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.

Non Human Languages?

According to the surprisingly still active Slashdot, Researchers Discover New Plant “Language”:

Westwood examined the plants’ mRNA, the molecule in cells that instructs organisms how to code certain proteins that are key to functioning. MRNA helps to regulate plant development and can control when plants eventually flowers. He found that the parasitic and the host plants were exchanging thousands of mRNA molecules between each other, thus creating a conversation.

Ah! Clarity. For a loose definition of language and conversation. I’m ok with loose definitions, a good analogy can help open the mind to new possibilities and potentialities. But I’m still happy to mock a little.

 

 

The drama and the invented language

Fascinating read in the New Yorker about invented languages – most of which fail -and the other dramas surrounding them. The main focus is Ithkuil, a language invented by John Quijada, but broadly describes conlangs (constructed languages) and their inventors and adherents, sprinkled with interesting linguistic or language facts (George Soros is a native speaker of Esperanto!)

Unlike earlier philosophers and idealists, who believed that their languages could perfect humanity, modern conlangers tend to create their languages primarily as a hobby and a form of self-expression. Jim Henry, a retired software developer from Stockbridge, Georgia, keeps a diary and prays in his constructed language, gjâ-zym-byn. If there is a god paying attention, he is the language’s only other speaker.

Many conlanging projects begin with a simple premise that violates the inherited conventions of linguistics in some new way. Aeo uses only vowels. Kēlen has no verbs. Toki Pona, a language inspired by Taoist ideals, was designed to test how simple a language could be. It has just a hundred and twenty-three words and fourteen basic sound units. Brithenig is an answer to the question of what English might have sounded like as a Romance language, if vulgar Latin had taken root on the British Isles. Láadan, a feminist language developed in the early nineteen-eighties, includes words like radíidin, defined as a “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.”

The underlying structure of the language is largely glossed over, although the broad brush strokes are compelling. Most languages have cool tools, little aspects that make it more interesting than other languages, be it situational or grammatical or in lexicon. In Ithkuil Quijada attempted to bring together all of these linguistic wonders into a single language – and then, having read the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s “Metaphors We Live By,” attempted to make a language precise, to remove the need for metaphor.

Quijada opened his presentation the next morning by showing an image of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” a seminal work of Cubist painting, which captures a figure in motion with abstract lines and planes. It’s not an easy work to describe in any language, but Quijada wanted to demonstrate how one would attempt the task in Ithkuil.

He began with several of the language’s root words: -QV- for person, -GV- for clothing, -TN- for an implement that counters gravity, and -GW- for ambulation, and showed how to transform those roots through each of the language’s twenty-two grammatical categories to arrive at the six-word sentence “Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu,” which translates roughly to “An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”

When Quijada is invited to the conference “Creative Technology: Perspectives and Means of Development,” to speak on Ithkuil, he discovers that it is now being used by an odd sect of quasi intellectuals based in a Buddhist state, influential on anti Semitic Ukrainian terrorists and using Ithkuil to literally think different.

“We think that when a person learns Ithkuil his brain works faster,” Vishneva told him, in Russian. She spoke through a translator, as neither she nor Quijada was yet fluent in their shared language. “With Ithkuil, you always have to be reflecting on yourself. Using Ithkuil, we can see things that exist but don’t have names, in the same way that Mendeleyev’s periodic table showed gaps where we knew elements should be that had yet to be discovered.”

Really makes Esperanto seem so run of the mill, doesn’t it?

You can read Quijada’s text online Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language or purchase the 450 page book from the same site.

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.

Words, Poetry, Translation and Boredom

For at least a decade my favourite website has been Ubuweb. Not in the visit-it-twice-a-day category like BoingBoing – more like a hot cross bun or a mango – it’s made more special because it’s visited infrequently.

UbuWeb’s main trade is in the otherwise unfindable, the undesirable, the unlistenable, the unreadable – a treasure trove of avant garde artists and their art. And more over. As a long time fan of the avant garde and outsider art, I am constantly shocked at how little I know from within the archive.

There’s the obvious points of reference – Yoko Ono, Dali, Foucault, Kinski, and Cage. Then there’s the less obvious – almost contemporary provocatuer Stewart Home‘s films and music, Ergo Phizmiz, Delia Derbyshire, Hoffman and Rubin, and Guy Debord. Then there’s those that are just plain…well, obscure. Like

If you are feeling overwhelmed I recommend the strategy of finding your birthday within one or both of the 365 Days projects and listening to what you find.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the founder of UbuWeb and MoMA‘s first Poet Laureate, amongst other things, and this interview in The Awl is a must read. Expounding on patchwriting (“post editing” in translation) and plagiarism, poetry, the internet and the new spaces for art he is absolutely mesmerising. In keeping with the theme of the piece, and because you should be reading the whole thing yourself, I’ll only reproduce the juiciest segments.

On his latest book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, a transcription of radio and news reports of national disasters and the peeling back of the media’s façade:

These DJs woke up thinking they were going to the station for a regular day and then they were in the position of having to narrate, say, 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination, to the world. They were completely unprepared and in their speech, you can hear this. It’s stunning. The slick curtain of media is torn, revealing acrobatic linguistic improvisations. There was a sense of things spinning out of control: facts blurred with speculation as the broadcasters attempted to furiously weave convincing narratives from shards of half-truths. Usually confident DJs were now riding by the seat of their pants, splaying raw emotion across the airwaves: smooth speech turned to stutter, laced with doubt and fear. Unhinged from their media personalities, these DJs became ordinary citizens, more like guys in a bar than representatives of purported rationality and truth. Opinions—some of them terribly misinformed—inflected and infected their supposedly objective reportage. Racism and xenophobia were rampant— somehow the DJs couldn’t help themselves.

