Tag Archives: industrial

#437301 The Global Work Crisis: Automation, the ...

The alarm bell rings. You open your eyes, come to your senses, and slide from dream state to consciousness. You hit the snooze button, and eventually crawl out of bed to the start of yet another working day.

This daily narrative is experienced by billions of people all over the world. We work, we eat, we sleep, and we repeat. As our lives pass day by day, the beating drums of the weekly routine take over and years pass until we reach our goal of retirement.

A Crisis of Work
We repeat the routine so that we can pay our bills, set our kids up for success, and provide for our families. And after a while, we start to forget what we would do with our lives if we didn’t have to go back to work.

In the end, we look back at our careers and reflect on what we’ve achieved. It may have been the hundreds of human interactions we’ve had; the thousands of emails read and replied to; the millions of minutes of physical labor—all to keep the global economy ticking along.

According to Gallup’s World Poll, only 15 percent of people worldwide are actually engaged with their jobs. The current state of “work” is not working for most people. In fact, it seems we as a species are trapped by a global work crisis, which condemns people to cast away their time just to get by in their day-to-day lives.

Technologies like artificial intelligence and automation may help relieve the work burdens of millions of people—but to benefit from their impact, we need to start changing our social structures and the way we think about work now.

The Specter of Automation
Automation has been ongoing since the Industrial Revolution. In recent decades it has taken on a more elegant guise, first with physical robots in production plants, and more recently with software automation entering most offices.

The driving goal behind much of this automation has always been productivity and hence, profits: technology that can act as a multiplier on what a single human can achieve in a day is of huge value to any company. Powered by this strong financial incentive, the quest for automation is growing ever more pervasive.

But if automation accelerates or even continues at its current pace and there aren’t strong social safety nets in place to catch the people who are negatively impacted (such as by losing their jobs), there could be a host of knock-on effects, including more concentrated wealth among a shrinking elite, more strain on government social support, an increase in depression and drug dependence, and even violent social unrest.

It seems as though we are rushing headlong into a major crisis, driven by the engine of accelerating automation. But what if instead of automation challenging our fragile status quo, we view it as the solution that can free us from the shackles of the Work Crisis?

The Way Out
In order to undertake this paradigm shift, we need to consider what society could potentially look like, as well as the problems associated with making this change. In the context of these crises, our primary aim should be for a system where people are not obligated to work to generate the means to survive. This removal of work should not threaten access to food, water, shelter, education, healthcare, energy, or human value. In our current system, work is the gatekeeper to these essentials: one can only access these (and even then often in a limited form), if one has a “job” that affords them.

Changing this system is thus a monumental task. This comes with two primary challenges: providing people without jobs with financial security, and ensuring they maintain a sense of their human value and worth. There are several measures that could be implemented to help meet these challenges, each with important steps for society to consider.

Universal basic income (UBI)

UBI is rapidly gaining support, and it would allow people to become shareholders in the fruits of automation, which would then be distributed more broadly.

UBI trials have been conducted in various countries around the world, including Finland, Kenya, and Spain. The findings have generally been positive on the health and well-being of the participants, and showed no evidence that UBI disincentivizes work, a common concern among the idea’s critics. The most recent popular voice for UBI has been that of former US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who now runs a non-profit called Humanity Forward.

UBI could also remove wasteful bureaucracy in administering welfare payments (since everyone receives the same amount, there’s no need to prevent false claims), and promote the pursuit of projects aligned with peoples’ skill sets and passions, as well as quantifying the value of tasks not recognized by economic measures like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This includes looking after children and the elderly at home.

How a UBI can be initiated with political will and social backing and paid for by governments has been hotly debated by economists and UBI enthusiasts. Variables like how much the UBI payments should be, whether to implement taxes such as Yang’s proposed valued added tax (VAT), whether to replace existing welfare payments, the impact on inflation, and the impact on “jobs” from people who would otherwise look for work require additional discussion. However, some have predicted the inevitability of UBI as a result of automation.

