Tag Archives: robotics

Futurist memories: The leisure society and the black box economy

Things don’t always change as fast as we think. This is a piece I wrote in 1994 looking forward to a fully automated ‘black box economy, a fly-by-wire society. Not much I’d change if I were writing it new today. Here:

The black box economy is a strictly theoretical possibility, but may result where machines gradually take over more and more roles until the whole economy is run by machines, with everything automated. People could be gradually displaced by intelligent systems, robots and automated machinery. If this were to proceed to the ultimate conclusion, we could have a system with the same or even greater output as the original society, but with no people involved. The manufacturing process could thus become a ‘black box’. Such a system would be so machine controlled that humans would not easily be able to pick up the pieces if it crashed – they would simply not understand how it works, or could not control it. It would be a fly-by-wire society.

The human effort could be reduced to simple requests. When you want a new television, a robot might come and collect the old one, recycling the materials and bringing you a new one. Since no people need be involved and the whole automated system could be entirely self-maintaining and self-sufficient there need be no costs. This concept may be equally applicable in other sectors, such as services and information – ultimately producing more leisure time.

Although such a system is theoretically possible – energy is free in principle, and resources are ultimately a function of energy availability – it is unlikely to go quite this far. We may go some way along this road, but there will always be some jobs that we don’t want to automate, so some people may still work. Certainly, far fewer people would need to work in such a system, and other people could spend their time in more enjoyable pursuits, or in voluntary work. This could be the leisure economy we were promised long ago. Just because futurists predicted it long ago and it hasn’t happened yet does not mean it never will. Some people would consider it Utopian, while others possibly a nightmare, it’s just a matter of taste.


Guest Post: Blade Runner 2049 is the product of decades of fear propaganda. It’s time to get enlightened about AI and optimistic about the future

This post from occasional contributor Chris Moseley

News from several months ago that more than 100 experts in robotics and artificial intelligence were calling on the UN to ban the development and use of killer robots is a reminder of the power of humanity’s collective imagination. Stimulated by countless science fiction books and films, robotics and AI is a potent feature of what futurist Alvin Toffler termed ‘future shock’. AI and robots have become the public’s ‘technology bogeymen’, more fearsome curse than technological blessing.

And yet curiously it is not so much the public that is fomenting this concern, but instead the leading minds in the technology industry. Names such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking were among the most prominent individuals on a list of 116 tech experts who have signed an open letter asking the UN to ban autonomous weapons in a bid to prevent an arms race.

These concerns appear to emanate from decades of titillation, driven by pulp science fiction writers. Such writers are insistent on foretelling a dark, foreboding future where intelligent machines, loosed from their binds, destroy mankind. A case in point – this autumn, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been released. Blade Runner,and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, are of course a glorious tour de force of story-telling and amazing special effects. The concept for both films came from US author Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which androids are claimed to possess no sense of empathy eventually require killing (“retiring”) when they go rogue. Dick’s original novel is an entertaining, but an utterly bleak vision of the future, without much latitude to consider a brighter, more optimistic alternative.

But let’s get real here. Fiction is fiction; science is science. For the men and women who work in the technology industry the notion that myriad Frankenstein monsters can be created from robots and AI technology is assuredly both confused and histrionic. The latest smart technologies might seem to suggest a frightful and fateful next step, a James Cameron Terminator nightmare scenario. It might suggest a dystopian outcome, but rational thought ought to lead us to suppose that this won’t occur because we have historical precedent on our side. We shouldn’t be drawn to this dystopian idée fixe because summoning golems and ghouls ignores today’s global arsenal of weapons and the fact that, more 70 years after Hiroshima, nuclear holocaust has been kept at bay.

By stubbornly pursuing the dystopian nightmare scenario, we are denying ourselves from marvelling at the technologies which are in fact daily helping mankind. Now frame this thought in terms of human evolution. For our ancient forebears a beneficial change in physiology might spread across the human race over the course of a hundred thousand years. Today’s version of evolution – the introduction of a compelling new technology – spreads throughout a mass audience in a week or two.

Curiously, for all this light speed evolution mass annihilation remains absent – we live on, progressing, evolving and improving ourselves.

