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Three Interesting New Social Robots for 2017

Social robotics continues to develop, and new robots are appearing on the market all the time. According to reports from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), robots stole the show. Typical of the reporting, USA Today wrote, “We saw robots to make your morning coffee, pour candy, fold your clothes, turn on and off your lights, project a movie on the wall, handle your daily chores and most impressively, look just like a human, or in this case, legendary scientist Albert Einstein, with facial expressions and movement.”

Turn on and off your lights? Well, all these little household applications may seem like small, even trivial steps along the way to the robotic future of our favorite scifi movies, but they are steps, and consumer demand for social robots, i.e., robots that interact with us socially and/or play predominantly social roles in our lives, I would argue, is key to the development of useful and human-supportive (as opposed to destructive) artificial intelligence.

Although I didn’t attend CES this year, here are three relatively new social robots that intrigue me:

Pillo, The Home Health Robot for Your Family

Offered currently on indiegogo, Pillo is one of several applications of social robotics to the provision of healthcare. As I’ve written before, as medicine becomes more and more automated, there will be value in the automation having some “bedside manner,” that is, exhibiting behavior that is informative, comforting, social and friendly.

Here’s the description of Pillo from its creators: “In today’s hectic word it can be easy to forget the things that truly matter, like the health & wellbeing of you & your loved ones. That’s why we created Pillo. Pillo can answer healthcare Q&A, connect with doctors, sync with mobile & wireless devices, store & dispense vitamins & medication, & can even re-order them for you from your favorite pharmacy. What’s more, his skills will grow as we build additional applications on Pillo’s platform. Stay healthy & discover true peace of mind with Pillo.”

Mykie, “My Kitchen Elf,” The Home Kitchen Assistant

From Bosch, Mykie is at this point a concept robot that was exhibited this year at CES, but as a kitchen robot type, he exhibits an IoT connectivity that is likely to develop further in the future, especially in smart home and smart city contexts. Mykie can suggest recipes but can also connect to a smart kitchen environment to optimize recommendations. As IEEE Spectrum wrote, “Bosch is hoping that a substantial amount of Mykie’s usefulness will come from the way it can integrate into the rest of your kitchen. For example, you can ask Mykie to come up with recipes that use the food you currently have in your smart fridge, and as you start cooking, the robot will preheat the oven to the right temperature for you at the right time. You can also use Mykie’s “virtual social cooking” to remotely attend cooking classes in real time, following along in your kitchen at home as both Mykie and a human instructor help you cook something that you might not otherwise be comfortable cooking on your own.”

Gatebox’s Virtual Home Robot

Last but not least is Gatebox’s Virtual Girlfriend, uh, I mean Virtual Home Robot. Gatebox claims to be “the world-first virtual home robot with which you can spend your everyday life with your favorite characters.” In the video, of course, the application is that of a romantic or emotional companion for a lonely male corporate worker. It may be a sad reflection of the increasing isolation in our increasingly digitized global society, but it’s clear that robots and tech in general will have a valuable role to play in caring about human beings in the future. An article from the UK outlet Daily Mirror asks whether Gatebox is “romantic or incredibly creepy?” But to paraphrase the Bard of Avon, the answer is likely all in the eye of the beholder.

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The Puritan Work Ethic, Automation, and the “Job Crisis”

When looking at the prevailing trends and forecasts related to automation and technological unemployment, it’s clear a crisis-level conflict is coming to many developed countries, but it’s not the kind of conflict many pundits think it is. It’s not going to be billionaire Nick Hanauer’s torches-and-pitchforks scenario of income inequality, for example, where we had better find some way to keep the 99% from rioting against the 1% elite (Hanauer). Similarly, it’s not going to be that huge expansion of unemployed population that will require some centralized economic intervention like the universal basic income, where everyone, not just the unemployed, receives a dividend from the government. It’s a very different kind of crisis heading our way. But before we identify what it is, let’s look at a quick sample of those automation trends and forecasts and get a feel for the two horns of the current dilemma, as it’s framed.

