to consumers. Combining blockchain with RFID technologies also will enhance food safety.
3. Uberized Services: On-Demand Equipment, Storage, and More
Uberized services can advance development of the urban food ecosystem across the spectrum, from rural to peri-urban to urban food production and distribution. Whereas Uber and Airbnb enable sharing of rides and homes, the model can be extended in the developing world to include on-demand use of expensive equipment, such as farm machinery, or storage space.
This includes uberization of planting and harvesting equipment (Hello Tractor), transportation vehicles, refrigeration facilities for temporary storage of perishable product, and “cloud kitchens” (EasyAppetite in Nigeria, FoodCourt in Rwanda, and Swiggy and Zomto in India) that produce fresh meals to be delivered to urban customers, enabling young people with motorbikes and cell phones to become entrepreneurs or contractors delivering meals to urban customers.
Another uberized service is marketing and distributing “ugly food” or imperfect produce to reduce food waste. About a third of the world’s food goes to waste, often because of appearance; this is enough to feed two billion people. Such services supply consumers with cheaper, nutritious, tasty, healthy fruits and vegetables that would normally be discarded as culls due to imperfections in shape or size.
4. Technology for Producing Plant-Based Foods in Cities
We need to change diet choices through education and marketing and by developing tasty plant-based substitutes. This is not only critical for environmental sustainability, but also offers opportunities for new businesses and services. It turns out that current agricultural production systems for “red meat” have a far greater detrimental impact on the environment than automobiles.
There have been great advances in plant-based foods, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, that can satisfy the consumer’s experience and perception of meat. Rather than giving up the experience of eating red meat, technology is enabling marketable, attractive plant-based products that can potentially drastically reduce world per capita consumption of red meat.
5. Cellular Agriculture, Lab-Grown Meat, and 3D Printed Food
Lab-grown meat, literally meat grown from cultured cells, may radically change where and how protein and food is produced, including the cities where it is consumed. There is a wide range of innovative alternatives to traditional meats that can supplement the need for livestock, farms, and butchers. The history of innovation is about getting rid of the bottleneck in the system, and with meat, the bottleneck is the animal. Finless Foods is a new company trying to replicate fish fillets, for example, while Memphis meats is working on beef and poultry.
3D printing or additive manufacturing is a “general purpose technology” used for making, plastic toys, human tissues, aircraft parts, and buildings. 3D printing can also be used to convert alternative ingredients such as proteins from algae, beet leaves, or insects into tasty and healthy products that can be produced by small, inexpensive printers in home kitchens. The food can be customized for individual health needs as well as preferences. 3D printing can also contribute to the food ecosystem by making possible on-demand replacement parts—which are badly needed in the developing world for tractors, pumps, and other equipment. Catapult Design 3D prints tractor replacement parts as well as corn shellers, cart designs, prosthetic limbs, and rolling water barrels for the Indian market.
6. Alt Farming: Vertical Farms to Produce Food in Urban Centers
Urban food ecosystem production systems will rely not only on field-grown crops, but also on production of food within cities. There are a host of new, alternative production systems using “controlled environmental agriculture.” These include low-cost, protected poly hoop houses, greenhouses, roof-top and sack/container gardens, and vertical farming in buildings using artificial lighting. Vertical farms enable year-round production of selected crops, regardless of weather—which will be increasingly important in response to climate change—and without concern for deteriorating soil conditions that affect crop quality and productivity. AeroFarms claims 390 times more productivity per square foot than normal field production.
7. Biotechnology and Nanotechnology for Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture
CRISPR is a promising gene editing technology that can be used to enhance crop productivity while avoiding societal concerns about GMOs. CRISPR can accelerate traditional breeding and selection programs for developing new climate and disease-resistant, higher-yielding, nutritious crops and animals.
Plant-derived coating materials, developed with nanotechnology, can decrease waste, extend shelf-life and transportability of fruits and vegetables, and significantly reduce post-harvest crop loss in developing countries that lack adequate refrigeration. Nanotechnology is also used in polymers to coat seeds to increase their shelf-life and increase their germination success and production for niche, high-value crops.