And in the workplace, another domain where our unyielding dealers of dystopia have exercised their thoughts, technology is of course necessarily raising a host of concerns about the future. Some of these concerns are based around a number of misconceptions surrounding AI. Machines, for example, are not original thinkers and are unable to set their own goals. And although machine learning is able to acquire new information through experience, for the most part they are still fed information to process. Humans are still needed to set goals, provide data to fuel artificial intelligence and apply critical thinking and judgment. The familiar symbiosis of humans and machines will continue to be salient.

Banish the menace of so-called ‘killer robots’ and AI taking your job, and a newer, fresher world begins to emerge. With this more optimistic mind-set in play, what great feats can be accomplished through the continued interaction between artificial intelligence, robotics and mankind?

Blade Runner 2049 is certainly great entertainment – as Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph’s film critic writes, “Roger Deakins’s head-spinning cinematography – which, when it’s not gliding over dust-blown deserts and teeming neon chasms, keeps finding ingenious ways to make faces and bodies overlap, blend and diffuse.” – but great though the art is, isn’t it time to change our thinking and recast the world in a more optimistic light?


Just a word about the film itself. Broadly, director Denis Villeneuve’s done a tremendous job with Blade Runner 2049. One stylistic gripe, though. While one wouldn’t want Villeneuve to direct a slavish homage to Ridley Scott’s original, the alarming switch from the dreamlike techno miasma (most notably, giant nude step-out-the-poster Geisha girls), to Mad Max II Steampunk (the junkyard scenes, complete with a Fagin character) is simply too jarring. I predict that there will be a director’s cut in years to come. Shorter, leaner and sans Steampunk … watch this space!

Author: Chris Moseley, PR Manager, London Business School


Tel +44 7511577803

The age of dignity

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


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.

The future of planetary exploration robots

An article in Popular Science about explorer robots:

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This is a nice idea for an explorer. I’m a bit surprised it is in Popular Science, unless it’s an old edition, since the idea first appeared ages ago, but then again, why not, it’s still a good idea. Anyway…

The most impressive idea I ever saw for an explorer robot was back in the 90s from Joe Michael of Robodyne Cybernetics, which used fractal cubes that could slide along each face, thereby rearranging into any shape. Once the big cubes were in place, smaller ones would rearrange to give fine structure. That was way before everyone and his dog new all about nanotech, his thinking was well ahead of his time. A huge array of fractal cubes could become any shape – a long snake to cross high or narrow obstacles, a thin plate to capture wind like a sail, a ball to roll around, or a dense structure to minimize volume or wind resistance.

NASA tends to opt for ridiculously expensive and complex landers with wheels and lots of gadgetry that can drive to where they want to be.

I do wonder though whether people are avoiding the simple ideas just because they’re simple. In nature, some tiny spiders get around just by spinning a length of thread and letting the wind carry them. Bubbles can float on the wind too, as can balloons. Where there’s an atmosphere, there is likely to be wind, and if simple exploration is the task, why not just let the winds carry you around? If not a thread, use a balloon that can be inflated and deflated, or a sail. Why not use a large cloud of tiny explorers using wind by diverse techniques instead of a large single robotic vehicle? Even if there is no atmosphere, surely a large cloud of tiny and diverse explorers is more capable and robust than a single one? The clue to solving the IT bits are that a physical cloud can also be an IT cloud. Why not let them use different shapes for different circumstances, so that they can float up, be blown around, and when they want to go somewhere interesting, then glide to where they want to be? Dropping from a high altitude is an easy way of gathering the kinetic energy for ground penetration too, you don’t have to carry sophisticated drills. Local atmosphere can be used as the gas source and ballast (via freezing atmospheric gases or taking some dust with you) for balloons and wind or solar can be the power supply. Obviously, people in all space agencies must have thought of these ideas themselves. I just don’t understand why they have thrown them away in favor of far more heavier and more expensive variants.

I’m not an expert on space. Maybe there are excellent reasons that each and every one of these can’t work. But I also have enough experience of engineering to know that one of the most likely reasons is that they just aren’t exciting enough and the complex, expensive, unreliable and less capable solutions simply look far more cool and trendy. Maybe it is simply that ego is more important than mission success.

Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).


Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit: social.bioware.com

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.


Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium


it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit: masseffect.wikia.com

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.