The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

What next?

Will such things be?

 

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What’s coming our way?

 

What happens when smart machines do 90% of the work, or if science discovers the secret of extreme longevity?

And how will we react the day we receive the alien signal we have been longing for and dreading?

These questions and more explored in a halting way

 

The Robopocalypse cometh, but it will be OK. (Maybe)

Robots are evolving at an ever-increasing rate. What does it mean for carbon-based technopeasants like yours truly?

 

From the Temple of Technology comes yet another doom-laden prophecy: robots, animated by artificial intelligence, are coming to take our jobs in a big, BIG way. According to  IT high priest and celebrity Kai-Fu Lee, robots are poised to take 50 per cent — yes, that is half — of all jobs in the next decade.

Most of us are so numbed by predictions like this that we merely shrug and pass on. But if Lee is even in the ballpark, the world economy is standing at the edge of a very high cliff. What happens when a quarter, or a half of the work force finds itself unemployed and pretty much unemployable? How do families survive? When demand plummets because half the population suddenly has no income, what then? Are we not looking at a domino effect, where even more jobs disappear as consumer spending power evaporates?

Where’s the robot repair guy?
Humble technopeasants like myself do not know the answers to these questions, but even so I venture to predict one thing — if these scenarios are anywhere close to correct, it will not be pretty. Apologists for the coming Robopocalypse point out that, while many jobs will disappear, new ones will be created, notably in the areas of robot manufacture and maintenance.  The snag, of course, is that not everyone will be able to make a smooth transition from, say, driving a forklift to doing robot repair or AI programming.

Not to worry, according to Lee — the coming robolution will “create a huge amount of wealth for mankind and wipe out poverty.” (Yeah, right.)  The other soothing news — apparently the human touch will still be required.  Says Lee, “Touching one’s heart with your heart is something that machines, I believe, will never be good at.”

Will plutocrats dream of electric kittens?
Seriously? If AI-directed robots can do everything else, it is hard to see why they can’t be designed to be ultra-warm and fuzzy as well as super-efficient. Would there not be, for example, a market for kindly robo-nurses? For electronic versions of Mary Poppins or even hypoallergenic robo-kittens designed to charm and entertain? (Ooops, there goes the litterbox industry.)  To say nothing of the possibilities inherent in the sex trades.

Truly, truly, we do live in interesting times. Stay tuned…

 

 

All I want for Christmas is a mind-controlled racing set

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much weirder — sure enough, it does.  Just before Christmas this past year, a team of researchers from the UK’s University of Warwick announced it had  refined the technology used to control electronic devices using thought alone. “Whilst brain-computer interfaces already exist – there are already a few gaming headsets on the market – their functionality has been quite limited,” said Professor Christopher James, Director of Warwick Engineering in Biomedicine at the School of Engineering.

His team’s research is helping these  headsets function more efficiently by obtaining cleaner and stronger signals than ever before. “This means stronger links to the toy, game or action thus making it a very immersive experience,” he adds. “The exciting bit is what comes next –how long before we start unlocking the front door or answering the phone through brain-computer interfaces?”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: leisure for all or one-way ticket to poverty?

First they take over in the factories…

It’s not exactly news that technology is reshaping the employment market. Over the last several decades, robots have slowly been replacing factory workers,  banks have swapped tellers for ATMS and online stores have been shutting down bricks-and-mortar outlets, eradicating the jobs of countless sales clerks, managers and maintenance crews. But now, advances in artificial intelligence and new generations of robots have brought society to the edge of a really major revolution in the workplace — a revolution which will put at least five million people in the world’s most advanced economies out of work by 2020, according to a report (opens in new window) issued last year by The World Economic Forum (WEF).

You say you want a revolution?
Hardest hit will be people in administrative and office jobs, while those in IT, engineering and other “hard” disciplines actually stand to gain. These far reaching (and accelerating) changes in the labor market have been dubbed The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Like all revolutions, this one holds out the promise of a better, more leisurely life for many — and the potential for widespread misery, huge social disruption or even violent conflict.

Brave new labor market
The WEF report paints a relatively rosy picture of the brave new labor market, with the majority of workers simply upgrading and changing their skill sets to stay gainfully employed. However, things may not be quite that simple or pleasant. Whole categories of employment, and especially less skilled employment, may well be on the edge of extinction. Professional drivers, for instance, will be largely eliminated as self-driving vehicles become the norm. Are the legions of unemployed truck and cab drivers likely to retrain as software engineers or robot repair specialists? Or again, will laid-off office workers return to the job market as software developers? Don’t bet on it.

