Category Archives: technology

High-rise external evacuation

A quick googling turned up this great idea, using an escape chute attached to the top of a fire crane. The chute has a fireproof external layer and people slow or speed their descent in it simply by varying their posture. Read the pdf for more details:

http://www.escapeconsult.biz/download.php?module=prod&id=26

But the picture tells all you need to know. You can see it reaches very high, up to 100m with the tallest fire appliance.

It is a great idea, but you can still see how it could be improved, and the manufacturer may well already have better versions on the way.

Firstly, the truck is already leaning, even though it has extendable feet to increase the effective base area. This affects all free-standing fire rescue cranes and ladders (suspension ladders, or ladders able to lean against a wall obviously include other forces). Physics dictates that the center of gravity, with the evacuees included, must remain above the base or it will start to topple. The higher it reaches and the further from the truck, the harder that becomes, and the fewer people can simultaneously use the escape chute. Clearly if it is go even higher, we need to find new ways of keeping the base and center of gravity aligned, or to prevent it toppling by leaning the ladder securely against a sound piece of wall that isn’t above a fire.

One solution is obvious. Usually with a high-rise fire, a number of fire appliances would be there. By linking several appliances to the ladder in a stable pattern, the base area then becomes far larger, the entire area enclosed by the combined appliances. At the very least, they can spread out across a street, and sometimes as in the Grenfell Tower fire, there is a lot of nearby space to spread over. With a number of fire appliances, the crane is also not limited to the carrying capacity of a single appliance.

If theses are specialist hi-rise appliances, one or two would carry telescopic arms to support the rescue equipment, with one or more trucks using tension wires to increase the base area.

We also need to speed up entry to the chute and preferably make it accessible to more windows. The existing system has access via a small hole that might be slow to pass through, and challenging for larger people or those with less mobility. A funneled design would allow people to jump in from several windows or even drop from a floor above. Designing the access to prevent simultaneous arrivals at the chute is easy enough, even if several people jump in together

Also, it would be good if the chute could take evacuees away from the building and flames as fast as possible. Getting them to the ground is a lesser priority. Designing the funnel so it crosses several windows, with a steep slope away from the building (like an airplane escape slide) before it enters the downward chute would do that.

Another enhancement would be that instead of a broad funnel and single chute, a number of chutes could be suspended, with one for each window. Several people would be able to descend down different chutes at the same time. with a much broader base area, toppling risk would still be greatly reduced.

If a few support arms could be extended from the crane towards the building, that would provide extra stability until their strength (or building fabric) is compromised by fire. Further support might sometimes be available from window cleaning platform apparatus that could support the weight of the rescue chutes. If emergency escape chutes are built into the platforms could even make for an instant escape system before fire services arrive.

With these relatively straightforward enhancements, this evacuation system would be even better and would allow many people to escape who otherwise wouldn’t. OK, here’s a badly drawn pic:

Fighting fires on tall buildings

Fires in tall buildings over the years have led to many improvements in designs that prevent them from starting or from taking hold, and then if they do, to slow down their spread. Thankfully they are very rare. Existing technology is also very limiting. Ground-based fire appliances can only rescue people from lower floors and can only spray water onto a few floors above that. Fire extinguishers and internal sprinkler systems can obviously help put fires out or slow them spreading if they are actually present and if a few people are willing to take risks. That there were none in Grenfell Tower is simply beyond comprehension. Negligence, incompetence and complacency don’t begin to cover what needs to be said.

However brave firefighters are, and nobody doubts their bravery, they will need better tools to do the job, they are simply not equipped to fight fires in skyscrapers such as we just had. People should not die if there are potential solutions. Some are feasible now, but I am not aware of their use.

External fires such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London recently can’t be fought fully by either internal sprinklers or ground-based hoses. We need new techniques capable of dealing with such fires. A quick googling on future fire fighting is surprisingly disappointing. Even googling future firefighting doesn’t turn up much. Most is about fancy new imaging kit or protective uniforms with embedded sensors. All great stuff, but it won’t stop another Grenfell. I’m no expert in this field, so maybe I just haven’t used the right search terms, but it shouldn’t be as easy as it is to think up solutions that are not already in use. Maybe there are good reasons why the following are not in conspicuous use yet, but I can’t think of any. None of what follows is rocket science.

