Humans and Robots: Seeing Robots, Warring Robots and Dancing Robots

One of the core skills we have as humans is the ability to recognise and recognise things that we see. The ability for robots to do this has advanced significantly in recent year as the TED Talk by Joseph Redmon demonstrates:

As robots continue to gain skills a number of people are advocating that the United Nations should ban robots that kill:

Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.

We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.

An Open Letter to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

We have a log history of weaponising technology advances, perhaps even as long as human history. Once you remove humans from the field of war the moral needs change significantly. What’s to stop an ever escalating conflict when there is limited moral need to stop?

If warring robots is a scary thought, how about dancing ones. Guinness world records recently published this video of dancing Dobi robots, 1069 in all:

Personally I think that this is quite scary.

I could spend hours doing this… 2017 edition.

Over 8 years ago I wrote a piece entitled I could spend hours doing this… which outlined 14 steps to fritter away a few unproductive hours in the day. There’s been a lot of technical change since then, so I figured it was time to provide an updated guide.

The range of options have exploded, so where to start?

  1. Pick up your smartphone and check the notifications on there. Let them take you wherever they want to lead you. Mine first interesting notification for today happens to be an article on Medium so that’s where I go. Feel free to go wherever your’s takes you.
  2. At the bottom of the Medium article there is a range of more stories begging for my attention, but I choose to click on the arrow at the top of the screen which takes me to the list of articles that Medium has decided may be of interest to me.
  3. Ironically the second set of Medium articles are all within the Productivity section – 43 Bluepoints on productivity followed by 12 Productivity Hacks to Get Stuff Done are today’s favourite diversions. Lists are easy to consume and just as easy to forget. Bulletpoint 42 was a highlight: “Fac, si facis. That’s Latin for “Do it, if you’re going to do it.””
  4. From Medium it’s time to switch over to Flipboard, I’m not sure what the trigger was for this switch, but I’m freewheeling so anywhere is acceptable. Flipboard has an endless stream of articles so there’s little chance of running out of things to read. You can even read about the same thing from multiple sources if you want to get the same perspective from different people.
  5. Having spent some time on my smartphone it’s probably about the right time to switch devices particularly as that small screen and poor posture aren’t very good for me. Switching devices is another way of simulating that feeling of getting things done without having to actually do anything. Using multiple devices makes me feel busier, especially if I set up notifications on each of them.
  6. The switch to a different device need not precipitate a change of diversion, but there are plenty to choose from, so why not. Time to make the move to LinkedIn.
  7. LinkedIn is chocked full of distraction, you don’t need to venture very far from the home page, but if you do have some notifications that increases the goodness. Where are all those people I used to work with now? Who’s got a work anniversary? Who’s started a new position? Who’s posting corporately defined marketing material? Who’s liking corporate marketing material? Who’s commenting on an article? Not many of them. Who’s posted something from Medium? I could return to the top of the list at any time but decide, instead to move on.
  8. What’s up next? Twitter? You need to check both LinkedIn and Twitter because they are different constituencies. The stream of updates from Twitter can take me practically anywhere as long as I am following enough people and don’t set up any form of filtering. Following some news accounts and I’ll have fresh content all day, no need to get something done when you can live in the flow. But eventually, I get bored of Twitter and need to move onto another source.
  9. Blog posts are still, for me, the main source of information and for that I use Feedly. Feedly nicely goes around the internet and collects all of the blog posts, from all of the feeds that you’ve asked it to browse. Pick the right set of feeds and I’ve got a fresh crop of material every day and throughout the day. I can even point Feedly at Medium feeds and keep going around that circle as often as I like.
  10. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but I’m avoiding email. No need to worry though, there are still plenty of sources to go to. Slack is your next distraction for me. It’s time to look through the various communities and channels for more sources of distraction. Hopefully there’s a discussion ongoing somewhere that I can read through. If I’m fortunate someone in the organisation has set up a bot to scrape data from somewhere else into Slack, even more information to read through.
  11. In the modern workplace Slack isn’t the only port for collaboration distractions, if you are fortunate you’ve also got Yammer. There’s likely to be a discussion somewhere on Yammer that’s getting everyone heated about something wonderfully trivial.
  12. In the modern workplace Slack and Yammer aren’t the only ports for collaboration distractions, if you are fortunate you’ve also got Workplace by Facebook. Someone will have helpfully cross posted some of the content from each of the alternatives into each of the other alternatives. There are a nice collection of notifications waiting for my attention.
  13. In the modern workplace Slack, Yammer and Workplace by Facebook aren’t the only ports for collaboration distractions, if you are fortunate you’ve also got Microsoft Teams. I need to check all of the sources, because I don’t want to miss out on something important.
  14. To get another view of the work that others are doing there’s also Microsoft Office Delve. Delve will shows me a view of all of the important interactions going on in my network.
  15. I suppose that it’s time to check some email, but perhaps I should start with my personal email. If you are looking for further distraction the best way is to read personal emails on your smartphone. Hopefully you will receive a notification from one of the other apps on your smartphone to take you off exploring somewhere else.
  16. While I’m on my smartphone perhaps I should check one of the news apps that’s on there, I wouldn’t want to miss out on anything important.
  17. Hopefully, by this time, I’ve received a number of messages via the numerous messaging platforms that I’m subscribed to. I need to check each one because I never know what I may have missed.
  18. But then I really should check my work email. If you want to be really distracted don’t use any of the capabilities within your chosen email product and wade through each and every email, including the emails which are notifications from Twitter, Yammer, Workplace, etc.
  19. Randomly return to a step and restart the cycle from there.

