Tag Archives: technology

On Becoming a Technophobe

I find this post the height of irony; as a Mechanical Engineer I use technology in various forms daily – certainly my job doing design work and other analyses is made far, far easier with computers (though I still longingly remember my first “real” calculator, a HP 15C… ok, so I’m dating myself).  I have used the internet to meet people all over the world who, absent that technology, I’d have never known.  Without email my varied relatives (blood and in-laws) would not see my children as they are growing with any frequency.  I’m using Duolingo to learn Hebrew, and making more progress in the first few weeks than I ever did leading up to my Bar Mitzvah (enthusiasm for it helps!).  And in my consulting business, without technology and the internet, I would not have my current overseas client nor, potentially, some other not-close-to-me clients whom I am trying to cultivate.

So let me revisit my 2015 essay, The Threat of AI: The Slow Fade, (links and bolding in the original):

Implicit in the above quote is blind faith in the programmers’ ability to anticipate everything; remember, programmers program based – in part – on interviews of users. Could a programmer anticipate a bird ingestion into an engine, as happened in 2009 resulting in Captain Sullenberger managing to land the plane in the Hudson River – with no loss of life… and anticipate it to the degree of confidently programming a computer to handle every possible variation? Or the crash in Sioux City where a turbine blade fractured, cutting through the hydraulic lines and causing catastrophic system failures. On the Sioux City flight it was only the experience of the pilots, plus another pilot traveling as a passenger, who on-the-fly tried something they’d read about theoretically: using varying thrusts from the engines to steer and control the plane in an improvised control system to save over half the passengers.

Note my comment about situations that have not been anticipated and then read How much do you really want artificial intelligence running your life? (bolding added):

Replacing human sensory input with electro-mechanical devices is common enough that the possibility of malfunction of either is a real consideration.  Humans have the evolutionary advantage in that their brains have an innate ability to make distinctions in the real world.  A.I. systems require learning exercises to identify objects and situations already mastered by a six-month-old child.  The A.I. computer must build its own library of objects against which it will base future decisions as it navigates its decision tree based on sensor inputs.  What happens when a bug or ice fouls a sensor?  A.I. also lacks the adaptability and value-judgement skills possessed by humans to deal successfully with a situation for which it has no prior training or reference data in its decision-tree core.

I’ll let actor Jeff Goldblum say it:

 

If they can’t anticipate this; Non-Emergency Automated Braking:

Something strange – and dangerous – happened to me the other day while I was out test-driving a new Toyota Prius.

The car decided it was time to stop. In the middle of the road. For reasons known only to the emperor.

Or the software.

The car braked hard, too.

I can now describe what the dashboard of a Prius tastes like. Needs A1.

And I wasn’t able to countermand the car. Dead stop – no matter how hard I pressed down on the gas. The car wouldn’t budge for several seconds that felt much longer than that as I eyed the car in the rearview getting bigger and bigger as it got closer and closer.

Automated emergency braking is one of several technologies now commonly available (and often standard equipment) in new cars that pre-empt the driver’s decisions – which opens up a yuge can of legal worms.

Another one of these saaaaaaaaaaaaafety technologies is lane keep assist, which countersteers (using electric motors connected to the steering gear) when the car thinks the driver is veering out of his intended lane of travel.

What else can’t they anticipate?  I’ve been in multiple situations where I’ve had to suddenly swerve and/or brake (and sometimes floor it!), and not because something is in my lane, but – as an alert driver – I’ve seen and anticipated other drivers’ actions and proactively take action.  (The sudden-swerve scenario just happened to me after I saw another car suddenly swerve to avoid a bookshelf that had fallen onto the road.  I had to too.)

 

Smartphone Facehuggers

iphone facehugger

People are addicted to their smartphones; literally addicted, with increasingly-proven negative effects; This Fascinating New Ivy League Study Shows the ‘Clear Causal Link’ Between Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and ‘Loneliness and Depression:

The participants could see the positive way that cutting back was helping them. Among their comments:

“Not comparing my life to the lives of others had a much stronger impact than I expected, and I felt a lot more positive about myself during those weeks.”