Water tanks on roofs could be attached to tubing around the perimeter of the building roof, and remotely operable valves could then be used by ground crews to release water in curtains down a side of the building. Obviously capacity is finite, but after initial quenching, continuous water flow from the roof would help, however little. Large tanks could be installed if none are present to add safety to existing building with poor cladding.

A way of getting firefighting kit high up is to use the platforms provided for window cleaning. They could be lowered to below the fire and fire pumps could be put on them, or at least anchorages for steerable hoses. This does not need firefighters to be on them, they could stay below. Clearly, roof kit might eventually fail and wires might break, but meanwhile they could help alleviate the problem and buy time at the very least. If firefighter lives are not put at risk to do it, there is little penalty.

External sprinkler tubes could also be fitted that could be connected to water supplies just below and external fire. This might buy one of two floors of relative safety above and greatly reduce smoke from outside. They don’t even need to have sophisticated nozzles. All they need to do to be useful is to spray some water on some of the external fire. Even if sub-optimal, they would buy a little time.

Drones offer one potential assistance route. Two types are relevant. One is very well known already and I would expect is already in use: Conventional drones can carry cameras and other sensors to higher floors to monitor what is happening, offer assisted networking for internal firefighters, offer firefighters alternative views of the action, enable local and accurate positioning systems, and provide computer-enhanced imaging to augmented reality helmets.

Secondly, high power tethered drones could be powered by connected electrics from the ground, so avoiding the battery and power limitations of conventional drones. They could reach high floors and stay there while supporting hoses from the ground or from lower floors, and might even be able to hold pumps if ground pressure can’t be made high enough. These would offer helicopter-type functionality or lifting capacity without having to go back and forth to refill with water or fuel. Cost would be relatively high, but fire departments would not need many.

Once an external wall is made free of fire, drones and window-cleaning platforms could be used in rescues.

Obviously a lot has been written about futuristic imaging, sensing, navigation and bio-sign monitoring for firefighters, as well as deploying robotic firefighters that can work down from roofs, relatively immune to fire and smoke, so I won’t bother repeating here what is already known well. What is apparently lacking sometimes is low-tech kit and making it actually present.

If these systems are already well known but there are good reasons why they don’t feature, then I have wasted your time.

 

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Vertical solar farms, the next perpetual motion machine

I am a big fan of hydroponics. LED lighting allows growers to deliver a spectrum optimised for plant growth and they can get many times the productivity from a square metre inside under lighting than outside. In the right context, it’s a great idea. Here is a nice image from GE Reports , albeit with pointless scanning.

I don’t think much however of the various ‘futuristic’ artist impressions of external vertical farms with trees likely to fall on pedestrians from 20 floors up. Like this one, described as an ‘environmental alternative’. No it isn’t, its a daft idea that makes a pretty picture, not an alternative.

But as far as silliness is concerned, I suspect I can see one that is coming soon: the vertical solar farm. Here is how it will work, cough. Actually two ways.

PLEASE DON’T TAKE THE FOLLOWING SERIOUSLY!

A lot of external solar panels on a building will gather solar energy (or solar paint, whatever), and that wonderful renewable energy will then be used to power super-efficient LED lights, illuminating highly efficient solar panels inside. The LED banks and solar panels will be arranged in numerous layers to make lots of nice clean energy. The resultant ‘energy amplifier’ will appear.

A more complex version will use hydroponics instead, converting the externally gather solar energy into plant material to make biofuel to make energy to power the lights during the night.

Some clever-clogs will then work out that the external panels are not needed since the internal panels will make the light to power the LEDs 24/7. People will object, but they’ll just point at the rapidly growing efficiencies of both LEDs and solar panels, especially coupled to other enhancements such as picking the right spectrum for the LEDs. How can it not work?

You know as well as I do, I hope, that this is total nonsense and will remain so. However, you also know as well as I do that some people are very easily taken in. Personally, I can’t wait to see the first claims from some Green company. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they manage to get a development grant. It would be hilarious if something like this makes it through a patent office somewhere. Perpetual machines don’t go extinct, they just evolve.

