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


Psst San Francisco — they’ll be back…

Cheaper, more efficient, works 24X7 without complaint… What’s not to like?

The San Francisco SPCA made headlines recently by deploying a security robot dubbed K9 to patrol the area around its campus. The intent was to discourage homeless people from setting up tent cities there and thus reduce the littering, car break-ins and crime associated with such encampments. The tactic appeared to be working until the City of San Francisco stepped in and threatened the SPCA with large fines if its robot was caught using the sidewalk while on patrol. Since, of course, the robot had to use the sidewalk to function, that was the end of the experiment.

For now.

The robot, a K5 model, moves at three miles per hour, weighs just under 400 lbs and carries four cameras, each capable of recording 300 license plates a minute, according to the web site of Knightscope, the unit’s manufacturer.  The K5 rents out at six dollars an hour, making it far cheaper than a human security guard, at least in San Francisco, where the minimum wage is $14 an hour. Cheaper, more efficient and more reliable — employers have rarely been able to say no to that combination, even when obvious moral issues (slavery, child labor) are part of the equation.  Who will bet against the rise of the robots when the benefits are massive cost savings and increased efficiency — and the downside is (maybe) depriving humans of dull, high-risk, low-wage work?

But of course, the K5 is only the very tip of the iceberg. In the next few years we are told we can expect delivery drones (goodby delivery guys), AI-guided trucks (adios truckers) and robot food servers (au revoir waiters and waitresses).  And not long after, we can expect anything from sex ‘bots (already in development) to robot real estate agents. And so on.

The implications are stunning. If robots take over the drudgery of the world, the countless jobs at the base of the employment pyramid, what happens to the billions of people who make their living, however meager, through drudgery of one sort or another? And what happens when robots start to move up the pyramid, to take over better and better jobs?

It’s hard to see how there is not a crisis in the making — a crisis that will, in the next several decades, have profound and unforeseeable consequences for pretty much everyone. Yet we hear relatively little about this looming crisis, at least in the mainstream media, or from political leaders. Is this is because Our Masters don’t see it coming, or do they just want to avoid upsetting the techno-peasants (aka the rest of us)?

Technological change has caught societies by surprise many times before, usually with tragic consequences.  If the robots continue to rise — and they almost certainly will — things will not end well for a lot of people.  It may not surprise anyone in 2050 to see robots clearing the legions of unemployables away from the gates of affluent areas, using methods a great deal more “efficient” than those employed by robots today.

K9 is gone for now, but it — and its more advanced relatives — will be back.


Ask not for whom the robot drums…

Another sign of the impending robotization of the workforce. From  Japan (a long-time leader in robotics) comes a robotic Shinto “priest” to conduct low-cost funerals. The robot, recently on display at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, conducts a ritually correct service for the dead, beating drums and reciting Buddhist scriptures.

This is only the latest addition to the line of robot workers taking over from their human counterparts. Some estimates show as much as one third to one half the human workforce being displaced by robots in the next several decades. Yes, you read that correctly — one third to one half of the workforce.

And then what? What will the billions of unemployed live on? Government handouts? The proceeds of urban farming? Soylent red and green? What will happen to society when the gulf between the rich, the employable and the rest of us becomes unbridgeable? We really had better start asking (and answering) these questions, because the robot revolution is already reshaping our world.

This ain’t science fiction my friends — it’s the real thing.



No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

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!”

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

Ban killer robots before it’s too late! (seriously)

They are coming! (Aren't they?)

They are coming! (Aren’t they?)

You would think this was the title of some 1950s B movie — but actually it is the title of a report by Human Rights Watch, an international organization devoted to protecting human rights globally. According to the report, autonomous killer robots are already under development by major powers – and the threat they would pose is unthinkable. These robots would have no legal or moral reason not to kill. As the report notes, they “could not show human compassion for their victims, and autocrats could abuse them by directing them against their own people.”

And, of course, they might well have trouble distinguishing a child holding an ice cream cone from a terrorist toting a gun — echoes of the horrendous boardroom scene in Robocop.  Ah, progress.