Putting It All Together
The next generation “urban food industry” will be part of the larger collaborative economy that is connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things. A tech-enabled urban food ecosystem integrated with new business models and smart agricultural policies offers the opportunity for sustainable intensification (doing more with less) of agriculture to feed a rapidly growing global urban population—while also creating viable economic opportunities for rural and peri-urban as well as urban producers and value-chain players.
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Recently, I picked up Kai-Fu Lee’s newest book, AI Superpowers.
Kai-Fu Lee is one of the most plugged-in AI investors on the planet, managing over $2 billion between six funds and over 300 portfolio companies in the US and China.
Drawing from his pioneering work in AI, executive leadership at Microsoft, Apple, and Google (where he served as founding president of Google China), and his founding of VC fund Sinovation Ventures, Lee shares invaluable insights about:
The four factors driving today’s AI ecosystems;
China’s extraordinary inroads in AI implementation;
Where autonomous systems are headed;
How we’ll need to adapt.
With a foothold in both Beijing and Silicon Valley, Lee looks at the power balance between Chinese and US tech behemoths—each turbocharging new applications of deep learning and sweeping up global markets in the process.
In this post, I’ll be discussing Lee’s “Four Waves of AI,” an excellent framework for discussing where AI is today and where it’s going. I’ll also be featuring some of the hottest Chinese tech companies leading the charge, worth watching right now.
I’m super excited that this Tuesday, I’ve scored the opportunity to sit down with Kai-Fu Lee to discuss his book in detail via a webinar.
With Sino-US competition heating up, who will own the future of technology?
Let’s dive in.
The First Wave: Internet AI
In this first stage of AI deployment, we’re dealing primarily with recommendation engines—algorithmic systems that learn from masses of user data to curate online content personalized to each one of us.
Think Amazon’s spot-on product recommendations, or that “Up Next” YouTube video you just have to watch before getting back to work, or Facebook ads that seem to know what you’ll buy before you do.
Powered by the data flowing through our networks, internet AI leverages the fact that users automatically label data as we browse. Clicking versus not clicking; lingering on a web page longer than we did on another; hovering over a Facebook video to see what happens at the end.
These cascades of labeled data build a detailed picture of our personalities, habits, demands, and desires: the perfect recipe for more tailored content to keep us on a given platform.
Currently, Lee estimates that Chinese and American companies stand head-to-head when it comes to deployment of internet AI. But given China’s data advantage, he predicts that Chinese tech giants will have a slight lead (60-40) over their US counterparts in the next five years.
While you’ve most definitely heard of Alibaba and Baidu, you’ve probably never stumbled upon Toutiao.
Starting out as a copycat of America’s wildly popular Buzzfeed, Toutiao reached a valuation of $20 billion by 2017, dwarfing Buzzfeed’s valuation by more than a factor of 10. But with almost 120 million daily active users, Toutiao doesn’t just stop at creating viral content.
Equipped with natural-language processing and computer vision, Toutiao’s AI engines survey a vast network of different sites and contributors, rewriting headlines to optimize for user engagement, and processing each user’s online behavior—clicks, comments, engagement time—to curate individualized news feeds for millions of consumers.
And as users grow more engaged with Toutiao’s content, the company’s algorithms get better and better at recommending content, optimizing headlines, and delivering a truly personalized feed.
It’s this kind of positive feedback loop that fuels today’s AI giants surfing the wave of internet AI.
The Second Wave: Business AI
While internet AI takes advantage of the fact that netizens are constantly labeling data via clicks and other engagement metrics, business AI jumps on the data that traditional companies have already labeled in the past.
Think banks issuing loans and recording repayment rates; hospitals archiving diagnoses, imaging data, and subsequent health outcomes; or courts noting conviction history, recidivism, and flight.
While we humans make predictions based on obvious root causes (strong features), AI algorithms can process thousands of weakly correlated variables (weak features) that may have much more to do with a given outcome than the usual suspects.
By scouting out hidden correlations that escape our linear cause-and-effect logic, business AI leverages labeled data to train algorithms that outperform even the most veteran of experts.
Apply these data-trained AI engines to banking, insurance, and legal sentencing, and you get minimized default rates, optimized premiums, and plummeting recidivism rates.
While Lee confidently places America in the lead (90-10) for business AI, China’s substantial lag in structured industry data could actually work in its favor going forward.
In industries where Chinese startups can leapfrog over legacy systems, China has a major advantage.
Take Chinese app Smart Finance, for instance.
