Science & Technology

AI and the Robot Uprising: With So Many Jobs at Risk, Why Isn’t the World More Prepared?

Steve LeVine: “…the world has looked at the potential for a robot onslaught, and decided not to resist. In interviews, American technologists and a long list of historians, ethicists, and philosophers focused on science and technology told me in a seemingly unified voice that they had yet to come across a serious proposal for an outright ban on job-stealing robots, and that if they had, they would have thought it a bad idea, undoable, or outright absurd. A prohibition on robots ‘will impoverish everyone,’ said MIT’s Andrew McAfee, co-author of The Second Industrial Revolution.”

“But wait. In much of the world, we negotiate climate and nuclear arms deals; we regulate the spread of disease and firearms; we take diplomatic or even military action against dictators; and build defenses against cyber attacks by rogue nations. In all these cases, we are seeking a rational de-escalation of a perceived existential threat. Do the robots and their makers—in Silicon Valley, Japan, and China—place our way of life in less jeopardy? And if they are as dangerous, are they truly unstoppable, akin to a force of nature? Given the political havoc already wreaked in part by working-class discontent, can we do nothing to stop or even slow what seems a mechanized approximation of an army of marching Huns?”

The Air Force Turned an F-16 Fighter Into a Drone

Popular Mechanics: “The U.S. Air Force turned an F-16 fighter into an autonomous combat drone capable of flying combat missions on its own and then returning to fly alongside a manned aircraft. The program, known as ‘Have Raider II,’ could lead to older U.S. fighters acting as semi-disposable wingmen for more modern planes, conducting missions too dangerous for manned aircraft to carry out.”

“The program is broadly part of the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy, which plans to use existing equipment in new ways to maintain a technological and numerical edge over countries such as China and Russia. The U.S. Air Force will shed more than a thousand F-16s as the F-35A enters service. While older, the F-16s have the advantage of being cheaper to fly and semi-disposable.”

Compelling New Evidence That Robots Are Taking Jobs and Cutting Wages

Quartz: “In a recent study (pdf), economists Daren Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University try to quantify how worried we should be about robots. They examine the impact of industrial automation on the US labor market from 1990 to 2007. They conclude that each additional robot reduced employment in a given commuting area by 3-6 workers, and lowered overall wages by 0.25-0.5%.”

In order to isolate the effect of robots, Acemoglu and Restrepo used a clever statistical trick. They collected data on adoption rates of industrial robots in Europe, and then analyzed what happened to American labor markets by comparing industry trends with their equivalents in Europe. This isolated the changes likely caused by the spread of robots, and not some other factor peculiar to the US.”

No One Knows What to Do with the International Space Station

Sara Chodosh: “In 2024 the clock will run out on the International Space Station. Maybe. That’s the arbitrary deadline that Congress imposed back in 2014, at which point they’ll have to decide whether or not to keep funding the ISS. And yeah, that’s a whole seven years away. But then again…it’s only seven years away.”

“The ISS takes up half of NASA’s human exploration budget—half of the pile of money allotted for things like sending humans to Mars or to an asteroid. And if they want to push further into space exploration, NASA can’t keep sinking three to four billion dollars a year into the ISS. Not that it’s really their decision. Congress—specifically the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology—decides how much money NASA will get. And because politicians aren’t experts in space travel, they keep holding hearings to discuss what they could possibly do with the ISS in seven years’ time. Let private industry take it over? Let it crash and burn into the South Pacific? Let the program keep running? The latest hearing took place last week.”

How Millennials Will Forever Change America’s Farmlands

Kimbal Musk: “Tiny plots on rooftops and small backyards are popping up all across America, particularly in urban areas that have never been associated with food production. These micro-farms aren’t meant to earn a profit or feed vast numbers of people, but they reflect the Millennial generation’s desire to forge a direct connection with the food they consume.”

“These efforts are an admirable manifestation of the mantra to think globally and act locally, but they miss the opportunity that is going on right now: the economics of branded local farms have changed, and technology in agriculture has led to a renaissance of independent American farming. Whether this means farming the traditional acreage of the Heartland or adapting to cutting-edge indoor farming methods, the result is the same: demand for real food is far outstripping supply. Highly-educated, entrepreneurial, and socially conscious young people have a great opportunity to think seriously about agriculture as a career.”

America May Miss Out on the Next Industrial Revolution

The Verge: “Robots are inevitably going to automate millions of jobs in the US and around the world, but there’s an even more complex scenario on the horizon, said roboticist Matt Rendall. In a talk Tuesday at SXSW, Rendall painted a picture of the future of robotic job displacement that focused less on automation and more on the realistic ways in which the robotics industry will reshape global manufacturing.”

