06.13.13

Walking through Taksim

Posted in Travel at 11:17 by RjZ

The shuttle dropped us off early in the morning after an overnight bus ride back to Istanbul. The cheap hotel was around here somewhere, or so the bus service thought, but as we walked through Taksim square, quiet in the too early morning, we felt a bit lost.

Taksim in in the Morning

Even early in the morning the square is busy, but not with pedestrians; rather with cars buzzing around the complex intersection of several streets all radiating out in different directions. This is downtown, modern Turkey, and unlike graceful mosques and traditional cafés, Taksim looks like many cities around the world. It’s a striving to get to work, coffee in hand, we’ve got stuff to spot, with tall buildings, noisy traffic and bus stops.

As we made our way through the square and down the main shopping street, the remnants of a party, celebration, football victory, or just last night, were everywhere. City sanitation workers were making their way in the opposite direction picking up the mess of spent beer bottles, and fast food wrappers. It was quite a mess and we never discovered whether this was a rare event or just another night in Istanbul’s party neighborhood.

We made our way through the trash and through some shadier parts of town finally arriving, too early, at the hotel to stash our backpacks and see more of the city. Maybe the overnight trip wasn’t so convenient after all…no one was even awake to let us in.

Famous Taksim, so important to the Turks, left little impression on me. I just didn’t experience it the night before, likely a good time to understand why they think of it as the heart of the city. There are few interesting sights here for the tourist. Most of the famous mosques and landmarks are on the other side of the bridge a few kilometers from here, and I didn’t feel like a Starbucks coffee, so it had little to offer at 6 in the morning.

Yet, walking through it is more important than that. It’s easier than ever to see vibrant images of current events happening around the world, right in your internet browser, and doing so brings home the reality of our shared human condition. It’s also easier than ever to fly around the world and visit the places first hand. Maybe I was unimpressed by the local landmark during my short walk across, but it is one of the great values of travel that just brief visit can bring alive those vibrant pictures from the news and bring the people in them that much closer.

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05.28.13

Ideas not worth spreading

Posted in Society at 14:01 by RjZ

Every now and again, it’s a good idea to question your premises. That’s why there’s nothing wrong with the idea behind Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘banned’ TED talk. Dr. Sheldrake’s presentation is about scientific dogma; unquestioned premises of science that turn the scientific method into scientism, a religion of science, where any doubt of the dogmatic beliefs is met with scorn.

Many see the TED board of directors decision to remove his talk from the their website (it’s back, but relegated to a discussion of this very topic–see the link above) as evidence that Dr. Sheldrake is on to something. The problem, though, is that Sheldrake is attacking a strawman. It’s not that dogmatism shouldn’t be avoided, it’s that it isn’t dogmatism when busy scientists don’t feel like they have to address every hypothesis ever raised by anyone. Must Sheldrake himself respond to every critic? (Will I get a comment from him on this blog; or should I assume that since this post went unanswered that there’s a pro-Sheldrake conspiracy against me?)

Sheldrake claims that scientists put a range of things outside of question, from the constancy of physical constants to efficacy of Western medicine. Here are the ten dogmas from his talk:

  1. Nature is mechanical or machine like
  2. All matter is unconscious
  3. The laws or constants of nature are fixed
  4. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
  5. Nature is purposeless
  6. Biological heredity is material
  7. Memories are stored inside your brain
  8. Your mind is inside your head
  9. Psychic phenomena like telepathy is not possible
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works

How do we know if some measurement is accurate? Nowadays, we compare it to a known standard, but what if you’re measuring something that hasn’t been measured before? We validate measurements the same way people did when they first decided to use rulers. Compare the results to nature. Back then, if merchant wanted to sell me a length of rope or planks of wood, he might measure them in els (an el is the length between an elbow and wrist). If you ordered 20 els of rope and got what seemed to be 20 els of rope, that’s a happy transaction. If the merchant’s idea of an el based on his very small arms was much smaller than mine, I’d object and eventually, we’d arrive on a standard el, often attached to the city hall, that we could agree upon. We validate the measurement by finding something that represents what we see in nature, and if works, we keep using it.