According to a recent article in The Economist, “47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation” (Automation). But it’s not just the manual labor factory jobs at risk; big data, analytics, machine learning, and similar technologies are poised to impact “legal, medical, marketing, education, and even technological industries” (Alton). There seems to be broad consensus on this point, but two primary perspectives on where it goes. On one hand, Moshe Vardi, professor of computer engineering at Rice University, “foresees unemployment as surpassing 50 percent by 2045” (Matyszczyk). On the other hand, James Bessen, an economist at Boston University, notes that “while electronic discovery software has become a billion-dollar business since the late 1990s, jobs for paralegals and legal-support workers actually grew faster than the labor force as a whole, adding over 50,000 jobs since 2000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of lawyers increased by a quarter of a million” (Bessen).

And so the debate has been framed in the collective consciousness thus: in the future, new technologies, specifically automation, will either eliminate jobs, and create a widespread crisis of the social and economic order, or else will create new jobs we haven’t imagined yet, preserving our livelihoods, social structure, and global economy. Rather than come down on one or the other side of the debate, I’d like to suggest the crisis has less to do with technology than most think. While I will grant that the nature of the technologies coming online are unprecedented, especially advanced artificial intelligence, humans have used technologies of one sort or another to solve problems and create value for thousands of years. No, technology isn’t the problem. To think that technology is taking “jobs” from human beings is a failure to understand what’s really going on. We have a larger structural and conceptual issue coming for us: the breakdown of the concept of employment. Technology taking jobs isn’t the problem; the problem lies in what we think a “job” is, and what it increasingly isn’t.

More specifically, the coming crisis, if there is really to be one, will be a crisis of meaning, not of livelihood, and this is the key distinction. In the debate on technological unemployment, most commentators equate employment with livelihood, and it has certainly been that in our legacy capitalist system. It is natural to think concretely here, that if there is less demand for humans in the workforce, there will be more human beings who lack a means of livelihood, the means to acquire their material needs. So, it’s also natural to think we have to determine how to make sure those livelihood means exists, either in other, new jobs or through some systemic correction like a universal basic income.

But the “job” in our developed capitalist society is more than a livelihood. Setting aside for the moment the idea that it’s a social relation, a contract between capital and labor, a job is most importantly a morally loaded social concept derived from what Weber called the Puritan Work Ethic, where the work a human being does is tied up with Christian concepts of virtue. As Noble notes, “the emergence of that rational ethic, indispensable to the development of industrial capitalism, was closely associated with the rational religious ethic of the Puritans” (125). The following excerpt from Weber sums up how close employment (or “calling” in Weber’s terms) is bound up with moral (and thus social) virtue:

“The working life of man [sic] is to be a consistent ascetic exercise in virtue, a proof of one’s state of grace in the conscientiousness which is apparent in the careful and methodical way in which one follows one’s calling. Not work as such, but rational work in a calling, is what God requires” (quoted in Weber, 126).

And yes, the moral power of the Puritan work ethic not coincidentally reinforces the exploitative nature of the social relations that preserve class distinctions in capitalism, as it equates metaphysical virtue with social obedience in selling one’s labor through employment.

Even today, this close equation of employment (in the capitalist economic structure) with virtue, or to put it more plainly, being good and valuable, is one of the most powerful unacknowledged social forces in modern Western cultures. A study from Northeastern University found that employers exhibit a strong hiring bias against job seekers who are currently unemployed (Ghayad), and unemployed people have been targets of other, less-formal expressions of prejudice and exclusion as well. Unemployed recipients of welfare benefits are often perceived as disadvantaged and morally suspect, stereotyped as lazy and borderline criminal, often, in the United States at least, with racist overtones (Schneiderman). Despite the fact that our cultural and religious views no longer reflect the old Calvinist strictures, the employment-related biases of the Puritan Work Ethic persist, against all evidence that hard work, wealth, and virtue are in any way statistically correlated.

In our cultural unconscious at the present time, then, jobs are sacred, and having a job, building a career, working hard — all of these things create social status, self-esteem, and legitimacy. When jobs disappear because human labor is not needed in the quantities it once was needed, it’s not the missing livelihood that becomes the crisis. We can likely fix that, economically, if we have the will to fix it. Corporations, actually, may find motivation to support universal basic income schemes, as they may need consumer spending to support their operations. Regardless, as the future unfolds, and technology expands in the way it has the potential to expand, automation, artificial intelligence, and other advanced technologies will not only replace jobs, these technologies may provide material abundance at a level we’ve only dreamed. Tech guru Peter Diamandis, for one, believes this technological bounty is certain; his book The Future is Better Than You Think is an extended paean to the abundant future. And if technological abundance happens, fewer “jobs” will be needed, and we’ll have to give up our religious attachment to employment as a source of human value.

