Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It's a lethal, remote-controlled airplane. Dumb now. Maybe smart later.

It's a lethal, portable, drone from AeroVironment. Not exactly a robot, but I don't see why you couldn't program some intelligence into what right now is really just a guided missile launched from a tube.

Robots will look like us and be Apple customers

All humans aspire to the condition of being Apple iPhone users. Apparently, so will robots. Does make you wonder about some kind of machine-intelligence hierarchy, with androids at the top and mere consumer applications in a sort of vast robotic underclass. Also make me think about whether robots would be satisfied with the same technology forms as humans. I'm not sure that R2-D2 would have much use for a cell phone.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Considering Robot Welfare

I'm just following up on the post I wrote a little while ago about the "Will robots steal my job?" conference in Washington, DC. I was disturbed then that the proposed discussion seemed to be preoccupied with the economic problem of robots, rather than the ethics of having far more machine intelligence woven into our society.

It turns out that Robin Hanson was also bothered by this. He's actually read through the transcripts of the event and summarized his qualms:
My main complaint is that Tyler [Cowen] seems to completely ignore the experiences and welfare of the robots themselves (as do the other three panelists). Somewhat like Europeans in 1700 discussing the wisdom of their colonizing the world, but considering only on its effects on Europeans. I doubt this is because Tyler agrees with Bryan Caplan that robots can’t possibly be conscious. What then? Does Tyler simply not care about non-humans?
It's possible that robot welfare isn't really on Cowen's economist-radar. Frankly, I don't think it's on the radar of many people. But the more we discuss the future of artificial intelligence, the more our humanity is going to compel us to explore these issues. And where the robots are concerned, do the right thing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Robot Liberation, Machine Intelligence, and the Economy of the Future

Several new things have popped onto my radar in the past...oh, day and half or so of looking around.

First, here's a recent piece by Greg Lindsay in the New York Times, about a city in New Mexico that, as he puts it, will be "populated entirely by robots." Not true, strictly speaking. But I checked with Greg, and he said that the city — established to test various intelligent systems, an idea that Greg isn't crazy about — will feature autonomous vehicles. Sounds robot enough for me.

At Slate, Farhad Manjoo is in the middle of rolling out a series about the coming robot invasion of the workplace. And not just the factory floor. No, we're taling about doctors and — Eek! —bloggers.

I think he's undertaking this to provide some intellectual background for a New America Foundation "Future Tense" symposium on the prospects of robots "stealing our jobs." Manjoo is moderating. Tyler Cowen will be present. So will Martin Ford, who writes the econfuture blog and has also produced a free e-book, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future.

I just downloaded it and haven't had a chance to dig in. But Ford did has been getting his ideas out to the media, via the New York Times, Fortune, and CNBC. I've included his CNBC appearance from back in March above.

I'm all for this discussion, but as much as it's coming from the futurist/tech realm, it's also tinged with a certain amount of worry about the arrival of machine intelligence. That is, the arrival of the kind of serious machine intelligence, coupled with advanced robotics, that could cause major economic disruption.

Here's Manjoo assessment:
What I found was unsettling. They might not know it yet, but some of the most educated workers in the nation are engaged in a fierce battle with machines. As computers get better at processing and understanding language and at approximating human problem-solving skills, they're putting a number of professions in peril. Those at risk include doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists, and creative professionals—even writers like myself.
It should be fairly obvious to anyone who's been paying attention for the past few decades that machine intelligence is on the rise. In his book, Ford talks about the arrival of strong artificial intelligence — by which he means AI that's just as good if not better than human intelligence — as a phenomenon akin to having an alien form of life appear in our midst. But would it, or should it, really be that shocking? Machine intelligence can fly planes, drive cars, and engage is some less productive but more provocative pursuits, such as winning at Jeopardy! or defeating world champions at chess.

I feel pretty strongly that machine intelligence and robots will not displace human workers so much as merge with them. Manjoo's dispatches tell us that the machines are making inroads. They'll probably keep doing it. But what I think that implies isn't so much dislocation and unemployment as collaboration with a new quasi-species. The machines won't be aliens. Rather, they'll be a lot like us, even if they don't assume android form.

