Category Archives: automation

Artificial muscles using folded graphene

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Folded Graphene Concept

Two years ago I wrote a blog on future hosiery where I very briefly mentioned the idea of using folded graphene as synthetic muscles:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/the-future-of-nylon-ladder-free-hosiery/

Although I’ve since mentioned it to dozens of journalists, none have picked up on it, so now that soft robotics and artificial muscles are in the news, I guess it’s about time I wrote it up myself, before someone else claims the idea. I don’t want to see an MIT article about how they have just invented it.

The above pic gives the general idea. Graphene comes in insulating or conductive forms, so it will be possible to make sheets covered with tiny conducting graphene electromagnet coils that can be switched individually to either polarity and generate strong magnetic forces that pull or push as required. That makes it ideal for a synthetic muscle, given the potential scale. With 1.5nm-thick layers that could be anything from sub-micron up to metres wide, this will allow thin fibres and yarns to make muscles or shape change fabrics all the way up to springs or cherry-picker style platforms, using many such structures. Current can be switched on and off or reversed very rapidly, to make continuous forces or vibrations, with frequency response depending on application – engineering can use whatever scales are needed. Natural muscles are limited to 250Hz, but graphene synthetic muscles should be able to go to MHz.

Uses vary from high-rise rescue, through construction and maintenance, to space launch. Since the forces are entirely electromagnetic, they could be switched very rapidly to respond to any buckling, offering high stabilisation.

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The extreme difference in dimensions between folded and opened state mean that an extremely thin force mat made up of many of these cherry-picker structures could be made to fill almost any space and apply force to it. One application that springs to mind is rescues, such as after earthquakes have caused buildings to collapse. A sheet could quickly apply pressure to prize apart pieces of rubble regardless of size and orientation. It could alternatively be used for systems for rescuing people from tall buildings, fracking or many other applications.

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It would be possible to make large membranes for a wide variety of purposes that can change shape and thickness at any point, very rapidly.

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One such use is a ‘jellyfish’, complete with stinging cells that could travel around in even very thin atmospheres all by itself. Upper surfaces could harvest solar power to power compression waves that create thrust. This offers use for space exploration on other planets, but also has uses on Earth of course, from surveillance and power generation, through missile defense systems or self-positioning parachutes that may be used for my other invention, the Pythagoras Sling. That allows a totally rocket-free space launch capability with rapid re-use.

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Much thinner membranes are also possible, as shown here, especially suited for rapid deployment missile defense systems:

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Also particularly suited to space exploration o other planets or moons, is the worm, often cited for such purposes. This could easily be constructed using folded graphene, and again for rescue or military use, could come with assorted tools or lethal weapons built in.

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A larger scale cherry-picker style build could make ejector seats, elevation platforms or winches, either pushing or pulling a payload – each has its merits for particular types of application.  Expansion or contraction could be extremely rapid.

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An extreme form for space launch is the zip-winch, below. With many layers just 1.5nm thick, expanding to 20cm for each such layer, a 1000km winch cable could accelerate a payload rapidly as it compresses to just 7.5mm thick!

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Very many more configurations and uses are feasible of course, this blog just gives a few ideas. I’ll finish with a highlight I didn’t have time to draw up yet: small particles could be made housing a short length of folded graphene. Since individual magnets can be addressed and controlled, that enables magnetic powders with particles that can change both their shape and the magnetism of individual coils. Precision magnetic fields is one application, shape changing magnets another. The most exciting though is that this allows a whole new engineering field, mixing hydraulics with precision magnetics and shape changing. The powder can even create its own chambers, pistons, pumps and so on. Electromagnetic thrusters for ships are already out there, and those same thrust mechanisms could be used to manipulate powder particles too, but this allows for completely dry hydraulics, with particles that can individually behave actively or  passively.

Fun!

 

 

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The age of dignity

I just watched a short video of robots doing fetch and carry jobs in an Alibaba distribution centre:

http://uk.businessinsider.com/inside-alibaba-smart-warehouse-robots-70-per-cent-work-technology-logistics-2017-9

There are numerous videos of robots in various companies doing tasks that used to be done by people. In most cases those tasks were dull, menial, drudgery tasks that treated people as machines. Machines should rightly do those tasks. In partnership with robots, AI is also replacing some tasks that used to be done by people. Many are worried about increasing redundancy but I’m not; I see a better world. People should instead be up-skilled by proper uses of AI and robotics and enabled to do work that is more rewarding and treats them with dignity. People should do work that uses their human skills in ways that they find rewarding and fulfilling. People should not have to do work they find boring or demeaning just because they have to earn money. They should be able to smile at work and rest at the end of the day knowing that they have helped others or made the world a better place. If we use AI, robots and people in the right ways, we can build that world.

Take a worker in a call centre. Automation has already replaced humans in most simple transactions like paying a bill, checking a balance or registering a new credit card. It is hard to imagine that anyone ever enjoyed doing that as their job. Now, call centre workers mostly help people in ways that allow them to use their personalities and interpersonal skills, being helpful and pleasant instead of just typing data into a keyboard. It is more enjoyable and fulfilling for the caller, and presumably for the worker too, knowing they genuinely helped someone’s day go a little better. I just renewed my car insurance. I phoned up to cancel the existing policy because it had increased in price too much. The guy at the other end of the call was very pleasant and helpful and met me half way on the price difference, so I ended up staying for another year. His company is a little richer, I was a happier customer, and he had a pleasant interaction instead of having to put up with an irate customer and also the job satisfaction from having converted a customer intending to leave into one happy to stay. The AI at his end presumably gave him the information he needed and the limits of discount he was permitted to offer. Success. In billions of routine transactions like that, the world becomes a little happier and just as important, a little more dignified. There is more dignity in helping someone than in pushing a button.

