Robot Lifeguards?

Here’s some interesting research on a Neural Network approach to teaching a machine to detect when someone is drowning. This could lead to better detection of people in need of help or dispatch and guidance for robotic lifeguards.

How much will you pay to be listened to on Facebook?

Facebook is having a Red Barn moment. If you ever played Farmville you’ll know what I mean. Farmville was fun for the first little while, planting, pulling in friends to pet your cows or whatever they were doing. Then at some point you realize the game has a limit beyond which you need to pay to do better. You can’t get the red barn unless you put down some actual real world dollars.  It’s a great way to make money if people like your game enough but it breaks your whole idea of what the game is, that if you play better you will do better than others.

Of course, Facebook isn’t a game, right?  Facebook is an ongoing, cacophonous discussion of the things going on in our lives amongst friends. On the sides of that discussion we have grown to accept that there are targeted advertisements trying to grab our attention. Increasingly, these advertisements are even within the stream of updates itself. But these ads are marked as promoted and they are easily identifiable as such. We can click on them or choose to ignore them.

Well, apparently now Facebook wants to turn itself into a kind of game, and just like Farmville you’ll need to pay to play well at it.

Facebook just rolled out their ‘promote’ feature to everyone. It was already available to Pages and brands but the way it is implemented now is kind of strange.  Up until now, a Page which you follow (sorry, _subscribe to_, in Facebookese) could pay for their status updates, marked as “Sponsored”, to rise higher in your feed. But now anyone can sponsor updates. So if a politically active acquaintance that you added to Facebook has some extra cash they can ‘promote’ posts from their favourite political party or their own personal status updates with links to news articles. Any updates at all can be promoted.

Is this what we want? The power of the market is great and all but this is weird.  What Facebook is doing with this one change is changing the very nature of their Social Network.

Last week Facebook was a place where you chatted with friends and tried to ignore adds coming from corporations, charities and political parties. Today it is a place where the very conversations you hear are influenced by money put up by normal people you follow in order to be heard above the clamour.  Do we really want to monetize conversation to the extent where it becomes normal to be expected to chip in a bit of cash to get our voices heard? Shouldn’t our thoughts rise up to prominence because many people find them compelling rather than because we have extra money to spend on having people hear us on Facebook?

The more I think about it the more disturbing this is. This is a subtle conversion of the entire meaning of what a personal Facebook update is.  It’s like that moment in Star Wars I where Qui Gon Jinn mentions midi-chlorians.  It has no connection to anything else that came before and actually changes the entire meaning of the story. Is the Force a benevolent, mystical energy permeating the universe or is just it a physical field extruded by parasites inside us? Now, every time we see updates from someone we don’t talk to so often we’re going to look closer to see if they chose to ‘sponsor’ the update. What will it mean if someone does that? How will I judge them?

We’ll see how this plays out, maybe people won’t use it. But if I start seeing a lot of this I mark start marking all of it as spam.

Machines Want Your Job

I’ve been planning for a while to write a series of posts on this blog about how advances in science and technology have the potential to make certain current jobs carried out by people unnecessary. This topic gets some thoughtful coverage in the media from time to time but usually it’s just short throw away stories on some funny looking robot (ahem…see below). But the bigger picture for people’s careers and the economiy are important to think about as well. That is because if you know technology is being developed which could make your current job disappear in 5 or 10 years you may have time to consider a new career. Or imagine you see on the horizon that 20 years from now we may not need human bus drivers in cities because of self-driving cars. Then you wouldn’t encourage your children or any young person to get into that job for the long term, even if the benefits are great, because it’s fundamentally unstable in the long run due to technology.

So as a public service, and to give me a theme to write about, I’m going to try to regularly post here to raise awareness about advances in science and technology that have the potential to do away with entire careers completely. Or to give it a pithy Twitter hashtag:  #MachinesWantYourJob.

What to do about it

Some of these trends are obvious to a lot of people, such as repetitive factory work jobs being replaced by robotics. But a lot of cases aren’t so obvious. Personally, I think people are underestimating how disruptive self-driving cars will be on many jobs once the technological, safety and regulatory kinks are worked out. This may take a long time, but it’s progressing faster than some expected. Also, there is a lot of scientific research and technology development that is not so widely covered or understood by the media, so people don’t realize that some jobs could be just doomed in the long run. Another example is grocery checkouts, the current clumsy self-checkout lines in supermarkets are only a first step.  It is perfectly feasible with existing technology to build a supermarket or big box store with no checkout lines at all by using RFID tagged merchandise, QR code printouts from scales and object recognition on digital cameras. No cashiers would be needed, just pillars near the exits to confirm your purchase and pay.  It’s seems to be just a matter of time before it’s cheap enough that some store will implement it and do away with those cashier jobs.

Just to be clear, the intention in pointing out these trends is not to necessarily stop them in order to save existing, 20th century style jobs. The intention is to raise awareness about what may be coming and encourage people to prepare themselves for the future, to retool, to consider new careers while working in old ones so that when the hammers falls, they are prepared. Because it is unlikely anything going to stop these changes, and if you want to know you certainly can’t stop them if you don’t see them coming.

