Tag Archives: work

#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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#432646 How Fukushima Changed Japanese Robotics ...

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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#432572 Robots Can Swim, Fetch, Lift, and Dance. ...

Robotics has come a long way in the past few years. Robots can now fetch items from specific spots in massive warehouses, swim through the ocean to study marine life, and lift 200 times their own weight. They can even perform synchronized dance routines.

But the really big question is—can robots put together an Ikea chair?

A team of engineers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore decided to find out, detailing their work in a paper published last week in the journal Science Robotics. The team took industrial robot arms and equipped them with parallel grippers, force-detecting sensors, and 3D cameras, and wrote software enabling the souped-up bots to tackle chair assembly. The robots’ starting point was a set of chair parts randomly scattered within reach.

As impressive as the above-mentioned robotic capabilities are, it’s worth noting that they’re mostly limited to a single skill. Putting together furniture, on the other hand, requires using and precisely coordinating multiple skills, including force control, visual localization, hand-eye coordination, and the patience to read each step of the manual without rushing through it and messing everything up.

Indeed, Ikea furniture, while meant to be simple and user-friendly, has left even the best of us scratching our heads and holding a spare oddly-shaped piece of wood as we stare at the desk or bed frame we just put together—or, for the less even-tempered among us, throwing said piece of wood across the room.

It’s a good thing robots don’t have tempers, because it took a few tries for the bots to get the chair assembly right.

Practice makes perfect, though (or in this case, rewriting code makes perfect), and these bots didn’t give up so easily. They had to hone three different skills: identifying which part was which among the scattered, differently-shaped pieces of wood, coordinating their movements to put those pieces in the right place, and knowing how much force to use in various steps of the process (i.e., more force is needed to connect two pieces than to pick up one piece).

A few tries later, the bots were able to assemble the chair from start to finish in about nine minutes.

On the whole, nicely done. But before we applaud the robots’ success too loudly, it’s important to note that they didn’t autonomously assemble the chair. Rather, each step of the process was planned and coded by engineers, down to the millimeter.

However, the team believes this closely-guided chair assembly was just a first step, and they see a not-so-distant future where combining artificial intelligence with advanced robotic capabilities could produce smart bots that would learn to assemble furniture and do other complex tasks on their own.

Future applications mentioned in the paper include electronics and aircraft manufacturing, logistics, and other high-mix, low-volume sectors.

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#432568 Tech Optimists See a Golden ...

Technology evangelists dream about a future where we’re all liberated from the more mundane aspects of our jobs by artificial intelligence. Other futurists go further, imagining AI will enable us to become superhuman, enhancing our intelligence, abandoning our mortal bodies, and uploading ourselves to the cloud.

Paradise is all very well, although your mileage may vary on whether these scenarios are realistic or desirable. The real question is, how do we get there?

Economist John Maynard Keynes notably argued in favor of active intervention when an economic crisis hits, rather than waiting for the markets to settle down to a more healthy equilibrium in the long run. His rebuttal to critics was, “In the long run, we are all dead.” After all, if it takes 50 years of upheaval and economic chaos for things to return to normality, there has been an immense amount of human suffering first.

Similar problems arise with the transition to a world where AI is intimately involved in our lives. In the long term, automation of labor might benefit the human species immensely. But in the short term, it has all kinds of potential pitfalls, especially in exacerbating inequality within societies where AI takes on a larger role. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research has deep concerns about the future of work.

Uneven Distribution
While the report doesn’t foresee the same gloom and doom of mass unemployment that other commentators have considered, the concern is that the gains in productivity and economic benefits from AI will be unevenly distributed. In the UK, jobs that account for £290 billion worth of wages in today’s economy could potentially be automated with current technology. But these are disproportionately jobs held by people who are already suffering from social inequality.

Low-wage jobs are five times more likely to be automated than high-wage jobs. A greater proportion of jobs held by women are likely to be automated. The solution that’s often suggested is that people should simply “retrain”; but if no funding or assistance is provided, this burden is too much to bear. You can’t expect people to seamlessly transition from driving taxis to writing self-driving car software without help. As we have already seen, inequality is exacerbated when jobs that don’t require advanced education (even if they require a great deal of technical skill) are the first to go.

No Room for Beginners
Optimists say algorithms won’t replace humans, but will instead liberate us from the dull parts of our jobs. Lawyers used to have to spend hours trawling through case law to find legal precedents; now AI can identify the most relevant documents for them. Doctors no longer need to look through endless scans and perform diagnostic tests; machines can do this, leaving the decision-making to humans. This boosts productivity and provides invaluable tools for workers.

But there are issues with this rosy picture. If humans need to do less work, the economic incentive is for the boss to reduce their hours. Some of these “dull, routine” parts of the job were traditionally how people getting into the field learned the ropes: paralegals used to look through case law, but AI may render them obsolete. Even in the field of journalism, there’s now software that will rewrite press releases for publication, traditionally something close to an entry-level task. If there are no entry-level jobs, or if entry-level now requires years of training, the result is to exacerbate inequality and reduce social mobility.

Automating Our Biases
The adoption of algorithms into employment has already had negative impacts on equality. Cathy O’Neil, mathematics PhD from Harvard, raises these concerns in her excellent book Weapons of Math Destruction. She notes that algorithms designed by humans often encode the biases of that society, whether they’re racial or based on gender and sexuality.

Google’s search engine advertises more executive-level jobs to users it thinks are male. AI programs predict that black offenders are more likely to re-offend than white offenders; they receive correspondingly longer sentences. It needn’t necessarily be that bias has been actively programmed; perhaps the algorithms just learn from historical data, but this means they will perpetuate historical inequalities.