Almost always, when AI enters a situation, it replaces individual tasks that used to take precious time and that were not very interesting to do. Every time you google something, a few microseconds of AI saves you half a day in a library and all those half days add up to a lot of extra time every year for meeting colleagues, human interactions, learning new skills and knowledge or even relaxing. You become more human and less of a machine. Your self-actualisation almost certainly increases in one way or another and you become a slightly better person.

There will soon be many factories and distribution centres that have few or no people at all, and that’s fine. It reduces the costs of making material goods so average standard of living can increase. A black box economy that has automated mines or recycling plants extracting raw materials and uses automated power plants to convert them into high quality but cheap goods adds to the total work available to add value; in other words it increases the size of the economy. Robots can make other robots and together with AI, they could make all we need, do all the fetching and carrying, tidying up, keeping it all working, acting as willing servants in every role we want them in. With greater economic wealth and properly organised taxation, which will require substantial change from today, people could be freed to do whatever fulfills them. Automation increases average standard of living while liberating people to do human interaction jobs, crafts, sports, entertainment, leading, inspiring, teaching, persuading, caring and so on, creating a care economy. 

Each person knows what they are good at, what they enjoy. With AI and robot assistance, they can more easily make that their everyday activity. AI could do their company set-up, admin, billing, payments, tax, payroll – all the crap that makes being an entrepreneur a pain in the ass and stops many people pursuing their dreams.  Meanwhile they would do that above a very generous welfare net. Many of us now are talking about the concept of universal basic income, or citizen wage. With ongoing economic growth at the average rate of the last few decades, the global economy will be between twice and three times as big as today in the 2050s. Western countries could pay every single citizen a basic wage equivalent to today’s average wage, and if they work or run a company, they can earn more.

We will have an age where material goods are high quality, work well and are cheap to buy, and recycled in due course to minimise environmental harm. Better materials, improved designs and techniques, higher efficiency and land productivity and better recycling will mean that people can live with higher standards of living in a healthier environment. With a generous universal basic income, they will not have to worry about paying their bills. And doing only work that they want to do that meets their self-actualisation needs, everyone can live a life of happiness and dignity.

Enough of the AI-redundancy alarmism. If we elect good leaders who understand the options ahead, we can build a better world, for everyone. We can make real the age of dignity.

Tips for surviving the future

Challenging times lie ahead, but stress can be lessened by being prepared. Here are my top tips, with some explanation so you can decide whether to accept them.

1 Adaptability is more important than specialization

In a stable environment, being the most specialized means you win most of the time in your specialist field because all your skill is concentrated there.

However, in a fast-changing environment, which is what you’ll experience for the rest of your life, if you are too specialized, you are very likely to find you are best in a filed that no longer exists, or is greatly diminished in size. If you make sure you are more adaptable, then you’ll find it easier to adapt to a new area so your career won’t be damaged when you are forced to change field slightly. Adaptability comes at a price – you will find it harder to be best in your field and will have to settle for 2nd or 3rd much of the time, but you’ll still be lucratively employed when No 1 has been made redundant.

2 Interpersonal, human, emotional skills are more important than knowledge

You’ve heard lots about artificial intelligence (AI) and how it is starting to do to professional knowledge jobs what the steam engine once did to heavy manual work. Some of what you hear is overstated. Google search is a simple form of AI. It has helped everyone do more with their day. It effectively replaced a half day searching for information in a library with a few seconds typing, but nobody has counted how many people it made redundant, because it hasn’t. It up-skilled everyone, made them more effective, more valuable to their employer. The next generation of AI may do much the same with most employees, up-skilling them to do a better job than they were previously capable of, giving them better job satisfaction and their employer better return. Smart employers will keep most of their staff, only getting rid of those entirely replaceable by technology. But some will take the opportunity to reduce costs, increase margins, and many new companies simply won’t employ as many people in similar jobs, so some redundancy is inevitable. The first skills to go are simple administration and simple physical tasks, then more complex admin or physical stuff, then simple managerial or professional tasks, then higher managerial and professional tasks. The skills that will be automated last are those that rely on first hand experience of understanding of and dealing with other people. AI can learn some of that and will eventually become good at it, but that will take a long time. Even then, many people will prefer to deal with another person than a machine, however smart and pleasant it is.

So interpersonal skills, human skills, emotional skills, caring skills, leadership and motivational skills, empathetic skills, human judgement skills, teaching and training skills will be harder to replace. They also tend to be ones that can easily transfer between companies and even sectors. These will therefore be the ones that are most robust against technology impact. If you have these in good shape, you’ll do just fine. Your company may not need you any more one day, but another will.

I called this the Care Economy when I first started writing and lecturing about it 20-odd years ago. I predicted it would start having an affect mid teen years of this century and I got that pretty accurate I think. There is another side that is related but not the same:

3 People will still value human skill and talent just because it’s human

If you buy a box of glasses from your local supermarket, they probably cost very little and are all identical. If you buy some hand-made crystal, it costs a lot more, even though every glass is slightly different. You could call that shoddy workmanship compared to a machine. But you know that the person who made it trained for many years to get a skill level you’d never manage, so you actually value them far more, and are happy to pay accordingly. If you want to go fast, you could get in your car, but you still admire top athletes because they can do their sport far better than you. They started by having great genes for sure, but then also worked extremely hard and suffered great sacrifice over many years to get to that level. In the future, when robots can do any physical task more accurately and faster than people, you will still value crafts and still enjoy watching humans compete. You’ll prefer real human comedians and dancers and singers and musicians and artists. Talent and skill isn’t valued because of the specification of the end result, they are valued because they are measured on the human scale, and you identify closely with that. It isn’t even about being a machine. Gorillas are stronger, cheetahs are faster, eagles have better eyesight and cats have faster reflexes than you. But they aren’t human so you don’t care. You will always measure yourself and others by human scales and appreciate them accordingly.