Finally, as humans in developed global capitalist cultures, we simply depend too much on the “job” to give us personal meaning. And that’s not just an individual issue; it’s a potential collective issue too: our religious attachment to “jobs” may do more to damage our environment and broader economy than widespread unemployment. The attachment to “jobs” may lead policymakers to invent myopic, damaging schemes such as reopening coal mines so that former miners can work. Since most mines are automated now, policymakers would have to prohibit automation in those industries. They would also need to stimulate coal demand by promoting dirty energy in the face of advances in efficiencies and demand for clean energy, as well as a need to protect the environment. Leaders also may need to financially subsidize such industries as coal in a global market environment where commodities like coal are cheap. In other words, such schemes would work against market forces to create sloppy, unsustainable solutions in order to preserve the “job” economy. As meanwhile, younger generations have entered the “gig” economy, becoming youtube stars, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads, reinventing the concept of work to fit their own aspirations, and thus abandoning the biases of their fathers and mothers. Ironically, then, in the future, we may have to abandon “employment” in order to prosper.

References:

Alton, Larry. “What Will Happen When AI Starts Replacing White-Collar Jobs.” www.forbes.com. Forbes Magazine. May 25, 2016.

“Automation and Anxiety.” www.economist.com. The Economist Newspaper Limited. June 25, 2016. 

Bessen, James. “The Automation Paradox: When computers start doing the work of people, the need for people often increases.” The Atlantic. 19 January 2016. 

Ghayad, Rand. “The Jobless Trap.” Northeastern University and Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, 2014. 

Hanauer, Nick. “The Pitchforks are Coming … For Us Plutocrats.” www.politico.com. July/August 2014. 

Matyszcyzk, Chris. “Robots Could Push Unemployment to 50% in 30 Years, Prof Says.” www.cnet.com. February 14, 2016. 

Noble, Trevor. Social Theory and Social Change. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Schneiderman, R.M. “Why Do Americans Still Hate Welfare?” Economix Blog. The New York Times. December 10, 2008. 


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The Internet of Things, Ubiquitous Computation and the Evolutionary Future of Objects

Here is a short slide presentation on a possible technological future. As humans at this point in time, we are in the midst of and agents of evolutionary forces—and these forces are driving us toward a future of smart objects everywhere. Matter wants to be conscious, and we will help it become so.

Here’s the presentation:

Lots of challenges ahead, but the suggestion here again is that in the anthropocene, humans and our technologies become the transformative evolutionary forces. Things that adapt and fit into the ecosystems we are building will flourish in the future, but things that do not will most likely perish. It’s unfortunate, but some organisms will become extinct.

However, this possible future includes the idea that through pervasive computation every object, from a pen to a desk to a mountain, will be transformed into smart matter that will eventually attain intelligence and then consciousness. A form of technological hylozoism, a new natural world.

The final argument here is that, given that this is the direction evolution is flowing, wouldn’t it make sense to flow with it by investing in and working on the technologies that get us there?


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Gerd Leonhard’s Technology vs. Humanity

Futurist Gerd Leonhard has a new book out called Technology vs. Humanity. According to the site, “Technology vs. Humanity is a last-minute wake up call to take part in the most important conversation humanity may ever have. Will we blindly outsource and abdicate big chunks of our lives to the global technology companies – or will we take back our autonomy and demand a sustainable balance between technology and humanity?”

Leonhard is asking what I agree are the big questions for us here and now. This short video sums it up:

At the end of the video, the big questions/issues/forces: Datawars and Privacy; Exponentiality; Transhumanism; Singularity: Heaven or Hell; The Internet of Things; Artificial Intelligence; Towards Abundance; Digital Ethics; Ego to Eco; Algorithms to Humarithms; Digital Obesity; Sustainable Capitalism; Networked Society; and Robot Love.

Check it out. You can read a sample previous at the book site at Technology vs. Humanity.


