Published on 5 Apr 2017
This week, Antony and James break down Bill Gates’ recent suggestion that companies that use robots instead of human workers should pay employment taxes in order to fund new welfare programs.
April 6, 2017
February 1, 2017
May 9, 2015
Tim Worstall explains why we can easily disregard the calls to panic about the impending invasion of our new robotic overlords:
Essentially, what [economist Joe] Stiglitz is saying is that under certain conditions the advance of the robots means that we all lose our jobs and the capitalists, the people who own the robots, get to have all of the economy. And one can see his mechanism to get there: if robots become ever more productive then yes, we can see the idea that there will be more robots and fewer people employed by the capitalists and so on. But it’s still impossible for that end state to arrive: simply because we non-capitalists aren’t going to let it.
So, let’s recast that end state. There’s the 1% (the plutocrats, the capitalists, whatever) and then there’s us, the 99%. Robots become ever more productive and we the 99% all lose our jobs working for the capitalists. Hmm, tant pis in one telling of this story because as Karl Marx pointed out that’s a precondition for true communism, that we overcome the scarcity problem. But even leaving that aside what is going to happen next?
That 1% owns all the robots and gets all the production from them. We, the 99%, have no jobs and thus no incomes. We cannot purchase any of that robotic consumption from the capitalists. This is the very point that Stiglitz is making, that the capitalists will own and consume 100% of the robotic output. Well, yes, OK, but what are we the 99% going to do? This new peasantry: do we all just wander around the fields until we keel over from starvation? No, quite obviously we don’t. Sure, the robots are more efficient than we are, produce things for much lower prices. But we don’t have any of the currency with which we can buy that production. So, what are we going to do?
March 26, 2014
Everyone seems to want to raise the minimum wage right now (well, everyone in the media certainly), but it might backfire spectacularly on the very people it’s supposed to help:
It’s become commonplace for computers to replace American workers — think about those on an assembly line and in toll booths — but two University of Oxford professors have come to a surprising conclusion: Waitresses, fast-food workers and others earning at or near the minimum wage should also be on alert.
President Obama’s proposal to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour could make it worthwhile for employers to adopt emerging technologies to do the work of their low-wage workers. But can a robot really do a janitor’s job? Can software fully replace a fast-food worker? Economists have long considered these low-skilled, non-routine jobs as less vulnerable to technological replacement, but until now, quantitative estimates of a job’s vulnerability have been missing from the debate.
Based on a 2013 paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne of Oxford [PDF], occupations in the U.S. that pay at or near the minimum wage — that’s about one of every six workers in the U.S. — are much more susceptible to “computerization,” or as defined by the authors, “job automation by means of computer-controlled equipment.” The researchers considered a time frame of 20 years, and they measured whether such jobs could be computerized, not whether these jobs will be computerized. The latter involves assumptions about economic feasibility and social acceptance that go beyond mere technology.
The minimum-wage occupations that Frey and Osborne think are most vulnerable include, not surprisingly, telemarketers, sales clerks and cashiers. But also included are occupations that employ a large share of the low-wage workforce, such as waiters and waitresses, food-preparation workers and cooks. If the computerization of these low-wage jobs becomes feasible, and if employers find it economical to invest in such labor-saving technology, there will be huge implications for the U.S. labor force.
H/T to Colby Cosh, who said “McDonald’s is going to turn into vending machines. Can’t say this enough. McDonald’s…vending machines.”
March 23, 2014
Matt Ridley on the perpetual fretting that technological change will eliminate jobs and leave many permanently without work:
Bill Gates voiced a thought in a speech last week that is increasingly troubling America’s technical elite — that technology is about to make many, many people redundant. Advances in software, he said, will reduce demand for jobs, substituting robots for drivers, waiters or nurses.
The last time that I was in Silicon Valley I found the tech-heads fretting about this in direct proportion to their optimism about technology. That is to say, the more excited they are that the “singularity” is near — the moment when computers become so clever at making themselves even cleverer that the process accelerates to infinity — the more worried they are that there will be mass unemployment as a result.