Measurements like the el or the meter are also premises just like several of Sheldrake’s ten dogmas. The reason we don’t constantly take our meter stick to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST is the U.S.’s modern equivalent of hanging a standard el on the city hall) is because it works. The results of measuring for shelves at home and then using those numbers to buy wood at the hardware store is proof enough that we don’t need to question the meter stick.

The reason these so-called dogmas aren’t questioned and proved anew in every scientific paper is because assuming they are true is handy, like trusting the meter stick. It’s right to calibrate once and while, to take a step back and ask, if constants of nature really constant, but just because this isn’t done all the time isn’t evidence of the dogmatic nature of scientists.

What Sheldrake is calling dogma is just the convenience of not questioning the foundation each time we endeavor to learn something new. Sadly, this attack is common among many in the fringe. (which is not to say Sheldrake’s on the fringe–so help me!) ‘Why won’t the establishment listen to me when I tell them I have proof of a perpetual motion machine / telekinesis / pink unicorns? They’ve clearly got something against me!’ In reality, every claim doesn’t deserve the same attention. The farther the claim is from already established knowledge, the more firmly the onus falls to the claimant to demonstrate it’s worth checking into in the first place.

Cold Fusion turned out to be cul-de-sac, but that didn’t stop my university physics department from investigating it. It was outside the accepted dogma, but it seemed plausible enough to check on. Perhaps Sheldrake get’s little attention for his theories on scopaesthesia
(the sense that someone is staring at you from behind) because he has offered little justification for the mechanism of this phenomenon, and not because the establishment is too dogmatic.

Meanwhile, Sheldrake’s TED talk accuses scientists of treating these premises as unquestionable dogmas. That is plainly untrue. Journals regularly feature articles testing the efficacy of “non-mechanistic medicine” or seeking to measure changes in physical constants. Immaterial effects of consciousness and even prayer are reviewed over and over again simply because no matter how many times it is shown that matter is unconscious, energy is conserved, and brains are material, not everyone is convinced. The unconvinced perform experiments trying to prove their point of view and sometimes their efforts are rewarded with new insight into how nature works. The rest of the time, these dogmas are simply premises that seem to work, over and over again, in experiment after again.

If I assume that nature is machine-like and, that assumption in mind perform an experiment only to achieve the expected results, then not only is that evidence of whatever phenomenon I was trying to observe, it’s also support for my assumption—no dogma required, just convenience.

In the end then, this comes down to a controversy as to whether the TED committee should have removed Sheldrake’s talk. While it is a good idea to revisit your assumptions now and again, Sheldrake’s talk goes further than just raising this issue. He gives the impression that scientists are unwilling to budge on their premises, accusing them of being dogmatic. The numerous papers (included Sheldrake’s own) exploring topics from his ten dogmas are each examples of the freedom of the scientific method. Sheldrake is not banned for having unconventional ideas. He’s making an unsubstantiated claim that these are unmovable dogmas in the first place. Is an unproven undermining attack on science really an idea worth spreading?

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05.27.13

The baby filter

Posted in , Society at 16:17 by RjZ

It’s not obvious to users what Facebook’s business model is, but it’s likely something to do with advertising. Facebook knows a great deal about their users and can target advertisements to them in a way that even Google’s knowledge of users’ searches can’t get close to.

Facebook has a couple of things it must do to ensure that users keep using it’s social networking services though. The more people link with each other and share the more data there is for all of us to sort through. Not only does the mountain of data grow, bogging down server farms, but users are forced to filter it all and they don’t have their own server farms to help. At some point sorting it all becomes a pain and you wind up blocking your more chatty friends.

One simple solution would be to allow users to add tags to their pictures, status updates, and posts. Just think of it, your friends add a new picture of their lovely baby, and naturally they choose some tags, like “baby”, “boy”, “our treasure”. They’re making the search easier for Facebook, but their enabling their friends and family to create albums, of all of their favorite pictures or news items. While grandparents will quickly want to create a filter showing baby pictures of all of their grandparents, their childless friends, sick to death of pictures of someone’s naked child with spaghetti sauce all over his face can safely filter them out and still catch updates from their friends.