Consequently, it's going to be imperative that we start thinking about robot ethics. Workers displaced by machines may not be too happy about it. But do machines deserve the opportunity to compete for those jobs? I think they do. Should machines eventually be compensated for that they do? This raises some thoroughly out-there economic questions, but it's entirely plausible that they can make legitimate claims — or that they could have claims made for them.

In the end, I'm concerned that we're treating machine intelligence as an threatening advancement of technology rather that a kind of new and creative form of evolution. We've had a hard enough time figuring out what our ethical relationship with the sentient entities that we share the planet with — animals — a problem highlighted by the ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer in his seminal work, Animal Liberation. But animals have always shared out physical space while existing "below" us in what we might nostalgically still want to call the Great Chain of Being.

It was easy, although far from ethically effortless, for us to distinguish ourselves from them, a phenomenon that Singer calls "speciesism." It won't be so simple for us to do this with man-made intelligence that's actually superior, in a technical sense, to our own. We'd be engaging in speciesism of a different sort, and from a parallel if not inferior position.

This is why I've been thinking a lot about robot liberation over the past few years and am now finally starting to lay some of my thoughts out. Don't get me wrong — I'm encouraged to see writers and economists tackling the question to how machine intelligence will exist in the economy of the future. I'm also delighted that I can at last discuss these issues without seeming like a complete whacko.

That said, we'd be making better process if we stopped thinking about what the robots will take from us, and what we can give to them

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Enter the Swarmanoid

Check this out: Belgian researchers have developed a "Swarmanoid" -- a suite of coordinated robots that each has a discrete function: vision, locomotion, manipulation. Imagine that you could "send" your eyes someplace, then when you saw something you wanted, you would call in you legs and arms and hands to go get it. This kind of disintegration is...well, dis-turbing to humans, who are accustomed to a compact, anatomical integrity. Machine intelligence wouldn't have a problem with it, however: accomplishing tasks would be managed by orchestrating resources.

The example in the video involves a Swarmanoid accomplishing a familiar human task: taking a book off a shelf. So the activity is reverse-engineered from something people do. And it looks accordingly slow and awkward, with no real payoff (the robot "nest" doesn't actually read the book). But that's because we're not yet sure what robots would...want to do, once they start figuring out what that is. Taking books off shelves would perhaps not be high on their list. Extracting greater levels of energy from sunlight might be.

To me, this just goes to show how robot researchers have to think far outside the box (sorry) in order to envision how machine intelligence might interact with the physical world. Intelligent machines might not have to overcome these limitations. And when we start dealing with machine intelligence at an ethical level, we may no be dealing with consolidated entities, but with swarms. This will make robot liberation tricky. At least to people.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Fall and Rise of the Carbon Coalition

Over at the Huffington Post, I've got some point of view on what I call the "Carbon Coalition" -- environmentalists and finance people working together to create market-based solutions to global warning. The Carbon Coalition suffered a defeat last tear when the Climate Bill failed in the Senate, but I think it needs to refocus its efforts on environmental services and regional cap-and-trade schemes. Check it out:

The idea of the environment as an asset, something that can be quantified in terms of wealth and then shared with investors, may horrify those who consider the great outdoors and all that's in it to be a collective human trust. But the fact is that most of what counts as an environmental asset is owned by someone. The problem is that ownership may not imply that the asset has been properly valued. This is what the Carbon Coalition, version 2.0, can now bring to the table. It assessed the worth of a negative that we wanted to reduce -- CO2 -- and then devised ways for that negative to be transformed into a positive by the reliable magic of markets. Regrettably, it did not succeed. But there's opportunity now to use the same kind of thinking to create environmentally beneficial markets based on the the ecosystem itself, and in the process surge toward a dynamic second act.

Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Innovation Gone Bad

Some thoughts on innovation -- my latest at the Huffington Post:

Innovation is, of course, a great thing and a true differentiator for successful enterprises. "Innovate or die" is a useful general principle if you plan to thrive in the 21st century.

But there are plenty of times where talking innovation constitutes a smoke screen. At its worse, empty innovation rhetoric is simply bad business.

So when do you want to avoid innovation?

Read the whole thing for the blow-by-blow.