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Futurist Event in Tempe, AZ: Minority Report and Inventing the Future, November 17 and 18

If you’re in Arizona, here’s a great (free) futurist event next week. Two days of cool SciFi and Futures related stuff:

Hollywood Invades Tempe presents “Inventing the Future All Over Again,” a special two-day event about imagining the world 50 years from now. The event includes a discussion with Minority Report producer Walter Parkes, a screening of the film and Q&A with the team behind the movie, and a two-part idea summit looking 50 years into our future. The idea summit features the team behind Minority Report, ASU leading-edge professors and ASU students. RSVP at hollywoodinvadestempe.com.

Thursday, Nov. 17

• 12–1:15 p.m. – Discussion with Minority Report producer Walter Parkes at Old Main

• 6:30 p.m. – Special screening of the film at Harkins Valley Art Theater, followed by a Q&A with the minds behind the magic

Friday, Nov. 18

• 9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. – 50 years into the future idea summit, session one, at Old Main

• 2–5 p.m. – 50 years into the future idea summit, session two, at Old Main

See locations and times here: https://asuevents.asu.edu/content/hollywood-invades-tempe-minority-report-and-inventing-future-all-over-again

Some folks from the Arizona Chapter of the World Future Society are going to be there, all or part of the time. If you’d like to connect, hit our meetup page for the event.


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The Tantalus Paradox: A Possible Reason We Haven’t Met Aliens

My 13-year-old son and I recently went to the excellent 20th Annual Earth and Space Exploration Day at Arizona State University. Later, we were chatting over dinner, talking about space, and we kind of hit on an interesting possible explanation for why we very curious and industrious earthlings haven’t met any aliens yet. So let me develop our thinking here … we’re calling it the Tantalus Paradox.

First of all, it’s related to the Fermi Paradox. Originating with Enrico Fermi, the basic idea is that given the probabilities of life and technological development in the universe, it stands to reason that the universe should be teeming with civilizations. Yet, as Fermi is reputed to have quipped, “Where is everybody?”

Of course, we get answers like everything’s really far apart in the universe, life is pretty rare in the universe, and so on. Yet, we are finding new planets every day, new galaxies every day, and the odds are greater every day that there has to be intelligent life out there somewhere. And still where is everybody?

So my son and I came up with what we’re calling the Tantalus Paradox, after the character in Greek fable named Tantalus. Tantalus cooked and served one of his children and was sentenced by the gods to be trapped in water he couldn’t drink and with food dangling always just beyond his reach.

The Tantalus Paradox is intended to add a possible companion explanation for the Fermi Paradox and to stimulate thought. Here it is in rough argument form:

  1. The evolution of a technologically advanced civilization, no matter how alien or exotic, anywhere in the universe, requires at least two essential things: 1) the pressure of competition (first between species and later within the dominant species) which stimulates intelligence and problem-solving; and 2) abundant and available local resources (first on the home planet and later the home system, as a civilization evolves from Kardashev I to Kardashev II). The confluence of these two things is rare, but not impossible.
  2. The transition from a local system civilization to an interstellar civilization (Kardashev II to Kardashev III transition) requires a tremendous amount of within-species collaboration and lots and lots of available local resources.
  3. By the time any given civilization reaches the Kardashev II (K2 for short) stage, intense internal competition has become ingrained in the civilization, making large-scale collaboration difficult if not impossible, and local resources have been over-exploited. These two assets, competition and resources, are what got the civilization to this K2 point, but these things won’t get them to K3. We can call the transition from a Kardashev II civilization to a Kardashev III civilization the “K2-K3 chasm,” and it’s a huge leap that will be technically tough to cross anyway.
  4. Because evolution is what it is, any civilization anywhere in the universe, no matter how alien and exotic, will likely reach the K2-K3 chasm after having exhausted the means to cross it. Not only that, but destructive competition and resource exploitation will likely have brought about a crisis point that must be addressed—the survival of the species in question will require new approaches.
  5. Therefore, the vast majority if not all civilizations in the universe hit the K2-K3 chasm and either perish from resource over-exploitation or find some cooperative, resource-light way to persist, stuck in K2. Either way, interstellar travel, which may be possible in the abstract, is no longer possible in reality because the very evolutionary principles and availability of local resources that put it within a civilization’s grasp now prevent it from being attainable. Like Tantalus, civilizations are competitive, eat their futures, get stuck, and thus can’t reach the K3 bounty that would fuel further evolution and expansion.