A more positive and inspiring way to think about this future as an opportunity to have many careers over your life is summed up much more eloquently than I ever could by this comic on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, take a look.

Ok, Show us the Funny Robots

Entry number one – I hope you weren’t banking on being a noodle cutting chef in a Chinese restaurant, because the robots are all over that:

The best thing about this is how he felt the need to make it look like a 1970s stereotype of a robot. It’s actually really simple, barely a robot at all, anymore than the windshield wipers on your car are.

Now I’m hungry…noodles. mmmm.

See you next time, if you have any ideas for topics on this theme reply in the comments or tweet me @compthink.

It’s that time of year again…password changing season.

If you use the popular professional social network LinkedIn you should go there right now and change your password to a new one, apparently some russian hackers got a few million passwords off their systems. Even if it’s a false alarm it’s a good idea to change your passwords every once in a while.

I would suggest coming up with a new password entirely. Why? because if you are like a lot of people you reuse a few passwords in many places, maybe even just one password. So the next thing you’ll want to do is go to every other important website,bank,computer you use with the same password as LinkedIn and change them too.

Having trouble coming up with a new password, here’s some good advice from XKCD:

If you want to know if your password was taken you can also try leakedin.org to check your password, you may want to compute your password hash offline though rather trusting their site. If you have python installed (if you have a mac or linux machine this should be true by default) you can run the following on the command line to get your password encrypted and enter the resulting string into the LeakedIn website. Replace “password” with your password:

python -c 'import hashlib; print hashlib.sha1("password").hexdigest()'

(Thanks to Nathan Taylor for that snippet of code)

Building the Enterprise? Seriously? Why not?

I ignored this the first time I saw it and then I was going to make  snarky comment that we should just send a bunch of ships to mars instead of building the Enterprise if we’re going to spend $1 trillion. But then I thought, at least look before you ridicule.

I was wrong. I’ve read bit of his idea so far, but he’s not some crackpot trekkie. Instead, this is a thoroughly thought out argument for building a single large ship that will sit in orbit and be reused just like in Star Trek. Whether or not you think it should look like the Enterprise he has a good point about the use of a single large ship. (I know, why not build Serenity…oh, come on, some of you are thinking it. What? Millenium Falcon? Be serious people.)

Engineers are given a goal to get people to Mars on a give cost budget with a given risk level and they  work out ways to do it as cheaply and safely as possible. This site argues that maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong. Maybe the right idea is to build a huge space taxi, that has launchable landing shuttles and artificial gravity and doesn’t ever get thrown away. We really do have the technology for a large ship with cosmic ray shielding and ion pulse drives powered by an onboard nuclear reactor to travel around the solar system. Oh, and high powered lasers even.

What is the argument against this? Surely it can’t be that small, short missions are more efficient since they are more likely to get cancelled and delayed as we’ve seen. In a way this solution combines the best of robotic exploration and human exploration. Some probes can be designed ahead of time and brought in the hold of the ship. Having hundres of people on board allows the engineers to fix or even design new robots as needed. When problems arise humans can fix them on the spot. When something interesting is found they can change focus and go take a look. Sending a once-off ship with 6 people on it means everything has to be designed and optimized ahead of time. When you’ve got 100 engineers in orbit around Mars you don’t need to build so many failsafes into every probe in the same way. Give me a 100 engineers and a huge nuclear powered space ship with lasers and a store room full of spare parts and I can do anything.

Last night I watched the historic launch of the first private corporation sending a vessel up into space to bring equipement and experiments to the International Space Station. The Dragon Capsule rose into the sky atop the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX Incorporated. It was inspiring. Soon, they’ll be bringing up astronauts and maybe even tourists to visit the ISS on those modules. This would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. Things can change. As more companies get into space lots of things are going to change. So why can’t we think big?

The only problem is money and vision. But any politician who could pull this off cheap would go for it because it makes them look like they have vision even if they don’t. As for cost, it is very possible that a single all purpose, crewed vehicle like this would be cheaper in the long run and allow an order of magnitude more complex missions than a series of individual, custom designed probes.  Currently we conduct a small number of experiences for each generation of scientists each costing billions and some failing. This proposal is to build a platform, not a single probe. One that has people on it who can fix it and improve as needed. It’s not like sending a scout or  a reconnoissance plane, it’s like sending the whole aircraft carrier. Which would be better investment for improving the lot of humanity: building the Enterprise or a building 5 more aircraft carriers?

About the money, I’ll just say this. If money ever stops humanity from expanding its knowledge of the universe then we might as well just give up now. We already know a lot, why are we building these particle colliders, bigger telescopes, gene mapping projects, supercomputers for weather simulations, global climate models, nano materials or exploring the depths of the ocean? Why? We do it because there is always more to know and what we don’t know can kill us. We need to boldly go where no one has gone before. That’s how humanity got this far and we can’t stop now.

I don’t know if Building the Enterprise is the right solution, but it’s worth talking about. So let’s talk about it.

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