4 Find hobbies that you love and devote time to developing them

As this care economy and human skills dominance grows in importance, people will also find that AI and robotics helps them in their own hobbies, arts and crafts, filling in skill gaps, improving proficiency. A lot of people will find their hobbies can become semi-professional. At the same time, we’ll be seeing self-driving cars and drones making local delivery far easier and cheaper, and AI will soon make business and tax admin easy too. That all means that barriers to setting up a small business will fall through the floor, while the market for personalized, original products made my people will increase, especially local people. You’ll be able to make arts and crafts, jam or cakes, grow vegetables, make clothes or special bags or whatever, and easily sell them. Also at the same time, automation will be making everyday things cheaper, while expanding the economy, so the welfare floor will be raised, and you could probably manage just fine with a small extra income. Government is also likely to bring in some sort of citizen wage or to encourage such extra entrepreneurial activity without taxing it away, because they also have a need to deal with the social consequences of automation. So it will all probably come together quite well. If the future means you can make extra money or even a full income by doing a hobby you love, there isn’t much to dislike there.

5 You need to escape from your social media bubble

If you watch the goings on anywhere in the West today, you must notice that the Left and the Right don’t seem to get along any more. Each has become very intolerant of the other, treating them more like enemy aliens than ordinary neighbors. A lot of that is caused by people only being exposed to views they agree with. We call that social media bubbles, and they are extremely dangerous. The recent USA trouble is starting to look like some folks want a re-run of the Civil War. I’ve blogged lots about this topic and won’t do it again now except to say that you need to expose yourself to a wide subsection of society. You need to read paper and magazines and blogs, and watch TV or videos from all side of the political spectrum, not just those you agree with, not just those that pat you on the back every day and tell you that you’re right and it is all the other lot’s fault. If you don’t; if you only expose yourself to one side because you find the other side distasteful, then I can’t say this loud enough: You are part of the problem. Get out of your safe space and your social media tribe, expose yourself to the whole of society, not just one tribe. See that there are lots of different views out there but it doesn’t mean the rest are all nasty. Almost everyone is actually quite nice and almost everyone wants a fairer world, an end to exploitation, peace, tolerance and eradication of disease and poverty. The differences are almost all in the world model that they use to figure out the best way to achieve it. Lefties tend to opt for idealistic theoretical models and value the intention behind it, right-wingers tend to be pragmatic and go for what they think works in reality, valuing the outcome. It is actually possible to have best friends who you disagree with. I don’t often agree with any of mine. If you feel too comfortable in your bubble to leave, remember this: your market is only half the population at best , you’re excluding the other half, or even annoying them so they become enemies rather than neutral. If you stay in a bubble, you are damaging your own future, and helping to endanger the whole of society.

6 Don’t worry

There are lots of doom-mongers out there, and I’d be the first to admit that there are many dangers ahead. But if you do the things above, there probably isn’t much more you can do. You can moan and demonstrate and get angry or cry in the corner, but how would that benefit you? Usually when you analyse things long enough from all angles, you realize that the outcome of many of the big political battles is pretty much independent of who wins.  Politicians usually have far less choice than they want you to believe and the big forces win regardless of who is in charge. So there isn’t much point in worrying about it, it will probably all come out fine in the end. Don’t believe me. Take the biggest UK issue right now: Brexit. We are leaving. Does it matter? No. Why? Well, the EU was always going to break up anyway. Stresses and strains have been increasing for years and are accelerating. For all sorts of reasons, and regardless of any current bluster by ‘leaders’, the EU will head away from the vision of a United States of Europe. As tensions and conflicts escalate, borders will be restored. Nations will disagree with the EU ideal. One by one, several countries will copy the UK and have referendums, and then leave. At some point, the EU will be much smaller, and there will be lots of countries outside with their own big markets. They will form trade agreements, the original EU idea, the Common Market, will gradually be re-formed, and the UK will be part of it – even Brexiters want tariff-free-trade agreements. If the UK had stayed, the return to the Common Market would eventually have happened anyway, and leaving has only accelerated it. All the fighting today between Brexiteers and Remainers achieves nothing. It didn’t matter which way we voted, it only really affected timescale. The same applies to many other issues that cause big trouble in the short term. Be adaptable, don’t worry, and you’ll be just fine.

7 Make up your own mind

As society and politics have become highly polarised, any form of absolute truth is becoming harder to find. Much of what you read has been spun to the left or right. You need to get information from several sources and learn to filter the bias, and then make up your own mind on what the truth is. Free thinking is increasingly rare but learning and practicing it means you’ll be able to make correct conclusions about the future while others are led astray. Don’t take anyone else’s word for things. Don’t be anyone’s useful idiot. Think for yourself.

8 Look out for your friends, family and community.

I’d overlooked an important tip in my original posting. As Jases commented sensibly, friends, family and community are the security that doesn’t disappear in troubled economic times. Independence is overrated. I can’t add much to that.

Google and the dangerous pursuit of ‘equality’

The world just got more dangerous, and I’m not talking about N Korea and Trump.

Google just sacked an employee because he openly suggested that men and women, (not all, but some, and there is an overlap, and …) might tend to have different preferences in some areas and that could (but not always, and only in certain cases, and we must always recognize and respect everyone and …) possibly account for some of the difference in numbers of men and women in certain roles (but there might be other causes too and obviously lots of discrimination and …. )

Yes, that’s what he actually said, but with rather more ifs and buts and maybes. He felt the need to wrap such an obvious statement in several kilometers thick of cotton wool so as not to offend the deliberately offended but nonetheless deliberate offense was taken and he is out on his ear.