Actually, I’m more upset that it isn’t April 1st.

The new dark age

dark age 2017coverAs promised, here is a slide-set illustrating the previous blog, just click the link if the slides are not visible.

The new dark age

Trump’s still an idiot but he was right to dump Paris

Climate change has always been in play. It is in play now. Many scientists think that the rise in global temperatures towards the end of the 1990s was largely due to human factors, namely CO2 emissions. Some of it undoubtedly is, but almost certainly nowhere near as much as these scientists believe. Because they put far too much emphasis on CO2 as the driving factor, almost as a meta religion, they downplay or refuse to acknowledge other important factors, such as long term ocean cycles, solar cycles, and poorly model forests and soil-air interchange. Because they rely on this one-factor-fits-all explanation for climate changing, they struggle to explain ‘the pause’ whereby temperatures leveled off even as CO2 levels continued to rise, and can’t explain why post El-Nino temperatures have now returned to that pause level. In short, their ‘science’ is nothing more than a weak set of theories very poorly correlating with observations.

A good scientist, when confronted with real world observations that conflict with their theory throws that theory in the bin and comes up with a better one. When a scientist’s comfy and lucrative job depends on their theory being correct, their response may not be to try to do better science that risks their project ending, but to hide facts, adjust and distort them, misrepresent them in graphs, draw false conclusions from falsified data to try to keep their messages of doom and their models’ predictions sounding plausible. Sadly, that does seem to me and very many other scientists to be what has been happening in so-called climate science. Many high quality scientists in the field have been forced to leave it, and many have had their papers rejected and their reputations attacked. The few brave honest scientists left in the field must put up with constant name-calling by peers whose livelihoods are threatened by honesty. Group-think has become established to the point where anyone not preaching the authorized climate change religion must be subjected to the Spanish Inquisition. Natural self-selection of new recruits into the field from greens and environmentalists mean that new members of the field will almost all follow the holy book. It is ironic that the Pope is on the side of these climate alarmists. Climate ‘science’ is simply no longer worthy of the name. ‘Climate change’ is now a meta-religion, and its messages of imminent doom and desperate demands for urgent wealth redistribution have merged almost fully into the political left. The right rejects it, the left accepts it. That isn’t science, it’s just politics.

Those of us outside the field have a hard time finding good science. There are plenty of blogs on both sides making scientific sounding arguments and showing nice graphs, but it is impossible for a scientist or engineer to look at it over time and not notice a pattern. Over the last decades, ‘climate scientists’ have made apocalyptic predictions in rapid succession, none of which seem ever to actually happen. Almost all of their computer models have consistently greatly overestimated the warming we should have seen by now, we should by now rarely see snow, and there should be no ice left in the Arctic. Sea levels should be far higher than they are too. Arctic ice is slightly below average, much the same as a decade ago. Polar bears are more abundant than for several decades. A couple of years ago we had record ice in the antarctic. Sea level is still rising at about the same rate as it has for the last 100s of years. Greenland is building more ice mass than ever. Every time there is a strong wind we’re told about climate change, but we rarely see any mention of the fastest drop in temperatures on record after the recent El-Nino, the great polar bear recovery or the record Antarctic ice when that happened. It is a one way street of doom that hides facts that don’t play to the hymn book.

In a private industry, at least in ones that aren’t making profits from climate change alarmism or renewable energy, like Elon Musk’s car, solar power and battery companies for example (do you think that might be why he is upset with Trump), scientists as bad as that would have lost their jobs many years ago. Most climate scientists work in state-funded institutions or universities and both tend towards left wing politics of course, so it is not surprising that they have left wing bias distorting their prejudices and consequently their theories and proposed solutions.

Grants are handed out by politicians, who want to look good and win votes, so are always keen to follow policies that are popular in the media. Very few politicians have any scientific understanding, so they are easily hoodwinked by simple manipulation of graphs whereby trends are always shown with the start point at the beginning of the last upwards incline, and where data is routinely changed to fit the message of doom. Few politicians can understand the science and few challenge why data has been changed or hidden. A strong community of religious followers is happy to eagerly and endlessly repeat fraudulent claims such as that “97% of scientists agree…”, mudslinging at anyone who disagrees.