This is by no means a new worry:
In the 1700s four in every five workers were employed on a farm. Thanks to tractors and combine harvesters, only one in fifty still works in farming, yet more people are at work than ever before. By 1850 the majority of jobs were in manufacturing. Today fewer than one in seven is. Yet Britain manufactures twice as much stuff by value as it did 60 years ago. In 1900 vast numbers of women worked in domestic service and were about to see their mangles and dusters mechanised. Yet more women have jobs than ever before.
Again and again technology has disrupted old work patterns and produced more, not less, work — usually at higher wages in more pleasant surroundings.
The followers of figures such as Ned Ludd, who smashed weaving looms, and Captain Swing, who smashed threshing machines (and, for that matter, Arthur Scargill) suffered unemployment and hardship in the short term but looked back later, or their children did, with horror at the sort of drudgery from which technology had delivered them.
Why should this next wave of technology be different? It’s partly that it is closer to home for the intelligentsia. Unkind jibe — there’s a sort of frisson running through the chatterati now that people they actually know might lose their jobs to machines, rather than the working class. Indeed, the jobs that look safest from robots are probably at the bottom of the educational heap: cooks, gardeners, maids. After many years’ work, Berkeley researchers have built a robot that can fold a towel — it takes 24 minutes.
February 17, 2014
Strategy Page discusses the problems of predicting the future … which isn’t just a task for science fiction writers:
How will warfare change in the next 30 years? Military leaders, and the people they protect, are always trying to figure this out. There’s an easy way to get some good insight on the future. Simply go back 120 years (1894) and note the state of warfare and military technology at the time, then advance, 30 years at a time, until you reach 2014. At that point, making an educated guess at what 2044 will be like will like will be, if not easy, at least a lot less daunting.
In 1894, many infantry were still using single shot black powder rifles. Change was in the air though, and the United States had just begun to adopt the newfangled smokeless powder, a few years after it became widely available. In 1894 American troops were still replacing their black power rifles with a smokeless powder model (the Krag-Jorgensen). The modern machine-gun had been invented in 1883 but armies took about two decades before they began adopting them on a large scale. Most artillery was still short ranged, not very accurate, and could only fire at targets the crew could see. Horses pulled or carried stuff and the infantry marched a lot when they were not being moved long distances by railroad or steamships. But the modern, quick-firing artillery was recently introduced and still unproven in battle. Communications still relied on the telegraph, a half century old invention that revolutionized, in only a few decades, the way commanders could talk to each other over long distances. They could now do it in minutes. This was a big change for warfare. Very big. At this time telephones were all local and not portable. Cavalry was still important for scouting, although less useful for charging infantry (a trend that began when infantry got muskets with bayonets two centuries earlier).
So what does this portend for 2044? Faster and deadlier, for sure. Information war will be more than a buzzword by then because better sensors and data processing technology will make situational awareness (knowing where you and your enemy are, knowing it first, and acting on it before the other guy does) more decisive than ever.
If the expected breakthrough in batteries (fuel cells) evolves as reliably and cheaply as expected, the 2040s infantryman will be something of a cyborg. In addition to carrying several computers and sensor systems, he might wear body armor that also provides air conditioning. Satellite communications, of course, and two way video. Exoskeletons are already in the works and may mature by then. A lot depends on breakthroughs in battery tech although engineers are also finding to do more with just a little juice. Historians tend to constantly underestimate the cleverness of engineers and inventors in general.
But the big new development will be the continued evolution of robotic weapons. The World War II acoustic torpedo (used by the Germans and the allies, from subs as well as the air) was the first truly robotic weapon. You turned it lose and it would hunt down its prey and attack. There may be a lot of public uproar over land based systems that have sensors, can use them to hunt, and have weapons that can be used without human intervention. But those systems will be easy and cheap to build by 2044, and as soon as one nation builds them others will have to follow. By 2044, machines will be fighting other machines more often than they will be looking for the stray human on the battlefield.
But there will be other developments that are more difficult to anticipate. In 1894 most of the 1924 technologies were already known in a theoretical sense. Same with the 1954 technologies in 1924 and so on. What is most difficult to predict is exactly how new tech will be employed. There will be imagination and ingenuity involved there, and that sort of thing is, by its very nature, resistant to prediction.