Now, before you start thinking this is some right-wing rant, I feel obliged to point out just how progressive Futurizon is: 50% of all Futurizon owners and employees are female, all employees and owners have the same voting rights, 50% are immigrants and all are paid exactly the same and have the same size offices, regardless of dedication, ability, nature or quality or volume of output and regardless of their race, religion, beauty, shape, fitness, dietary preferences, baldness, hobbies or political views, even if they are Conservatives. All Futurizon offices are safe zones where employees may say anything they want of any level of truth, brilliance or stupidity and expect it to be taken as absolute fact and any consequential emotional needs to be fully met. No employee may criticize any other employee’s mouse mat, desk personalisation or screen wallpaper for obvious lack of taste. All employees are totally free to do anything they choose 100% of the time and can take as much leave as they want. All work is voluntary. All have the same right to respectfully request any other employee to make them coffee, tea or Pimms. All employees of all genders real or imagined are entitled to the same maternity and paternity rights, and the same sickness benefits, whether ill or not. In fact, Futurizon does not discriminate on any grounds whatsoever. We are proud to lead the world in non-discrimination. Unfortunately, our world-leading terms of employment mean that we can no longer afford to hire any new employees.

However, I note that Google has rather more power and influence than Futurizon so their policies count more. They appear (Google also has better lawyers than I can afford, so I must stress that all that follows is my personal opinion) to have firmly decided that diversity is all-important and they seem to want total equality of outcome. The view being expressed not just by Google but by huge swathes of angry protesters seems to be that any difference in workforce representation from that of the general population must arise from discrimination or oppression so must be addressed by positive action to correct it. There are apparently no statistically discernible differences in behavior between genders, or in job or role preference, so any you may have noticed over the time you’ve been alive is just your prejudice. Google says they fully support free speech and diversity of views, but expression of views is apparently only permitted as long as those views are authorized, on penalty of dismissal.

So unless I’m picking up totally the wrong end of the stick here, and I don’t do that often, only 13% of IT engineers are women, but internal policies must ensure that the proportion rises to 50%, whether women want to do that kind of work or not. In fact, nobody may question whether as many women want to work as IT engineers as men; it must now be taken as fact. By extension, since more women currently work in marketing, HR and PR, they must be substituted by men via positive action programs until men fill 50% of those roles. Presumably similar policies must also apply in medical bays for nursing and other staff there, and in construction teams for their nice new buildings. Ditto all other genders, races, religions; all groups must be protected and equalized to USA population proportions, apparently except those that don’t claim to hold sufficiently left-wing views, in which case it is seemingly perfectly acceptable to oppress, ostracize and even expel them.

In other words, freedom of choice and difference in ability, and more importantly freedom from discrimination, must be over-ruled in favor of absolute equality of diversity, regardless of financial or social cost, or impact on product or service quality. Not expressing full and enthusiastic left-wing compliance is seemingly just cause for dismissal.

So, why does this matter outside Google? Well, AI is developing very nicely. In fact, Google is one of the star players in the field right now. It is Google that will essentially decide how much of the AI around us is trained, how it learns, what it learns, what ‘knowledge’ it has of the world. Google will pick the content the AI learns from, and overrule or reeducate it if it draws any ‘wrong’ conclusions about the world, such as that more women than men want to be nurses or work in HR, or that more men than women want to be builders or engineers. A Google AI must presumably believe that the only differences between men and women are physical, unless their AI is deliberately excluded from the loudly declared corporate values and belief sets.

You should be very worried. Google’s values really matter. They have lots of influence on some of the basic tools of everyday life. Even outside their company, their AI tools and approaches will have strong influence on how other AI develops, determining operating systems and platforms, languages, mechanisms, interfaces, filters, even prejudices and that reach and influence is likely to increase. Their AI may well be in many self-driving cars, and if they have to make life or death decisions, the underlying value assumptions must feature in the algorithms. Soon companies will need AI that is more emotionally compliant. AI will use compliments or teasing or seduction or sarcasm or wit as marketing tools as well as just search engine positioning. Soon AI will use highly expressive faces with attractive voices, with attractive messages, tailored to appeal to you by pandering to your tastes and prejudices while thinking something altogether different. AI might be the person at the party that is all smiles and compliments, before going off to tell everyone else how awful it thinks you are. If you dare to say something not ‘authorized’, the ultra-smart AI all around you might treat you condescendingly, making you feel ashamed, ostracized, a dinosaur. Then it might secretly push you down a few pages in search results, or put a negative spin on text summaries about you, or exclude you from recommendations. Or it might do all the secret stuff while pretending it thinks you’re fantastic. Internal cultural policies in companies like Google today could soon be external social engineering to push the left-wing world the IT industry believes in – it isn’t just Google; Facebook and Twitter are also important and just as Left, though Amazon, Samsung, IBM and other AI players are less overtly politically biased, so far at least. Left wing policies generally cost a lot more, but Google and Facebook will presumably still expect other companies and people to pay the taxes to pay for it all. As their female staff gear up to fight them over pay differences between men and women for similar jobs, it often seems that Google’s holier-than-thou morality doesn’t quite make it as far as their finances.

Then it really starts being fun. We’ll soon have bacteria that can fabricate electronic circuits within themselves. Soon they’ll be able to power them too, giving the concept of smart yogurt. These bacteria could also have nanotechnology flagella to help them get around. We’ll soon have bacterial spies all over our environment, even on our skin, intercepting electronic signals that give away our thoughts. They’ll bring in data on everything that is said, everything that everyone even thinks or feels. Those bacteria will be directly connected into AI, in fact they’ll be part of it. They’ll be able to change things, to favor or punish according to whether they like what someone believes in or how they behave.