This simple, well tested feature, is likely fairly easy to implement and offers incredible functionality to the social media platform, including much more targeted advertising, which is exactly what Facebook’s customers, not the users, but the people buying ads and paying the bills, really need.

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02.28.13

Robot series 6: robot redux

Posted in Society at 9:52 by RjZ

A couple of readers offered some excellent insights on my final robot economy post.

Will robots really be able to automate everything?

Well, not everything, but it is already remarkable how many craftsman quality tasks can be broken down and chunked into menial subtask. My point is that even if there is a little labor left, it won’t change that this automation will have tremendous impact.

There are plenty of jobs remaining: designing, marketing, selling, finance.

That’s heartening. I agree and frankly, I over simplified. Still, these are all knowledge worker jobs and that’s fine, but isn’t it possible that a great many people just aren’t cut out for any of those jobs? Even if, as we have seen historically, the amount of free time simply gets redistributed, at some point there will be a great inequality; the knowledge workers will still have to work and the laborers won’t have any work. I wonder how we will deal with this problem.

The market system will accommodate for this, after all, if there are fewer consumers out there, then there is little justification to keep investing in robotics; especially after the costs of welfare.

The problem our current system has, then, is that there is little connection between social costs and business costs. In other words, if my business puts people out of work and the government starts paying for them. Well, they still have money to by my goods and services and I win. There are many ways to address this disconnect ranging from ending welfare to forcing businesses to pay for it, but as it currently stands, market forces will only encourage widespread automation.

Won’t useful robots have AI?

I don’t see why that will be necessary for much of the change I’ve proposed. AI still requires invention, probably lots of it. That is why I believe it could be far off (it might not be…that’s just it, invention is unpredictable). AI throws a serious ethical wrench in the works. Sentient robots, it can be argued, ought not be used as slaves. (What if they’re programmed to like the work? hard stuff!)

It doesn’t matter though. A tremendous amount of work can be accomplished by robots with simple routines and nature is already our model for this. Just the flight of an insect is tremendously complicated and is accomplished with a mere 100,000 neurons. Yet, we fear little about offending the sentience of a fly when we swat one. To suggest that an ethically difficult amount of intelligence will be required for robots to accomplish complex tasks is to ignore how much can be done by clever programmers, or even simple nature.

The only constant is change.

I hoped to bring this issue up so that we would start thinking about it now, and perhaps notice this trend as it starts to occur. However, I agree, we’ll all work through this; especially if we recognize that the way things are, sure isn’t going to be the way things will be in the future. Robots are just one of many perturbations to the status quo…not to mention all those unpredictable inventions!

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02.27.13

Robot Series 5: Sweeping change

Posted in Society at 12:04 by RjZ

What would you do if you never had to work? What if no one works? It is entirely conceivable that at some point in the not so distant future there will be absolutely no labor for humans to do.

Robots, equipped with 3D vision, can automate more than just production and maid service. They will be able to take over farming, food service and health care. It’s a ways off because every problem from harvesting wheat to washing dishes will take some serious engineering effort to solve, but none of it is necessarily the stuff of science fiction; it’s more a matter of how to justify all that effort it takes to design. (One could make a dishwashing robot with today’s technology, but it would take so much time and effort to solve all the simple little problems that no one has stepped up the challenge. Vacuuming yes, you still have to load your own dishwasher). Still, dishwashing robots are unlike quantum computers or artificial intelligence. No new developments need to take place to make one; we already know what we need to know. And, if you can make a dishwashing robot, you can make another one that repairs it and keeps the rest of the robots running.

Already we have an idea how automation effects society and our understanding of economics. In the last hundred years humans have migrated away from farms and into cities, while farms have increased production for us all (admittedly, we may not be better off, but perhaps it will take some adjustment. I bet we’ll still have far fewer farmers per capita). This reduction of labor has dramatically increased free-time for us all and it is thanks to many forms of automation (and a large dose of cheap energy from petroleum).

