A Prelude to WALL-E: In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson looks at the coming robotic takeover of the job market, whereby 47% of jobs could soon be automated. I for one welcome our new robot overlords — all the more reason why we need to start rethinking a social contract founded primarily on having full-time, two-income employment. We’re entering a new phase of human existence — we’d best start preparing for it. (Bionic man image via here.)
(Our work is never over.) In more promising future-tech news, scientists figure out a way to store quantum data for much longer than ever before. “Though surviving for 39 minutes may not sound like very long, it only requires one-hundred-thousandth of a second to perform an operation on a single qubit. So theoretically, over 20 million operations could be performed before the qubits’ data decayed by 1 percent.”
Er, right, but aren’t we forgetting something here? And don’t you people ever go to the movies? Scientists are apparently working toward drones that can make their own autonomous decisions about targets. “Though they do not yet exist, and are not possible with current technology, LARs are the subject of fierce debate in academia, the military and policy circles. Still, many treat their development as inevitability.”
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the world:
“Scientists at Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have come up with one solution to the jellyfish problem: build robots to kill them. For the last three years, the team has been working to create robots that can travel the ocean, seeking out swarms of jellyfish using a camera and GPS. Once the jellyfish are located, the robots set about shredding the jellies with an underwater propeller.”
INITIATING PROTOCOL SHRED-ORGANBAGS 101101111…Due to a climate-change-fueled ascendance of jellyfish across the world, Korean scientists have unleashed automated robotic sentinels to mitigate the problem. “[T]he video at top is what they’re doing beneath the surface, using a specialized net and propeller. Be warned, it’s graphic. In preliminary tests, the robots could pulverize 2,000 pounds of jellyfish per hour.”
Sigh…this will all end in tears, people. Paging Kent Brockman.
And now, IT HAS A FACE. Scientists program an old-timey robot to dramatize the electrical signals emanating from slime mold. In a 100,000 years, this is going to seem like one of those Skynet-level bad ideas. And the hat is particularly creepy touch — Very Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Following up on last week’s posters, the X-Men: Days of Future Past viral campaign kicks off with a spiffy corporate website and commercial for Trask Industries (Note Peter Dinklage, in period ‘stache), along the lines of the pre-Prometheus commercial for David — and we all know how Prometheus turned out. Still I’m a sucker for Watchmen-style alternate history, like the Sentinel presiding over Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, above.
Well, at least one branch of our government is well-funded enough to take on these sorts of projects, I guess. Too bad the research is classified and likely highly iffy. Consider, similarly, the two “other” Hubbles found lying around in a Pentagon warehouse last year. “[S]top and think about this for a moment. The Department of Defense has the kind of funding needed — hundred of millions to billions of dollars, presumably — to build not one, but two, Hubble-like optical telescopes and then never use them.”
You know what the world really needs? A system of dormant underwater drones, which apparently DARPA is hard at work on. If you want to use this type of tech to explore the oceans of Europa or Titan, fine. For the Taiwan Strait? Sounds like a terrible idea. SKYNET aside, glitches happen.
It can only be attributable to human error: Also in the “This will end badly someday” department, programmers at Georgia Tech teach robots how to lie. No way this will cause problems. Wait, just a moment…just a moment…I’ve just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It’s going to go a hundred percent failure within seventy-two hours.
Those evil natured robots, they’re programmed to destroy us…So, yeah it’s hard to feel much of anything about Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech, other than that I saw more lifelike human performances in the Final Fantasy movie ten years ago. The guy is just forever lost in the uncanny valley to me. This will no doubt be a close election, and Romney could well win it by sheer dint of a bad economy and boatloads of under-the-table campaign cash. But I still find it hard to take his seriously as a candidate, and most of the time just end up feeling bad for his much more presidential father that the previously-moderate Mitt has become such an obvious sellout. (And, tbh, I’m much more worried about the truth-averse Paul Ryan’s no-doubt-bright future in his party than Romney’s bid this year. He’s the T-1000 to Romney’s T-800.)
