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Human-Machine Symbiosis: Let’s Start With the Soup Again

A brief reflection on the evolution of machines and on the evolution of our attitudes toward human-machine symbiosis.

The archetypal dumb machine, with its mechanistic instruction set and poor human factors, used to be humorous, as in this old Charlie Chaplin clip from “Modern Times:”

There was something absurd, and thus funny, about the juxtaposition of the organic process of food or eating with the technological processes of machinery. We could laugh at the logical, assembly-line programming and the cold insensitivity of both function and malfunction. Such depictions as this clip were consistent with an early twentieth-century theme of critiquing technology and industrialism as inadequate, even antithetical, to human interests. The symbiosis of humans and machines was depicted as a forced and tense one at best, ineffective or offensive at worst.

Fast forward 80 years, and we see the emerging reality of smart machines, such as this robot butler from Japan:

Not the same kind of clip, I realize, but a common feature: the juxtaposition of food and technology. But it’s not absurd like the Chaplin bit, or at least not absurd in the same way.

My reaction is that, in the case of the robot butler, if taken as representative of machine evolution, the synthetic interfaces with the organic in a much more human-like way. The humor here, if you find any, may be in the painfully slow, clumsy mimesis of human motion. I smile, yet I can’t help but accept the robotic butler. The machine is okay there, in the kitchen handling food; there’s nothing dehumanizing about it. Its machine-ness doesn’t threaten me in the same way the mechanization of life may have threatened Chaplin’s original audience. There’s simply more comfort and naturalness in the symbiosis of humans and machines here.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to reflect on where we might be now on a continuum of specifically “android” evolution. The technology is getting better, though it’s not quite there. Symbiotically, our openness to human-like machines is likely evolving as well, and this is critical in order for the technology to continue to improve. Put another way, our collective human willingness to be symbiotes with androids will define the degree and pace at which the machines evolve.

When we’re ready, I suspect, they’ll be ready too.

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In the Future, Your Kids May Cuddle AI

Here’s a thought for future parents: your kids may cuddle artificial intelligence, and artificial intelligence may cuddle them back.

A new San Francisco startup, ToyTalk, has put out an intriguing video about its core product in development, apparently an AI-enabled Teddy Bear that interfaces with children through an iPad.

Here’s the video, though it’s just a teaser:

According to reports, ToyTalk has already raised $16 million in funding, based on its concept and a team that includes people with impressive tech resumes, such as Oran Jacob, former CTO at Pixar, and Martin Reddy, who worked on the project that became Apple’s Siri digital assistant.

Fascinating stuff, and most likely the next evolution in toys. There’s been a long mechanical tradition in toy making, of course, from wind-ups to remote controls, but ToyTalk appears to be taking it to another level. A child’s anthropomorphic toys evolve from having life-like motion to having subjectivity-like interaction. The myth of Pinocchio—a toy achieving consciousness—moves a small step toward reality.

I can’t wait to see the product and the depth of the “AI” here. I suspect also that this bear is only the beginning.

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Robotic Mining, Automated Transportation and Global Society

One of the socio-technological themes that I follow and have written about is the interrelationship of automation and the future of human work. In a previous post, I discussed the South African mining strikes, which in some cases are winding down. In other cases, labor unrest has spread to other mines and other mining companies. At issue here, of course, are the various trade-offs between safety, economics, livelihood, and social equity that plague all dangerous, low-wage human labor.

Workers want more safety and compensation, i.e. better life outcomes, and corporate entities want more predictable and profitable operations, i.e., better economic outcomes.

To be clear and direct here: the global economy will settle the dispute eventually. As much as I sympathize with the workers, and I do sympathize with them, they are being crushed between a rock and a hard place. Global economic trends are working against them, but so too are global technology trends.

We are already seeing technology gearing up to fill the labor gap.

Check out this video from Rail-Veyor Technologies:

It won’t be long before the global supply chain in raw material extraction and transportation will be fully automated and computer controlled. This means mining, farming, and more. Even in developing economies.

Automation will have enormous impact on human beings who earn their livelihoods through labor, and these displaced human beings will have an impact on our world, positively or negatively.

I’ve written before that as automation progresses, human beings will be challenged to do new things, develop new skills, and add unique, human-driven value to the economy. In the first world, most of us can likely meet this challenge ourselves, individually. There are support systems for us.

In the developing world, it will be tougher for individuals to adapt. And because our global economic fortunes are increasingly intertwined, the best thing would be for governments and industry to take an active global interest in assisting displaced workers. Teach them skills, educate them, find ways to help them focus and leverage their bodies and minds in ways that provide them with livelihoods.

This needs to happen in conjunction with automation. It can’t wait. In fact, I’d like to see companies like Rail-Veyor develop assistance and educational programs for potentially displaced workers.

This is yet another big challenge for our global society. There are so many, it’s true, but doing nothing isn’t viable. Pragmatically, strikes and protests by displaced workers are economically disruptive, but ethically, a future of exclusion, of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, can’t be anyone’s vision of an ideal global society.

We can do a better future than that.

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Karlasaurus Rove

The 2012 US Presidential election is over, and congratulations to Barack Obama. The internet is filled with infinite analyses on what the election means, both in the short term and the long term, so I won’t go on too long about my impressions.

But a couple of things are clear and worth noting.

First, the game of politics in the United States has changed, empowered now by technologies ranging from social media to big data forecasting. Secondly, the make-up of the American voting population has changed, as more Hispanic Americans, young people and women assert themselves electorally.

These two facts work against the traditional Republican establishment that was so successful in electing George W. Bush in 2000. And it seemed to catch them by surprise. Perhaps the most poignant and telling moment for me (and many others) was Republican strategist Karl Rove’s election night meltdown on Fox News.

Here’s the video, in case you missed it.

The point here isn’t Ohio, of course, and I have little interest in heaping ridicule on Rove or the arrogance of Fox News (well, maybe a little). But really, Rove’s meltdown is a telling moment in the sense that here is an aging white male establishment political strategist protesting stubbornly against the behavior of a nation that no longer seems to operate the way he expects it to.

The beautiful subsequent sequence when the Fox crew consult their own data geeks sharpens the poignancy of Rove’s meltdown.

Rove looked like a dinosaur. Karlasaurus Rove.

The fact is that Karl Rove’s generation and assumptions are rapidly aging, no matter how much he might wish to deny it. It’s there, demographically. American voters are young, multi-ethic, tech-savvy, and female. It’s there, culturally too. There is support for gay marriage. There is support for the legalization of marijuana.

It’s tough to know exactly how demographic, cultural and technological trends will impact the US political process in the future, but they will continue to impact it. That much is certain.

It’s also possible that we’ll see more statisticians than strategists next time around.

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Node 137A: A Free Science Fiction eBook

Here’s a science fiction story I just wrote and made into an eBook. It’s in .pdf format, and I’m making it available free for download and sharing.

Node 137A is a longish short story (or shortish novella) set about 20-30 years in the future. It tells the story of an engineer who works with automated security grids, future police systems that monitor and control entire cities. In the process of upgrading an old security grid in Johannesburg, South Africa, he inadvertently triggers the emergence of The Singularity, i.e., artificial intelligence.

Click on the image below to view or download.

If you read it, I hope you enjoy. And if you enjoy, I hope you’ll share and maybe leave me a comment saying you liked it.

WARNING: This story contains profanity, plus some rather speculative computer science, either of which might offend some sensibilities.