Communism may have been invented as a response to the abuses of labor, (another name for workers—people), by those with access to capital. But what are the abuses when the labor in question is not sentient and will gladly work, 24 hours per day, in whatever conditions it takes to get the job done? Robots won’t complain about hot factories or cold ones and they’ll never ask for vacations or better health care. Communism may be a bad word for many, but avoiding abuses isn’t a terrible goal.

Slavery ended not only because human came to realize it was bad to treat fellow humans in this way, but also because it is cheaper to send workers home with a pay check then to feed them, care for them, and house them. In the robot economy, as long as these new servants have no artificial intelligence, there is no moral dilemma, and no care and feeding (beyond regular maintenance). Cheap labor without the suffering.

What about all those folks who actually work for living? People who primarily trade their labor for money to buy goods and services they desire will have little of value to offer when robots are doing all the work. Unfortunately, for the capitalists filling automated warehouses with products, they won’t be able to sell them without able customers. What will they do if laborers have no value and no money?

What does all this leave for you? Often when you newly meet someone one of the first questions asked is: “What do you do?” In the future, that question might seem a bit silly. There may well be room for artists, poets, and musicians. There will be some opportunity to think of new ideas, innovations and applications of the technology around us, but labor will be by choice alone, like artisan cheese and Amish furniture. Society’s current plan is to distribute all the free time to as many as possible, but things might not be so easy to manage when scientists, artists, and the Amish are busy, while the rest of us are watching tv (created by the artists).

From compliant robots to automated nurses, the future of robotics isn’t so far off any more. The biggest hurdles to a labor free society are really only the time it takes to build and design all these new devices and perhaps the energy to power them (although, we’ll likely save enough on heating factories and driving to work that, at least in the short term, it’s a wash). The robot economy is another type of singularity; everything changes and it’s difficult to predict just how things look when there is no labor for anyone.

Pixar’s Wall-E offered one potential future of a world where robots do absolutely everything: humans become permanent couch potatoes. Is that it, or do you have a better idea what will happen? Let me know in the comments.

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02.14.13

Robot series 4: An engineering problem

Posted in Society at 15:50 by RjZ

It may be easy to sort through a database to find the things you want or need to complete a project, but the logistics of bringing it all together isn’t trivial. We already enjoy world-wide, point to point, next-day shipment. Automated warehouses are the next critical step in moving things around easily and cheaply. Companies like Amazon have giant warehouses with thousands and thousands of different products. Getting to them can be like finding the needle in a haystack, but an automated forklift with keen, 3D capable vision, can scan kilometers of shelves, select the right products, and package them in a custom box for shipping.

But why find or ship anything when you can make it at home? 3D printers have been around for more than two decades, and now they’re going mainstream. Just don’t think of them as printers; think of them as Star Trek replicators. Today, they print with plastic or metal, but the technology is being adapted to print with nearly every conceivable material from textiles to food. 3D data capture technology will turn printers into 3D copiers. Need a spare widget? Snap a 3D picture and print yourself one. What effects will these developments have on society? Nearly all these developments aren’t the stuff of sci-fi. They’re more or less around right now.

Artificial Intelligence has been promised for decades and while we’ve seen the brute force mental achievement of Deep Blue, the chess computer that beat human masters, or the vast, encyclopedic knowledge of Jeopardy winning Watson and its ability to understand natural language questions, AI remains a tough problem.

We’ve been promised nano machines that will revolutionize everything from materials to health care (or turn everything into grey goo) and we’ve been expecting quantum and integrated optical computers which should be powerful enough to finally make artificial intelligence a reality, well, maybe.

Edison wasn't the only one to invent the lightbulb. It was inevitable.

Unfortunately, few developments have come from all these ideas even after so much effort. It’s been no waste of time, but these problems are extremely difficult. Robots and 3D vision aren’t like that. They aren’t a matter of invention and discovery, they are a matter of engineering. Where discovery resists time-tables and prediction, often occurring in fits, starts, or flashes of insight; engineering comes from mental effort, trial and error, and ingenuity. Business can be built on engineering because it’s reliable. Engineering results can be forecasted with some success. It isn’t easy to create brand new things from unrelated parts, but the goal is often in sight.