It isn’t just right-wing extremists that need to worry. I’m apparently Noveau Left – I score slightly left of center on political profiling tests, but I’m worried. A lot of this PC stuff seems extreme to me, sometimes just nonsense. Maybe it is, or maybe I should be lefter. But it’s not my choice. I don’t make the rules. Companies like Google make the rules, they even run the AI ethics groups. They decide much of what people see online, and even the meaning of the words. It’s very 1984-ish.

The trouble with the ‘echo chambers’ we heard about is that they soon normalize views to the loudest voices in those groups, and they don’t tend to be the moderates. We can expect it will go further to the extreme, not less. You probably aren’t left enough either. You should also be worried.

AI and activism, a Terminator-sized threat targeting you soon

You should be familiar with the Terminator scenario. If you aren’t then you should watch one of the Terminator series of films because you really should be aware of it. But there is another issue related to AI that is arguably as dangerous as the Terminator scenario, far more likely to occur and is a threat in the near term. What’s even more dangerous is that in spite of that, I’ve never read anything about it anywhere yet. It seems to have flown under our collective radar and is already close.

In short, my concern is that AI is likely to become a heavily armed Big Brother. It only requires a few components to come together that are already well in progress. Read this, and if you aren’t scared yet, read it again until you understand it 🙂

Already, social media companies are experimenting with using AI to identify and delete ‘hate’ speech. Various governments have asked them to do this, and since they also get frequent criticism in the media because some hate speech still exists on their platforms, it seems quite reasonable for them to try to control it. AI clearly offers potential to offset the huge numbers of humans otherwise needed to do the task.

Meanwhile, AI is already used very extensively by the same companies to build personal profiles on each of us, mainly for advertising purposes. These profiles are already alarmingly comprehensive, and increasingly capable of cross-linking between our activities across multiple platforms and devices. Latest efforts by Google attempt to link eventual purchases to clicks on ads. It will be just as easy to use similar AI to link our physical movements and activities and future social connections and communications to all such previous real world or networked activity. (Update: Intel intend their self-driving car technology to be part of a mass surveillance net, again, for all the right reasons: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4564480/Self-driving-cars-double-security-cameras.html)

Although necessarily secretive about their activities, government also wants personal profiles on its citizens, always justified by crime and terrorism control. If they can’t do this directly, they can do it via legislation and acquisition of social media or ISP data.

Meanwhile, other experiences with AI chat-bots learning to mimic human behaviors have shown how easily AI can be gamed by human activists, hijacking or biasing learning phases for their own agendas. Chat-bots themselves have become ubiquitous on social media and are often difficult to distinguish from humans. Meanwhile, social media is becoming more and more important throughout everyday life, with provably large impacts in political campaigning and throughout all sorts of activism.

Meanwhile, some companies have already started using social media monitoring to police their own staff, in recruitment, during employment, and sometimes in dismissal or other disciplinary action. Other companies have similarly started monitoring social media activity of people making comments about them or their staff. Some claim to do so only to protect their own staff from online abuse, but there are blurred boundaries between abuse, fair criticism, political difference or simple everyday opinion or banter.

Meanwhile, activists increasingly use social media to force companies to sack a member of staff they disapprove of, or drop a client or supplier.

Meanwhile, end to end encryption technology is ubiquitous. Malware creation tools are easily available.

Meanwhile, successful hacks into large company databases become more and more common.

Linking these various elements of progress together, how long will it be before activists are able to develop standalone AI entities and heavily encrypt them before letting them loose on the net? Not long at all I think.  These AIs would search and police social media, spotting people who conflict with the activist agenda. Occasional hacks of corporate databases will provide names, personal details, contacts. Even without hacks, analysis of publicly available data going back years of everyone’s tweets and other social media entries will provide the lists of people who have ever done or said anything the activists disapprove of.

When identified, they would automatically activate armies of chat-bots, fake news engines and automated email campaigns against them, with coordinated malware attacks directly on the person and indirect attacks by communicating with employers, friends, contacts, government agencies customers and suppliers to do as much damage as possible to the interests of that person.

Just look at the everyday news already about alleged hacks and activities during elections and referendums by other regimes, hackers or pressure groups. Scale that up and realize that the cost of running advanced AI is negligible.

With the very many activist groups around, many driven with extremist zeal, very many people will find themselves in the sights of one or more activist groups. AI will be able to monitor everyone, all the time.  AI will be able to target each of them at the same time to destroy each of their lives, anonymously, highly encrypted, hidden, roaming from server to server to avoid detection and annihilation, once released, impossible to retrieve. The ultimate activist weapon, that carries on the fight even if the activist is locked away.

We know for certain the depths and extent of activism, the huge polarization of society, the increasingly fierce conflict between left and right, between sexes, races, ideologies.

We know about all the nice things AI will give us with cures for cancer, better search engines, automation and economic boom. But actually, will the real future of AI be harnessed to activism? Will deliberate destruction of people’s everyday lives via AI be a real problem that is almost as dangerous as Terminator, but far more feasible and achievable far earlier?

AI is mainly a stimulative technology that will create jobs

AI has been getting a lot of bad press the last few months from doom-mongers predicting mass unemployment. Together with robotics, AI will certainly help automate a lot of jobs, but it will also create many more and will greatly increase quality of life for most people. By massively increasing the total effort available to add value to basic resources, it will increase the size of the economy and if that is reasonably well managed by governments, that will be for all our benefit. Those people who do lose their jobs and can’t find or create a new one could easily be supported by a basic income financed by economic growth. In short, unless government screws up, AI will bring huge benefits, far exceeding the problems it will bring.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve often written about the care economy, where the more advanced technology becomes, the more it allows to concentrate on those skills we consider fundamentally human – caring, interpersonal skills, direct human contact services, leadership, teaching, sport, the arts, the sorts of roles that need emphatic and emotional skills, or human experience. AI and robots can automate intellectual and physical tasks, but they won’t be human, and some tasks require the worker to be human. Also, in most careers, it is obvious that people focus less and less on those automatable tasks as they progress into the most senior roles. Many board members in big companies know little about the industry they work in compared to most of their lower paid workers, but they can do that job because being a board member is often more about relationships than intellect.