While Americans embraced credit and debit cards in the 1970s, China was still in the throes of its Cultural Revolution, largely missing the bus on this technology.
Fast forward to 2017, and China’s mobile payment spending outnumbered that of Americans’ by a ratio of 50 to 1. Without the competition of deeply entrenched credit cards, mobile payments were an obvious upgrade to China’s cash-heavy economy, embraced by 70 percent of China’s 753 million smartphone users by the end of 2017.
But by leapfrogging over credit cards and into mobile payments, China largely left behind the notion of credit.
And here’s where Smart Finance comes in.
An AI-powered app for microfinance, Smart Finance depends almost exclusively on its algorithms to make millions of microloans. For each potential borrower, the app simply requests access to a portion of the user’s phone data.
On the basis of variables as subtle as your typing speed and battery percentage, Smart Finance can predict with astounding accuracy your likelihood of repaying a $300 loan.
Such deployments of business AI and internet AI are already revolutionizing our industries and individual lifestyles. But still on the horizon lie two even more monumental waves— perception AI and autonomous AI.
The Third Wave: Perception AI
In this wave, AI gets an upgrade with eyes, ears, and myriad other senses, merging the digital world with our physical environments.
As sensors and smart devices proliferate through our homes and cities, we are on the verge of entering a trillion-sensor economy.
Companies like China’s Xiaomi are putting out millions of IoT-connected devices, and teams of researchers have already begun prototyping smart dust—solar cell- and sensor-geared particulates that can store and communicate troves of data anywhere, anytime.
As Kai-Fu explains, perception AI “will bring the convenience and abundance of the online world into our offline reality.” Sensor-enabled hardware devices will turn everything from hospitals to cars to schools into online-merge-offline (OMO) environments.
Imagine walking into a grocery store, scanning your face to pull up your most common purchases, and then picking up a virtual assistant (VA) shopping cart. Having pre-loaded your data, the cart adjusts your usual grocery list with voice input, reminds you to get your spouse’s favorite wine for an upcoming anniversary, and guides you through a personalized store route.
While we haven’t yet leveraged the full potential of perception AI, China and the US are already making incredible strides. Given China’s hardware advantage, Lee predicts China currently has a 60-40 edge over its American tech counterparts.
Now the go-to city for startups building robots, drones, wearable technology, and IoT infrastructure, Shenzhen has turned into a powerhouse for intelligent hardware, as I discussed last week. Turbocharging output of sensors and electronic parts via thousands of factories, Shenzhen’s skilled engineers can prototype and iterate new products at unprecedented scale and speed.
With the added fuel of Chinese government support and a relaxed Chinese attitude toward data privacy, China’s lead may even reach 80-20 in the next five years.
Jumping on this wave are companies like Xiaomi, which aims to turn bathrooms, kitchens, and living rooms into smart OMO environments. Having invested in 220 companies and incubated 29 startups that produce its products, Xiaomi surpassed 85 million intelligent home devices by the end of 2017, making it the world’s largest network of these connected products.
One KFC restaurant in China has even teamed up with Alipay (Alibaba’s mobile payments platform) to pioneer a ‘pay-with-your-face’ feature. Forget cash, cards, and cell phones, and let OMO do the work.
The Fourth Wave: Autonomous AI
But the most monumental—and unpredictable—wave is the fourth and final: autonomous AI.
Integrating all previous waves, autonomous AI gives machines the ability to sense and respond to the world around them, enabling AI to move and act productively.
While today’s machines can outperform us on repetitive tasks in structured and even unstructured environments (think Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas or oncoming autonomous vehicles), machines with the power to see, hear, touch and optimize data will be a whole new ballgame.
Think: swarms of drones that can selectively spray and harvest entire farms with computer vision and remarkable dexterity, heat-resistant drones that can put out forest fires 100X more efficiently, or Level 5 autonomous vehicles that navigate smart roads and traffic systems all on their own.
While autonomous AI will first involve robots that create direct economic value—automating tasks on a one-to-one replacement basis—these intelligent machines will ultimately revamp entire industries from the ground up.
Kai-Fu Lee currently puts America in a commanding lead of 90-10 in autonomous AI, especially when it comes to self-driving vehicles. But Chinese government efforts are quickly ramping up the competition.