“It was easier than I thought to limit my usage. Afterwards I pretty much stopped using Snapchat because I realized it wasn’t something I missed.”

“I ended up using less and felt happier and like I could focus on school and not (be as) interested in what everyone is up to.”

This digital addiction has been commented on many times, and is especially noted not just for addiction, but making us crave constant approval of others.  And beyond that, there are the effects on children’s development:

Smartphones are killing teenagers’ memories, study says

Experts Are Warning That Children Can’t Properly Hold Pens Anymore

Related to the second item above, this video makes me tremble whenever I see toddlers baby-sat by the electronic drug (and it is a drug; I’ve read horror stories of kids reacting wildly and violently when denied their electronic fix – even, sometimes, with my own children I’ve seen them forgo eating and drinking to stare at the flickering images and only become aware of screaming thirst and hunger when the screen time ends, often with protests and even tears):

Thank G-d my kids do sports almost every day.

 

Pavlov’s Smartphone

So the other day I’m doing the dishes and my phone gives off a chime.  I am about to reach for a towel to dry my hands when I realize – with a WOW! moment – that I’ve become operant-conditioned to look at my phone when it makes a sound.  I finished the dishes and then looked; no messages, no emails, no nothing.  I started to pay attention: at least once a day my phone chimes for no reason I can discern.  Watching others, I often see people literally drop what they were doing, no matter what they were doing, to check their phones when it beeped / chimed / dinged.

Track it yourself.

 

Influencing

You cannot easily escape the debate these days about social media platforms filtering content, and doing so in a biased way to promote specific views.  AI can do that too; AI Social Media Could Totally Manipulate You:

But that’s not the only problem he has been thinking about. He has also done some thinking about “the highly effective, highly scalable manipulation of human behavior that AI enables, and its malicious use by corporations and governments.” For example, social media companies, which have been recording everything you do, can show you mainly content that promotes ideas that medium owner wants you to have. If you express approved views, you will get likes that could be from bots. If you deviate, you could be shown mainly negative responses “(maybe acquaintances, maybe strangers, maybe bots)” on the theory that you will shut up or change your mind. In the social bubble, you may believe that the medium owner’s preferred views are far more prevalent than they are.

People can, and should, have debates on various hot button topics, for it is through debate that we help burn away irrelevancies until we arrive at the truth, or at least as close to the truth as it is humanly possible to be.  But to do this we need information both for and against those views to avoid confirmation bias.  And while I, like most people, have political / ideological leanings, the idea that the main organs of information searching actively considered, let alone are involved in, silencing voices and squelching information with which whom they disagree – with the aim of nudging the population – should make you tremble if you value a vibrant and free society.

And also check out:

4 Reasons Why Big Tech Is Hazardous to Our Lives 

 

Orwell was an optimist

Smart devices are going to gain the capacity to monitor movement and location in your home… and transmit that back to home base.

Smart devices in the home often raise privacy concerns. The proposal here uses hidden sensors in walls and floors instead of cameras, with the device listening instead of watching, making it potentially less invasive but, at the same time, perhaps easier to hide. Another upside is that, compared to cameras, it is less easy to identify individuals, though it may be possible to train the system to recognize the gait of specific people which could have interesting security applications like identifying potential home intruders.

We’re seeing a growing body of research into non-optical means of observation and surveillance that can still, in some senses, see people through walls. And while there are clearly both innocent and useful applications for such technology, one can’t help feeling we’re tiptoeing towards a world of omnipresent surveillance – even in our own homes.

