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Automation — both in its cyber and robotics incarnations — is not going away

Daniel Suarez gave an insightful talk at TED, some of his key points impacting the Robot Economy, or as he terms it, the automation age are extracted below:

Autonomous drones and cars aren’t really where most of the automation is occurring. They’re just the physical manifestation of a much larger trend — the tip of a technological iceberg passing beyond humanity’s bow, and one that we’re rightly uneasy about.

What we’re concerned about is an automation revolution – every bit as transformational as the industrial revolution before it. The agent of this change is narrow AI software, a tool that can be leveraged to raise individual human whim to economies of scale. Technology is, after all, merely the physical manifestation of the human will, and when it comes to AI agents, that human can be digitally magnified a billion-fold. Whether you’re a high-frequency Wall Street trader, a malware author, a medical researcher, a marketer, an astronomer, a dictator or a drone builder, narrow AI is the workhorse of the automation age. It is narrow AI software that imbues silicon with agency. And such narrow AI agents are increasingly everywhere in our society — a situation that risks tilting centuries-old human social arrangements on their head.

Innumerable and relatively invisible software agents — already manage broad swaths of human society as stand-ins for human actors. That transition has gone almost unnoticed. Software algorithms now handle our stock market trading, logistics, electrical power grid management, banking, communications, medical diagnosis, mapping analytics and much more. The human logic behind such decision-making has been codified into algorithms that greatly increase speed and efficiency.

That’s why there’s no turning back.

We are at the dawn of an Automation Age, and narrow (or weak) AI software agents are its hallmark. Narrow AI is distinctly different from the sort of human-level (or strong) AI we know from science fiction. Your narrow AI-powered GPS unit doesn’t contemplate the why of your proposed trip to Reseda. It simply creates the most efficient route to get there.

That efficiency is marvelous when it instantly delivers search results or alerts you to fraudulent use of your credit card, but not so marvelous when it makes widespread surveillance not only practical but downright cost-effective.

What will be the outcome for human society as it competes with sub-Singularity AI? That’s what the philosophers, technologists, sociologists, engineers, artists, politicians, activists, economists and many more must ponder and debate in coming years.

Automation — both in its cyber and robotics incarnations — is not going away. It is now a permanent fixture of our civilization. And even if modern industrial society were to break down, the survivors would be frantically working to get their computer networks up and running again as soon as possible. Their robots, too. Our machines are simply that useful.  No — our narrow AI friends are here to stay.

Those societies that attempt to resist progress, rejecting narrow AI automation, will be at a competitive disadvantage against those who successfully use it. On the other hand, those societies that implement automation without careful consideration of the consequences will be building an ecosystem for technological domination by the very few — because the same dynamic by which AI’s increase productivity through centralized control can be used to undermine the checks and balances of democratic social systems.

But that is the charge of our times: To compete in the future we must learn to ingest increasing levels of software automation into the corpus of democratic life without fundamentally distorting the body politic. Previous generations had their challenges, and this appears to be ours.

And while we humans might not process facts with the swift precision of an optimized algorithm, one thing at which we excel is adaptation. And the sooner we understand the challenge presented to us by the automation age, the sooner we can start adapting to it.

One TED talk by Daniel on Drones can be seen here.


Meet the robots for humanity

In 2003, Henry Evans became quadriplegic and mute after a stroke-like attack. Now, working with Robots for Humanity, he’s a pioneer in adaptive robotic tech to help him, and other disabled people like him, navigate the world.

At age 40, Henry Evans was left mute and quadriplegic after a stroke-like attack caused by a hidden birth defect. Years of therapy helped him learn to move his head and use a finger — which allows him to use a head-tracking device to communicate with a computer using experimental interfaces.

Now, Evans is a frequent and enthusiastic collaborator with robotics teams who are developing tools to help the severely disabled navigate their lives. He collaborates with Georgia Tech professor Charlie Kemp on using the Willow Garage PR2 robot as a surrogate, as well as Chad Jenkins’ RLAB at Brown on quadrotors for expanding range of motion.

