This certainly isn’t the first, but here is yet another drone with weaponry, courtesy of inventors who can be celebrated for their ingenuity more than for their social awareness. The robot, CUPID, has good old-fashioned taser on-board. No clear indication of just how autonomous the system might be just now, although that is, of course, a mere detail.
Joshua Brustein reports in Business Week on a recent NTSB ruling striking a fine for commercial drone flight near the University of Virginia. The specifics of the case are unsurprising because the FAA’s policy recommendations aren’t law; but the back and forth demonstrates just what a legal morass drones will become, and quickly. Our laws simply weren’t designed for pilotless, automated vehicles, and even remote-control flying machines are posing a challenge as they blur distinctions between hobby R/C pilots, commercial operators and of course governmental use that will be ever-more-forthcoming.
Drones are an example of boundary-breaking technology, and by shattering underlying assumptions that make our sets of laws somewhat consistent, drones shine daylight onto the ways in which new robotic technology will force both legal limits and cultural norms to be re-evaluated constantly. If these technology innovations are already outpacing the speed with which we can change law, just how will we respond in a few years’ time when technology moves us through robotic innovations even faster?
Yesterday’s Op-Ed in the New York Times by Julia Angwin, Has Privacy Become a Luxury Good?, is a short article that cuts to the heart of a central question regarding Digital Labor: will the ubiquity of digital surveillance and behavioral monetization increase a new form of economic privacy gap. Of course, the super-rich already buy their way into a version of privacy that the rest of us cannot afford; but in practice digital labor’s onslaught may increase the numbers on both sides of a privacy divide. Angwin’s comparison to the organic foods market leaves me scratching my head- I think standards and governmental regulations will not change the fact that, opportunistically, we humans are ever-ready to trade a lot of privacy for a bit of convenience, or a small discount at the grocery store. Remember that in a robot future of widespread sensors, every physical behavior will eventually be folded into this labor market- digital labor will become unpaid labor, full stop.
I just published a brief blog about Project Tango on the Huffington Post, taking a Robot Futures read of the news stories.
Mike Pintek of KDKA, CBS Radio, just sent me this link to a podcast of a long-format radio interview that he did last Friday with me regarding Robot Futures.
Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer just published a piece on-line in the Guardian: Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so... The article begins with a naked terminator, and of course brushes with the fiction of Skynet while describing the reality of Ray Kurzweil’s recent move to Google as one of their engineering directors. The article is an education because it depicts a worldview that I describe in Robot Futures and which, of course, has both books, articles and adherents a-plenty. The computers are accelerating in their abilities very rapidly indeed, and the result will change our identity as a species: they will not dominate us, but rather become our evolutionary descendants, and if we play our cards right, we melt with our robo-progeny in a new super-species. Technological optimism and striving for immortality is, of course, as old as mortality itself. But rational technology has replaced medieval alchemy as the new yellow brick road that leads to a new plane of existence. But it is also fascinating to see how, in interview format, Kurzweil mixes his personal thoughts regarding religion into the ascent of modern technology and his hoped-for advent of immortality. He characterizes religion as a response to the finality of death; in doing so, I believe he greatly oversimplifies the role religion plays in the lives of many. By the same token, I believe we oversimplify the role of accelerating technological progress in the lives of the new Innovator Class when we suggest that they strive for immortality a few decades hence. As this article rightly points out, Big Data is just as much a target of massive computational power as any organic romance. Here is my favorite excerpt from the article:
Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, he says. It will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.
This is exactly where the concept of our future espoused by Big Data + Singularity proposes a new, speculative form of personal identity that I find ethically questionable: what does it mean for a massive AI network to know what you want and need better than yourself? How does this redefine the sense of individual, free will and autonomy that we all strive to realize? It is ironic that immortality itself can also have a massive shift on the meaning of personal identity, were it to come to pass. It seems to me that the threesome at the heart of this new technological optimism all enjoy the exact same three potential curses: economic inequality; crumbling personal autonomy; concentration of power.
On 14 February the journal Science published an article by a Harvard robotics team, Designing Collective Behavior in a Termite-Inspired Robot Construction Team. The article, by Werfel, Petersen and Nagpal, is a wonderfully readable introduction to one of the ways in which researchers strive to expand the capabilities of robotics: by taking inspiration from biological systems, and then carefully engineering and innovating new robots that can complete a new task. In this case the authors take one what we call emergent phenomena- the powerful ability for many simple systems to collaborate together, without centralized control, to yield overall behavior that appears very deliberate and powerful. By designing robots that can carry building bricks just tall enough to surmount, the group has created a team of robotic builders that can build their own ramps, then use those ramps to build any specified, “legal” architectural structure. The robots each have local sensing, using markings on the floor and on each building brick to maintain orientation, and sensing nearby robots. The bricks are very cleverly designed so they magnetically couple without drift, and so they provide just the right feedback to the robot for it to maintain correct orientation. The result is quite fun to watch: you can see three robots building a miniature castle- and there is no big camera system overhead directing the robots.