His latest books were:

(interviewer) Your 2000 book Fidget transcribes every single movement your body made during thirteen hours. In your 2003 book, Day, you chronologically re-typed every single word from every page of a copy of The New York Times. Your later trilogy, Weather, Traffic and Sports, transcribe random radio reports. Now with Seven American Deaths and Disasters you’re transcribing reports of specific events.

On teaching students to copy and steal – plagiarize – to use it as a creative tool:

The students that take my class know how to write. I can hone their skills further but instead I choose to challenge them to think in new and different ways. Many of them know how to plagiarize but they always do it on the sly, hoping not to get caught. In my class, they must plagiarize or they will be penalized. They are not allowed to be original or creative. So it becomes a very different game, one in which they’re forced to defend choices that they are making about what they’re plagiarizing and why. And when you start to dig down, you’ll find that those choices are as original and as unique as when they express themselves in more traditional types of writing, but they’ve never been trained to think about it in this way.

You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information. Take Boing Boing, for instance. They’re one of the most powerful blogs on the web, but they don’t create anything, rather they filter the morass of information and pull up the best stuff. The fact of Boing Boing linking to something far outweighs the thing that they’re linking to. The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.

On words and writing and the change that they have gone through with new technologies:

This is a great challenge to traditional notions of writing. In the digital age, language (aka code) has become materialized, taking on a whole new dimension (although one that had been proposed throughout various avant-garde movements during the twentieth-century: futurisms, concrete poetry, and language poetry, and so forth—which is why the 20th c. avant-garde is more relevant than ever).

Words are no longer just for telling stories. Now language is digital and physical. It can be poured into any conceivable container: text typed into a Microsoft Word document can be parsed into a database, visually morphed in Photoshop, animated in Flash, pumped into online text-mangling engines, spammed to thousands of email addresses and imported into a sound editing program and spit out as music; the possibilities are endless.

On boredom and inspiration:

John Cage said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” So what is boring? I find narrative boring. I find truth boring. I once wrote an essay called Being Boring where I claim to be the most boring writer who has ever lived. I can’t even read my own books—I keep falling asleep. But they’re great to talk about and think about. So I think we need to redefine our relationship to boring. Reality TV is boring with all the boring parts taken out of it. Instead, go watch An American Family from the early 70s, at this weird moment where mainstream TV fell under the spell of Andy Warhol. You’ll never be bored in the same way again.

I don’t think that journalists can be boring because to do so would be to shed too much truth on what they do. They’re mostly writing boring stuff, they’re bored, their editors are bored, and their readers are also bored, but nobody will admit it. Again, it’s here that Warhol is prescient. When asked if he reads reviews of his works, he replied, that he doesn’t—he only adds up the column inches.

His radio show on WFMU:

(interviewer) I did radio with you at WFMU in the mid-00s. Your radio show, which ran from 1995-2010, seemed to push the format as far as possible. By 2010 you were broadcasting three hours of silence, which you would break every thirty minutes with a station ID. The station staff was often angry with you and the listeners always complained it was the most unlistenable radio imaginable. 

On poetry and writing as a living in an age of advanc(ed/ing) technology – and what “being a writer” means:

…the emerging poet Steven Zultanski just put out what I feel to be perhaps the most important book of his generation called Agony. In the old days, this one book alone would’ve made his career. Now it’s just another in a sea of Lulu publications and Facebook likes.

….

Literary works—and careers—might function the same way that memes do today on the web, spreading like wildfire for a short period, often unsigned and un-authored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple. While the author won’t die, we might begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way: perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Christian Bök claims, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones; so that even if literature is reducible to mere code—an intriguing idea—the smartest minds behind them will be considered our greatest authors.

Read through to the end for the easter egg, the master stroke…

Warhol claimed that, “Art is what you can get away with,” something I am inspired by. Artists ask questions, and they don’t give answers. Artists make messes and leave it for others to clean up. I’ve left a long trail of appropriated texts, dishonest statements, and brutal pranks. I’ve stolen things that weren’t mine and have made a career out of forgery and dishonesty. I’m proudly fraudulent. And it’s served me well—I highly recommend it as an artistic strategy.

MetaFilter

From it’s text based beginnings as Bulletin Board Systems/Services (BBSs) and USENET the internet has been used as a place to distribute the weird and wonderful.

Before Digg and Reddit existed, similar offerings were available from MetaFilter (MeFi) and SomethingAwful. I long ago signed up for Digg and Reddit, but for some reason I never really got the hang of MeFi – until recently.

I joined a week or so ago, and I’m pretty impressed so far. Here are a few example of stuff that I’ve found just yesterday:

MeFi’s Learn Korean Easy (Oh, the grammar!) reposts artist/adventurer Ryan Estrada’s great comic called Learn to read Korean in 15 minutes which is fascinating. An internet holes opens up as I go searching for more information on Hangul, the origin of Hangul and it’s promulgator Sejong the Great. I know what I’ll be doing on my next interminable wait at an airport, which from the comments seems to be the place most people like to learn the phonetic alphabet system.

The other post of interest, lighter of my lifeboat, firearm of my loincloths, explains a neat artistic morph of text called the N+7 procedure, developed by French poet Jean Lescure. The rules are simple – change every noun to the seventh noun after it in a dictionary.

The N + 7 Machine is a page that implements the procedure for N <= 15 on text that you enter or paste in.

Go forth and ART!