Even if the doom was all true, Paris was still a very bad idea. Even if CO2 were as bad as claimed, the best response to that is to work out realistically how much CO2 is likely to be produced in the future, how fast alternative energy sources could become economic, which ones give the best value per CO2 unit until we get those economic replacements, and to formulate a sensible plan that maximizes bang per buck to ensure that the climate stays OK while spending at the right times to keep on track at the lowest cost. In my 2007 paper, I pointed out that CO2 will decline anyway once photo-voltaic solar becomes cheap enough, as it will even without any government action at all. I pointed out that it makes far more sense to save our pennies until it is cheaper and then get far more in place far faster, for the same spend, thereby still fixing the problem but at far lower costs. Instead, idiotic governments in Europe and especially the UK (and now today May vowing to continue such idiocy) have crippled households with massive subsidies to rich landowners to put renewable energy in place while it is still very expensive, with guarantees to those rich investors of high incomes for decades. The fiasco with subsidizing wood burning in Northern Ireland shows the enormous depths of government stupidity in these area, with some farmers making millions by wasting as much heat as they possibly could to maximize their subsidy incomes. That shows without any doubt the numerical and scientific public-sector illiteracy in play. Via other subsidies for wind, solar, wave and tidal systems, eEvery UK household will have to pay several hundreds of pounds more every year for energy, just so that a negligible impact on temperatures starts to occur neglibly earlier. Large numbers of UK jobs have already been lost to overseas from energy intensive industries. Those activities still occur, the CO2 is still produced, often with far lower environmental and employment standards. No Gain, lots of pain.

Enormous economic damage for almost zero benefit is not good government. A good leader would investigate the field until they could at least see there was still a lot of scientific debate about the facts and causes. A good leader would suspect the motivations of those manipulating data and showing misrepresentative graphs. A good leader would tell them to come back with unbiased data and unbiased graphs and honest theories or be dismissed. Trump has already taken the first step by calling a halt to the stupidity of ‘all pain for no gain’. He now needs to tackle NASA and NOAA and find a solution to get honest science reinstated in what were once credible and respected organisations. That honest science needs to follow up suggestions that because of solar activity reducing, we may in fact be heading into a prolonged period of cooling, as suggested by teams in Europe and Russia. At the very least, that might prevent the idiots currently planning to start geoengineering to reduce temperature to counteract catastrophic global warming, just as nature takes us into a cooling phase. Such mistimed stupidity could kick-start a new ice age. To remind you, climate scientists 45 years ago were warning that we were heading into an ice age and wanted to cover the arctic with black carbon to prevent runaway ice formation.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas. So is methane. We certainly should keep a watch on emissions and study the climate constantly to check that everything is OK. But that must be done by good scientists practicing actual science, whereby theories are changed to fit the observations, not the other way around. We should welcome development of solar power and storage solutions by companies like Musk’s, but there is absolutely no hurry and no need to subsidize any of that activity. Free market economics will give us cheap renewable energy regardless of government intervention, regardless of subsidy.

We didn’t need Kyoto and we didn’t need Paris. Kyoto didn’t work anyway and Paris causes economic redistribution and a great deal of wastage of money and resources, but no significant climate benefit. We certainly don’t want any more pain for no gain. It is right that we should still help poor countries to the very best of our ability, but we should do that without conflating science with religion and politics.

Trump may still be an idiot, but he was right on this occasion and should now follow on by fixing climate science. May should follow and take the UK out of the climate alarmist damage zone too. Making people poor or jobless for no good reason is not something I can vote for.

AI Activism Part 2: The libel fields

This follows directly from my previous blog on AI activism, but you can read that later if you haven’t already. Order doesn’t matter.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/ai-and-activism-a-terminator-sized-threat-targeting-you-soon/

Older readers will remember an emotionally powerful 1984 film called The Killing Fields, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge’s activity in Cambodia, aka the Communist Part of Kampuchea. Under Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocide of 2 to 3 million people was part of a social engineering policy of de-urbanization. People were tortured and murdered (some in the ‘killing fields’ near Phnom Penh) for having connections with former government of foreign governments, for being the wrong race, being ‘economic saboteurs’ or simply for being professionals or intellectuals .