AI will nevertheless automate many tasks for many workers, and that will free up much of their time, increasing their productivity, which means we need fewer workers to do those jobs. On the other hand, Google searches that take a few seconds once took half a day of research in a library. We all do more with our time now thanks to such simple AI, and although all those half-days saved would add up to a considerable amount of saved work, and many full-time job equivalents, we don’t see massive unemployment. We’re all just doing better work. So we can’t necessarily conclude that increasing productivity will automatically mean redundancy. It might just mean that we will do even more, even better, like it has so far. Or at least, the volume of redundancy might be considerably less. New automated companies might never employ people in those roles and that will be straight competition between companies that are heavily automated and others that aren’t. Sometimes, but certainly not always, that will mean traditional companies will go out of business.

So although we can be sure that AI and robots will bring some redundancy in some sectors, I think the volume is often overestimated and often it will simply mean rapidly increasing productivity, and more prosperity.

But what about AI’s stimulative role? Jobs created by automation and AI. I believe this is what is being greatly overlooked by doom-mongers. There are three primary areas of job creation:

One is in building or programming robots, maintaining them, writing software, or teaching them skills, along with all the associated new jobs in supporting industry and infrastructure change. Many such jobs will be temporary, lasting a decade or so as machines gradually take over, but that transition period is extremely valuable and important. If anything, it will be a lengthy period of extra jobs and the biggest problem may well be filling those jobs, not widespread redundancy.

Secondly, AI and robots won’t always work direct with customers. Very often they will work via a human intermediary. A good example is in medicine. AI can make better diagnoses than a GP, and could be many times cheaper, but unless the patient is educated, and very disciplined and knowledgeable, it also needs a human with human skills to talk to a patient to make sure they put in correct information. How many times have you looked at an online medical diagnosis site and concluded you have every disease going? It is hard to be honest sometimes when you are free to interpret every possible symptom any way you want, much easier to want to be told that you have a special case of wonderful person syndrome. Having to explain to a nurse or technician what is wrong forces you to be more honest about it. They can ask you similar questions, but your answers will need to be moderated and sensible or you know they might challenge you and make you feel foolish. You will get a good diagnosis because the input data will be measured, normalized and scaled appropriately for the AI using it. When you call a call center and talk to a human, invariably they are already the front end of a massive AI system. Making that AI bigger and better won’t replace them, just mean that they can deal with your query better.

Thirdly, and I believe most importantly of all, AI and automation will remove many of the barriers that stop people being entrepreneurs. How many business ideas have you had and not bothered to implement because it was too much effort or cost or both for too uncertain a gain? 10? 100? 1000? Suppose you could just explain your idea to your home AI and it did it all for you. It checked the idea, made a model, worked out how to make it work or whether it was just a crap idea. It then explained to you what the options were and whether it would be likely to work, and how much you might earn from it, and how much you’d actually have to do personally and how much you could farm out to the cloud. Then AI checked all the costs and legal issues, did all the admin, raised the capital by explaining the idea and risks and costs to other AIs, did all the legal company setup, organised the logistics, insurance, supply chains, distribution chains, marketing, finance, personnel, ran the payroll and tax. All you’d have to do is some of the fun work that you wanted to do when you had the idea and it would find others or machines or AI to fill in the rest. In that sort of world, we’d all be entrepreneurs. I’d have a chain of tea shops and a fashion empire and a media empire and run an environmental consultancy and I’d be an artist and a designer and a composer and a genetic engineer and have a transport company and a construction empire. I don’t do any of that because I’m lazy and not at all entrepreneurial, and my ideas all ‘need work’ and the economy isn’t smooth and well run, and there are too many legal issues and regulations and it would all be boring as hell. If we automate it and make it run efficiently, and I could get as much AI assistance as I need or want at every stage, then there is nothing to stop me doing all of it. I’d create thousands of jobs, and so would many other people, and there would be more jobs than we have people to fill them, so we’d need to build even more AI and machines to fill the gaps caused by the sudden economic boom.

So why the doom? It isn’t justified. The bad news isn’t as bad as people make out, and the good news never gets a mention. Adding it together, AI will stimulate more jobs, create a bigger and a better economy, we’ll be doing far more with our lives and generally having a great time. The few people who will inevitably fall through the cracks could easily be financed by the far larger economy and the very generous welfare it can finance. We can all have the universal basic income as our safety net, but many of us will be very much wealthier and won’t need it.

 

Future sex, gender and relationships: how close can you get?

Using robots for gender play

Using robots for gender play

I recently gave a public talk at the British Academy about future sex, gender, and relationship, asking the question “How close can you get?”, considering particularly the impact of robots. The above slide is an example. People will one day (between 2050 and 2065 depending on their budget) be able to use an android body as their own or even swap bodies with another person. Some will do so to be young again, many will do so to swap gender. Lots will do both. I often enjoy playing as a woman in computer games, so why not ‘come back’ and live all over again as a woman for real? Except I’ll be 90 in 2050.

The British Academy kindly uploaded the audio track from my talk at

If you want to see the full presentation, here is the PowerPoint file as a pdf:

sex-and-robots-british-academy

I guess it is theoretically possible to listen to the audio while reading the presentation. Most of the slides are fairly self-explanatory anyway.