It’s OK, you didn’t mean to put us out of work. (Did you?)

Creeping job loss, lower wages
More insidious is the creeping loss of jobs and downward pressure on wages, as low cost labor becomes more accessible thanks to the Web.  Why hire a high-priced accountant in North America to do your tax return, when the same service is available at a fraction of the cost in places like India? Why pay a writer a handsome hourly wage, when the same outlay can purchase the services of a half-dozen writers in less prosperous countries, plus a recent graduate of a Western journalism school to edit their output? Ditto for legal research, software development and indeed any service job which does not require the service provider’s physical presence.

The word “Robot” is derived the Slavic for “serf.” Food for thought.

Who wins and who loses?
For those on the right side of this revolution, things look rosy. Unreliable human workers are replaced by machines that do the job more efficiently, at a lower cost and without complaint. Result, higher productivity, fewer HR headaches.  In an ideal world, this revolution would also eliminate many of the unpleasant and dangerous jobs humans must do — and free up more time for leisure pursuits.  But it is hard to enjoy leisure time when trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over one’s head. Official” unemployment levels are down significantly from The Great Recession. These statistics, however, do not count the millions of people in developed nations who have simply stopped looking for work — an estimated 95 workers in the U.S. alone. With population continuing to increase, and especially in areas where training in high-tech skills is not readily available, the potential for massive social unrest is very real. Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to “interesting times!”

Artificial Intelligence — coming our way fast

(NOTE: links open in new windows)

“Open the pod bay door HAL.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave.”

 

It’s funny how new technology, even the most life-altering technology creeps almost imperceptibly into our lives –until suddenly it’s everywhere. Such seems to be the case with Artificial Intelligence (AI).  When 2001, A Space Odyssey, first appeared in theatres, “HAL,” the murderous AI, seemed about as farfetched as flying saucers or time travel — maybe even more so. No longer.

The advent of beings very similar to HAL (although hopefully not as malevolent), seems to be only a matter of time. Already we are seeing self-driving cars, AI-based robots that interact with Alzheimer’s patients and even lawyers (members of one of the most conservative professions) discussing how AI will affect the legal profession.  While estimates of when “true AI” as defined by the Turing Test will actually arrive,  it seems certain that the day is coming. En route, we need to prepare ourselves for the massive re-thinking of virtually all familiar aspects of life that AI is bringing, from its effects on employment opportunities  (already discernible) to more fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and of “life” itself.

 

 

 

Working “transporter” beams photons miles away

transporterScotty, have you been drinking again?

No, it’s true. Scientists have succeeded in sending entangled photons to different locations miles apart and then reuniting them.  “So what?” you might say. Well, this apparently is a small step towards being able to communicate information very quickly, using the quantum states of subatomic particles as “messengers.” It seems to also be one of the first times that actual particles — photons in this case – have been “teleported” over a distance. Confused yet?  Wikipedia to the rescue:

Quantum teleportation is a process by which quantum information (e.g. the exact state of an atom or photon) can be transmitted (exactly, in principle) from one location to another, with the help of classical communication and previously shared quantum entanglement between the sending and receiving location. Because it depends on classical communication, which can proceed no faster than the speed of light, it cannot be used for faster-than-light transport or communication of classical bits. While it has proven possible to teleport one or more qubits of information between two (entangled) atoms,[1][2][3] this has not yet been achieved between molecules or anything larger.

Although the name is inspired by the teleportation commonly used in fiction, there is no relationship outside the name, because quantum teleportation concerns only the transfer of information. Quantum teleportation is not a form of transportation, but of communication; it provides a way of transporting a qubit from one location to another, without having to move a physical particle along with it. However, quantum teleportation of particles has been theorized to also be possible, and to perhaps be an explanation for the teleportation-like effects seen in superconductivity and superfluidity.[4]

Although this experiment may (or may not) have moved the possibility of quantum teleportation slightly closer, it will likely be a very long time before we are beaming ourselves to parties, concerts or other planets. For the foreseeable future, we are stuck with planes, trains and automobiles.  And of course, spaceships. (Go Elon!)

Photo source: Working Transporter Beams Photons Under Four Miles Away | Digital Trends

Heading off collision with asteroid

 

It’s a heck of a good idea! Taking out asteroid avoidance insurance is one thing we humans really ought to do if we don’t want to end up like the previous tenants of Planet Earth,  AKA our pals the dinosaurs. An asteroid known as Bennu is headed our way, and will cross very close to us in 2035. At 500 metres across, it is smaller than the asteroid which did for the dinosaurs, but if it hit Earth, we would surely get our hair mussed, in the immortal phrase of General Jack D. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove fame. Many millions would be killed outright, and the consequences for the environment are incalculable.