“The takeaway was that America, which has outsourced much of its manufacturing and lacks serious investment in industrial robotics, may miss out on the world’s next radical shift in how goods are produced. That’s because the robot makers — as in, the robots that make the robots — could play a key role in determining how automation expands across the globe.”

“The difference, he added, is how China is responding to automation, which is by embracing it instead of shying away from it, as the US appears to be approaching the issue. This is in stark contrast to industrial advances of the previous century, like Ford’s assembly line, that arrived first in American industries and transformed the country’s economy into one of the most robost on the planet.”

Why Our Nuclear Weapons Can Be Hacked

Bruce Blair: “Imagine the panic if we had suddenly learned during the Cold War that a bulwark of America’s nuclear deterrence could not even get off the ground because of an exploitable deficiency in its control network.”

“We had such an Achilles’ heel not so long ago. Minuteman missiles were vulnerable to a disabling cyberattack, and no one realized it for many years. If not for a curious and persistent President Barack Obama, it might never have been discovered and rectified.”

“We need to conduct a comprehensive examination of the threat and develop a remediation plan. We need to better understand the unintended consequences of cyberwarfare — such as possibly weakening another nation’s safeguards against unauthorized launching. We need to improve control over our nuclear supply chain. And it is time to reach an agreement with our rivals on the red lines. The reddest line should put nuclear networks off limits to cyberintrusion. Despite its allure, cyberwarfare risks causing nuclear pandemonium.”

What the CIA WikiLeaks Dump Tells Us: Encryption Works

“If the tech industry is drawing one lesson from the latest WikiLeaks disclosures, it’s that data-scrambling encryption works, and the industry should use more of it,” Anick Jesdanun and Michael Liedtke report for AP.

“Documents purportedly outlining a massive CIA surveillance program suggest that CIA agents must go to great lengths to circumvent encryption they can’t break. In many cases, physical presence is required to carry off these targeted attacks.”

Newsrooms Are Making Leaking Easier–and More Secure–Than Ever

Charles Berret: “A growing number of disaffected government insiders have been approaching journalists to share information anonymously since the election in November and the inauguration just over a month ago. In response, news organizations have made it safer and easier for potential whistleblowers by actively encouraging them to use a variety of secure communication channels.”

“But even as more news outlets promote secure channels for outreach from potential sources, it is still incredibly rare for these tools to be mentioned in published stories… The demand for secure communication tools has only risen since Trump’s election. The Times launched SecureDrop just a week after the election, while downloads of the Signal app rose 400 percent during the month of November. There are currently 22 active SecureDrop installations in newsrooms—nearly twice as many as there were just a year ago. A handful of freelance journalists and about a dozen non-profit groups also use SecureDrop.”

“If Trump does plan to wage an information war against the swelling ranks of motivated whistleblowers, he should know that he would also be waging war against modern cryptography—and the odds are never good when you bet against mathematics itself. Secure whistleblowing tools have come of age.”

Educational Equality and Excellence Will Drive a Stronger Economy

Arne Duncan: “This election taught me two things. The first is obvious: We live in a deeply divided nation. The second, while subtle, is incredibly important: The election was a massive cry for help. People across the country–on both sides of the political spectrum–feel they have been left behind and are fearful their basic needs will continue to go unanswered. Rhetoric may win votes, but it doesn’t put food on the table. There’s been much discussion of how we’re divided by race and class, but I believe a huge driver of our nation’s current challenges is created by educational inequity.”

“When compared to 17 other industrial countries, U.S. workers ranked last in ‘problem solving in technology-rich environments.’ If we expect to compete in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills, we need to concentrate on closing the digital divide. The reversal must begin in K-12, where currently only one in four schools teach computer programming.”

J.P. Morgan Software Does in Seconds What Took Lawyers 360,000 Hours

Bloomberg Markets: “The program, called COIN, for Contract Intelligence, does the mind-numbing job of interpreting commercial-loan agreements that, until the project went online in June, consumed 360,000 hours of work each year by lawyers and loan officers. The software reviews documents in seconds, is less error-prone and never asks for vacation.”

“While the financial industry has long touted its technological innovations, a new era of automation is now in overdrive as cheap computing power converges with fears of losing customers to startups. Made possible by investments in machine learning and a new private cloud network, COIN is just the start for the biggest U.S. bank. The firm recently set up technology hubs for teams specializing in big data, robotics and cloud infrastructure to find new sources of revenue, while reducing expenses and risks.”

The Rise of the Useless Class

TED published an excerpt from Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow. In a nutshell: “Historian Yuval Noah Harari makes a bracing prediction: just as mass industrialization created the working class, the AI revolution will create a new unworking class.”

One interesting passage from the book: “Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many, if not most, humans may be unable to do so.”