You’re reading this, therefore you fit in at least the last of these groups and probably others, depending on who’s making the lists. Most people don’t read blogs but you do. Sorry, but that makes you a target.

As our social divide increases at an accelerating speed throughout the West, so the choice of weapons is moving from sticks and stones or demonstrations towards social media character assassination, boycotts and forced dismissals.

My last blog showed how various technology trends are coming together to make it easier and faster to destroy someone’s life and reputation. Some of that stuff I was writing about 20 years ago, such as virtual communities lending hardware to cyber-warfare campaigns, other bits have only really become apparent more recently, such as the deliberate use of AI to track personality traits. This is, as I wrote, a lethal combination. I left a couple of threads untied though.

Today, the big AI tools are owned by the big IT companies. They also own the big server farms on which the power to run the AI exists. The first thread I neglected to mention is that Google have made their AI an open source activity. There are lots of good things about that, but for the purposes of this blog, that means that the AI tools required for AI activism will also be largely public, and pressure groups and activist can use them as a start-point for any more advanced tools they want to make, or just use them off-the-shelf.

Secondly, it is fairly easy to link computers together to provide an aggregated computing platform. The SETI project was the first major proof of concept of that ages ago. Today, we take peer to peer networks for granted. When the activist group is ‘the liberal left’ or ‘the far right’, that adds up to a large number of machines so the power available for any campaign is notionally very large. Harnessing it doesn’t need IT skill from contributors. All they’d need to do is click a box on a email or tweet asking for their support for a campaign.

In our new ‘post-fact’, fake news era, all sides are willing and able to use social media and the infamous MSM to damage the other side. Fakes are becoming better. Latest AI can imitate your voice, a chat-bot can decide what it should say after other AI has recognized what someone has said and analysed the opportunities to ruin your relationship with them by spoofing you. Today, that might not be quite credible. Give it a couple more years and you won’t be able to tell. Next generation AI will be able to spoof your face doing the talking too.

AI can (and will) evolve. Deep learning researchers have been looking deeply at how the brain thinks, how to make neural networks learn better and to think better, how to design the next generation to be even smarter than humans could have designed it.

As my friend and robotic psychiatrist Joanne Pransky commented after my first piece, “It seems to me that the real challenge of AI is the human users, their ethics and morals (Their ‘HOS’ – Human Operating System).” Quite! Each group will indoctrinate their AI to believe their ethics and morals are right, and that the other lot are barbarians. Even evolutionary AI is not immune to religious or ideological bias as it evolves. Superhuman AI will be superhuman, but might believe even more strongly in a cause than humans do. You’d better hope the best AI is on your side.

AI can put articles, blogs and tweets out there, pretending to come from you or your friends, colleagues or contacts. They can generate plausible-sounding stories of what you’ve done or said, spoof emails in fake accounts using your ID to prove them.

So we’ll likely see activist AI armies set against each other, running on peer to peer processing clouds, encrypted to hell and back to prevent dismantling. We’ve all thought about cyber-warfare, but we usually only think about viruses or keystroke recorders, or more lately, ransom-ware. These will still be used too as small weapons in future cyber-warfare, but while losing files or a few bucks from an account is a real nuisance, losing your reputation, having it smeared all over the web, with all your contacts being told what you’ve done or said, and shown all the evidence, there is absolutely no way you could possible explain your way convincingly out of every one of those instances. Mud does stick, and if you throw tons of it, even if most is wiped off, much will remain. Trust is everything, and enough doubt cast will eventually erode it.

So, we’ve seen  many times through history the damage people are willing to do to each other in pursuit of their ideology. The Khmer Rouge had their killing fields. As political divide increases and battles become fiercer, the next 10 years will give us The Libel Fields.

You are an intellectual. You are one of the targets.

Oh dear!

 

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.

 

Google v Facebook – which contributes most to humanity?

