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

As I see it (blog)

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…

 

 

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!”

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

 

2016-04-20 18.00.15

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.

 

Seven reasons to settle The Moon

Moon 3

The Moon — the stepping stone to the planets and our next destination if our species wants to survive.

Why waste resources and precious time going to The Moon when there are so many problems here on Earth? Why bother to even try and build settlements on a barren, airless, cratered wasteland?  Here are seven excellent reasons why we need not only to explore The Moon, but to settle there, as a preliminary to moving even further out.

 

  1. Human nature. We need to explore The Moon because it’s there. As Neil Armstrong said, it’s human nature to face and overcome challenges, to explore, to find new frontiers. The Moon is the obvious next frontier.
  2. Insurance. As a one-planet race, we are at risk of extinction from an asteroid strike, a major pandemic, massive climate change, etc. etc. Unlikely? Maybe, but it happens. Despite the many horrific shortcoming of the human race, we do have potential for good. It would be a pity to join the trilobites and pterodactyls in the Hall of Failed Species.
  3. Scientific knowledge. In-depth exploration of The Moon would yield a wealth of knowledge in fields ranging from geology to planetary science.
  4. Accelerated technical achievement. To explore and colonize The Moon, we will need to improve technologies in a whole range of areas, from rocket propulsion to chemical engineering to environmental management. As with the space program, these advances in technology would certainly spin off a variety of amazing new products, materials and processes.
  5. A stepping stone to space. It is far easier to explore the Solar System and to mine the huge mineral wealth of the asteroids from The Moon or Lunar orbit than from Earth.
  6. Perspective. Virtually everyone who has ventured into space returns with a new appreciation for the beauty and uniqueness of Earth. So far, only a handful of people have attained this cosmic perspective. Settlements on The Moon and the associated increase in space travel will product tens of thousands of individuals with an awareness of the special space our planet occupies in the universe. With luck, this increased awareness may promote the development of a more compassionate, generous-spirited global culture.
  7. Serendipity. Who knows what we may find on The Moon or in near-space? So often in science, the major breakthroughs come out of left field, from a totally unexpected and unlooked-for discovery. Colonizing The Moon may bring benefits and discoveries we cannot now imagine.

    We have the basic technology. We have the spirit. Soon, very soon, we must take the next step on the path which leads, ultimately, to the stars. The alternative is unthinkable.