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Monthly Archives: August 2015

5 Weekend reads: AI, Robot babies and the Future of Selves

Robotenomics lab

Robot Babies

A machine might acquire skills as a human child does by starting with a few basic tasks and gradually constructing a more sophisticated competence—”bootstrapping,” in scientific parlance. In contrast to preprogramming a robot to perform a fixed set of actions, endowing a robot computer with the capacity to acquire skills gradually in response to the environment might produce smarter, more human robots. (Smithsonianmag)

Helping the blind (and robots) see using Artificial Intelligence 

“If you’re a blind person and need to navigate an airport, Aipoly can instruct you on exactly where to walk. Not only that, this has huge implications for robotics. A robot will be able to use the same algorithm to recognize where it is and navigate autonomously.” (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Plus see the video on YouTube)

Robotics and AI will change the way we work, but it won’t necessarily take away our work.

“Andrew Moore, the dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who previously worked in AI and robotics at Google, agrees. He says that he has seen no evidence that this technology is stealing jobs—and that, as time goes on, it will likely create an enormous number of jobs.” (Wired quoting Forrester research)

The US Air Force Wants You to Trust Robots–Should You?

A recently posted government contract pre-solicitation titled Trust in Autonomy for Human Machine Teaming gives a glimpse of what that future might look like.

“The Air Force has proposed human-machine teaming as a primary research thrust,” the posting reads. “Yet to achieve this ambitious vision we need research on how to harness the socio-emotional elements of interpersonal team/trust dynamics and inject them into human-robot teams.” The Air Force, which says this research is needed to develop “shared awareness and shared intent between the humans and machine,” estimates the contract will be for $7.5 million. (H/T Scientific American)

AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves

Dr. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics and author of “Virtually Human: The Promise – and Peril – of Digital Immortality, as she speaks with New York magazine’s Lisa Miller about the ideas behind a career and a life of radical innovation in xenotransplantation, artificial intelligence, transgenderism, pharmaceutical development, space exploration, robotics – and the ways in which technology can help extend human life, and love, perhaps indefinitely. (YouTube – Also below)

Teaching robotics, how economists can learn from Machine Learning & other reads

RoubiniWhat Economists Can Learn from Machine Learning

Susan Athey of Stanford University and the NBER discusses the benefits to economics of using machine learning methodology “Machine Learning inspires us to be both systematic and pragmatic.” (The National Bureau of Economic Research)

The gains from technology must be channelled to a broader base of the population

In the years ahead, technological improvements in robotics and automation will boost productivity and efficiency, implying significant economic gains for companies. But, unless the proper policies to nurture job growth are put in place, it remains uncertain whether demand for labour will continue to grow as technology marches forward. (Nouriel Roubini on Economia)

Robot farmer

Agbotic is making an automatized mini-farm run by a robot. The 15,000-square-foot greenhouse’s robot isn’t modeled after a human in anyway.

Startup Agbotic has already designed automated lawn tractors and other projects. The company says the $350,000 robot greenhouses can let farmers easily grow organic vegetables. (Watertown Daily Times)

How to teach … robotics

Ahead of the new school teaching term The Guardian provides a snazzy ‘lesson’ on teaching robotics aimed at inspiring future engineers and computer scientists. (The Guardian)

Economic historian Nathan Rosenberg passed away

I was sad to learn about the passing of my former Professor, Nathan Rosenberg. Professor Rosenberg was one of the wisest economic historians on technological change and the impact of innovation. In addition to his widely read books and papers on economic history he also pioneered the research on uncertainty in innovation and technological change. His work focused on how technological innovation has shaped and been shaped by science, industry, and economics in the twentieth century. (RIP Professor Rosenberg)

Robots flying planes? Boeing projects a demand for nearly 1.2 million new pilots and technicians

Commercial planes are on autopilot from almost gate to gate is: “up there among the most insulting and misleading characterization of how commercial airplanes are flown.” According to Patrick Smith who is an active airline pilot and author of the New York bestselling book Cockpit Confidential.

Smith also seeks to discredit headlines and comments such as Toronto’s The Globe and Mail which leads with: “Aviation is Fast Approaching the Post-Pilot Era.” An article which quotes David Learmount, a “veteran aviation expert,” who predicts that “pilots won’t be in cockpits in 15 years but in an airline’s operations room, rather like the U.S. Air Force pilots flying Global Hawks [military drones].” “What utter and shameless rubbish;” says Smith.

Debunking the oft-cited claim of planes that fly themselves he writes in the New York Times: “the notion of the automatic airplane that “flies itself” is perhaps the most stubborn myth in all of aviation.”

Seeking to clarify the use of autopilot technology, the role of the pilots and the challenges of pilotless commercial airlines on his personal blog (AskThePilot.com) Smith notes that:

Cockpit automation is merely a tool, and it needs to be told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and where. And though a pilot’s hands aren’t gripping the steering column for hours at a time, as it might have in the 1930s, they are manipulating, operating, and commanding the various systems and subsystems that carry you to your destination.

To back up some of Smith’s sentiment Boeing recently released it’s annual forecast: Pilot and Technician Outlook which looks at the long-term forecast of the demand for pilots and technicians and provides Boeing’s estimate of personnel needed to fly and maintain the tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners expected to be produced over the next 20 years. The factors in changing market forces affecting the industry.

The outlook states:

As global economies expand and airlines take delivery of tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners over the next 20 years, there will be unprecedented demand for people to pilot and maintain these airplanes. To meet this tremendous growth, the 2015 Boeing Pilot and Technical Outlook forecasts that between now and 2034, the aviation industry will need to supply more than one million new aviation personnel—558,000 commercial airline pilots and 609,000 maintenance technicians.