At the moment, Bennu is supposed to miss us by a narrow margin — but it sure would be nice to have Plan B ready, in case something changes in the meantime.

NASA launches mission to study massive asteroid in hopes of preventing catastrophic collision in 2035 | National Post

The problem with warp drive…

Starship ENterpriseThis is too funny, in a sad way maybe. We might be able to get to distant planets with FTL travel, but we may destroy them when we arrive.  NASA is apparently playing with a form of warp drive known as Alcubierre drive (after its inventor, Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre) The drive works, according to Wikipedia, “by contracting space in front of it and expanding space behind it, resulting in effective faster-than-light travel.” (Got that?)

The problem is, on decelerating from its space/time bubble, the spacecraft may (or may not) destroy everything around it.  The end result — you get to your interstellar destination, but destroy it on arrival. Aaurgh! Keep thinking guys!

Robotic boy helps treatment of Alzheimer’s patients

Truly, we are living in a science-fiction world. And this is only the start. This robot has crude AI capabilities — imagine what the fourth or fifth generation of “Ludwig” may be like. At the same time, consider that many Ludwigs will take the place of flesh-and-blood people. We already see this with the advent of such widespread technology as the humble ATM.

This tech-driven displacement is going to continue and widen. Where will the displaced men and women go, how will they make a living? Not everyone can be an AI developer or robot repair expert. So? The question should be carefully pondered by those who care about society a decade or two, or three down the road. This proviso automatically excluded most career politicians and corporate leaders — fresh reason for concern.

The 60-cm-high mechanical boy can talk and move to keep patients socially engage.

Ludwig has a mission — to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Ludwig is also a robot.

The 60-cm-high mechanical boy can talk and move to keep patients socially engage.

His real job is to monitor the patient’s speech and cognitive patterns, and report on any declining conditions.

Read more: Robotic boy helps treatment of Alzheimer’s patients | Toronto & GTA | News | Tor

Space exploration is our destiny

 

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.

William S. Burroughs

 

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Ready for launch

It’s hard to understand why anyone would turn away from the ultimate adventure that is space exploration. Sure, there are (rather unconvincing) economic arguments about how money could be better spent elsewhere, and sure it will be hard and expensive to get out there. And yes, many people will die in the attempt. So what? The same can be said for every risky voyage of exploration that our race has ever undertaken — and yet those voyages were undertaken, to our immense gain.

It won’t be easy
Critics of space travel point to the huge difficulties in getting to the high frontier from Earth, and surviving once there. Space, they point out, is an incredibly harsh, unforgiving environment: no food, no water, no air. We would have to build vessels or shelters which reproduce our natural environments, at least sufficiently to support life.  

Our ancestors faced similar challenges
True — and yet much the same thing could be said of, for example, the people who set out in outrigger canoes or flimsy sailing vessels across the wide oceans, sometimes with no clear idea of what – if anything — lay beyond the vast expanse of water. To do so, our bold ancestors prepared themselves as best they could, sometimes showing extraordinary ingenuity. They designed vessels that could carry them and their goods for weeks and months at a time. They preserved food using salt and smoke. They carried extra water in jars, gourds or skins. They even brought domestic animals and seeds to feed themselves in transit and to farm with, should they reach their unknown destination.

An island of safety
How are their ventures so very different from the challenges facing us in space? Like them, we must create a little island of safety in the middle of a hostile ocean. Like them, we must carry our food and water with us. Like them, if our craft fails, we die. You can’t breathe underwater, any more than in the hard vacuum of space.

Just preparing for these challenges teaches us much. The original space program brought a wealth of new technology and know-how in its wake. What leaps in knowledge might we make if we made a serious effort to colonize The Moon and the planets, to mine the asteroids for the incredible mineral riches? There would be an initial investment, certainly, but an investment that would almost certainly pay huge dividends long term — something that presumably has not escaped the first generation of space-bound entrepreneurs, who are already among us.

It`s not about the cash
But money, ROI, payback, is not ultimately what space exploration is about. The desire to explore is a fundamental aspect of being human. Wanderlust is built into our very genes, and to deny its attraction is to deny our heritage and our own humanity.  For all these reasons, and more to be explored in greater depth here in future posts — we must take a step further out. We must move into space.

 

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