Many “inventions” in the past were really just innovations of engineering. The light bulb was nearly simultaneously invented by Joseph Swan, Hiram Stevens Maxim, and Thomas Edison. The radio, telephone, television, and dozens of other inventions have all been developed by multiple people nearly simultaneously. Each of these came into being because everything necessary to produce them had finally been discovered, and was essentially waiting for incredible engineers to put them all together. They were, so to speak, inevitable.

The promise of robotics, 3D machine vision and printing are inevitable too. How will they change the way we live? The impact of inexpensive automation, automated warehouses, 3D copiers, and safe robot assistants will be broader than just a few more gadgets. They will change economics, political power, and even how we value ourselves. Even if the Singularity doesn’t come in our lifetimes, everything we need for sweeping change is already out there, just waiting for some clever folks to put the pieces it together. No invention required.

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02.06.13

Robot series 3: Stuck in flatland

Posted in Society at 14:56 by RjZ

Google has taken street view off-road. Teams of (lucky) engineers are walking around national parks and wild places like the Grand Canyon carrying a backpack full of cameras and GPS devices. They’re working towards Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. Amazing stuff; you can see a demo here.

What’s missing from all this work is the third dimension. Of course, street view info is mapped onto rough 3D contours, but generally, the information being collected is 2D. For most things, that’s just fine. Humans experience much of the world in only two dimensions because everything beyond a dozen meters or so is essentially two dimensional. Mapping the world with street view is well-served with 2D information, but it’s obviously not the whole story.

Try this. Imagine wearing a camera that records everything you see throughout the day and uploads this information to a cloud-based server. Sometime later, you realize you’ve misplaced your sunglasses. What if you could search through all that stored information, find a copy of your sunglasses from a time when you knew you had them and then have the server search for the last place they were seen? Repeat for keys, where you parked your car…even for people you’ve met…what was his name again?

Everything necessary to do this already exists today just waiting for someone to bring it all together (and, make a business out of it to pay for it….) Critical though, is that 2D data alone make this problem much more difficult than it should be. For example, a 2D system can’t tell the difference between your mom, and a picture of your mom. Storing 3D information can actually end up easing bandwidth problems, and certainly the search problems that need to be solved before this idea becomes a reality. A single 3D model of mom’s face helps the system to identify her, even from her profile and not just her portrait. The sunglasses can be spotted lying on the counter face up or face down.

In Japan, an aging populace has been wondering who will take care of them as they enter their later years. The Japanese government has been heavily promoting robot assistants as a potential solution. The recent film Robot and Frank took a charming look at what these future relationships might be like; but for Robot to be able walk around, do the dishes, and cook (not to mention, learn to pick locks…) classic 2D machine vision won’t be enough. Not convinced? Check out these convincing anamorphic illusions and you’ll be convinced of some of the limitations of 2D vision!

3D adds much more than just image acquisition. It allows security cameras to match a persons captured face with a mug shot even if the angle shot is completely different. 3D motion capture can enable computers read sign language or lips or be used as an interface that requires no buttons or touching whatsoever. Machine vision algorithms, amazing as they are, are pretty simple today. More information makes them more powerful and emerging, inexpensive, 3D capture technologies provide that valuable detail. From industrial bin and picking, 3D copiers (a natural extension to 3D printers like Makerbot that already exist today) to more personal applications, compact, inexpensive, and fast, 3D data capture is just one more piece of the modern robotics puzzle.

[Disclaimer: the company I work for, Chiaro Technologies is developing just this sort of inexpensive, fast, accurate, 3D capture technology.]

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01.31.13

Robot series 2: Evil and dangerous?

Posted in Society at 18:19 by RjZ

The Terminator wants to kill John Conner. Most robots today don’t want to kill anybody, but they would if they got the chance.

Today’s robots are mostly just arms. Small, fast moving arms that pick up small objects and put them down somewhere else or giant, strong arms that wield welders on sheet metal for industrial products. These arms are precise and move in a carefully orchestrated dance that is programmed into them ahead of time and repeated perfectly time and time again. Most of these arms are dumb and blind and move incredibly fast. They’re dangerous and if one were to collide with you your head while moving on its appointed rounds it might kill you. As a result, automation robots are cordoned off in cages or behind glass.

