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.


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.

A font for all occassions

Google have announced Noto:

Noto is Google’s font family that aims to support all the world’s languages. Its design goal is to achieve visual harmonization across languages. Noto fonts are under Apache License 2.0.

The comprehensive set of fonts and some of the tools used in our development are available at

 Noto Sans CJK is released with full support for Simplified ChineseTraditional ChineseJapanese, and KoreanLearn more

The page has a neat map to click for languages, where you can choose a subset per nation – for Kenya you can choose from 20 languages; for Australia, a mere three – English, Italian and Traditional Chinese. I’m not surprised there are so few – we barely see any Greek or Vietnamese writing on the streets, but I guess we don’t see much Italian either. Pity there’s not more South East Asian languages in our curricula.

Localised Malware

Trendmicro are reporting seen in the wild localised malware.

The malware strain known as VOBFUS works by copying itself onto removable media like USB sticks with names like porn.exe or sexy.exe. 

This variant also uses file names written in these languages:

  • Arabic
  • Bosnian
  • Chinese
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • French
  • German
  • Hungarian
  • Italian
  • Korean
  • Persian
  • Polish
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Slovak
  • Spanish
  • Thai
  • Turkish
  • Vietnamese

While the languages may differ, they all translate to I love youNakedPassword, and Webcam.

I’m surprised that Malware is still a thing at times but then I remember that the whole world is online these days – as this development shows.

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 new age of cyberlinguistics

The Conversation has a post about a new smart phone app that makes collecting, saving and interpreting languages significantly easier.

Recording the world’s vanishing voices expounds the developments of Steven Bird from the University of Melbourne’s Language Technology Group:

Of the 7,000 languages spoken on the planet, Tembé is at the small end with just 150 speakers left. In a few days, I will head into the Brazilian Amazon to record Tembé – via specially-designed technology – for posterity. Welcome to the world of cyberlinguistics.

Our new Android app Aikuma is still in the prototype stage. But it will dramatically speed up the process of collecting and preserving oral literature from endangered languages

Primarily developed for ‘saving’ languages the last speakers of which are dying out, difficulties included the mandatory informed consent for recording voices from people that have little to no contact with, or understanding of, computers or the internet.

Participants will try out the latest version which includes voice-­activated translation: while listening to a recording, the user can interrupt to give a simultaneous interpretation of the recording in another language (in this case, Portuguese).

This interpretation is captured by the phone and linked back to the original recording, phrase by phrase. In this way, the collected recordings are guaranteed to be interpretable even once the language is no longer spoken. This interpretability is what gives the recordings their archival value.

All materials we collect in this way will be left for the community and also lodged with the Museu Goeldi, a local research centre where they will be permanently available to the community.

That the application itself allows for almost simultaneous interpreting, greatly enhances the value of the collected data:

If enough people use Aikuma we will accumulate a large number of recordings from the world’s small languages, including Usarufa and Tembé. The result promises to be a digital-audio Rosetta Stone.

With permission, we will store the recordings and translations in the Internet Archive, a digital repository that has been preserving snapshots of the web since its inception in the early 1990s, and which is the most credible place to store digital content in perpetuity.

Cyberlinguists of the future may be able to discover the words and structures of dead languages from this data, and even construct dictionaries and grammars.

YouTube adds a Translation Service

Late last year Google added a subtitle translation function to make it easier for video uploaders to transcribe their videos and to then have others translate them.

Of course, sometimes you want that Swahili subtitle translation but you don’t know anyone that will do it.

Google has announced an initial collaboration with two translation services so you can get a translation done for you:

When you request a translation for your captions in YouTube, we’ll display a list of vendors along with their estimated pricing and delivery date so you can easily compare. We’ve initially collaborated with two companies, Gengo and, to make their services available to you and to streamline the ordering process.

There are two aspects to note here: two weeks ago Amara (previously Universal Subtitles, mentioned here often) announced an update that automagically sync’d subtitles to your YouTube channel – the timing of this move by Google’s is cynical in the extreme.

Amara are still doing a better job of it – who else has a Closed Captioning (CC) request service:

These are videos that our deaf and hard-of-hearing users have asked the Amara community to caption. Join the team – via – and help us make these videos accessible to everyone. Are you deaf or hard of hearing? Feel free to submit a video to this team or send your request to our Deaf HoH email list:

Did you see that? A deaf/hard of hearing subtitle request list. Fantastic. This type of development gives me faith that while the Google Translation engine will impact upon translators incomes, there is still room for groups to make a living if they think outside the box.

More importantly and fascinatingly, Amara also offers a Music Captioning service:

The place where music is captioned to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf world.
Everyone is welcome join this team – via – and share and create a worldwide audience to enjoy music in every language of the world.
We also have a Google group where you can discuss the captioning/subtitling of each video:!forum/musiccaptioning
See also our “Guidelines about collaborative captioning / subtitling” there: .

My other concern, or more correctly the obvious conclusion, of this development, is that Google will be using these subtitles more and more to help it with its voice recognition and understanding service, Google Voice Search – one of the most important steps to integrating robots and AIs into our lives.

OmegaT developers offer free hosting for teams

The latest OmegaT news is interesting:

This mail concerns all the teams who work on OmegaT localization.

With all the recent activity on the list, you must be aware that OmegaT 2.6 now offers the ability to easily work in teams over the internet.
The function has been discussed at length here and is also very clearly detailed in blog posts written by 2 very active members of the OmegaT community:

As you can see, the SVN/GIT server setting is the hardest part, including the fact that it is not trivial to find free and professional SVN server hosting services.

So, let me inform you that Didier (in fact Didier Briel Consulting and PnS Concept) is offering all the OmegaT l10n teams (ie languages where 2 or more people work on the localization) professional grade hosting for free with unlimited bandwidth.

The French localization team has been using the service for a few months now and it works like a breeze.

I strongly suggest that all the teams move to such a system because it tremendously eases the translation process when a number of people are involved.


Note that this is only for those translating the OmegaT software itself – but is an interesting business in general – surely there is room in the market for such a service?