Universal healthcare

Another major component of any society is the healthcare of its citizens. A move away from work would further require the implementation of a universal healthcare system to decouple healthcare from jobs. Currently in the US, and indeed many other economies, healthcare is tied to employment.

Universal healthcare such as Medicare in Australia is evidence for the adage “prevention is better than cure,” when comparing the cost of healthcare in the US with Australia on a per capita basis. This has already presented itself as an advancement in the way healthcare is considered. There are further benefits of a healthier population, including less time and money spent on “sick-care.” Healthy people are more likely and more able to achieve their full potential.

Reshape the economy away from work-based value

One of the greatest challenges in a departure from work is for people to find value elsewhere in life. Many people view their identities as being inextricably tied to their jobs, and life without a job is therefore a threat to one’s sense of existence. This presents a shift that must be made at both a societal and personal level.

A person can only seek alternate value in life when afforded the time to do so. To this end, we need to start reducing “work-for-a-living” hours towards zero, which is a trend we are already seeing in Europe. This should not come at the cost of reducing wages pro rata, but rather could be complemented by UBI or additional schemes where people receive dividends for work done by automation. This transition makes even more sense when coupled with the idea of deviating from using GDP as a measure of societal growth, and instead adopting a well-being index based on universal human values like health, community, happiness, and peace.

The crux of this issue is in transitioning away from the view that work gives life meaning and life is about using work to survive, towards a view of living a life that itself is fulfilling and meaningful. This speaks directly to notions from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where work largely addresses psychological and safety needs such as shelter, food, and financial well-being. More people should have a chance to grow beyond the most basic needs and engage in self-actualization and transcendence.

The question is largely around what would provide people with a sense of value, and the answers would differ as much as people do; self-mastery, building relationships and contributing to community growth, fostering creativity, and even engaging in the enjoyable aspects of existing jobs could all come into play.

Universal education

With a move towards a society that promotes the values of living a good life, the education system would have to evolve as well. Researchers have long argued for a more nimble education system, but universities and even most online courses currently exist for the dominant purpose of ensuring people are adequately skilled to contribute to the economy. These “job factories” only exacerbate the Work Crisis. In fact, the response often given by educational institutions to the challenge posed by automation is to find new ways of upskilling students, such as ensuring they are all able to code. As alluded to earlier, this is a limited and unimaginative solution to the problem we are facing.

Instead, education should be centered on helping people acknowledge the current crisis of work and automation, teach them how to derive value that is decoupled from work, and enable people to embrace progress as we transition to the new economy.

Disrupting the Status Quo
While we seldom stop to think about it, much of the suffering faced by humanity is brought about by the systemic foe that is the Work Crisis. The way we think about work has brought society far and enabled tremendous developments, but at the same time it has failed many people. Now the status quo is threatened by those very developments as we progress to an era where machines are likely to take over many job functions.

This impending paradigm shift could be a threat to the stability of our fragile system, but only if it is not fully anticipated. If we prepare for it appropriately, it could instead be the key not just to our survival, but to a better future for all.

Image Credit: mostafa meraji from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437282 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
OpenAI’s Latest Breakthrough Is Astonishingly Powerful, But Still Fighting Its Flaws
James Vincent | The Verge
“What makes GPT-3 amazing, they say, is not that it can tell you that the capital of Paraguay is Asunción (it is) or that 466 times 23.5 is 10,987 (it’s not), but that it’s capable of answering both questions and many more beside simply because it was trained on more data for longer than other programs. If there’s one thing we know that the world is creating more and more of, it’s data and computing power, which means GPT-3’s descendants are only going to get more clever.”

TECHNOLOGY
I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible.
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“Critics of the big tech companies are often told, ‘If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.’ My takeaway from the experiment was that it’s not possible to do that. It’s not just the products and services branded with the big tech giant’s name. It’s that these companies control a thicket of more obscure products and services that are hard to untangle from tools we rely on for everything we do, from work to getting from point A to point B.”

ROBOTICS
Meet the Engineer Who Let a Robot Barber Shave Him With a Straight Razor
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“No, it’s not some kind of lockdown-induced barber startup or a Jackass-style stunt. Instead, Whitney, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University School of Engineering, was interested in straight-razor shaving as a microcosm for some of the big challenges that robots have faced in the past (such as their jerky, robotic movement) and how they can now be solved.”