As the Willow Garage blog post says: “Every day, people take for granted the simple act of scratching an itch. In Henry’s case, 2-3 times every hour of every day he gets an itch he can’t scratch. With the aid of a PR2, Henry was able to scratch an itch for himself for the first time in 10 years.”

In their talk at TEDxMidAtlantic watch the very touching video on how Chad Jenkins and Henry Evans collaborated to help the latter navigate life after a stem-brain stroke by means of a robot he can operate solely through thought:

Researching and developing cognitive robot systems for SME manufacturing companies in Europe

EU robotics week kicked off yesterday with an aim to draw attention to the various robotics research activities taking shape across Europe. During the course of the coming week the growing importance and influence of robotics systems in a variety of industrial sectors will take centre stage in a series of EU-wide events.

The so-called digital revolution has changed our mind-sets as consumers, thus spurring businesses to switch their approach in order to keep up with our rapidly changing needs and demands. However, and to the detriment of economic growth, the digital shift has not been able to seduce a similarly potent workforce.

In recent weeks a video of a girl – Louise – who appeared to programme a robot to splash her boyfriend with a soft drink cut a viral trail through Internet networks. The EU-financed SMEROBOTICS consortium has now revealed it was behind the widely viewed spoof clip. But their continued efforts to spark an interest among young students in robot technology – particularly its application in industrial manufacturing – aim to communicate the opportunities offered by a sector with burgeoning potential.  (more…)

The overall penetration of robotics is small, and the upside is enormous.

Rich Mahoney is the director of robotics engineering at SRI. He has more than 20 years of experience in the development and research of robotics. Here are some of his thoughts courtesy of an interview he recently gave:

In the whole 25-year-period there have been a couple of false starts, where the media would say that this is the decade of robotics. At the end of the day, that fizzled. I think we are in a similar situation now, where robotics is ramping up. There is definitely a surge in the development of robotics technologies beyond traditional manufacturing applications. Specifically, these are robots that are working in applications that are more interactive with people – instead of having a robot in a cage, you have one that is designed to work collaboratively with a person for lots of different kinds of applications. The trend is pushing towards that at the moment. I often talk about robotics not as a separate technology anymore, but as part of a technology continuum that includes consumer electronics, personal computing, etc. It is really the technology that allows you to extend and interact with the physical world. It is an interaction between the physical and the information worlds.

Because of that, robotics is benefiting from 30 or 40 years of personal computing that we have just gone through, and all of the infrastructure in terms of software, structuring capability, networking, data storage, and now emerging sensors for mobile computing. Those all are robotics technologies, and they are now available and are relatively inexpensive. As part of this trend, you are seeing more technologies for service applications, but the mobility and manipulation technologies are now starting to emerge. They are also more in a price range that looks like personal computing.

On the market opportunity for robots: (more…)

Teaching STEM subjects using robotics

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs will grow in leaps and bounds over the next several years. According to a report by myCollegeOptions and STEMconnector, the estimated STEM workforce in the United States alone will grow to 8.65 million workers by 2018 (up from 7.4 million in 2012). Also interesting: “By 2018, the bulk of STEM jobs will be in computing (71%) followed by traditional engineering (16%), physical sciences (7%), life sciences (4%), and mathematics (2%).”

Dmitry Grishin the CEO of Russia’s biggest Internet company and founder of venture capital firm, Grishin Robotics, recently stated:

“I really believe that the only thing children need to learn in the 21st century is robotics. It covers mathematics, physics, mechanics, programming. These are the only things people need. Really.

Of course, I’m joking a little. But you know, I think it’s interesting because robotics combines [important subjects]. What’s more important is it makes education fun. “

One of Grishin Robotics investments is in RobotsLab who have produced an innovative and engaging STEM teaching aid using robots:

Another company entering the field is Play-i – “Our core focus isn’t for them (children) to become programmers. It teaches them a new way of thinking.”

Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them?