Have I missed anything?

Because it’s Friday: “Chinese Spouting Bowl in Slow Motion” by The Slow Mo Guys

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that are the most fascinating when slowed down, that’s certainly true when the Slow Mo Guys start to play with a Chinese Spouting Bowl, also known as a Singing Bowl.

Being able to see sound vibrations and the resulting resonance is fabulous, especially when you see that the bowl you thought was quite still is moving quite a bit:

I’m Reading: Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent by Mick Conefrey

Despite all I have seen and experienced, I still get the same simple thrill out of glimpsing a tiny patch of snow in a high mountain gully and feel the same urge to climb towards it.

Edmund Hillary

To travel, to experience and learn: that is to live.

Tenzing Norgay

The ascent of Everest was not the work of one day, nor even of those few unforgettable weeks in which we climbed… It is, in fact, a tale of sustained and tenacious endeavour by many, over a long period of time.

Sir John Hunt

Thank goodness. Now we can get on with some proper climbing.

Eric Shipton

History has a way of picking heroes and of either building them up, or pushing them down, they tend to stand and fall as individuals. The two names I knew from the ascent of Everest were Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing (Tenzing Norgay). These two individuals did a remarkable thing, they were the first people to stand on top of the world but I knew little about the events that got them there.

My schoolboy knowledge of the events of 1953 had overlooked the tremendous efforts of John Hunt, the leader of the expedition. John Hunt was just as famous as the Tenzing and Hilary at the time but I was born 15 years after 1953 and he no longer featured in the story I was told.

Names like Charles Evans, Tom Bourdillon, Griffith Pugh, George Band, George Lowe, Michael Westmacott and all the others were just as unknown by me, until now. The larger than life character of Eric Shipton was also a new one to me. Yet, each of these individuals played a significant part in the events that lead to two people standing higher than anyone else had ever stood.

The world has changed a huge amount since 1953, something that this book makes evident as a parallel story to the main event. We are so used to world where a couple of hundred people climb to the summit each year in organised groups that include everyday people. We are used to people flying into Nepal and travelling around by helicopter. We are used to modern breathing apparatus and mountain equipment making these endeavours reasonably safe. We expect communications to be instantaneous.

It wasn’t anything like that in 1953.

The journey to the roof of the world took an expedition with military planning and relied mostly on manpower to get the ten thousand pounds of equipment in place. Even with extensive planning the ultimate ascent relied on “tenacious endeavours” to overcome the unforeseen challenges, freak events, illness and unique weather conditions. In almost every situation the margin for error was tiny, a single decision made by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans was the difference between their names being the ones written into the history books and those of Tenzing and Hilary.

Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent by Mick Conefrey is a wonderful telling of the events and characters that accomplished this tremendous feat. I really enjoyed it’s wonderful story telling and engaging details but most of all I was struck by people’s ability to keep going when there’s a goal that they need to achieve.

The book also describes the events following the ascent which serves as a warning about the two sides of fame. Success did not lead to happiness for everyone involved.

Disclaimer: I didn’t read this book, I listened to it on Audible.

Humans and Robots: Having an off-grid alternative and self-flying planes.

Some of the people closest to the ongoing robotic revolution have looked and decided that it’s time to have another alternative.

Until a couple of years ago, Antonio Garcia Martinez was living the dream life: a tech-start up guy in Silicon Valley, surrounded by hip young millionaires and open plan offices.

He’d sold his online ad company to Twitter for a small fortune, and was working as a senior exec at Facebook (an experience he wrote up in his best-selling book, Chaos Monkeys). But at some point in 2015, he looked into the not-too-distant future and saw a very bleak world, one that was nothing like the polished utopia of connectivity and total information promised by his colleagues.