February 3, 2014
Jack Flanagan talks about the most recent technological
intrusions into innovations being introduced into traditional European winemaking:
It is a new age in winemaking. The old days of doing everything by hand is ending. And while large-scale harvesters and flood-lights might not be news, the vintners of tomorrow have a few tricks up their sleeves.
And yet as advanced technology, the sort-of thing that requires a Masters of Science to understand, becomes available at lower prices (well, hovering among the thousands), vineyards in France and areas outside are adopting them.
Perhaps least surprising, if you’ve noticed a trend lately, is the addition of drones. Right now, they have a simple task: flying over vineyards, checking for damage or anything suspicious.
In the future, however, they may be required to do more labour-intensive tasks such as vine maintenance, e.g. pruning and checking how ripe the grapes are. This, specifically, is the task of a little droid resembling a rover: it skates along the vineyard floor, analysing and remembering the details of the vines. If they’re getting too long, the robot prunes them back.
January 25, 2014
Jim Dunnigan wrote this short piece as a proposal for a longer work to follow-on to his book The Perfect Soldier in 2003.
There are many new trends producing the dramatic changes in warfare. Many of these changes are missed by the media and even many military analysts because so much has changed so quickly. The new technologies and trends include;
Robots. Combat robots have actually been around for over a century. Naval mines and torpedoes are robotic weapons that proved themselves in the early years of the 20th century. There were some more robotic weapons in World War II (cruise and ballistic missiles plus the first “smart shells”), but the momentum for combat robots really didn’t get going until the late 20th century, when smaller, cheaper and more reliable microprocessors and similar electronics made it possible to create inexpensive, “smart”, dependable and useful battle droids. Combat robots have sneaked into the military, without many people in, or out of, uniform paying a lot of attention. That’s still the case, especially because the media and even many senior military and political leaders don’t fully understand the technology nor how it is implemented. One example of this confusion can be seen with the constant reference to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as “drones” or “robots.” They are neither, they are simply remotely controlled aircraft, something that’s been around for over half a century. But these UAVs are being given more and more robotic (operating autonomously) capabilities. This isn’t new either, as torpedoes have had this ability for over 60 years and missiles for over 50 years.
Battlefield Internet. The Internet appeared as a mass-market product in the mid-1990s just as a generation of PC savvy officers were rising up the chain of command. These guys had encountered the first PCs as teenagers and then had access to the pre-World Wide Web Internet in college. PCs and the web were not mysteries, but tools they were familiar with. By 2001 these men and women were majors and colonels, the people the generals turn to when they want something done, or explained. When the World Wide Web showed up in the mid-1990s, generals turned to the majors and colonels for an update and were told, “no problem sir, good stuff. We can use it.” There followed a scramble to create a workable “battlefield Internet.” But there was another trend operating, the 1980s effort to implement “information technology.” But as the ideas merged with workable and affordable hardware and software, sparks began to fly. Unlike earlier ventures into new technology, this was not just a case of the troops being given new gadgets and shown how to use them. With Internet stuff, and Internet savvy troops, a lot of the new technology was being invented by the users. This has created high speed development of new technology, putting new stuff through development, testing and into use much faster than ever before.
Commandos. These specialists have always been around. Think of the “Knights of the Round Table” or any legendary super warrior. During the 20th century, methods were developed to produce commando class troops at will. This was not possible in the past. While commandos are specialist troops that are only useful in certain situations, when you can use them, they often have a devastating effect. Those nations with large commando forces (the US, Britain, Russia, etc.) have a military advantage that is often the margin of victory.
Off the Shelf Mentality. Since the 1980s, the military has increasingly looked to commercial companies for the latest combat equipment. This recognizes that military procurement has become too slow, and technological advances too rapid to get the latest gear into the hands of troops before it becomes obsolete. In most cases, civilian equipment works fine, as is, for the military. This is because over half the troops that work at jobs that never take them from shops or offices indistinguishable from the work places civilians use. But even the combat troops can find a lot of equipment that is rugged enough for the battlefield. Soldiers have long noted that civilian camping equipment is superior to most of the stuff they are issued, and many soldiers have supplemented, or replaced, issued equipment with better off-the-shelf gear. In the last decade, it’s been common for combat troops to bring civilian electronics gear with them. Everything from laser range finders to GPS units, all of which are issued, but the official stuff tends to be heavier and less capable.