Perhaps the most important result of this publication is the fact that emergent phenomena require innovation- and that innovation in this case includes really careful design of the robot’s physicality, from wheels to gripper, and equally carefully innovation in designing just the right building brick. Our robot future may be built by careful steps such as this, where innovators design just the right robots and just the right robo-environments where robot and environment together yield power that is hard to imagine today.
Thanks to my friends at the Drone User Group Network for this referral, the NSF just published a story about an interesting demonstration of EEG-based robot control. Using non-invasive, 64-electrode EEG cap, researchers at the University of Minnesota have demonstrated real-time commanding by having subjects mind-control quadrobot fliers. Although a provocative demonstration by virtue of the flying drones, the basic idea is that non-invasive brain-machine interfaces will yield ever richer degrees of control and eventually enable ever more effective human control of robots in our midsts, including wearable robot prostheses.
I have just finished Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s newest book, The Second Machine Age, which comes on the heels of Race Against the Machine, which this blog covered in 2012. The authors began two years ago with their essential argument in the first book, that automation and productivity have unhinged the future wealth of corporations from the individual well-being of the middle class. In their newest book, they more crisply define just what about recent technology innovation is changing the relationship between innovation, productivity and the fate of the working class. They begin with an appreciation for just how much more quickly technology innovation is directly impacting all aspects of the human experience, from manufacturing with very low-cost Baxter robots to the advent of truly useful Artificial Intelligence systems. Their early thesis is that exponential innovation speedups make it hard for us to imagine how rapidly technology will surpass human abilities in both manual and cognitive levels. Indeed, they extrapolate the effects of the first machine age on manual, routine jobs and make a convincing case for how cognitive, routine tasks may be headed for similar forms of extinction, or at least sea change.
They also dive more deeply into the question of income and wealth inequality than in their first book, in one depressing quote pointing out that the benefits of innovation do not even necessarily trickle down in net effect:
Between 1983 and 2009, Americans became vastly wealthier overall as the total value of their assets increased. However, as noted by economists Ed Wolff and Sylvia Allegretto, the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution actually saw a net decrease in their wealth. Taken as a group, the top 20 percent got not 100 percent of the increase, but more than 100 percent. Their gains included not only the trillions of dollars of wealth newly created in the economy but also some additional wealth that was shifted in their direction from the bottom 80 percent.
This is but one of many statistics that drive home a most basic lesson: the dynamics of wealth are changing in lockstep with accelerating technology innovation. Indeed, the networking and crowdsourcing that Brynjolfsson and McAfee describe leads, in their words, to improvements in standards of living without obvious impact on the GNP. But of course, as we see in analyses such as Digital Labor, this is not wholly true. Our efforts are being harnessed by companies who carve value from our behavior, and this resource harvesting leads, inexorably, to real wealth generation for the few.
In closing the authors recognize that, while Capitalism is not easily replaced wholesale, basic changes in the social contract, long-term, are probably inevitable. They discuss the concept of a Basic Income for all as a way of compensating for the fact that ever-growing armies of automated workers will not be owned by those whom they displace. And they point out the other very important problem we face in our robot future: even with income guaranteed for all, we face the challenge of enabling everyone to feel true fulfillment. Without the energy and direction created by work, we face the challenge of making our lives matter, and this is a problem that may be even harder to solve than elephant in the room: inequality.
Thanks to Marti Louw for pointing this out. Here is an excellent lecture by Margot Kaminski at Yale, given at the Berkman Center at Harvard. Her lecture is about privacy, surveillance and robotics, and she does an excellent job of showing how robots are a boundary-redefining category that wreaks some havoc on how our expectations and our laws concerning authorship, privacy and blame are broken by the existence of these new devices that are not quite human and not quite under direct human control. In Robot Futures I use several dystopian examples to point out how our intuition can be challenged by robotic technologies gone real. In her talk, Kaminski describes how boundaries are modified as technology changes the affordances we have for measuring, sensing and responding to human behavior. To readers of the book: you will enjoy many of her analytical examples because they are hewn from the same possible futures that we have written and imagined.