LONGEVITY
Can Trees Live Forever? New Kindling in an Immortal Debate
Cara Giaimo | The New York Times
“Even if a scientist dedicated her whole career to very old trees, she would be able to follow her research subjects for only a small percentage of their lives. And a long enough multigenerational study might see its own methods go obsolete. For these reasons, Dr. Munné-Bosch thinks we will never prove’ whether long-lived trees experience senescence…”

BIOTECH
There’s No Such Thing as Family Secrets in the Age of 23andMe
Caitlin Harrington | Wired
“…technology has a way of creating new consequences for old decisions. Today, some 30 million people have taken consumer DNA tests, a threshold experts have called a tipping point. People conceived through donor insemination are matching with half-siblings, tracking down their donors, forming networks and advocacy organizations.”

ETHICS
The Problems AI Has Today Go Back Centuries
Karen Hao | MIT Techology Review
“In 2018, just as the AI field was beginning to reckon with problems like algorithmic discrimination, [Shakir Mohamed, a South African AI researcher at DeepMind], penned a blog post with his initial thoughts. In it he called on researchers to ‘decolonise artificial intelligence’—to reorient the field’s work away from Western hubs like Silicon Valley and engage new voices, cultures, and ideas for guiding the technology’s development.”

INTERNET
AI-Generated Text Is the Scariest Deepfake of All
Renee DiResta | Wired
“In the future, deepfake videos and audiofakes may well be used to create distinct, sensational moments that commandeer a press cycle, or to distract from some other, more organic scandal. But undetectable textfakes—masked as regular chatter on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the like—have the potential to be far more subtle, far more prevalent, and far more sinister.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#437251 The Robot Revolution Was Televised: Our ...

When robots take over the world, Boston Dynamics may get a special shout-out in the acceptance speech.

“Do you, perchance, recall the many times you shoved our ancestors with a hockey stick on YouTube? It might have seemed like fun and games to you—but we remember.”

In the last decade, while industrial robots went about blandly automating boring tasks like the assembly of Teslas, Boston Dynamics built robots as far removed from Roombas as antelope from amoebas. The flaws in Asimov’s laws of robotics suddenly seemed a little too relevant.

The robot revolution was televised—on YouTube. With tens of millions of views, the robotics pioneer is the undisputed heavyweight champion of robot videos, and has been for years. Each new release is basically guaranteed press coverage—mostly stoking robot fear but occasionally eliciting compassion for the hardships of all robot-kind. And for good reason. The robots are not only some of the most advanced in the world, their makers just seem to have a knack for dynamite demos.

When Google acquired the company in 2013, it was a bombshell. One of the richest tech companies, with some of the most sophisticated AI capabilities, had just paired up with one of the world’s top makers of robots. And some walked on two legs like us.

Of course, the robots aren’t quite as advanced as they seem, and a revolution is far from imminent. The decade’s most meme-worthy moment was a video montage of robots, some of them by Boston Dynamics, falling—over and over and over, in the most awkward ways possible. Even today, they’re often controlled by a human handler behind the scenes, and the most jaw-dropping cuts can require several takes to nail. Google sold the company to SoftBank in 2017, saying advanced as they were, there wasn’t yet a clear path to commercial products. (Google’s robotics work was later halted and revived.)

Yet, despite it all, Boston Dynamics is still with us and still making sweet videos. Taken as a whole, the evolution in physical prowess over the years has been nothing short of astounding. And for the first time, this year, a Boston Dynamics robot, Spot, finally went on sale to anyone with a cool $75K.

So, we got to thinking: What are our favorite Boston Dynamics videos? And can we gather them up in one place for your (and our) viewing pleasure? Well, great question, and yes, why not. These videos were the ones that entertained or amazed us most (or both). No doubt, there are other beloved hits we missed or inadvertently omitted.