Already in China’s Zhejiang province, highway regulators and government officials have plans to build China’s first intelligent superhighway, outfitted with sensors, road-embedded solar panels and wireless communication between cars, roads and drivers.
Aimed at increasing transit efficiency by up to 30 percent while minimizing fatalities, the project may one day allow autonomous electric vehicles to continuously charge as they drive.
A similar government-fueled project involves Beijing’s new neighbor Xiong’an. Projected to take in over $580 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 20 years, Xiong’an New Area could one day become the world’s first city built around autonomous vehicles.
Baidu is already working with Xiong’an’s local government to build out this AI city with an environmental focus. Possibilities include sensor-geared cement, computer vision-enabled traffic lights, intersections with facial recognition, and parking lots-turned parks.
Lastly, Lee predicts China will almost certainly lead the charge in autonomous drones. Already, Shenzhen is home to premier drone maker DJI—a company I’ll be visiting with 24 top executives later this month as part of my annual China Platinum Trip.
Named “the best company I have ever encountered” by Chris Anderson, DJI owns an estimated 50 percent of the North American drone market, supercharged by Shenzhen’s extraordinary maker movement.
While the long-term Sino-US competitive balance in fourth wave AI remains to be seen, one thing is certain: in a matter of decades, we will witness the rise of AI-embedded cityscapes and autonomous machines that can interact with the real world and help solve today’s most pressing grand challenges.
Webinar with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee: Dr. Kai-Fu Lee — one of the world’s most respected experts on AI — and I will discuss his latest book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Artificial Intelligence is reshaping the world as we know it. With U.S.-Sino competition heating up, who will own the future of technology? Register here for the free webinar on September 4th, 2018 from 11:00am–12:30pm PST.
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What happens when evolution shapes an animal for tribes of 150 primitive individuals living in a chaotic jungle, and then suddenly that animal finds itself living with millions of others in an engineered metropolis, their pockets all bulging with devices of godlike power?
The result, it seems, is a modern era of tension where archaic forms of governance struggle to keep up with the technological advances of their citizenry, where governmental policies act like constraining bottlenecks rather than spearheads of progress.
Simply put, our governments have failed to adapt to disruptive technologies. And if we are to regain our stability moving forward into a future of even greater disruption, it’s imperative that we understand the issues that got us into this situation and what kind of solutions we can engineer to overcome our governmental weaknesses.
Hierarchy vs. Technological Decentralization
Many of the greatest issues our governments face today come from humanity’s biologically-hardwired desire for centralized hierarchies. This innate proclivity towards building and navigating systems of status and rank were evolutionary gifts handed down to us by our ape ancestors, where each member of a community had a mental map of their social hierarchy. Their nervous systems behaved differently depending on their rank in this hierarchy, influencing their interactions in a way that ensured only the most competent ape would rise to the top to gain access to the best food and mates.
As humanity emerged and discovered the power of language, we continued this practice by ensuring that those at the top of the hierarchies, those with the greatest education and access to information, were the dominant decision-makers for our communities.
However, this kind of structured chain of power is only necessary if we’re operating in conditions of scarcity. But resources, including information, are no longer scarce.
It’s estimated that more than two-thirds of adults in the world now own a smartphone, giving the average citizen the same access to the world’s information as the leaders of our governments. And with global poverty falling from 35.5 percent to 10.9 percent over the last 25 years, our younger generations are growing up seeing automation and abundance as a likely default, where innovations like solar energy, lab-grown meat, and 3D printing are expected to become commonplace.
It’s awareness of this paradigm shift that has empowered the recent rise of decentralization. As information and access to resources become ubiquitous, there is noticeably less need for our inefficient and bureaucratic hierarchies.
For example, if blockchain can prove its feasibility for large-scale systems, it can be used to update and upgrade numerous applications to a decentralized model, including currency and voting. Such innovations would lower the risk of failing banks collapsing the economy like they did in 2008, as well as prevent corrupt politicians from using gerrymandering and long queues at polling stations to deter voter participation.
Of course, technology isn’t a magic wand that should be implemented carelessly. Facebook’s “move fast and break things” approach might have very possibly broken American democracy in 2016, as social media played on some of the worst tendencies humanity can operate on during an election: fear and hostility.