January 1, 2014
VA Viper dug up an Asimov essay from 1964, where he speculated on what life would be like in 2014. It’s an interesting read:
What will life be like, say, in 2014 A.D., 50 years from now? What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?
I don’t know, but I can guess.
One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.
Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.
Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid: large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside.” (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)
General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)
The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotope batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.
An experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas — Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.
Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the ’64 General Motors exhibit).
For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires: intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.
Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.
Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.
February 1, 2013
I’ve always wanted a house on the moon:
Architects Fosters and Partners have revealed designs for a building on the Moon that could be constructed from material already on its surface.
An inflatable structure would be transported from Earth, then covered with a shell built by 3D printers.
The printers, operated by robots, would use soil from the Moon, known as regolith, to build the layered cover.
The proposed site for the building is the southern pole of the Moon.
It is designed to house four people and could be extended, the firm said.
In 2010 a team of researchers from Washington State University found that artificial regolith containing silicon, aluminium, calcium, iron and magnesium oxide could be used by 3D printers to create solid objects.
February 23, 2012
Over at The Register, there’s a discussion on the latest frontier in paleontology — Xeroxiraptors:
Dino-loving boffins in the US have embarked on their very own Jurassic Park-esque experiment to bring the actions of Earth’s favourite prehistoric lizards to life.
The researchers, from Philadelphia’s Drexel University, are using 3D printing to create dino-bones and then attaching artificial muscles and tendons to create dinosaur robots.
“Technology in paleontology hasn’t changed in about 150 years,” paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara said. “We use shovels and pickaxes and burlap and plaster. It hasn’t changed — until right now.”
The 3D printers build the dino-bones by repeatedly putting out thin layers of resin or another material to build up the object based on a digital design.
October 23, 2011
Yep. DARPA is hoping to release “swarming robot space vampires”* in geosynchronous orbit:
More than $300 billion worth of satellites are estimated to be in the geosynchronous orbit (GEO—22,000 miles above the earth). Many of these satellites have been retired due to normal end of useful life, obsolescence or failure; yet many still have valuable components, such as antennas, that could last much longer than the life of the satellite. When satellites in GEO “retire,” they are put into a GEO disposal or “graveyard” orbit. That graveyard potentially holds tens to more than a hundred retired satellites that have components that could be repurposed — with the willing knowledge and sanction of the satellite’s owner. Today, DoD deploys new, replacement satellites at high cost — one of the primary drivers of the high cost is the launch costs, which is dependent on the weight and volume of antennas. The repurposing of existing, retired antennas from the graveyard represents a potential for significant cost savings.
DARPA’s Phoenix program seeks to develop technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost. “If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource,” said DARPA Director, Regina E. Dugan.
[. . .]
“Satellites in GEO are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it’s not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts,” said David Barnhart, DARPA program manager. “This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems, since existing joints are usually molded or welded. Another challenge is developing new remote operating procedures to hold two parts together so a third robotic ‘hand’ can join them with a third part, such as a fastener, all in zero gravity. For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Legos at the same time while looking through a telescope.”
* “Swarming robot space vampires”, courtesy of jwz.org.
May 2, 2011
Over at The Register, Bill Ray talks about the robotic domestic servants in operation around his house:
We like to consider ourselves the new breed of enlightened robot owners — not hobbyists, or enthusiasts, just enormously lazy people who’d prefer to see something else doing the work. That includes mopping the floor, cutting the grass or letting the cats in, not to mention motivating the children into keeping both room and garden tidy for fear of having their toys eaten by the machines.
[. . .]
We know Mowbot can destroy toys because sometimes he does, if the children are foolish enough to leave them on the lawn: he’ll bounce off walls and larger obstacles, but he’ll give them a shove first. It was moments after I predicted he would have no difficulty bouncing off the inflatable paddling pool that it vanished in a swirling maelstrom of plastic and water droplets that was enough to ensure the children kept the garden tidy for a year or two.
[. . .]
iRobot developed the first Roomba to raise money and credibility so it could get into the far-more-lucrative military robot business, but what makes Roomba, Scooba and Mowbot useful is not how clever they are but how much they achieve with such limited intelligence.