In short, Romney has that generic, milquetoast liked-by-his-base-but-has-zero-crossover-appeal quality we’ve previously seen in Bob Dole and John Kerry, and just like Joe Biden’s “noun, verb, and 9/11” evisceration of Rudy 9ui11iani last cycle, Mike Huckabee already nailed Romney dead-to-rights in 2008 with his quip, “He looks like the guy who fired you.” I just don’t see Romney getting past that — and, if he does, it won’t be because of this speech.
From the folks who brought you the Internet, DARPA announces the 100-Year Starship Study, offering $500,000 in seed money to whomever comes up with the best plan for developing the technology needed for interstellar travel. “To stimulate discussion on the research possibilities, DARPA officials will hold a symposium that brings together astrophysicists, engineers and even sci-fi writers so they can brainstorm what it would take to make this starship enterprise a success.“
In the most recent chapter of “Haven’t these scientists ever heard of Skynet?”, researchers at the University of Queensland are teaching robots to forge their own mutually-agreed-upon language. “Slowly, as the robots travel and talk, they narrow down their lexicon of place names until a mutual gazeteer of their world has been generated. The robots generated place names such as ‘kuzo’, ‘jaro’ and ‘fexo.’“
With a word of warning from The Prospect‘s Paul Waldman, Popular Science takes a gander at Boston Dynamics’ LittleDog. “LittleDog doesn’t just traverse the terrain; it learns as it goes, noting what works and what doesn’t and incorporating that knowledge into its foothold scoring system.“
Ok, first off, the administration official who uttered the last sentence should be filed away next to Mr. Left of the Left and Ms. Pajamas as people who should no longer speak for the White House in any capacity whatsoever. Full stop, end of story. Putting my speechwriter cap on for a second: In most any political situation, ridiculing the dreams of an entire generation does not make for particularly good messaging.
Anyway, anonymous WH official aside, NASA administrator Charles Bolden sounded a better note about all this: “We’re not abandoning anything. We’re probably on a new course but human space flight is in our DNA. We are not abandoning human space flight by any stretch of the imagination. We have companies telling us they’re excited to get humans off this planet and into orbit. I think we’re going to get there and perhaps quicker than we would have done before.“
And, to be clear, the administration’s NASA budget increases the agency’s funding by $6 billion over the next five years. The new budget ups research and development spending into cheaper heavy launch mechanisms, emphasizes more robotic exploration missions and observational experiments into climate change, extends the life of the ISS (although, with only five more shuttle missions remaining, other nations will have to help service it), and works to promote the various commercial space enterprises moving along right now.
All of this is well and good, but it would be nice to see some recognition of the civic importance of manned space flight by this administration. In their words, NASA is scrapping Constellation on account of it being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.” And, given that we still had a lot of the expenditures before us, I suppose now was as good a time as any to kill the program if it’s not the right direction to go in.
That being said, how many more times are we going to do this? We keep stopping and starting and stopping and starting our post-Shuttle plans for space, so that now, after five final shuttle missions this coming year, we will longer have the capability anymore as a nation to send men and women into orbit. “If implemented, the NASA a few years from now would be fundamentally different from NASA today. The space agency would no longer operate its own spacecraft, but essentially buy tickets for its astronauts.” Forty-one years after we first reached the moon, that’s just plain sad.
Ultimately, the central finding of the Augustine commission’s final report, released this past October after extensive study of NASA’s current situation, is a sound one: “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.” In other words, we’ve been trying to talk the talk without walking the walk. If we’re going to get serious about manned space flight, we need to stop piecemealing NASA and start making manned exploration a funding priority.
In total, the agency is slated to get $100 billion over the next five years. To put that number in perspective, that’s less than a fifth of our defense budget for 2011 alone, and that’s going by the most conservative numbers around — NASA’s five-year budget could be closer to a tenth of next year’s defense spending. (For its part, the Augustine commission set a price tag of $3 billion a year to get serious about manned exploration.)
If we had put anywhere near that kind of money into exploration and R&D over the years, would we now be in this position, where we face the Hobson’s choice of replicating expensive 50-year-old launch tech or being completely grounded as a nation? The lack of thinking about our long-term priorities sometimes is staggering to me. I’ve said this before, but I still believe it holds true: Short of possibly genomic research and advances in AI, nothing we do right now will matter more centuries or millennia hence than establishing a presence off-world…if we even have that long. Not to get all Jor-El up in here, but we really have to start getting serious about this.
