Real-world Swarming

Swarm robotics has spent years- nay, decades- developing algorithms for simulated robots, robotic watercraft, and, yes, unmanned flying ‘bots to fly formation and coverage large areas. Until now, most swarm robotics experiments in the air have involved a small number of robots, countable on just one hand. NPR reported this morning on the research of Timothy Chung at the Naval Postgraduate School, where last week thirty drones were able to self-organize in the air. The NPR story is interesting because you can take a listen to what this will sound like, someday, in a community near you.  It’s also interesting because, in case of a problem, there is a pilot there ready to manually control a drone. So let’s think about that, just for a second. Thirty drones, one R/C plane pilot. What, precisely, will the pilot do when fifteen drones veer off course over a populated area?

Robot Smog comes to a wildfire near you

For the fourth time in a month, firefighters recently aborted air firefighting operations because a drone flew dangerously close to the flight path of the airplanes- as reported in the New York Times. The combination of impressive, massive fires and easy access to flying videocameras is apparently too much for many to resist, and this form of “robot smog” promises to be another new way in which individual robotic expression can have unintended consequences for society as a whole.

The Work Squeeze

I have written frequently about the spectre of underemployment, and today two perfectly matched articles were released. The July/August issue of The Atlantic features A World Without Work by Derek Thompson.  Thompson does an outstanding job in diving into the true costs of automation-driven underemployment, correctly pointing out how low wage share of GDP has gone (the lowest ever on record!); and how joblessness has not historically led to leisure and fun, but rather to antisocial frustration of community. He ends with an excellent analysis of communal work, such as one encounters at Tech Shops and other community spaces where creative individuals strive together on projects combining craftsmanship and business sense.  But he also makes clear that none of this works without fairly revolutionary changes to the social contract- whether we have guaranteed minimum incomes, or subsidies pushing companies to underemploy rather than lay off; it’s all in a form of federal control that our country has serious trouble accepting.

Paired with this we have the news that Amazon has doubled and quadrupled the cost of Mechanical Turk, as reported in Business Insider.  This is remarkable because the Uber’s, Airbnb’s and Mechanical Turks of our world are the wedge opportunism plays that enable the underemployed to compensate for lost wages. And here comes the reality of that relationship: the company is dealing, not with an organized labor force, but with hundreds of thousands of separate people, together yielding scant power to push back if the corporation changes the rules overnight. And there are no Taylor Swifts on Mechanical Turk to move a corporate mountain. Alas.

Bakken Crude NPR story

This one is worth a listen for anyone living just about anywhere in the U.S. where trains are now taking Bakken Crude oil to export terminals for overseas sales. The story, Battle Over New Oil Train Standards, is by David Schaper of NPR.  Citizens can push to change routes and keep these rolling bombs away from population centers. All this begs the question of whether we understand and actively accept the risks that come with the technologies we embrace.