Needless to say, the copyright of the presentation belongs to me, so please don’t reproduce it without permission.

Enjoy.

Chat-bots will help reduce loneliness, a bit

Amazon is really pushing its Echo and Dot devices at the moment and some other companies also use Alexa in their own devices. They are starting to gain avatar front ends too. Microsoft has their Cortana transforming into Zo, Apple has Siri’s future under wraps for now. Maybe we’ll see Siri in a Sari soon, who knows. Thanks to rapidly developing AI, chatbots and other bots have also made big strides in recent years, so it’s obvious that the two can easily be combined. The new voice control interfaces could become chatbots to offer a degree of companionship. Obviously that isn’t as good as chatting to real people, but many, very many people don’t have that choice. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of our time. Sometimes people talk to themselves or to their pet cat, and chatting to a bot would at least get a real response some of the time. It goes further than simple interaction though.

I’m not trying to understate the magnitude of the loneliness problem, and it can’t solve it completely of course, but I think it will be a benefit to at least some lonely people in a few ways. Simply having someone to chat to will already be of some help. People will form emotional relationships with bots that they talk to a lot, especially once they have a visual front end such as an avatar. It will help some to develop and practice social skills if that is their problem, and for many others who feel left out of local activity, it might offer them real-time advice on what is on locally in the next few days that might appeal to them, based on their conversations. Talking through problems with a bot can also help almost as much as doing so with a human. In ancient times when I was a programmer, I’d often solve a bug by trying to explain how my program worked, and in doing so i would see the bug myself. Explaining it to a teddy bear would have been just as effective, the chat was just a vehicle for checking through the logic from a new angle. The same might apply to interactive conversation with a bot. Sometimes lonely people can talk too much about problems when they finally meet people, and that can act as a deterrent to future encounters, so that barrier would also be reduced. All in all, having a bot might make lonely people more able to get and sustain good quality social interactions with real people, and make friends.

Another benefit that has nothing to do with loneliness is that giving a computer voice instructions forces people to think clearly and phrase their requests correctly, just like writing a short computer program. In a society where so many people don’t seem to think very clearly or even if they can, often can’t express what they want clearly, this will give some much needed training.

Chatbots could also offer challenges to people’s thinking, even to help counter extremism. If people make comments that go against acceptable social attitudes or against known facts, a bot could present the alternative viewpoint, probably more patiently than another human who finds such viewpoints frustrating. I’d hate to see this as a means to police political correctness, though it might well be used in such a way by some providers, but it could improve people’s lack of understanding of even the most basic science, technology, culture or even politics, so has educational value. Even if it doesn’t convert people, it might at least help them to understand their own views more clearly and be better practiced at communicating their arguments.

Chat bots could make a significant contribution to society. They are just machines, but those machines are tools for other people and society as a whole to help more effectively.

 

AI presents a new route to attack corporate value

As AI increases in corporate, social, economic and political importance, it is becoming a big target for activists and I think there are too many vulnerabilities. I think we should be seeing a lot more articles than we are about what developers are doing to guard against deliberate misdirection or corruption, and already far too much enthusiasm for make AI open source and thereby giving mischief-makers the means to identify weaknesses.

I’ve written hundreds of times about AI and believe it will be a benefit to humanity if we develop it carefully. Current AI systems are not vulnerable to the terminator scenario, so we don’t have to worry about that happening yet. AI can’t yet go rogue and decide to wipe out humans by itself, though future AI could so we’ll soon need to take care with every step.

AI can be used in multiple ways by humans to attack systems.

First and most obvious, it can be used to enhance malware such as trojans or viruses, or to optimize denial of service attacks. AI enhanced security systems already battle against adaptive malware and AI can probe systems in complex ways to find vulnerabilities that would take longer to discover via manual inspection. As well as AI attacking operating systems, it can also attack AI by providing inputs that bias its learning and decision-making, giving AI ‘fake news’ to use current terminology. We don’t know the full extent of secret military AI.

Computer malware will grow in scope to address AI systems to undermine corporate value or political campaigns.

A new route to attacking corporate AI, and hence the value in that company that relates in some way to it is already starting to appear though. As companies such as Google try out AI-driven cars or others try out pavement/sidewalk delivery drones, so mischievous people are already developing devious ways to misdirect or confuse them. Kids will soon have such activity as hobbies. Deliberate deception of AI is much easier when people know how they work, and although it’s nice for AI companies to put their AI stuff out there into the open source markets for others to use to build theirs, that does rather steer future systems towards a mono-culture of vulnerability types. A trick that works against one future AI in one industry might well be adaptable to another use in another industry with a little devious imagination. Let’s take an example.

If someone builds a robot to deliberately step in front of a self-driving car every time it starts moving again, that might bring traffic to a halt, but police could quickly confiscate the robot, and they are expensive, a strong deterrent even if the pranksters are hiding and can’t be found. Cardboard cutouts might be cheaper though, even ones with hinged arms to look a little more lifelike. A social media orchestrated campaign against a company using such cars might involve thousands of people across a country or city deliberately waiting until the worst time to step out into a road when one of their vehicles comes along, thereby creating a sort of denial of service attack with that company seen as the cause of massive inconvenience for everyone. Corporate value would obviously suffer, and it might not always be very easy to circumvent such campaigns.

Similarly, the wheeled delivery drones we’ve been told to expect delivering packages any time soon will also have cameras to allow them to avoid bumping into objects or little old ladies or other people, or cats or dogs or cardboard cutouts or carefully crafted miniature tank traps or diversions or small roadblocks that people and pets can easily step over but drones can’t, that the local kids have built from a few twigs or cardboard from a design that has become viral that day. A few campaigns like that with the cold pizzas or missing packages that result could severely damage corporate value.