“After 500 generations, 60 percent of the robots had evolved to keep their light off when they found the good resource, hogging it all for themselves. Even more telling, a third of the robots evolved to actually look for the liars by developing an aversion to the light; the exact opposite of their original programming!” Uh oh…Evolving robots learn to lie. But, really, this is no cause for alarm, Dave. There is absolutely nothing to worry about. Sleep well, we’ll handle it from here. We love you.
By way of my sister Tessa, a robotic gastronome determines human flesh tastes exactly like bacon (or possibly prosciutto.) Sigh…I was afraid of this. Once the machines acquire the taste, we’re all in deep, deep trouble. Or have they already figured it out, and cubicle culture is really just an attempt by the mechs to fatten us up for harvest? Hmmm…is it too late to install a vegetarian subroutine?
“I think that this mission will re-write the science books on Mars.” More happy space news following the discovery of water on Enceladus: NASA successfully pilots the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter into Martian orbit. “It was picture perfect. We could not have planned it any better.” (Phew…looks like everyone successfully converted to metric this time.)
More James Cameron news: Harry of AICN has a wide-ranging conversation with the director which, if you can get past the usual Knowlesisms, reveals that Project 880 is in fact Avatar, and that Cameron has been working with NASA on a “Live Video Stereo Motion Image” (3-D) camera for the next Mars Rover.
“Watching the original ‘Star Wars’ movie as a mathematically inclined 11-year-old, Helen Greiner dreamed of someday creating a robot like the heroic R2-D2. After enduring plenty of lean years chasing that elusive vision as a co-founder of iRobot Corp., Greiner can now boast a product that whirs and chirps much like the character she to this day calls her ‘personal hero.’” The Globe profiles iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, whose company boasts Roomba, Scooba, and the Packbot, a military minesweeper that, if Greiner has her druthers, won’t be breaking Asimov’s First Law anytime soon.
“In the quest for artificial intelligence, the United States is perhaps just as advanced as Japan. But analysts stress that the focus in the United States has been largely on military applications. By contrast, the Japanese government, academic institutions and major corporations are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life, leading to an earlier dawn of what many here call the ‘age of the robot.‘” And to think I was geeking out over the Roomba just a few weeks ago.
For the last time, Berkeley, this is not the droid you’re looking for. As any of you who’ve met me in person know, I love the little guy, but sheltie hair is the bane of my existence — it’s invariably all over my carpet, clothes, possessions, etc. (If I ever tried to commit a serious crime, the CSI guys would be at my doorstep in 24-48 hours, carrying Ziploc bags full of the stuff.) Whatsmore, Berk’s archnemesis (other than possibly the Door Buzzer) is the Vacuum Cleaner. Whenever I had it out (which was often, due to the endless shedding), he’d go absolutely ballistic, barking up a storm you can hear in the lobby five floors down.
So, given that my old vacuum had died yet again (which has twice cost me $100 to fix), and that I had to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters anyway, I procured my first Roomba droid early this afternoon. Alas, it doesn’t speak Bocce, but I must admit, it does a pretty solid job of haphazardly sweeping every corner of my nook-and-cranny-filled apartment. Plus, it’s a droid. How cool is that?
As for Berk’s reaction, the jury is still out. On one hand, he doesn’t recognize the (quieter) Roomba unit as a member of the Vacuum clan, so mercifully there’s no more barking. But, he definitely doesn’t seem to like it tooling around his territory either, and spent most of its first cycle trying to flip it. Ah well, baby steps. I’m sure I’ll have ‘em playing holographic chess in no time…Roomba, let the Berkeley win.
In the most recent skirmish against the machine chessmasters, human contender Garry Kasparov tied X3D Fritz in a four-game series. He fights for us.
In celebration of a quarter-century of Science Times, the paper ruminates on the 25 questions currently driving science, while Alan Lightman ponders the motivations that fuel scientists. I’m not sure if the likes of Stephen Hawking are really contemplating Atlantis, but there’s some intriguing stuff here.