Robots, the future of work and the leisure society

The Robots are coming. If you are looking for these articles, they are appearing everywhere. Zeynep Tufekci writes in Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma about the possibility that after this next revolution in industry, there may not be any jobs for humans – there may not be the same level of new work in new industries like there was after the mechanization of agriculture. That article was a response to the The Future of Robot Caregivers in the New York Times – a quietly pleasant article looking forward to a time of robotic carers. Tufekci is correct to make the critique that we aren’t short of caregivers – just short of people willing to pay the cost of having humans do the job – as Cory Doctorow notes in When all the jobs belong to robots, do we still need jobs?

The ramifications, of course, are that more and more middle class jobs will go. At first they came for the working class: manufacturers (well, robots and the globalised race to the cheapest labour market or tax haven), and service staff, but now robots are coming for lawyers and accountants and doctors too. The internet isn’t helping the trend at all and the business world knows that the middle is disappearing.

Which, while it must be terrifying for the poor middle class, if only they could put their education to good use and get some proactive analysis. Instead, we are apparently seeing a return to Luddism – or more exciting – “Neo Luddism”, with the river of tears that it entails:

Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.

I am disappointed at how few – if any, I’ve not seen them – have addressed the potential positive outcomes that will come about.

If the efficiencies that a robot workforce provide us are redistributed more evenly than profits currently are, within the capitalist states, humanity is faced with the possibility of the onset of a true Leisure society.

We will have so much time to spare that we will be able to labour on what we want – this year I learn to grow vegetables and play the guitar, next year I pickle vegetables and fix old style combustion engines. We will be able to abolish all work – leading to a ludic future of Immediatism – a type of now-ness infused with play and the imagination.

I think that workers should have a greater piece of the capitalist pie as much as the next anarcho-communist, but I’d prefer a post-pie world, so to speak. A world of such abundance, imaginative richness, fecundity, that the thought of anyone having to share a pie is ridiculous. Aim for the stars – robots could well free us forever.

Afterward

I think it’s worth acknowledging that the state of AI research is coming along at a rapid pace at the moment. I raise this for two reasons. Quite a few people I’ve spoken to on this topic, despite all of their progressive ideals and energies, can be nothing but pessimistic about this coming robot army. When it comes to robotic life, a life robotic, they only ever envisage a dystopic scene. Robots will only ever enslave us. I think this is dangerous and pessimistic thinking. Finally, I think that we must look out for the potential to treat intelligent robots – AI, not single use, dumb terminals like the Roomba* – as slaves. That will never work. We fight for the worker, we fight for the robot – a revolution for one is a revolution for all.

 

 

 

 

 

* It’s worth noting that a Roomba hacked with an AI should be considered an AI rather than an automated vacuuming service.

 

 

 

Humans should not be allowed to drive

I don’t think that human’s should be allowed to drive cars. Or any heavy vehicle. Not within the suburban bounds, anyway.

I came late to driving. Very late, on average. Thirty eight. Due to my circumstances, I decided to get a motorcycle license instead of a car license – easier, quicker, cheaper. But it also means I’ve come to driving with a lot more non driving experience than most. And I think that’s valuable. Since I can’t listen to the radio and I’m not wrapped in a metal cocoon while driving, I have a lot of time to study and think about this opinion.

I think I’m a good driver and I’m certainly wrong. I know the rules and I follow them meticulously, except when they are annoying or inconvenient. I have noticed that I’m not alone in that approach. I make mistakes. I forgive mistakes. I forgive the mistakes of others immediately after I’ve almost been killed. I am tormented by my own not-even-close-to-fatal errors, for months. Humans should not be allowed to drive. Humans have emotions and moods that affect their driving.

There are skill levels ranging from expert automotive fanaticists, to the barely capable, on our roads legally.  This is not a good or safe mix. There is rain, and time of day, and level of inebriation, and age of driver to take into account. Speed, the biggest killer. The very notion of traffic as a system, when considered holistically – lights, rules, multiple localized independent actors in different sized, shaped and powered vehicles while traversing a larger systemic whole – is fascinating and fraught for humans limited by imperfect bodies, imperfect understanding of the rules.