Boeing outlook

Whilst the future is always unclear, the immediate (10/20 years) future is a little less hazy and Boeing’s outlook certainly indicates robots will not replace pilots and technicians anytime soon.

Not wanting to sound like a technical Luddite, I would rather think of pilotless planes as something similar to the thoughts of the brilliant historian Robert Conquest who wrote about the “Dragons of Expectation.” Which summon up images of apocalyptic destruction through the beating of their wings and suggests the process by which ideas can produce visions of radical transformation that in turn may lead to manias and dogmas. Conquest showed that progress is never linear or without disruption and interruption.

As with driverless cars and pilotless planes, much depends on humans for legal clarifications and legislation approval and years and years of test data, and let’s not forget the human customers ‘willingness’ — 83 % of people who voted in a Debate.org poll said there was “not a chance in hell” they would board a pilotless plane. Taking into consideration many of these factors some industry ‘experts’ expect cargo airlines “ditching the crew completely by around 2035.” And many more years before the same will happen for passenger flights.

Based on current developments, technological as well as social and political, I think it is going to be several decades (2040 onwards?) before we will see pilotless commercial airlines with hundreds of passengers onboard.

In the meantime let’s dismiss some of the hype around robots taking jobs and instead welcome Boeing’s forecast of increased jobs for pilot’s and engineers and keep in mind Conquest’s thoughts of “clearing the dragons of expectation out of our mental skies.”

See also – National Geographic’s interview with Patrick Smith.

Like cholesterol, robots come in two varieties: the good and the bad

robot soldierRobotics may be getting a lot of headlines today – but how do the stories compare to the past. Here’s a list of 5 fascinating reads in robotics from 2008 – after all 2008 was the year of Wall-E and the release of Boston Dynamics first Big Dog video.

English village to be invaded in robot competition

The UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Grand Challenge is designed to boost development of teams of small robots able to scout out hidden dangers in hostile urban areas.

Over 10 days in August, 11 teams of robots will compete to locate and identify four different threats hidden around a mock East German village used for urban warfare training, at Copehill Down, Wiltshire.

The robots must find snipers, armed vehicles, armed foot soldiers, and improvised explosive devices hidden around the village, and relay a real-time picture of what is happening back to a command post. (New Scientist April 2008)

Check out those drones! As an aside I wonder if that mock East German village built for urban warfare training during the Cold War is still ‘active.’

Social tension between humans and robots

Mighty Atom was the size of a ten-year-old boy, more or less, but had a 100,000 horsepower atomic energy heart, an electronic brain, search light eyes, super-sensitive hearing, rockets in his legs, ray guns in his fingers, and a pair of machine guns in his posterior. He attended primary school, where he was often teased for being a robot… Since robots could not harm humans – that’s their nature – he had no choice but to put up with it. (The Valve November 2008)

Monkey’s Thoughts Propel Robot, a Step That May Help Humans

It was the first time that brain signals had been used to make a robot walk… “The robot, called CB for Computational Brain, has the same range of motion as a human. It can dance, squat, point and “feel” the ground with sensors embedded in its feet, and it will not fall over when shoved.” (The New York Times January 2008)

Your future with robots – Rise of the Robots

“By 2010 we will see mobile robots as big as people but with cognitive abilities similar in many respects to those of a lizard. The machines will be capable of carrying out simple chores, such as vacuuming, dusting, delivering packages and taking out the garbage. By 2040, I believe, we will finally achieve the original goal of robotics and a thematic mainstay of science fiction: a freely moving machine with the intellectual capabilities of a human being.” (Scientific American January 2008)

US war robots in Iraq ‘turned guns’ on human comrades

Rogue robots on the loose — Ground-crawling US war robots armed with machine guns, deployed to fight in Iraq (in 2007), reportedly turned on their fleshy masters. The rebellious machine warriors have been retired from combat pending upgrades. (The Register April 2008)

Finally, if you have not seen Alex Rivera’s 2008, social and political sci-fi movie, Sleep Dealer I recommend it. See the trailer here (or below) – “We build your skyscrapers and harvest your crops – let our robotics do your dirty work.”

Picture – The San Antonio Light, 16 October 1928, the headline reads: “Steel Soldiers May Do Mankind’s Fighting.”

Five mid-week reads in behavioural science, machine learning and robotics

Five mid-week reads in behavioural science, machine learning and robotics to stay up dated on the robot economy.

  1. Humans define the goals, technology implements the goals – A wide ranging interview with Stephen Wolfram on Artificial Intelligence and the future. “I think the issue is, as you look to the future, and you say, “Well, what will the future humans …?” where there’s been much more automation that’s been achieved than in today’s world—and we’ve already got plenty of automation, but vastly more will be achieved. And many professions which right now require endless human effort, those will be basically completely automated, and at some point, whatever humans choose to do, the machines will successfully do for them. And then the question is, so then what happens? What do people intrinsically want to do? What will be the evolution of human purposes, human goals?” (GigaOm)
  2. Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars – There are still people working at the factory, though. Three workers check and monitor each production line and there are other employees who monitor a computer control system. Previously, there were 650 employees at the factory. With the new robots, there’s now only 60. (TechRepublic)
  3. Sex with robots will be ‘the norm’ in 50 years – An expert on the psychology of sex has claimed that she expects having sex with robots to be socially acceptable by 2070 (The Independent)
  4. Cheaper Robots, Fewer Workers – A NY Times Bits video series, called Robotica, examining how robots are poised to change the way we do business and conduct our daily lives. (The New York Times)
  5. 10 lessons in Reinforcement Learning from Google’s DeepMind – A very good series of videos on Reinforcement Learning, by David Silver from Google’s DeepMind:

What are you reading?