But if decentralized technology, like blockchain’s public ledgers, can continue to spread a sense of security and transparency throughout society, perhaps we can begin to quiet that paranoia and hyper-vigilance our brains evolved to cope with living as apes in dangerous jungles. By decentralizing our power structures, we take away the channels our outdated biological behaviors might use to enact social dominance and manipulation.
The peace of mind this creates helps to reestablish trust in our communities and in our governments. And with trust in the government increased, it’s likely we’ll see our next issue corrected.
From Business and Law to Science and Technology
A study found that 59 percent of US presidents, 68 percent of vice presidents, and 78 percent of secretaries of state were lawyers by education and occupation. That’s more than one out of every two people in the most powerful positions in the American government restricted to a field dedicated to convincing other people (judges) their perspective is true, even if they lack evidence.
And so the scientific method became less important than semantics to our leaders.
Similarly, of the 535 individuals in the American congress, only 24 hold a PhD, only 2 of which are in a STEM field. And so far, it’s not getting better: Trump is the first president since WWII not to name a science advisor.
But if we can use technologies like blockchain to increase transparency, efficiency, and trust in the government, then the upcoming generations who understand decentralization, abundance, and exponential technologies might feel inspired enough to run for government positions. This helps solve that common problem where the smartest and most altruistic people tend to avoid government positions because they don’t want to play the semantic and deceitful game of politics.
By changing this narrative, our governments can begin to fill with techno-progressive individuals who actually understand the technologies that are rapidly reshaping our reality. And this influence of expertise is going to be crucial as our governments are forced to restructure and create new policies to accommodate the incoming disruption.
Clearing Regulations to Begin Safe Experimentation
As exponential technologies become more ubiquitous, we’re likely going to see young kids and garage tinkerers creating powerful AIs and altering genetics thanks to tools like CRISPR and free virtual reality tutorials.
This easy accessibility to such powerful technology means unexpected and rapid progress can occur almost overnight, quickly overwhelming our government’s regulatory systems.
Uber and Airbnb are two of the best examples of our government’s inability to keep up with such technology, both companies achieving market dominance before regulators were even able to consider how to handle them. And when a government has decided against them, they often still continue to operate because people simply choose to keep using the apps.
Luckily, this kind of disruption hasn’t yet posed a major existential threat. But this will change when we see companies begin developing cyborg body parts, brain-computer interfaces, nanobot health injectors, and at-home genetic engineering kits.
For this reason, it’s crucial that we have experts who understand how to update our regulations to be as flexible as is necessary to ensure we don’t create black market conditions like we’ve done with drugs. It’s better to have safe and monitored experimentation, rather than forcing individuals into seedy communities using unsafe products.
Survival of the Most Adaptable
If we hope to be an animal that survives our changing environment, we have to adapt. We cannot cling to the behaviors and systems formed thousands of years ago. We must instead acknowledge that we now exist in an ecosystem of disruptive technology, and we must evolve and update our governments if they’re going to be capable of navigating these transformative impacts.
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In March 2011, Japan was hit by a catastrophic earthquake that triggered a terrible tsunami. Thousands were killed and billions of dollars of damage was done in one of the worst disasters of modern times. For a few perilous weeks, though, the eyes of the world were focused on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Its safety systems were unable to cope with the tsunami damage, and there were widespread fears of another catastrophic meltdown that could spread radiation over several countries, like the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s. A heroic effort that included dumping seawater into the reactor core prevented an even bigger catastrophe. As it is, a hundred thousand people are still evacuated from the area, and it will likely take many years and hundreds of billions of dollars before the region is safe.
Because radiation is so dangerous to humans, the natural solution to the Fukushima disaster was to send in robots to monitor levels of radiation and attempt to begin the clean-up process. The techno-optimists in Japan had discovered a challenge, deep in the heart of that reactor core, that even their optimism could not solve. The radiation fried the circuits of the robots that were sent in, even those specifically designed and built to deal with the Fukushima catastrophe. The power plant slowly became a vast robot graveyard. While some robots initially saw success in measuring radiation levels around the plant—and, recently, a robot was able to identify the melted uranium fuel at the heart of the disaster—hopes of them playing a substantial role in the clean-up are starting to diminish.