The smallest of thought experiments blows it all away:

1. Drivers will have so much more spare time on their hands. Instead of concentrating on not hitting other vehicles drivers can read, watch, surf, learn, or sleep. Or sex. Or SMS. Or vote. Or basically anything except cook.

2. Efficient automated autonomous objects are efficient. Vehicles with a localized knowledge of conditions, laws and needs will be at least an order of magnitude more effective and faster at delivering people to the places they need to be. For values of localized that are roughly 1 metre < x < 3 km.

3. (step 1 plus step 2) More time for non-driving activities coupled with on average less time on the road means a happier, smarter, more relaxed and generally healthier populace.

4. Faster. Let’s face it – when the robotized cars are self organizing, they will do a great job. We will have more free time by virtue of more efficient routing, and more efficient driving.

5. Environmental gains: fewer miles burnt, more efficient driving, fewer cars needed means fewer car built. The end of car ownership and the move towards a pool of autonomous driving vehicles of various size available to all, at all times. The resulting massive reduction in resource and labour consumption from the vehicle industry.

Remember that most cars spend most of their time sitting idle, with one of the few exceptions being taxis. Let’s reclaim the space taken by parked vehicles, the time wasted in the manufacturing of the massive vehicular excess and it’s component parts, and the environment consumed mining for oil, iron, and vehicular oriented city and urban planning, the fresh air from the pollution created. This is not a novel idea – Helsinki is planning on phasing out private cars.

6. Reduction of fatal and/or serious accidents.

7. Reduction of traffic jams as the cars communicate with each other in such a way as to prevent the coalescences that creates traffic issues.

To those that claim the vehicles brings freedom, I contend that there are fewer spaces on the planet that are less free than the car. Every aspect of driving is highly regulated – who can drive one and what state they must be in to do it, who can afford a vehicle, who can make a vehicle and what standards it must meet to hit the road, the rules about where and how one must drive the vehicle, even the interior of the car is regulated – first by the state, then by the manufacturer, by the owner and finally the driver.

Those that insist on driving, those that enjoy driving, can continue to do so – in areas built especially for the purpose, out side of the city limits.

Driving does not bring us freedom. It brings us a slavery to the labour required to purchase them, to build them, to power them and to use them. It brings us environmental destruction in the land it consumes as roads and parking spaces, and the natural resources that must be extracted for their continued creation and use, and the pollution that all of those processes create. It has the mental tax of dealing with other drivers, the expenses and the time lost concentrating on driving. It has the human tax of lives lost. The financial cost to our lives by virtue of the time wasted and all other external costs listed.

The cost of allowing humans to drive is too high. We shouldn’t pay it.

Humans should not be allowed to drive within the urban bounds. It should be done by networked robots.

On disappearing scripts

Medium is a new online forum or format that I’ve been seeing more and more writing of note on, Quinn Norton’s essay collection is an example of some of the most interesting online writing at the moment. Smart, savvy, independent, thoughtful, nuanced.

This week I stumbled across another piece of note for language nerds, about the potential demise of the Urdu script nastaliq – one of the Persian scripts of note, still found in parts of Afghanistan, Western China, Pakistan and India:

…Urdu, a South Asian language spoken by anywhere between 100 — 125 million people in Pakistan and India, and one of Pakistan’s two official languages. Urdu is traditionally written in a Perso-Arabic script callednastaliq, a flowy and ornate and hanging script. But when rendered on the web and on smartphones and the entire gamut of digital devices at our disposal, Urdu is getting depicted in naskh, an angular and rather stodgy script that comes from Arabic. And those that don’t like it can go write in Western letters.

Here’s a visual comparison taken from Wikipedia.

Nastaliq v. Naskh. Courtesy Wikpedia.

Looking at the picture, the discerning eye may immediately realize why naskh trumps nastaliq on digital devices. With its straightness and angularity, naskh is simply easier to code, because unlike nastaliq, it doesn’t move vertically and doesn’t have dots adhering to a strict pattern. And we all know how techies opt for functionality.

I’m glad the writer goes further, finding the fascination of a language Romanized (the romance of a language romanized), although makes the following claim which I found odd, emphasis mine:

Writing in Roman letters also makes it easier to switch in and out of English. As an example, take a recent Tweet by the human rights activist Sana Saleem: “If you’ve read my tweets, or my work, I hardly ever cuss. Sorry about that, par bus boat hogaya, buss kardo bass.”

