Luddite Redemption

Now just about all the C-level folks are weighing in on the question of underemployment, technology, A.I., and the singularity. Here is a brief report on Eric Schmidt’s most recent comments. As I have frequently seen, Schmidt makes reference to the loom, trying to argue about our future pathway, or how we should treat our possible futures, on the basis of the idea that the first industrial revolution worked out alright. I would love to remind the reader that history does indeed have lessons for us- if we care to really study history. Take that loom. There were at least 80 years of horrific poverty and unemployment. In fact, my university only exists because Andrew Carnegie’s father lost his job thanks to that loom, they couldn’t make ends meet, and left Scotland because there was nothing there, for generations. I suppose we might all just move to the moon and create institutions of higher learning there. But I am not sure that’s what Schmidt had in mind.

We must incorporate the short and the long view, sure. But remember that even the multigenerational long view has some quite stark lessons for us from the 1800’s.

Community Empowerment for Air Quality

The final chapter of Robot Futures talked of an alternate future where we use robotic technologies to empower communities, providing information and power in a more equitable way than the paths we appear to be on right now.  Air quality has been one issue on which we have been pushing hard on this respect, and many of you have tracked our Breathe Project BreatheCam contributions with Heinz Endowment foundation funding. We have also been developing a sensor that would enable everyone to measure their personal air quality at home, so they can improve their family’s air directly by providing direct feedback. I am happy to announce that our effort is scaling up! We are spinning the sensor, the Speck, out of Carnegie Mellon and will work hard to manufacture enough of these sensors to meet the community need we already seen around us. Follow us @SpeckSensor.  We will have many developments on this front over the next two months.

Leveraging Behavioral Intelligence

The Economist‘s January 10th 2015 issue has an article you can read on-line: Meet the market shapers: A new breed of high-tech economist is helping firms crack new markets.  This is a fascinating read because it describes how real-time behavioral analysis of who you are as you shop can make your experience on a website so very different from those of your friends. Perhaps you linger, click slowly, scroll a bit. Automatic algorithms will use your lurk behavior, even your mouse click speeds, to estimate ever more accurately whether you’re a serious shopper or just a window viewer.  Then, depending on how you are categorized, you may get very efficient information to help you complete a purchase quickly, without risk of being distracted or annoyed by ads. Or if you are browsing, you may be assaulted by ads- because you’re not going to buy anything right off anyway, and the system may as well experiment on you and try to “convert” you.

The article describes how machine learning lets such automatic policies optimize over time, experimenting on each of us with a variety of techniques and tweaks until finding strategies that tend to maximize profit across a variety of shopper archetypes.  In the end, all these techniques are about shifting the power dynamic in favor of the Machines. They will collect information that is too vast for mere humans to analyze; they will sift through it, actively experiment on us, and categorize us into separate, distinct classes. Then they will decide how to treat us each. Will this be pathological sometimes, with machine learning edging computers into categorizations and policies that are classist, racist, or wealth-biased? Sure! There’s nothing stopping that. We have no first law of behavioral analytics for robots, with edicts that equity must exist in how people are treated by real-time, decision-making machines. Will we need such rules? Yes, doubtless, we will eventually. Otherwise machines will create echo chambers; machines will refine and optimize our behavior, and machines will turn us into automata every so gently.

Boundaries for Earth

I am at Davos, speaking mainly about the societal impact robot technologies are likely to have in our near future, and I am happy to report there is intense interest in these topics. Will robotics empower human communities, or will our machines become the masters of our fate?

But I’m writing this blog about an even more pressing topic- planetary change. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has released an outstanding demonstration, through interactive graphics, of how we can categorize the health of the planet along nine axes, from atmospheric loading and ocean change through biodiversity, identifying tipping points and boundaries that quantify just where we are along a continuum from healthful to Emergency Room to irreversibility. Their website is well worth your visit, and best of all their decadal effort is nailing the science of characterizing and measuring global boundaries as complex systems, in collaboration with scientists round the world. Science just published their latest full report, and I recommend giving this article a read: Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. It is no longer behind a paywall, just a free registration roadblock; and you can access the figures without even registering here.

Their approach is refreshing because it frames our decisions and our planet’s future trajectory in terms of a complex system, with feedback loops that we can directly affect with our local and global decisions. We have only a few years to effect the kind of policy changes that will keep us in a safe operating margin; one of the authors expressed his concern that we don’t even have time to change the public’s mindset. And yet I believe it is a shift at the ground level- if we can become truly mindful at the global scale- that has the best possible chance of catalyzing the high-level changes we must see. Thanks to global social media, that groundswell of change can touch us more more quickly than ever before; so it’s time for technology to help us deeply rethink our relationship to the planet.

National Geographic: part 2 of 2 – human forecasters fail us

The January 2015 issue of National Geographic has a “Looking Ahead” leaf of predictions on the second and third pages. Unfortunately, I cannot find an on-line link to share with you. But what I read in these forecasts is the kinds of rhetorical exaggeration that I believe distracts our society from engaging with much more relevant, up-front issues such as technological underemployment, disempowerment and inequity.  Here is a sampling for you to privately roll your eyes and share:

Paul Saffo writes “A new religion could emerge in the next decade or two, perhaps based around the environment.” I believe he’s unaware of some religions rather older than negative ten years that heavily focus on our world.

Bertalan Mesko writes that “The 3-D printing revolution will produce affordable exoskeletons and prosthetic devices.” While it’s very exciting to see how 3-D printers have enabled custom prosthetics- and that is a huge success story- the exoskeleton bit…well, no. 3D printing is an expensive way to make electronics; and exoskeletons are a fantastically important idea if we are to increase the number of years that fragile, elderly may live without managed care. But realizing these means major advances in materials, motor and battery technology, not 3-D printing of the hard parts.

Byron Reese writes:

soon we will be able to solve all problems that are fundamentally technical. These problems include disease, poverty, hunger, energy and scarcity. If you can live a few years more, there is a real chance you will never die, since mortality may be just a technical problem we solve. All these advances will usher in a new golden age, freed from the scourges that have plagued humanity throughout our history.

Where to begin!? Poverty, scarcity, disease. These are not technical problems. These are social, cultural and deeply historical phenomena. And living forever in a few years? I strongly suggest you not start saving for your infinite-retirement payment plan. We are all mortal for many, many years yet. The technology optimism suffusing this quote scares me, because it enables us to see any hiccups along the way as temporary, and allows us to justify just about anything en route to a nirvana-ending, where all disease is eradicated, where all our plagues have left us, and we have invented heaven on earth, byte by byte. The very reason I wrote Robot Futures is to try to demonstrate that technological invention is not magically transformative; indeed, many of the challenges we face as members of the human society are only exacerbated by improving technology.

There are many more quotes worth reading on this two-page leaf. This is a reminder that there is a surfeit of narrow-minded optimism at play in our pundit universe, and readers will continue to have their breath taken away by forecasts that promise a gleaming tomorrow if we just let exponential technology innovation do its thing for a few more years.