In Tokyo’s neon Shibuya district, it can sometimes seem like it’s brighter at night than it is during the daytime. In karaoke booths on the twelfth floor—because everything is on the twelfth floor—overlooking the brightly-lit streets, businessmen unwind by blasting out pop hits. It can feel like the most artificial place on Earth; your senses are dazzled by the futuristic techno-optimism. Stock footage of the area has become symbolic of futurism and modernity.
Japan has had a reputation for being a nation of futurists for a long time. We’ve already described how tech giant Softbank, headed by visionary founder Masayoshi Son, is investing billions in a technological future, including plans for the world’s largest solar farm.
When Google sold pioneering robotics company Boston Dynamics in 2017, Softbank added it to their portfolio, alongside the famous Nao and Pepper robots. Some may think that Son is taking a gamble in pursuing a robotics project even Google couldn’t succeed in, but this is a man who lost nearly everything in the dot-com crash of 2000. The fact that even this reversal didn’t dent his optimism and faith in technology is telling. But how long can it last?
The failure of Japan’s robots to deal with the immense challenge of Fukushima has sparked something of a crisis of conscience within the industry. Disaster response is an obvious stepping-stone technology for robots. Initially, producing a humanoid robot will be very costly, and the robot will be less capable than a human; building a robot to wait tables might not be particularly economical yet. Building a robot to do jobs that are too dangerous for humans is far more viable. Yet, at Fukushima, in one of the most advanced nations in the world, many of the robots weren’t up to the task.
Nowhere was this crisis more felt than Honda; the company had developed ASIMO, which stunned the world in 2000 and continues to fascinate as an iconic humanoid robot. Despite all this technological advancement, however, Honda knew that ASIMO was still too unreliable for the real world.
It was Fukushima that triggered a sea-change in Honda’s approach to robotics. Two years after the disaster, there were rumblings that Honda was developing a disaster robot, and in October 2017, the prototype was revealed to the public for the first time. It’s not yet ready for deployment in disaster zones, however. Interestingly, the creators chose not to give it dexterous hands but instead to assume that remotely-operated tools fitted to the robot would be a better solution for the range of circumstances it might encounter.
This shift in focus for humanoid robots away from entertainment and amusement like ASIMO, and towards being practically useful, has been mirrored across the world.
In 2015, also inspired by the Fukushima disaster and the lack of disaster-ready robots, the DARPA Robotics Challenge tested humanoid robots with a range of tasks that might be needed in emergency response, such as driving cars, opening doors, and climbing stairs. The Terminator-like ATLAS robot from Boston Dynamics, alongside Korean robot HUBO, took many of the plaudits, and CHIMP also put in an impressive display by being able to right itself after falling.
Yet the DARPA Robotics Challenge showed us just how far the robots are from truly being as useful as we’d like, or maybe even as we would imagine. Many robots took hours to complete the tasks, which were highly idealized to suit them. Climbing stairs proved a particular challenge. Those who watched were more likely to see a robot that had fallen over, struggling to get up, rather than heroic superbots striding in to save the day. The “striding” proved a particular problem, with the fastest robot HUBO managing this by resorting to wheels in its knees when the legs weren’t necessary.
Fukushima may have brought a sea-change over futuristic Japan, but before robots will really begin to enter our everyday lives, they will need to prove their worth. In the interim, aerial drone robots designed to examine infrastructure damage after disasters may well see earlier deployment and more success.
It’s a considerable challenge.
Building a humanoid robot is expensive; if these multi-million-dollar machines can’t help in a crisis, people may begin to question the worth of investing in them in the first place (unless your aim is just to make viral videos). This could lead to a further crisis of confidence among the Japanese, who are starting to rely on humanoid robotics as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.
But if they continue to fail when put to the test, that will raise serious concerns. In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, you can see all kinds of flash robotic toys for sale in the neon-lit superstores, and dancing, acting robots like Robothespian can entertain crowds all over the world. But if we want these machines to be anything more than toys—partners, helpers, even saviors—more work needs to be done.
At the same time, those who participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015 won’t be too concerned if people were underwhelmed by the performance of their disaster relief robots. Back in 2004, nearly every participant in the DARPA Grand Challenge crashed, caught fire, or failed on the starting line. To an outside observer, the whole thing would have seemed like an unmitigated disaster, and a pointless investment. What was the task in 2004? Developing a self-driving car. A lot can change in a decade.
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