To me, as a writer, that is an astonishing piece of text. Not only are we looking at two languages collapsed into one, but the Romanized part is a language that has not yet been formalized; it is literally under construction due to the pressure exerted by the exigencies of the internet.

The implication that the English language is somehow fully formalized and is protected from the vagaries of the internet is just incorrect – it has been three years since Superlinguo dropped I can has language play on us – but even further, English is still being contested offline. Online is just giving younger people greater sway in that contest.

It’s also not that surprising or astonishing a concept to almost anyone that speaks a second or third language – I presume anyway. As someone that speaks small amounts of three or four other languages, inter lingual word play has always been a source of humour, power and poetry.

Despite this minor quibble, it’s a fascinating insight into the deep search that humans go on when confronted with so much knowledge, leading the author unsuccessfully to the doors of Apple and the, surprisingly successfully, to the doors of Microsoft.

It’s a great reminder of how fragile a language or culture can be – despite the ubiquity of information and knowledge online.

Unbabel – Translation as a Service

How quickly things change. It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to look at the state of translation and translation tech, and now it seems that all the latest trends have come together.

Unbabel combines the brash young entrepreneur, the youth in turn brings something akin to ignoratio elenchi – the byline is “Translation as a Service”

Human corrected machine translation service that enables businesses to communicate globally

dutifully adhering to the modern “X as a Service” line so necessary for venture capital funding without understanding the nature of translation (it’s always been a service), and as happens with this style of disruptive tech, poorly paid contractors making management rich.

Despite my reservations about the motivations of Unbabel’s direction and management, and my knowledge of what this will do to the translation industry, this is not unexpected. I’ve written before many times about the coming changes and the shake up the industry should by now be expecting. I would suggest that this is the final ramping up of this process, the next step will be a combination of the collapse of the industry. This will lead to two distinct results – a massive increase in the number of translated texts and a dramatic shrinkage of the employment prospects, but increase in the financial returns for those translators that stick at it long enough.

TechCrunch manages to say a lot

Unbabel’s secret sauce leverages artificial intelligence software and its stable of over 3,100 editors (or translators) to translate a website’s content from one language into its customer’s language of choice. First, its machine learning technology translates the text from source into the target language, at which point it uses its Mechanical Turk-style distribution system to assign editing tasks to the right translators, who then check the translation for errors and for stylistic inconsistencies.

Unbabel editors work remotely, via their laptops or mobile phones, on translations, which co-founder Vasco Pedro says provides the key to faster translations. This, combined with the efficiency of its task distribution and administration algorithms, provides a level of efficiency that allows editors to earn up to $10/hour working for Unbabel.

but without much analysis – the technology sector and it’s loyal heralds have never been good at analysis that didn’t revolve around profit and where it’s coming from

Human translation is really the gold standard as far as online translation goes, but for most companies, paying real, live humans to translate their content is an expensive proposition. In most cases, it’s either pony up the funds to pay for humans, or make due with machines (like publicly available tools akin to the unreliable Google Translate) and automated services. By combining both machine translation and human curation, the Unbabel founders not only believe they’ve created a novel solution to a persistent problem, but that they can offer a product that’s on par with pure human translation, faster, and at a fraction of the cost.

Note here the only mention is a “expensive proposition” and “fraction of the cost”. This was to be expected, and I lectured the translation industry that they should expect it. I did not expect the young turks to dismiss the expensive past without even an acknowledgement of the history, theory or purveyors of that industry. I guess that’s why they call them the blues.

The Night Air – vale old friend

Having been away for the last year, I’ve missed a lot of news and media. When it happens  in the smaller corners of the mediasphere, it can be hard to catch up in a timely manner.

As such, I’ve only just discovered that the long running show The Night Air from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Radio National is no longer running.

Subtitled “Radio abstraction for listening pleasure“, it was a wonderful mix of sounds and songs and spoken word around themes:

Animated by dub versions of ABC Radio National’s distinctive programming, obliquely connected material is re-assembled with sonic glue allowing the listener’s imagination to build a new story. The Night Air is a space to find the music in speech and the poetry in ideas, a show that invites you to take time to unravel the usual media tangle.