“I’ve seen what’s coming,” he told me when I visited him recently for BBC Two’s Secrets of Silicon Valley. “And it’s a big self-driving truck that’s about to run over this economy.”

Silicon Valley luminaries are busily preparing for when robots take over

Most of the reported opinions on the future represent our future as if we are at a fork in the road with one way leading to a future Utopia and the other leading to a Dystopia. I’m sure that there are plenty of opinions that are somewhere in the middle but they tend not to get to much air time probably because it’s not very good copy.

A middle road is the most likely outcome with part of Utopia mixed with parts of Dystopia. I’m currently listening to a long book on the history of England and one of the things I’m learning from it is that good times and bad times generally live together side-by-side.

One area that has already seen significant automation is air travel. The pilot may be ultimately in charge but the systems available to them make them mostly redundant for most of the journey. yet, there is something settling about knowing that there is a human at the front making sure everything is going well. How would you feel about travelling a plane without a pilot?

UBS analysts expect the effort to familiarize the public with commercial self-piloting crafts will begin at that 2025 target date with autonomous cargo planes, which could demonstrate how the systems can safely fly from point A to B without a hitch. A next step could be to remove pilots gradually, shifting from a two-person cockpit to one person monitoring the system before phasing out humans entirely. 

Pilotless planes might be here by 2025, if anyone wants to fly in them

2025 isn’t very far away, and that’s the estimate for a start. i expect the transition period to be long.

Because it’s Friday: “10 Hours Of Relaxing Planet Earth II Mountain Sounds” by Earth Unplugged

I usually choose short interesting videos, this one isn’t one of them, it’s 10 hours of mountain video with sound from Planet Earth II including green meadows, forests, snow capped peaks, hummingbirds and bees.

There’s an interesting reason for the BBC doing this and that’s it’s Real Happiness Project which has been built following a study which suggests that watching nature programmes, specifically Planet Earth II, is good for your happiness:

The study found a range of significant results evidencing not only that watching content from Planet Earth II inspired significant increases in feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement and curiosity, but that it also acted to reduce feelings of tiredness, anger and stress. In the majority of cases, changes in emotions were caused by the type of content viewed, and significantly different from the control group. Our findings therefore support the conclusion that viewing Planet Earth II inspires positive changes in emotions that are distinct to the natural history genre.

If you prefer desert, or island, or jungle video and sounds, there’s another 10 hours available for each of them. You could spend a whole working week just watching and listening to nature.

Humans and Robots: China, Microsoft-Baidu, Google and Einstein

The Economist has been reporting recently on the advances of China in AI using the volume of patents and the number of AI companies as an indicator:

If you still have China pegged as just a cheap offshore manufacturing country then you have been wrong for some time now. The future of Silicon Valley as the preeminent driver of innovation in the world is not assured and China is likely to have a significant impact. If you’d like to think a bit more about China as innovator then this is a good place to start:

The problem with China isn’t China – it’s usually us

Another recent example of China as innovator has been the establishment of a partnership between Baidu and Microsoft with Microsoft providing Azure capabilities to Baidu’s autonomous vehicle technologies.

“We are excited to have Microsoft as part of the Apollo alliance. Our goal with Apollo is to provide an open and powerful platform to the automotive industry to further the goal of autonomous vehicles,” said Ya-Qin Zhang, president of Baidu. “By using Azure, our partners outside of China will have access to a trustworthy and secure public cloud, enabling them to focus on innovating instead of building their own cloud-based infrastructure.”

That’s not the only news from Microsoft as they talk about the work they are doing in machine reading through ReasoNet:

Teaching a computer to read and answer general questions pertaining to a document is a challenging yet unsolved problem. In this paper, we describe a novel neural network architecture called the Reasoning Network (ReasoNet) for machine comprehension tasks. ReasoNets make use of multiple turns to effectively exploit and then reason over the relation among queries, documents, and answers.

If you want a broader view of what Microsoft are doing in this area here’s a great overview:

Microsoft is doubling down on machine reading as part of its AI focus

Whilst Microsoft is talking about teaching AI to read and understand; Google have been talking about how they have been using AI to edit photos:

Landscape photography is hard, no matter how beautiful an environment you’re shooting in. You need to be well-versed in composition, deal with weather conditions, know how to adjust your camera settings for the best possible shot, and then edit it to come up with a pleasing picture.

Google might be close to solving the last part of that puzzle: a couple of its Machine Perception researchers have trained a deep-learning system to identify objectively fine landscape panorama photos from Google Street View, and then artistically crop and edit them like a human photographer would.

The results are really very good:

Whilst this is all very interesting, it’s not as much fun as having a robot Einstein on your desk (even if the effect is a bit creepy):