Take candidate-screening software HireVue, used by many major corporations to assess new employees. It analyzes “verbal and non-verbal cues” of candidates, comparing them to employees that historically did well. Either way, according to Cathy O’Neil, they are “using people’s fear and trust of mathematics to prevent them from asking questions.” With no transparency or understanding of how the algorithm generates its results, and no consensus over who’s responsible for the results, discrimination can occur automatically, on a massive scale.

Combine this with other demographic trends. In rich countries, people are living longer. An increasing burden will be placed on a shrinking tax base to support that elderly population. A recent study said that due to the accumulation of wealth in older generations, millennials stand to inherit more than any previous generation, but it won’t happen until they’re in their 60s. Meanwhile, those with savings and capital will benefit as the economy shifts: the stock market and GDP will grow, but wages and equality will fall, a situation that favors people who are already wealthy.

Even in the most dramatic AI scenarios, inequality is exacerbated. If someone develops a general intelligence that’s near-human or super-human, and they manage to control and monopolize it, they instantly become immensely wealthy and powerful. If the glorious technological future that Silicon Valley enthusiasts dream about is only going to serve to make the growing gaps wider and strengthen existing unfair power structures, is it something worth striving for?

What Makes a Utopia?
We urgently need to redefine our notion of progress. Philosophers worry about an AI that is misaligned—the things it seeks to maximize are not the things we want maximized. At the same time, we measure the development of our countries by GDP, not the quality of life of workers or the equality of opportunity in the society. Growing wealth with increased inequality is not progress.

Some people will take the position that there are always winners and losers in society, and that any attempt to redress the inequalities of our society will stifle economic growth and leave everyone worse off. Some will see this as an argument for a new economic model, based around universal basic income. Any moves towards this will need to take care that it’s affordable, sustainable, and doesn’t lead towards an entrenched two-tier society.

Walter Schiedel’s book The Great Leveller is a huge survey of inequality across all of human history, from the 21st century to prehistoric cave-dwellers. He argues that only revolutions, wars, and other catastrophes have historically reduced inequality: a perfect example is the Black Death in Europe, which (by reducing the population and therefore the labor supply that was available) increased wages and reduced inequality. Meanwhile, our solution to the financial crisis of 2007-8 may have only made the problem worse.

But in a world of nuclear weapons, of biowarfare, of cyberwarfare—a world of unprecedented, complex, distributed threats—the consequences of these “safety valves” could be worse than ever before. Inequality increases the risk of global catastrophe, and global catastrophes could scupper any progress towards the techno-utopia that the utopians dream of. And a society with entrenched inequality is no utopia at all.

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#432563 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Pedro Domingos on the Arms Race in Artificial Intelligence
Christoph Scheuermann and Bernhard Zand | Spiegel Online
“AI lowers the cost of knowledge by orders of magnitude. One good, effective machine learning system can do the work of a million people, whether it’s for commercial purposes or for cyberespionage. Imagine a country that produces a thousand times more knowledge than another. This is the challenge we are facing.”

BIOTECHNOLOGY
Gene Therapy Could Free Some People From a Lifetime of Blood Transfusions
Emily Mullin | MIT Technology Review
“A one-time, experimental treatment for an inherited blood disorder has shown dramatic results in a small study. …[Lead author Alexis Thompson] says the effect on patients has been remarkable. ‘They have been tied to this ongoing medical therapy that is burdensome and expensive for their whole lives,’ she says. ‘Gene therapy has allowed people to have aspirations and really pursue them.’ ”

ENVIRONMENT
The Revolutionary Giant Ocean Cleanup Machine Is About to Set Sail
Adele Peters | Fast Company
“By the end of 2018, the nonprofit says it will bring back its first harvest of ocean plastic from the North Pacific Gyre, along with concrete proof that the design works. The organization expects to bring 5,000 kilograms of plastic ashore per month with its first system. With a full fleet of systems deployed, it believes that it can collect half of the plastic trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—around 40,000 metric tons—within five years.”

ROBOTICS
Autonomous Boats Will Be on the Market Sooner Than Self-Driving Cars
Tracey Lindeman | Motherboard
“Some unmanned watercraft…may be at sea commercially before 2020. That’s partly because automating all ships could generate a ridiculous amount of revenue. According to the United Nations, 90 percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea and 10.3 billion tons of products were shipped in 2016.”

DIGITAL CULTURE
Style Is an Algorithm
Kyle Chayka | Racked
“Confronting the Echo Look’s opaque statements on my fashion sense, I realize that all of these algorithmic experiences are matters of taste: the question of what we like and why we like it, and what it means that taste is increasingly dictated by black-box robots like the camera on my shelf.”

COMPUTING
How Apple Will Use AR to Reinvent the Human-Computer Interface
Tim Bajarin | Fast Company
“It’s in Apple’s DNA to continually deliver the ‘next’ major advancement to the personal computing experience. Its innovation in man-machine interfaces started with the Mac and then extended to the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and most recently, the Apple Watch. Now, get ready for the next chapter, as Apple tackles augmented reality, in a way that could fundamentally transform the human-computer interface.”

SCIENCE
Advanced Microscope Shows Cells at Work in Incredible Detail
Steve Dent | Engadget
“For the first time, scientists have peered into living cells and created videos showing how they function with unprecedented 3D detail. Using a special microscope and new lighting techniques, a team from Harvard and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute captured zebrafish immune cell interactions with unheard-of 3D detail and resolution.”

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