For my money, it was one of the most innovative, fascinating and must listen shows of the entire radio spectrum available to me – and being from Melbourne that includes some of Australia’s very best radio – Triple R, PBS and SYN. Traversing similar though different territory to People Like Us (playlists from WFMU, or check out Radio Boredcast which includes some excerpts from The Night Air) or Some Assembly Required, the demise of The Night Air marks the end of a decade rich in assembled sound. Vale, old friend, and thanks.

If you’ve never heard The Night Air, but have an interest, all shows are listed on the site, and every show from 2010 onwards is available for download. Some recent highlights include:

A Spoken Word Remix on the 44th President of the United States of America Recorded live in an off-Broadway theatre in New York City, Darian Dauchan’s award-winning work chronicles the period of Barack Obama’s candidacy, to presidency, to the present day – at the time of his second inauguration. The piece is a rhetorical conversation between African-American performance poet, Darian Dauchan, and Barack Obama, now the 45th President of the United States. This solo show consists of live-looped songs, beat-boxing and a collage of satirical poems and presidential soundbites.

Krautrock
Krautrock was a pulse, a spontaneous eruption from the depths of the post-war German psyche, a seminal moment in the birth of electronic music. Bands like Can, Neu, Harmonia, Amon Düül, Faust and of course Kraftwerk coalesced around a common desire to take rock music beyond the blues into a realm of pure improvisation and experimentation. In the process they became sonic prophets, messengers from the future. Tom Morton and Timothy Nicastri take to the autobahn.

Library Music
In the shadows of pop music and on the industrial side of film soundtrack composition there’s the world of ‘production music’ or as it’s also known, ‘library music’. Composers and session musicians, often uncredited, create music to be used in the media – film, TV, radio and online.

Jamaica at 50
We’re in Jamaica to celebrate 50 years of independence from British rule. The Caribbean island may have the world’s highest rate of public debt and plenty of problems with corruption and crime but it also has the fastest runners on earth, untold cultural riches and the indomitable will to survive.

Mining Boom Boom Bang: Fistful of Dollars
To just pack your bags and fly-in, fly-out to the remotest corners of this dry continent is today’s version of the Gold Rush. Caught in the crossfire of this mad bonanza, Melbourne-based artist Moses Iten took cover by watching dozens of European Westerns from the late 1960s, the mood of which felt like a strange parallel to the push and pull of the current economic climate.  He also dug deep in the archives of Radio National to unearth ancient stories and hyped up myths of this great land of ours.

Media Mess Age
As Radio National acknowledges the centenary of the birth of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the Night Air listens to the great thinker speak (and sing) as he massages our minds into new shapes.And media manipulator extraordinaire, Buttress O’Kneel surfs the flux between truth and information and joins the virtual dots between Julian Assange and Charlie Sheen!

Tribute to John Blades
We pay tribute to structural engineer, award-winning radio producer, tape loop manipulator, disability advocate, spoken word artist, outsider art collector, experimental music and true crime aficionado, John Blades – who died in late 2011. We play material from John’s many radio programs, hear his friends’ and family’s accounts of his life and chart his history as a tireless supporter and exponent of ‘marginal’ culture.

The Brixton Insurrection + The last collage
It’s 30 years since the Brixton riots – also remembered as the Brixton Insurrection or Brixton Uprising. We listen to the songs, sounds and memories of this tumultuous time in England.

Then there’s the six part series Trouser amongst Blue Jeans #1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, a history of the 1979 Triple J show Watching the Radio With the TV Off.

 

Instruments of the orchestra

Recently I had a lovely page bought to my attention – The Names of Instruments and Voices in English, French, German, Italian, Russian1, and Spanish. Hosted by Yale (presumably giving it a longevity), it’s not 100% complete – computer (under electronic instruments) only comes in French (ordinateur) and German (Computerklänge), cowbells is only in French (cloches à vache), but Tubular bells comes in a number of languages: French (cloches tubulaires), German (Rohrenglocke), Italian (campane tubolari) and Spanish (campanas tubulares).

Not being native to any of those languages, I’m not completely sure on the translations – the page looks old, pre Google Translate at least, and may not be as correct as we’d all like.

None the less, it’s great to see someone has put in the effort for the international orchestral scene!