More about smart devices and privacy; Google Reveals Plans to Monitor Our Moods, Our Movements, and Our Children’s Behavior at Home:

“The language of these patents makes it clear that Google is acutely aware of the powers of inference it has already, even without cameras, by augmenting speakers to recognize the noises you make as you move around the house,” The Atlantic wrote. “The auditory inferences are startling: Google’s smart-home system can infer ‘if a household member is working’ from ‘an audio signature of keyboard clicking, a desk chair moving, and/or papers shuffling.’ Google can make inferences on your mood based on whether it hears raised voices or crying, on when you’re in the kitchen based on the sound of the fridge door opening, on your dental hygiene based on ‘the sounds and/or images of teeth brushing.'”

And we’ve all heard about China’s beyond-Orwellian Social Credit Score system, but here;

More, while this article focuses on electric vehicles in China:

“You’re learning a lot about people’s day-to-day activities and that becomes part of what I call ubiquitous surveillance, where pretty much everything that you do is being recorded and saved and potentially can be used in order to affect your life and your freedom,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and recently wrote a book called “Exploding Data.”

American car makers have had recording “black boxes” in their cars for a while now.  Ostensibly for accident reconstruction, there’s no technological barrier to the data being expanded.  “Big Data” is big money… I feel my creeped-out-o-meter is approaching its limit, for example:

spy vacuum: Google and iRobot team up to better map your home

Smart Self-Cleaning Fridge Orders Food & Suggests Recipes

Possibly the worst; Google Is Developing Dossiers on Students Using Their Classroom Products, Disclosures Show:

Last year almost 20 percent of all K-12 students were required to use Google Chromebooks, and more than 30 million students, teachers, and administrators used Google’s G Suite for Education. The inexpensive laptop and powerful software have become a very cost-effective solution for schools to teach computer and other skills and to communicate with the students and parents. Kids can submit their homework, take tests. check grades, and collaborate with others using these Google products.

According to an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) report, these Google products also provide an opportunity for Google, the schools, and other software makers to collect students’ personal data. Essentially the products are Trojan horses used by Google to boost their advertising business.

Marry all this together – big data from your home, your commute and everywhere else you go, a nascent cashless society, a push to driverless (i.e., not controlled by the driver) cars, and social media information-flow Newspeak… not to mention the seemingly common data breaches and facial recognition recognizing you out in public…  how soon before this dystopian scenario happens?

CALLER: Is this Tony’s Pizza?

FACEBOOK: No sir, it’s Facebook Pizza.

CALLER: I must have dialed a wrong number. Sorry.

FACEBOOK: No sir, Facebook bought Tony’s Pizza last month.

CALLER: OK. I would like to order a pizza.

FACEBOOK: Do you want your usual, sir?

CALLER:  My usual? You know me?

FACEBOOK: According to our caller ID data sheet, the last 12 times you called you ordered an extra-large pizza with three cheeses, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and meatballs on a thick crust.

CALLER: OK! That’s what I want …

FACEBOOK: May I suggest that this time you order a pizza with ricotta, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and olives on a whole wheat gluten-free thin crust?

CALLER: What? I detest vegetables.

FACEBOOK: Your cholesterol is not good, sir.

CALLER: How the hell do you know?

FACEBOOK: Well, we cross-referenced your home phone number with your medical records. We have the result of your blood tests for the last 7 years.

CALLER: Okay, but I do not want your rotten vegetable pizza! I already take medication for my cholesterol.

FACEBOOK: Excuse me sir, but you have not taken your medication regularly. According to our database, you only purchased a box of 30 cholesterol tablets once, at Drug RX Network, 4 months ago.

CALLER: I bought more from another drugstore.

FACEBOOK: That doesn’t show on your credit card statement.

CALLER: I paid in cash.

FACEBOOK: But you did not withdraw enough cash according to your bank statement.

CALLER: I have other sources of cash.

FACEBOOK: That doesn’t show on your last tax return unless you bought them using an undeclared income source, which is against the law.

CALLER: WHAT THE HELL?

FACEBOOK: I’m sorry, sir, we use such information only with the sole intention of helping you.