So simply put, the paradox is that intense competition evolves intelligent civilizations but it also results in over-exploitation of resources, leaving civilizations stuck in their own systems, staring at the stars. That’s the idea in a nutshell. Not sure if it’s already out there. Of course, it assumes the non-existence of X-files–style conspiracies, secret space programs and other stuff like that. If we think about our own future, the cooperation and resource usage requirements kind of make sense, and a suggestion here is that solving for collaboration and smart resource usage may be essential, but they’re going to be tough challenges anywhere, not just here on Earth.

Anyway, I welcome any further thoughts on this Paradox.


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WFS AZ November 2016 Meeting: Dr. Tom Lombardo on Future Consciousness

Join the Arizona chapter of the World Future Society on Monday, November 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the Scottsdale Civic Center Library for an engaging presentation on Future Consciousness. Our own Tom Lombardo will be previewing his forthcoming book,Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution. RSVP here.

Topic: Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution

Presenter: Tom Lombardo

How does our unique human nature fit into the big scheme of things? How do our conscious minds reflect and amplify nature’s evolutionary process? Tom’s new book reveals how we can flourish in the flow of evolution and create a good future for ourselves, human society, and the planet.

The key is future consciousness. Future consciousness involves the normal human abilities to feel and desire, learn and anticipate, imagine, think, and plan, and purposefully act toward the creation of the future. Our most distinctive and empowering human capacity, in fact, is to facilitate purposeful evolution through future consciousness. Through future consciousness we have realized an “evolution in evolution,” bringing evolution under informed, thoughtful, and purposeful control. We are self-evolutionary beings with an “eye on the future.” Human civilization, as well as our personal conscious selves, are creations of future consciousness. But we can all greatly enhance our capacity for purposeful evolution through the further development of our future consciousness. Within his new book Tom explains how to heighten and strengthen our future consciousness along all the dimensions of human psychology, including self-control, emotion, motivation, action, learning and memory, thinking and imagination, creativity, and personal identity. Through the heightening of future consciousness we are able to best answer and address the central question of human life: What is the good future and how do we create it?

In a time rampant with relativism and egocentricity; nihilism and pessimism; materialism and consumerism; polarization and tribalism; irresponsibility and victimization; superficiality and bread and circuses; and presentism and a hostile fear of change, Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution envisions a progressive future, based on a scientifically grounded philosophy of self-empowerment, psychological growth, and ongoing human evolution within an evolutionary cosmos.

Advance praise for Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution:

“Lombardo has written a masterpiece, a must-read book…for futurists, psychologists, social scientists, scholars, and academics of every type… one of the most creative I have read.”  Wendell Bell, Emeritus Professor Yale University 

“Tom Lombardo’s worldview is like a multiverse: vast, in depth, multidimensional. Each new book from this world renowned futurist is a new stellar light enlightening the understanding of what it means to be human…” — Fabienne Goux-Baudiment, Former President of the World Futures Studies Federation 

“It would be hard to imagine a book that covers such a vast landscape with the clarity and coherence found in [this book]… [containing] a philosophy of reality and of life that is truly breathtaking.”  Dr. Peter Bishop, Retired Professor, Studies of the Future, Univ. Houston

“…an extraordinary accomplishment and deserves the laurels that it will undoubtedly receive.” — Tim Mack | Former President of the World Future Society

“A passionate and important book that challenges you to take your everyday thinking and zoom way out… on a whole new epic scale…a deeply wise book for a wise future.”  Charles Cassidy, Director, Evidence-Based Wisdom

About Tom Lombardo:

Tom Lombardo, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Future Consciousness and The Wisdom Page, the Managing Editor of the online journal Wisdom and the Future, and Professor Emeritus and retired Faculty Chair of Psychology, Philosophy, and the Future at Rio Salado College. 

He has published seven books and over fifty articles, and given numerous national and international presentations, on various futurist, psychological, educational, and philosophical topics. His book Contemporary Futurist Thought has been described as a “masterpiece;” his The Evolution of Future Consciousness a “heroic synthesis;” and Mind Flight “a truly remarkable book.” 

He has been a professional member of the World Future Society, the World Futures Studies Federation, and the Association of Professional Futurists and an editorial board member of the Journal of Futures Studies and the World Future Review. Aside from his soon to be published Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution, he is also completing the first volume of a trilogy Science Fiction: The Evolutionary Mythology of the Future.

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