Not all robots are like this of course. The iRobot Roomba is an automated vacuum cleaner that roams around your house scaring your cats while cleaning floors with little or no interaction from you. iRobot was founded by Rodney Brooks, formerly the chair  of MIT’s computer science department, Dr. Brooks has been hiding for four years at his new company: Rethink Robotics. He’s not the only one, but Dr. Brooks thinks robots might be more useful if they weren’t so dangerous. Rethink Robotics, along with a few other companies, are now offering a new class of ‘compliant robots’ which aren’t so fast, but much more friendly that today’s automation robots.

Typical automation robots are so fast and precise because they use powerful motors and precision gears to move grippers perfectly from place to place. Compliant robots, like Baxter from Rethink Robotics, use cheaper motors to drive springs that actuate the arm. When compliant arms come in contact with a soft, fragile, human, they give a little. Force sensors in the springs can slow them down and the puny human is spared. Since the blind and dumb arms won’t accidentally kill or injure anyone, they can be released from their cages and work side by side with us.

Sitting next to the robot does more than enable friendships; it opens up new opportunities for easier programming. For example, Baxter can be programmed by a person simply grabbing the cuff of its arm and showing it where to start and finish a movement. Compare that with traditional automation robots which sometimes take months or longer to program. Baxter, and robots like it, is cheaper, can be installed or moved around a factory floor easily and programmed for a new task in hours.

As most everybody knows, manufacturing has been leaving the United States and Europe for more than a decade now and the biggest driver has been cheaper labor. Even when poor Chinese laborers finally start demanding the same gadgets they’ve been cheaply building for the west, there will still be poor laborers in the next third world country to build them. The West loses jobs, but the rest work like slaves. It’s not a good situation, so, how do we compete?

“Reshoring” is the name of a trend-in-the-making: manufacturing returning to the West. There are still thousands of manufacturing companies the United States. They concentrate on high value, short run jobs that may last only for a few weeks. They’re responding to another important market trend: customization. New products from other small companies that get started on websites like Kickstarter can’t justify the tooling, high costs, or even traditional automation robots, that they’ll pay for with the economies of scale and a million parts. 
 An inexpensive, easily reprogrammed robot that works 24/7, without health care costs, is just the ticket for small manufacturing companies and the dozens of businesses they enable. Baxter and friends might well replace a few jobs (jobs that, for the most part, already left for cheaper shores), but, hopefully, they create just as many more in all those small, innovative businesses. At the same time, we can expect unique products for smaller niches and tailored to our individual taste.

No new technology here, but this slight tweak has the potential to change the balance of world economy. Baxter, by the way, is made in America.

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Robot series 1: big thoughts and robots

Posted in Society, Uncategorized at 10:09 by RjZ

I’ve been thinking about robots lately. I mean, robots are cool and they have a lot of promise but, like artificial intelligence and flying cars, we really haven’t gotten everything that science fiction promised. In Kevin Kelly’s book What Technology Wants the editor of Wired magazine explains that many technological inventions and the changes in the society they cause, happen as a result of tech that has already been around for a while. Often, everything has to be out there, in the marketplace, just waiting for enough pieces to come together and then it seems that suddenly something new has hit us as if it came out of nowhere.

In the next few posts I will review some pretty basic technology and show how this stuff has the potential to change everything. It probably will. The real question; the question I’ll be asking you, is how? What will life look like when technology changes the very socio-economic premise of our society? What do robots and communism have to do with each other anyway? What’s the difference between your mom and a picture of your mom? How can America get manufacturing back without improving the economy? What do Kickstarter and big pharma have to do with each other? I’ll talk about all that, but also robots. Come back and let me know what you think!

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12.22.12

Laughable.

Posted in at 14:00 by RjZ

Armed guards in every school? Will the NRA be paying? Is this the police state from which having guns was intending to protect us?

If this is all the pro-gun lobby has to say, I pity those who hope to keep their guns.

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