CALLER: Enough already! I’m sick to death of Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and all the others. I’m going to an island without internet, cable TV, where there is no cell phone service and no one to watch me or spy on me.

FACEBOOK: I understand sir, but you need to renew your passport first.  It expired 6 weeks ago…

 

1984… or BRAVE NEW WORLD?

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”

– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

We buy this stuff voluntarily.  We put our innermost secrets out there deliberately and focus ever-more desperately on entertainment-entertainment-entertainment to distract us from reality.  We have Alexa, Echo, and who knows what – or who – else listening to our conversations, monitoring our web searches and potentially our movements in our own homes and everywhere else, compiling dossiers on our kids, and transmitting them to analysis centers designed to customize what we see to make us buy more… and that’s the benign outcome.

George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia features an all-powerful, all-knowing surveillance state that limits language and thought itself, controls the information flow, and presents a focus of a personalized enemy to distract the population.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has a population of a ruling elites using entertainment, sex, and drugs to keep the population docile and compliant.

They wrote warnings.  Who decided to use them as manuals?

 

© 2018, David Hunt PE

 

A picture spanning millennia…

ww22bcolor2bphotographs2b4

Hat tip to Bayou Renaissance Man’s blog post, where he writes:

This last picture, also from the Imperial War Museum … shows the Royal Navy battleship HMS Howe, passing through the Suez Canal in 1944 on her way to the Pacific Ocean theater of combat, where she served as the flagship of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser during the Okinawa campaign and the final months of World War II.  The felucca in front of her uses a design that probably dates back to the Exodus, if not before . . . an interesting contrast in technologies.

Sunday Skillset: Putting a graphic image on a Solidworks model

And before you watch this, please consider that I’m on a job search, looking for:

  • Product Design Engineer (strength in plastics but that’s not all I do)
  • New Product Introduction
  • Cost Reduction Engineering
  • Manufacturing / Process Engineer

North of Boston, MA.  Please do check out my portfolio… what could I do for you?

(And in viewing this, please understand this aspect of my character: I try to share information that would help people.)

 

Future Shock

In 1970 futurist Alvin Toffler published what many consider a seminal work, Future Shock, in which he hypothesized that the pace of technological advance would become so rapid that people would not be able to keep up, thus keeping them in a constant state of unease as they were shocked by new developments. From the Wikipedia entry about the book (emphasis added):

Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change overwhelms people. He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”—future shocked.

I think he was right, and an optimist to boot.

Welcome to The Matrix

Some time ago I was surfing the web and came across this video, Humans Need Not Apply, outlining how automation could transform some key activities that we take for granted; for example, on-the-road shipping, the commute and driving in general, manufacturing and service jobs, and even doctors and medical appointments. (Video is 15 minutes long, interesting, and unsettling.) I watched this video and – assuming the technologies mature to the point where they’re implemented (and there’s no reason why they won’t IMHO) – immediately envisioned massive job displacements.

Then I saw this story, Lowe’s trials robot sales assistants. One of the refuges for people in the current employment crisis has been part-time jobs. I make pilgrimages to the local Lowes regularly. Everyone there is a part-timer insofar as I can tell; many have been displaced from full-time jobs. What will happen to these people if – when – this technology comes to fruition? (Interestingly, I was about 90% done with this essay when along comes this article: Businesses Moving Too Quickly to Robots? Will 1 in 3 Jobs Vanish by 2025?. I think the author’s blasé attitude is naïve, as you will see as I discuss below. And aside from all the points I raise here, it discusses the idea that if so many things – especially knowledge tasks – are automated, the skills and judgment people have will atrophy… something that has become the seed of a different essay!)

Nor are restaurants a safe haven. Between touch-screen order kiosks and automatic burger flippers being launched now, another refuge for people seeking work – not to mention an entry-level path into the working world for teens – will be closed off. Aspiring waiters, you’re not safe either, and in a big way – nor are bartenders.