Are advances in technology (automation and robotics) hurting jobs?

Jeremy Rifkin in his 1995 book, The End of Work, laments that “[technological change] is now leading to unprecedented levels of technological unemployment.”

In fact a broad chorus of more mainstream voices claiming that technological change (referred to interchangeably with “innovation,” “automation,” and “increasing productivity”) is leading to fewer jobs. Many economists, journalists, and policymakers now routinely claim that technology, instead of being a key driver of increased standards of living, is to blame for the inability to climb out of the economic doldrums. In the last few years there has been an outpouring of books, articles, op-eds, and blogs warning that it is technology that is behind today’s high unemployment rates and that the destructive effect of technology on jobs will only increase going forward.

I’ve covered many of them so far on this blog and believe the real solution is for individuals, governments and organizations to retrain to augment and work better alongside machines and software that increases productivity.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation recently published a report outlining some of the headlines stating robots are taking our jobs, the report goes on to explain why many of these headlines are wrong and new productivity tools are not taking jobs – a summary of those headlines follows… If a wake up call is needed these articles and books should be taken as a nudge to get fully acquainted with the robotic economy: (more…)

Sebastian Thrun: Google’s driverless car

During TED2011, Sebastian Thrun from Google shared his goals for the self-driving car. His motivation? “Most automotive deaths are due to human error, not machine error. A driverless car can save lives.” The car uses AI technology that enables the car to detect objects nearby and in its path, as well as control its speed, direction, and destination.

Apple Inc. is putting a record $10.5 billion to work in new technology including assembly robots

Apple Inc. is putting a record $10.5 billion to work in new technology — from assembly robots to milling machines.

The spending, which Apple outlined in its fiscal 2014 capital-expenditure forecast, underscores how the world’s most valuable company is diving deeper into designing and inventing technology for its manufacturing process.

The spending is also playing a role in Apple’s push to add more production in the U.S. after years of doing most of the work in Asia, a practice that has led to worker abuses. The machines for GT Advanced will be used at a new plant in Arizona. And Apple’s new Mac Pro, which will go on sale next month, will also be assembled in the U.S. with robotics technology used in automobile manufacturing. More from Bloomberg…

Here’s a video look at the Mac Pro manufacturing process…


The real goal – Coupling human and computer intelligence so that they complement each other.

It’s likely that machines will be smarter than us before the end of the century—not just at chess or trivia questions but at just about everything, from mathematics and engineering to science and medicine. There might be a few jobs left for entertainers, writers, and other creative types, but computers will eventually be able to program themselves, absorb vast quantities of new information, and reason in ways that we carbon-based units can only dimly imagine. And they will be able to do it every second of every day, without sleep or coffee breaks. More...

Many companies struggle to gain transformational effects from new digital technologies

Companies routinely invest in technology, and too often feel they get routine results. Technology’s promise is not simply to automate processes, but to open routes to new ways of doing business.

To better understand how businesses succeed or fail in using digital technology to improve business performance, MIT Sloan Management Review and Capgemini Consulting conducted a survey in 2013 that garnered responses from 1,559 executives and managers in a wide range of industries. Their responses clearly show that managers believe in the ability of technology to bring transformative change to business. But they also feel frustrated with how hard it is to get great results from new technology.

The report (as well as the survey) focuses on digital transformation, which the authors define as the use of new digital technologies (social media, mobile, analytics or embedded devices) to enable major business improvements (such as enhancing customer experience, streamlining operations or creating new business models).

The key findings from the survey are:

  • According to 78% of respondents, achieving digital transformation will become critical to their organizations within the next two years.
  • However, 63% said the pace of technology change in their organization is too slow.
  • The most frequently cited obstacle to digital transformation was “lack of urgency.”
  • Only 38% of respondents said that digital transformation was a permanent fixture on their CEO’s agenda. Where CEOs have shared their vision for digital transformation, 93% of employees feel that it is the right thing for the organization. But, a mere 36% of CEOs have shared such a vision.