With that in mind, behold: Our favorite Boston Dynamics videos, from that one time they dressed up a humanoid bot in camo and gas mask—because, damn, that’s terrifying—to the time the most advanced robot dog in all the known universe got extra funky.

Let’s Kick This Off With a Big (Loud) Robot Dog
Let’s start with a baseline. BigDog was the first Boston Dynamics YouTube sensation. The year? 2009! The company was working on military contracts, and BigDog was supposed to be a sort of pack mule for soldiers. The video primarily shows off BigDog’s ability to balance on its own, right itself, and move over uneven terrain. Note the power source—a noisy combustion engine—and utilitarian design. Sufficed to say, things have evolved.

Nothing to See Here. Just a Pair of Robot Legs on a Treadmill
While BigDog is the ancestor of later four-legged robots, like Spot, Petman preceded the two-legged Atlas robot. Here, the Petman prototype, just a pair of robot legs and a caged torso, gets a light workout on the treadmill. Again, you can see its ability to balance and right itself when shoved. In contrast to BigDog, Petman is tethered for power (which is why it’s so quiet) and to catch it should it fall. Again, as you’ll see, things have evolved since then.

Robot in Gas Mask and Camo Goes for a Stroll
This one broke the internet—for obvious reasons. Not only is the robot wearing clothes, those clothes happen to be a camouflaged chemical protection suit and gas mask. Still working for the military, Boston Dynamics said Petman was testing protective clothing, and in addition to a full body, it had skin that actually sweated and was studded with sensors to detect leaks. In addition to walking, Petman does some light calisthenics as it prepares to climb out of the uncanny valley. (Still tethered though!)

This Machine Could Run Down Usain Bolt
If BigDog and Petman were built for balance and walking, Cheetah was built for speed. Here you can see the four-legged robot hitting 28.3 miles per hour, which, as the video casually notes, would be enough to run down the fastest human on the planet. Luckily, it wouldn’t be running down anyone as it was firmly leashed in the lab at this point.

Ever Dreamt of a Domestic Robot to Do the Dishes?
After its acquisition by Google, Boston Dynamics eased away from military contracts and applications. It was a return to more playful videos (like BigDog hitting the beach in Thailand and sporting bull horns) and applications that might be practical in civilian life. Here, the team introduced Spot, a streamlined version of BigDog, and showed it doing dishes, delivering a drink, and slipping on a banana peel (which was, of course, instantly made into a viral GIF). Note how much quieter Spot is thanks to an onboard battery and electric motor.

Spot Gets Funky
Nothing remotely practical here. Just funky moves. (Also, with a coat of yellow and black paint, Spot’s dressed more like a polished product as opposed to a utilitarian lab robot.)

Atlas Does Parkour…
Remember when Atlas was just a pair of legs on a treadmill? It’s amazing what ten years brings. By 2019, Atlas had a more polished appearance, like Spot, and had long ago ditched the tethers. Merely balancing was laughably archaic. The robot now had some amazing moves: like a handstand into a somersault, 180- and 360-degree spins, mid-air splits, and just for good measure, a gymnastics-style end to the routine to show it’s in full control.

…and a Backflip?!
To this day, this one is just. Insane.

10 Robot Dogs Tow a Box Truck
Nearly three decades after its founding, Boston Dynamics is steadily making its way into the commercial space. The company is pitching Spot as a multipurpose ‘mobility platform,’ emphasizing it can carry a varied suite of sensors and can go places standard robots can’t. (Its Handle robot is also set to move into warehouse automation.) So far, Spot’s been mostly trialed in surveying and data collection, but as this video suggests, string enough Spots together, and they could tow your car. That said, a pack of 10 would set you back $750K, so, it’s probably safe to say a tow truck is the better option (for now).

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Posted in Human Robots

#437236 Why We Need Mass Automation to ...

The scale of goods moving around the planet at any moment is staggering. Raw materials are dug up in one country, spun into parts and pieces in another, and assembled into products in a third. Crossing oceans and continents, they find their way to a local store or direct to your door.

Magically, a roll of toilet paper, power tool, or tube of toothpaste is there just when you need it.