While Dyson repeatedly demonstrates prototypes that scan the room with sonar, and Electrolux charges a thousand pounds for their Trilobite bristling with sensors, iRobot’s Roomba bounces off walls at random while Mowbot repeatedly cuts the same grass and calls it “mulching” to avoid having to pick up the bits. None of our robots is efficient, a human could do the job in half the time – but speaking as that human I’m glad I don’t have to.
We’ve been considering buying a Roomba for one particular room in our house: our bedroom. We have three cats, one of whom is utterly terror-stricken at the sight or sound of a vacuum cleaner. At the first hint of a vacuum cleaner attack, he retreats at maximum speed in a random direction, leaving a trail of urine in his wake. This means that our bedroom gets far too infrequently vacuumed. We’re hoping that a Roomba won’t trigger his flee-and-pee instincts . . .
March 24, 2011
It may not herald a new droid army, but it’s a welcome development for front-line troops:
The Protec RWS is the key component of the U.S. Army CROWS (common remotely operated weapon stations). This idea of a remote control turret has been around for nearly half a century, but years of tinkering, and better technology, have finally made the remote control gun turret finally work effectively, dependably and affordably. This has made the RWS practical for widespread combat use. While some troops miss the greater feeling of situational awareness (especially being able to hear and smell the surroundings) you got as an old-school turret gunner, most soldiers and marines have adapted and accepted the new system. What it lacks in the smelling and hearing department, it makes up in terms of night vision and zoom. And it’s a lot safer.
CROWS is a real life saver, not to mention anxiety reducer, for troops who drive through bandit country a lot, and man the turret gun. You’re a target up there, and too often, the bad guys get you. Not with CROWS. The gunner is inside the vehicle, checking out the surroundings (with night vision, zoom and telephoto capabilities). CROWS also has a laser rangefinder built in, as well as a stabilizer mechanism to allow more accurate fire while the vehicle is moving. The CROWS systems (RWS, weapon and installation) cost about $260,000 each, and can mount a variety of weapons (M2 .50 caliber machine-gun, MK19 40-mm automatic grenade launcher, M240B 7.62mm machine-gun and M249 5.56mm squad automatic weapon). CROWS comes in several different configurations, based on weapon mounted and armor installed (light, at 74 kg/163 pounds, standard, at 136 kg/298 pounds and CROWS II, at 172 kg/379 pounds.) The heaviest version is usually used in MRAP (armored trucks) and has a better user interface, a thermal imager and sniper detection system.
By the end of 2006, there were about a thousand CROWS in service. There are now nearly 8,000. Many of the enemy fighters have seen Western or Japanese films featuring killer robots, and often think that’s what they are facing. The fear factor is real, and it helps. The accuracy of the fire, and uncanny speed with which the CROWS gun moves deliberately, is due to something few officers expected. The guys operating these systems grew up playing video games. They developed skills in operating computer systems (video games) very similar to the CROWS controls. This was important, because viewing the world around the vehicle via a vidcam is not as enlightening (although a lot safer) than having your head and chest exposed to the elements (and any firepower the enemy sends your way). But experienced video gamers are skilled at whipping that screen view around, and picking up any signs of danger.
December 21, 2010
It’s not ready to be used in the field yet, but the next military robot may be a stretcher bearer:
Killing a soldier removes one enemy from the fray. Wounding him removes three: the victim and the two who have to carry him from the field of battle. That cynical calculation lies behind the design of many weapons that are intended to incapacitate rather than annihilate. But robotics may change the equation.
The Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot, BEAR for short, is, in the words of Gary Gilbert of the American Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Centre (TATRC), “a highly agile and powerful mobile robot capable of lifting and carrying a combat casualty from a hazardous area across uneven terrain.” On top of that, when it is not saving lives, it can perform difficult, heavy and repetitive tasks, such as the loading and unloading of ammunition.
The current prototype BEAR is a small, tracked vehicle with two hydraulic arms and a set of video cameras that provide a view of its surroundings to its operator across a wireless link. It has been developed by TATRC in collaboration with Vecna Technologies, a company based in Maryland that invented the robot.