Labor-intensive jobs, like farming and harvesting, are targets as well. Between start-ups looking at automation, and technologies already being vetted, what used to be a reliable summer job – albeit with competition from migrant workers – could easily become near-obsolete if you are a carbon-based life form.

Not Just Unskilled Work

A recent article on CNN, Guess who’s coming for your job, likewise posits that a lot of jobs are threatened by automation (embedded link is in the original; emphases added):

Last year, a team in Oxford University performed a detailed analysis of over 700 occupations in the United States. They came to the conclusion that jobs constituting a staggering 47% of U.S. employment—well over 60 million jobs—could become automated in a decade or two.

Watch that video again. Pay particular attention to the part about doctors. Medical care is about as high-skill as you can get, yet the potential exists for human employment to be undermined as well. And surgery? Medical robots are the wave of the future, don’t you know? Marry robots with telepresence from a doctor in a lower-wage country, advised by AI-goggle-wearing technicians – at much lower pay than a surgeon – on the scene. Far fetched? Not so much, I think.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review highlights the enormous disruptive potential here (links in original):

And here is the even more sobering news: Arthur speculates that in a little more than ten years, 2025, this Second Economy may be as large as the original “first” economy was in 1995 – about $7.6 trillion. If the Second Economy does achieve that rate of growth, it will be replacing the work of approximately 100 million workers. To put that number in perspective, the current total employed civilian labor force today is 146 million. A sizeable fraction of those replaced jobs will be made up by new ones in the Second Economy. But not all of them. Left behind may be as many as 40 million citizens of no economic value in the U.S alone. The dislocations will be profound.

But I see three fundamental cracks in the foundation of this technological utopia-in-the-making.

When the Lights Go Out

In an essay on the dangers of offshoring, amongst many other things I highlighted the potential for the electrical grid to go down, and go down for a long, long time (links in original, emphases added, one edited clarification in []):

Given the criticality of our electrical infrastructure to our economy, and the above-stated vulnerability of that infrastructure to low-tech sabotage, why do we – at the least – not have a significant inventory of [power station transformers] on-hand? …

Another critical vulnerability of our power grid exists; whether from a natural coronal mass ejection hitting the earth causing another Carrington Event (which we dodged two years ago), or a hostile power attacking us with an EMP (watch this video too). Both have the potential to wipe out our power grid. … Whether by human intent or Mother Nature, our electricity-powered technological civilization itself is at the mercy of foreign-sourced components.

What happens if this occurs after we’ve surrendered our manufacturing, farming, and even medical care to machines?

And this article, The U.S. government thinks China could take down the power grid, highlights not only the above danger, but this one:

Software and Interconnectedness

It seems like every week sees another bank or retail chain having its files electronically ransacked. Googling these two phrases retail cyber crime and foreign hackers attack america is – or should be – a sobering reminder that supposedly secure systems are not secure (e.g., U.S. Postal Service hacked, told Congress Oct. 22). Some take advantage of coding mistakes; for example, Windows Has a Huge Vulnerability, Get the Patch Now. Others are better at hacking, finding ways around security in general (an educational look at the dawn of understanding cyber crime is the book The Cuckoo’s Egg – and how terrifyingly reluctant law enforcement was to grasp its significance, let alone investigate).

If data that is supposed to be secure can come out (for military jet aficionados, doesn’t this new Chinese fighter look familiar?), and systems that even a brain-dead zombie would think should be secured can be hacked into, tapeworms and Trojans can go in. In addition to the electric grid, hackers have targeted our water supply. And let us not forget built-in back doors from sourcing electronic components overseas.