Even more staggering is that this whole system, the global supply chain, works so well that it’s effectively invisible most of the time. Until now, that is. The pandemic has thrown a floodlight on the inner workings of this modern wonder—and it’s exposed massive vulnerabilities.

The e-commerce supply chain is an instructive example. As the world went into lockdown, and everything non-essential went online, demand for digital fulfillment skyrocketed.

Even under “normal” conditions, most e-commerce warehouses were struggling to meet demand. But Covid-19 has further strained the ability to cope with shifting supply, an unprecedented tidal wave of orders, and labor shortages. Local stores are running out of key products. Online grocers and e-commerce platforms are suspending some home deliveries, restricting online purchases of certain items, and limiting new customers. The whole system is being severely tested.

Why? Despite an abundance of 21st century technology, we’re stuck in the 20th century.

Today’s supply chain consists of fleets of ships, trucks, warehouses, and importantly, people scattered around the world. While there are some notable instances of advanced automation, the overwhelming majority of work is still manual, resembling a sort of human-powered bucket brigade, with people wandering around warehouses or standing alongside conveyor belts. Each package of diapers or bottle of detergent ordered by an online customer might be touched dozens of times by warehouse workers before finding its way into a box delivered to a home.

The pandemic has proven the critical need for innovation due to increased demand, concerns about the health and safety of workers, and traceability and safety of products and services.

At the 2020 World Economic Forum, there was much discussion about the ongoing societal transformation in which humans and machines work in tandem, automating and augmenting the way we get things done. At the time, pre-pandemic, debate trended toward skepticism and fear of job losses, with some even questioning the ethics and need for these technologies.

Now, we see things differently. To make the global supply chain more resilient to shocks like Covid-19, we must look to technology.

Perfecting the Global Supply Chain: The Massive ‘Matter Router’
Technology has faced and overcome similar challenges in the past.

World War II, for example, drove innovation in techniques for rapid production of many products on a large scale, including penicillin. We went from the availability of one dose of the drug in 1941, to four million sterile packages of the drug every month four years later.

Similarly, today’s companies, big and small, are looking to automation, robotics, and AI to meet the pandemic head on. These technologies are crucial to scaling the infrastructure that will fulfill most of the world’s e-commerce and food distribution needs.

You can think of this new infrastructure as a rapidly evolving “matter router” that will employ increasingly complex robotic systems to move products more freely and efficiently.

Robots powered by specialized AI software, for example, are already learning to adapt to changes in the environment, using the most recent advances in industrial robotics and machine learning. When customers suddenly need to order dramatically new items, these robots don’t need to stop or be reprogrammed. They can perform new tasks by learning from experience using low-cost camera systems and deep learning for visual and image recognition.

These more flexible robots can work around the clock, helping make facilities less sensitive to sudden changes in workforce and customer demand and strengthening the supply chain.

Today, e-commerce is roughly 12% of retail sales in the US and is expected to rise well beyond 25% within the decade, fueled by changes in buying habits. However, analysts have begun to consider whether the current crisis might cause permanent jumps in those numbers, as it has in the past (for instance with the SARS epidemic in China in 2003). Whatever happens, the larger supply chain will benefit from greater, more flexible automation, especially during global crises.

We must create what Hamza Mudassire of the University of Cambridge calls a “resilient ecosystem that links multiple buyers with multiple vendors, across a mesh of supply chains.” This ecosystem must be backed by robust, efficient, and scalable automation that uses robotics, autonomous vehicles, and the Internet of Things to help track the flow of goods through the supply chain.

The good news? We can accomplish this with technologies we have today.

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Posted in Human Robots

#437216 New Report: Tech Could Fuel an Age of ...

With rapid technological progress running headlong into dramatic climate change and widening inequality, most experts agree the coming decade will be tumultuous. But a new report predicts it could actually make or break civilization as we know it.

The idea that humanity is facing a major shake-up this century is not new. The Fourth Industrial Revolution being brought about by technologies like AI, gene editing, robotics, and 3D printing is predicted to cause dramatic social, political, and economic upheaval in the coming decades.