Please don’t take this too seriously, it’s intended as just a bit of fun. All of it is subjective and just my personal opinion of the two companies.

Google’s old motto of ‘do no evil’ has taken quite a battering over the last few years, but my overall feeling towards them remains somewhat positive overall. Facebook’s reputation has also become muddied somewhat, but I’ve never been an active user and always found it supremely irritating when I’ve visited to change privacy preferences or read a post only available there, so I guess I am less positive towards them. I only ever post to Facebook indirectly via this blog and twitter. On the other hand, both companies do a lot of good too. It is impossible to infer good or bad intent because end results arise from a combination of intent and many facets of competence such as quality of insight, planning, competence, maintenance, response to feedback and many others. So I won’t try to differentiate intent from competence and will just stick to casual amateur observation of the result. In order to facilitate score-keeping of the value of their various acts, I’ll use a scale from very harmful to very beneficial, -10 to +10.

Google (I can’t bring myself to discuss Alphabet) gave us all an enormous gift of saved time, improved productivity and better self-fulfilment by effectively replacing a day in the library with a 5 second online search. We can all do far more and live richer lives as a result. They have continued to build on that since, adding extra features and improved scope. It’s far from perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than we had before. Score: +10

Searches give Google a huge and growing data pool covering the most intimate details of every aspect of our everyday lives. You sort of trust them not to blackmail you or trash your life, but you know they could. The fact remains that they actually haven’t. It is possible that they might be waiting for the right moment to destroy the world, but it seems unlikely. Taking all our intimate data but choosing not to end the world yet: Score +9

On the other hand, they didn’t do either of those things purely through altruism. We all pay a massive price: advertising. Advertising is like a tax. Almost every time you buy something, part of the price you pay goes to advertisers. I say almost because Futurizon has never paid a penny yet for advertising and yet we have sold lots, and I assume that many other organisations can say the same, but most do advertise, and altogether that siphons a huge amount from our economy. Google takes lots of advertising revenue, but if they didn’t take it, other advertisers would, so I can only give a smallish negative for that: Score -3

That isn’t the only cost though. We all spend very significant time getting rid of ads, wasting time by clicking on them, finding, downloading and configuring ad-blockers to stop them, re-configuring them to get entry to sites that try to stop us from using ad-blockers, and often paying per MB for unsolicited ad downloads to our mobiles. I don’t need to quantify that to give all that a score of -9.

They are still 7 in credit so they can’t moan too much.

Tax? They seem quite good at minimizing their tax contributions, while staying within the letter of the law, while also paying good lawyers to argue what the letter of the law actually says. Well, most of us try at least a bit to avoid paying taxes we don’t have to pay. Google claims to be doing us all a huge favor by casting light on the gaping holes in international tax law that let them do it, much like a mugger nicely shows you the consequences of inadequate police coverage by enthusiastically mugging you. Noting the huge economic problems caused across the world by global corporates paying far less tax than would seem reasonable to the average small-business-owner, I can’t honestly see how this could live comfortably with their do-no evil mantra. Score: -8

On the other hand, if they paid all that tax, we all know governments would cheerfully waste most of it. Instead, Google chooses to do some interesting things with it. They gave us Google Earth, which at least morally cancels out their ‘accidental’ uploading of everyone’s wireless data as their street-view cars went past.They have developed self-driving cars. They have bought and helped develop Deep-mind and their quantum computer. They have done quite a bit for renewable energy. They have spent some on high altitude communications planes supposedly to bring internet to the rural parts of the developing world. When I were a lad, I wanted to be a rich bastard so I could do all that. Now, I watch as the wealthy owners of these big companies do it instead. I am fairly happy with that. I get the results and didn’t have to make the effort. We get less tax, but at least we get some nice toys. Almost cancels. Score +6

They are trying to use their AI to analyse massive data pools of medical records to improve medicine. Score +2

They are also building their databases more while doing that but we don’t yet see the downside. We have to take what they are doing on trust until evidence shows otherwise.