Imagine, as just one nightmare scenario, that in a decade most cars on the road are self-driving. Shudder at thinking that, at a particular time and date preset by people meaning ill, some cars suddenly brake, some cars accelerate, some turn hard left and others hard right, all at random. All across America, or even across the world. Or a virus in your internet-of-things fridge that, overnight, lets it get warm for a while in a calculated effort to get food to spoil “just enough” to make you sick – happening all over the country. Or someone “taking over” a surgical robot or automated pharmacy, or… or… or… the possibilities are as endless as human creativity, and as depraved as the human capacity for evil.

Yet we are enthusiastically rushing to turn control over ever more things to software and connected devices. Pilotless airplanes anyone?

Political Unrest

(Disclaimer: I am absolutely not advocating any form of revolution, violence, vigilantism, or anything else; I condemn them without reservation. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the possibility of… “discontinuities”.)

Let’s assume this massive automation come to fruition, and over the next decade or so enormous numbers of people are displaced out of their jobs. As my fellow blogger Aline Kaplan wrote in her essay The Robot Economy (emphasis added, link also added):

Granted, there may still be enough people with jobs to afford to purchase some of the company’s products but nowhere near as many as if a robust middle class filled the stores. Unemployed or underemployed people spend money only on the necessities, after all—and sometimes on not all of those.

She is correct; an economy prospers on disposable income. And even if people are employed, and the economy recovers, I suspect consumers will be far, far more cautious in spending than before. And related, in another essay discussing the emotional impact of offshoring, I wrote (links in original, emphases added):

This perception of the top of the pile squeezing the rest is one of the things that fueled the “99%” movement; this perception is fueled by examples like this and this. Envy is a powerful emotion; seeing someone who has “more” – especially when it is believed that the “more” is acquired by unfair means – is so corrosive that virtually every religion has some prohibition against coveting what others have (e.g.,”Thou Shalt Not Covet That Which is Thy Neighbor’s”). Dangerous emotional fuel is being piled up by the perception that those at the top care nothing about their employees, just their individual bonuses regardless of the cost in rank-and-file jobs.

And a little later (emphasis added, additional text added in []):

There needs to be the capacity in the national economic system to absorb these displaced people, and to offer them a step-up as a replacement. Today offshoring [and tomorrow automation] is not a mosquito pinprick here or there, it is a swarm, tapping economic blood faster than the system can regenerate.

As these cost savings from automation come on line, those who are derided and envied as “the rich” and “the 1%” will, doubtless, not only become wealthier (and in the purest sense, being wealthy is not a bad thing) but will be perceived as having done so while razing America’s middle class. Never mind the already simmering anger at learning that companies deliberately game things to reject qualified Americans to justify more H1-B visas even though they can’t justify why they need them.

Un-or-underemployed, desperate, and angry people in large numbers plus a belief that “fat cats” are getting wealthier at their expense plus a savvy demagogue politician has never, ever ended well. (Consider that the Communist party is openly recruiting in places where large numbers of disaffected and angry people are, and that younger people are becoming more comfortable with Socialism. Neither variant holds goodwill towards “the 1%”.)

History Rhymes

We’ve seen a similar shift before. America transitioned from an agrarian society where the vast majority of people were farmers to an industrialized society where only a few percent are involved in producing food for the vast majority. The problem now is the pace of the change, as envisioned by Toffler. The former change took place over a century and more, which meant people had time to adapt and there was a capacity for “the system” to absorb those needing to make the transition.

Warning: Dragons Ahead

As a mechanical engineer I appreciate technology, delight in seeing implemented creativity, and enjoy its fruits. I am certainly no Luddite. But we are heading into the hazy mist of a future whose situation none can accurately foresee.

On old maps unknown areas would be marked with dire warnings, such as “Here there be dragons”. Looking ahead as we sail into a future holding bright potential, a growing chorus is pointing to white breakers crashing, seemingly indicating multiple dangerous shoals. Is this the time for flank speed and blind faith?

My friend Neil Patrick has two very timely pieces worth your time as well:

Stephen Hawking on the threats of artificial intelligence

The top 30 jobs most at risk from technology

 

© 2014, David Hunt, PE