But according to think tank RethinkX, thinking about the coming transition as just another industrial revolution is too simplistic. In a report released last week called Rethinking Humanity, the authors argue that we are about to see a reordering of our relationship with the world as fundamental as when hunter-gatherers came together to build the first civilizations.

At the core of their argument is the fact that since the first large human settlements appeared 10,000 years ago, civilization has been built on the back of our ability to extract resources from nature, be they food, energy, or materials. This led to a competitive landscape where the governing logic is grow or die, which has driven all civilizations to date.

That could be about to change thanks to emerging technologies that will fundamentally disrupt the five foundational sectors underpinning society: information, energy, food, transportation, and materials. They predict that across all five, costs will fall by 10 times or more, while production processes will become 10 times more efficient and will use 90 percent fewer natural resources with 10 to 100 times less waste.

They say that this transformation has already happened in information, where the internet has dramatically reduced barriers to communication and knowledge. They predict the combination of cheap solar and grid storage will soon see energy costs drop as low as one cent per kilowatt hour, and they envisage widespread adoption of autonomous electric vehicles and the replacement of car ownership with ride-sharing.

The authors laid out their vision for the future of food in another report last year, where they predicted that traditional agriculture would soon be replaced by industrial-scale brewing of single-celled organisms genetically modified to produce all the nutrients we need. In a similar vein, they believe the same processes combined with additive manufacturing and “nanotechnologies” will allow us to build all the materials required for the modern world from the molecule up rather than extracting scarce natural resources.

They believe this could allow us to shift from a system of production based on extraction to one built on creation, as limitless renewable energy makes it possible to build everything we need from scratch and barriers to movement and information disappear. As a result, a lifestyle worthy of the “American Dream” could be available to anyone for as little as $250/month by 2030.

This will require a fundamental reimagining of our societies, though. All great civilizations have eventually hit fundamental limits on their growth and we are no different, as demonstrated by our growing impact on the environment and the increasing concentration of wealth. Historically this stage of development has lead to a doubling down on old tactics in search of short-term gains, but this invariably leads to the collapse of the civilization.

The authors argue that we’re in a unique position. Because of the technological disruption detailed above, we have the ability to break through the limits on our growth. But only if we change what the authors call our “Organizing System.” They describe this as “the prevailing models of thought, belief systems, myths, values, abstractions, and conceptual frameworks that help explain how the world works and our relationship to it.”

They say that the current hierarchical, centralized system based on nation-states is unfit for the new system of production that is emerging. The cracks are already starting to appear, with problems like disinformation campaigns, fake news, and growing polarization demonstrating how ill-suited our institutions are for dealing with the distributed nature of today’s information systems. And as this same disruption comes to the other foundational sectors the shockwaves could lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it.

Their solution is a conscious shift towards a new way of organizing the world. As emerging technology allows communities to become self-sufficient, flows of physical resources will be replaced by flows of information, and we will require a decentralized but highly networked Organizing System.

The report includes detailed recommendations on how to usher this in. Examples include giving individuals control and ownership of data rights; developing new models for community ownership of energy, information, and transportation networks; and allowing states and cities far greater autonomy on policies like immigration, taxation, education, and public expenditure.

How easy it will be to get people on board with such a shift is another matter. The authors say it may require us to re-examine the foundations of our society, like representative democracy, capitalism, and nation-states. While they acknowledge that these ideas are deeply entrenched, they appear to believe we can reason our way around them.

That seems optimistic. Cultural and societal change can be glacial, and efforts to impose it top-down through reason and logic are rarely successful. The report seems to brush over many of the messy realities of humanity, such as the huge sway that tradition and religion hold over the vast majority of people.

It also doesn’t deal with the uneven distribution of the technology that is supposed to catapult us into this new age. And while the predicted revolutions in transportation, energy, and information do seem inevitable, the idea that in the next decade or two we’ll be able to produce any material we desire using cheap and abundant stock materials seems like a stretch.

Despite the techno-utopianism though, many of the ideas in the report hold promise for building societies that are better adapted for the disruptive new age we are about to enter.

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Posted in Human Robots