AI behind websites might also be similarly defeated. An early experiment in making a Twitter chat-bot that learns how to tweet by itself was quickly encouraged by mischief-makers to start tweeting offensively. If people have some idea how an AI is making its decisions, they will attempt to corrupt or distort it to their own ends. If it is heavily reliant on open source AI, then many of its decision processes will be known well enough for activists to develop appropriate corruption tactics. It’s not to early to predict that the proposed AI-based attempts by Facebook and Twitter to identify and defeat ‘fake news’ will fall right into the hands of people already working out how to use them to smear opposition campaigns with such labels.

It will be a sort of arms race of course, but I don’t think we’re seeing enough about this in the media. There is a great deal of hype about the various AI capabilities, a lot of doom-mongering about job cuts (and a lot of reasonable warnings about job cuts too) but very little about the fight back against AI systems by attacking them on their own ground using their own weaknesses.

That looks to me awfully like there isn’t enough awareness of how easily they can be defeated by deliberate mischief or activism, and I expect to see some red faces and corporate account damage as a result.

PS

This article appeared yesterday that also talks about the bias I mentioned: https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/10/5-unexpected-sources-of-bias-in-artificial-intelligence/

Since I wrote this blog, I was asked via Linked-In to clarify why I said that Open Source AI systems would have more security risk. Here is my response:

I wasn’t intending to heap fuel on a dying debate (though since current debate looks the same as in early 1990s it is dying slowly). I like and use open source too. I should have explained my reasoning better to facilitate open source checking: In regular (algorithmic) code, programming error rate should be similar so increasing the number of people checking should cancel out the risk from more contributors so there should be no a priori difference between open and closed. However:

In deep learning, obscurity reappears via neural net weightings being less intuitive to humans. That provides a tempting hiding place.

AI foundations are vulnerable to group-think, where team members share similar world models. These prejudices will affect the nature of OS and CS code and result in AI with inherent and subtle judgment biases which will be less easy to spot than bugs and be more visible to people with alternative world models. Those people are more likely to exist in an OS pool than a CS pool and more likely to be opponents so not share their results.

Deep learning may show the equivalent of political (or masculine and feminine). As well as encouraging group-think, that also distorts the distribution of biases and therefore the cancelling out of errors can no longer be assumed.

Human factors in defeating security often work better than exploiting software bugs. Some of the deep learning AI is designed to mimic humans as well as possible in thinking and in interfacing. I suspect that might also make them more vulnerable to meta-human-factor attacks. Again, exposure to different and diverse cultures will show a non-uniform distribution of error/bias spotting/disclosure/exploitation.

Deep learning will become harder for humans to understand as it develops and becomes more machine dependent. That will amplify the above weaknesses. Think of optical illusions that greatly distort human perception and think of similar in advanced AI deep learning. Errors or biases that are discovered will become more valuable to an opponent since they are less likely to be spotted by others, increasing their black market exploitation risk.

I have not been a programmer for over 20 years and am no security expert so my reasoning may be defective, but at least now you know what my reasoning was and can therefore spot errors in it.

Can we automate restaurant reviews?

Reviews are an important part of modern life. People often consult reviews before buying things, visiting a restaurant or booking a hotel. There are even reviews on the best seats to choose on planes. When reviews are honestly given, they can be very useful to potential buyers, but what if they aren’t honestly give? What if they are glowing reviews written by friends of the restaurant owners, or scathing reviews written by friends of the competition? What if the service received was fine, but the reviewer simply didn’t like the race or gender of the person delivering it? Many reviews fall into these categories, but of course we can’t be sure how many, because when someone writes a review, we don’t know whether they were being honest or not, or whether they are biased or not. Adding a category of automated reviews would add credibility provided the technology is independent of the establishment concerned.

Face recognition software is now so good that it can read lips better than human lip reading experts. It can be used to detect emotions too, distinguishing smiles or frowns, and whether someone is nervous, stressed or relaxed. Voice recognition can discern not only words but changes in pitch and volume that might indicate their emotional context. Wearable devices can also detect emotions such as stress.

Given this wealth of technology capability, cameras and microphones in a restaurant could help verify human reviews and provide machine reviews. Using the checking in process it can identify members of a group that might later submit a review, and thus compare their review with video and audio records of the visit to determine whether it seems reasonably true. This could be done by machine using analysis of gestures, chat and facial expressions. If the person giving a poor review looked unhappy with the taste of the food while they were eating it, then it is credible. If their facial expression were of sheer pleasure and the review said it tasted awful, then that review could be marked as not credible, and furthermore, other reviews by that person could be called into question too. In fact, guests would in effect be given automated reviews of their credibility. Over time, a trust rating would accrue, that could be used to group other reviews by credibility rating.

Totally automated reviews could also be produced, by analyzing facial expressions, conversations and gestures across a whole restaurant full of people. These machine reviews would be processed in the cloud by trusted review companies and could give star ratings for restaurants. They could even take into account what dishes people were eating to give ratings for each dish, as well as more general ratings for entire chains.

Service could also be automatically assessed to some degree too. How long were the people there before they were greeted/served/asked for orders/food delivered. The conversation could even be automatically transcribed in many cases, so comments about rudeness or mistakes could be verified.

Obviously there are many circumstances where this would not work, but there are many where it could, so AI might well become an important player in the reviews business. At a time when restaurants are closing due to malicious bad reviews, or ripping people off in spite of poor quality thanks to dishonest positive reviews, then this might help a lot. A future where people are forced to be more honest in their reviews because they know that AI review checking could damage their reputation if they are found to have been dishonest might cause some people to avoid reviewing altogether, but it could improve the reliability of the reviews that still do happen.

Still not perfect, but it could be a lot better than today, where you rarely know how much a review can be trusted.