Google has tried and failed at many things that were going to change the world and didn’t, but at least they tried. Most of us don’t even try. Score +2

Oh yes, they bought YouTube, so I should factor that in. Mostly harmless and can be fun. Score: +2

Almost forgot Gmail too. Score +3

I’m done. Total Google contribution to humanity: +14

Well done! Could do even better.

I’ve almost certainly overlooked some big pluses and minuses, but I’ll leave it here for now.

Now Facebook.

It’s obviously a good social network site if you want that sort of thing. It lets people keep in touch with each other, find old friends and make new ones. It lets others advertise their products and services, and others to find or spread news. That’s all well and good and even if I and many other people don’t want it, many others do, so it deserves a good score, even if it isn’t as fantastic as Google’s search, that almost everyone uses, all the time. Score +5

Connected, but separate from simply keeping in touch, is the enormous pleasure value people presumably get from socializing. Not me personally, but ‘people’. Score +8

On the downside: Quite a lot of problems result from people, especially teens, spending too much time on Facebook. I won’t reproduce the results of all the proper academic  studies here, but we’ve all seen various negative reports: people get lower grades in their exams, people get bullied, people become socially competitive – boasting about their successes while other people feel insecure or depressed when others seem to be doing better, or are prettier, or have more friends. Keeping in touch is good, but cutting bits off others’ egos to build your own isn’t. It is hard not to conclude that the negative uses of keeping in touch outweigh the positive ones. Long-lived bad-feelings outweigh short-lived ego-boosts. Score: -8

Within a few years of birth, Facebook evolved from a keeping-in-touch platform to a general purpose mini-web. Many people were using Facebook to do almost everything that others would do on the entire web. Being in a broom cupboard is fine for 5 minutes if you’re playing hide and seek, but it is not desirable as a permanent state. Still, it is optional, so isn’t that bad per se: Score: -3

In the last 2 or 3 years, it has evolved further, albeit probably unintentionally, to become a political bubble, as has become very obvious in Brexit and the US Presidential Election, though it was already apparent well before those. Facebook may not have caused the increasing divide we are seeing between left and right, across the whole of the West, but it amplifies it. Again, I am not implying any intent, just observing the result. Most people follow people and media that echoes their own value judgments. They prefer resonance to dissonance. They prefer to have their views reaffirmed than to be disputed. When people find a comfortable bubble where they feel they belong, and stay there, it is easy for tribalism to take root and flourish, with demonization of the other not far behind. We are now seeing that in our bathtub society, with two extremes and a rapidly shallowing in-between that was not long ago the vast majority. Facebook didn’t create human nature; rather, it is a victim of it, but nonetheless it provides a near-monopoly social network that facilitates such political bubbles and their isolation while doing far too little to encourage integration in spite of its plentiful resources. Dangerous and Not Good. Score -10

On building databases of details of our innermost lives, managing not to use the data to destroy our lives but instead only using it to sell ads, they compare with Google. I’ll score that the same total for the same reasons: Net Score -3

Tax? Quantities are different, but eagerness to avoid tax seems similar to Google. Principles matter. So same score: -8

Assorted messaging qualifies as additional to the pure social networking side I think so I’ll generously give them an extra bit for that: Score +2

They occasionally do good things with it like Google though. They also are developing a high altitude internet, and are playing with space exploration. Tiny bit of AI stuff, but not much else has crossed my consciousness. I think it is far less than Google but still positive, so I’ll score: +3

I honestly can’t think of any other significant contributions from Facebook to make the balance more positive, and I tried. I think they want to make a positive contribution, but are too focused on income to tackle the social negatives properly.

Total Facebook contribution to humanity: -14.

Oh dear! Must do better.

Conclusion: We’d be a lot worse off without Google. Even with their faults, they still make a great contribution to humankind. Maybe not quite a ‘do no evil’ rating, but certainly they qualify for ‘do net good’. On the other hand, sadly, I have to say that my analysis suggests we’d be a lot better off without Facebook. As much better off without them as we benefit by having Google.

If I have left something major out, good or bad, for either company please feel free to add your comments. I have deliberately left out their backing of their own political leanings and biases because whether you think they are good or bad depends where you are coming from. They’d only score about +/-3 anyway, which isn’t a game changer.

 

 

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.