... in robots

Online content moderators as canaries of the coming robot apocalypse

02 Nov 2014 | 271 words | algorithms drones robots

While running i listend to a On The Media interview with the autor of the Wired piece on content moderation that was making the rounds this week. After a while the interview addresses the relatively obvious question of why content moderation is still a task that can only be carried out by humans:

Brooke Gladstone: I think that one of the things that struck me is that this work demands human beings clued in to American mores and laws. This has to be done by brute force of eyes and clicking fingers. Is there no alternative to human moderation?

Adam Chen: Well everyone i talked to said that there was no way a robot could do all of this. They can come up with programmes and algorithms that will make it more effective and more streamlined but there is always going to be somebody who has to looks at it. And also the kinds of moderation that si going on is becoming more nuanced and complicated. And so i think you always gonna need people and probably more and more people as time goes on.

What struck me when listening to this is exchange that this is just one instance of a much broader problem, namely the current inability to encode moral judgement in algorithms. Once we have ‘solved’ this issue those poor schmucks who have do do content moderation for the rest of us will be out of job (which sounds as a good thing) but that will also be the moment where have to start dealing with killer drones/robots that do not require human interventions before firing their weapons.

29 Sep 2014 | 419 words | drones technology future autonomous robots

A while ago i used this space to express my skepticism with regards to delivery drones becoming a major thing in the developed world anytime soon (and also hedged that by pointing to the fact that they may be much more useful and economically viable in developing countries). A couple of days ago i came across an excellent essay (Build cargo drones, get rich) by J.M. Ledgard in which he makes the most convincing case for cargo drones i have come across yet.

While his scenario is entirely focussed on the use of drones (which he calles donkeys) in Africa it is interesting to note that the first step in the scenario that het is working on is exactly the same as an experiment just announced by German logistics company DHL. Here are the opening words from Legards essay:

My goal is to help set up the world’s first commercial cargo drone route in Africa by 2016. It will be about 80 kilometres long and will connect several towns and villages. The first cargo drones will carry small payloads of blood to keep alive children who would otherwise perish.

and here is the relevant passage from DHL’s press release announcing their experiment:

For the first time worldwide, medications and other urgently needed goods will be delivered to the island at certain times of the day by DHL parcelcopter. This research project represents the first and only time in Europe that a flight by an unmanned aircraft will be operated outside of the pilot’s field of vision in a real-life mission.

Aside from the fact that it seems that Ledgard has lost its bid for running the world’s first commercial cargo drone route it is interesting to note that the business case is the same here: Emergency deliveries of life-saving, small things by drone.

This is indeed where commercial cargo drones seem make some sense in their current state. What is happening here should be seen in the light of another recent innovation that started as an expensive solution for a first world problem but dramatically changed the lives of millions of Africans once it became technological mature enough to be commoditized: The mobile telephone. So while he may have lost his bet to be the first, DHL is most likely doing a bit of extra R&D work for Ledgard’s scheme to get rich with cargo cones.

p.s. also notice how both implementation are targeted at rural, non-urban environments. the point i made in my earlier post clearly still holds.

On self driving cars

17 Nov 2013 | 775 words | cars robots technology urbanism autonomous

In his most recent deezen columnDan Hill provides some much needed perspective on the self driving cars hype. I completely agree with him, that while endlessly fascinating, self driving cars are rather problematic idea. Instead of improving the way personal mobility is organised they primarily attempt to improve a deeply flawed system:

Here we see such companies are not actually interested in genuine change, for all their bluster about “radical disruption”. Self-driving cars are a sticking plaster over existing conditions. They actually reinforce the ‘Californian Ideology’ that underpins today’s mobility problems: suburban sprawl, based around the possibility of lengthy car-based commutes, in turn predicated on a highly individualistic view of society. It is an entirely conservative move. Self-driving cars provide a way of changing the veneer of this system, as no-one is brave enough to suggest changing the system itself. They replace who, or what, is holding the steering wheel, but not the underlying culture that contributes to mass depression, obesity epidemics, climate change and economic crises.

[…] The real way to prevent accidents would be to have fewer cars on the road, not just the same number with different control systems. But is the car industry really going to suggest that? Self-driving cars may move traffic a little more efficiently, but the laws of induced demand suggest that the supply of cars might also increase to counter any such benefits.

The most interesting question arising out of this observation is if this is just short sightedness of the people involved in pushing self driving cars (very much in the way that the first cars were advertised as ‘horseless carriages‘) or if this is a genuine attempt to extend the social acceptance of a failed system:

Few industries could get away with as much blood on their hands as the automobile business does. That we are prepared to expend so many lives – 1.24 million killed each year on the roads, and who knows how many other lives ruined – for the sake of our freedom to drive to work is fairly objectionable.

In his column Hill points to existing alternative to this failed system. Cities designed in such a way that individual car ownership does not make sense:

[…] Yet imagine the possibilities of a city oriented around people living closer to their work and play, and so built around cycling, walking, quality public transport and a massively reduced number of electric cars for individual errands. It doesn’t exactly have the airbrushed sheen of Google X, but it would be a city with a lower carbon footprint, healthier people, safer streets, more frequent social interaction, better air quality, quiet enough to hear conversations, to hear birds and to build lighter, more experimental building envelopes, with a higher economic performance through serendipity, agglomeration, richer mixed-use land use, and with increased citizen engagement in the city itself. The benefits are virtually endless, and few are even addressed by self-driving cars, never mind achieved.

[…] You choose the vehicle fit for your needs at that point, thus reinforcing the idea that mobility is a bespoke, mass-customised on-demand service shared across bike-sharing, public transport, and through shared self-driving cars for those times when you really need one.

For people lucky enough to live in places like Amsterdam this is not something that needs to be imagined. My personal mobility arrangements include pretty much all of the above: two different bikes (depending on what needs to be transported), a car2go account, a uber account, a car rental company around the corner and a yearly subscription for all public transportation in this (admittedly tiny) country.

I have never owned a car and will very likely never own one since proximity of work and home is one of the most important considerations i apply when considering alternative scenarios for the future.

So why am i fascinated by self driving cars then? Firstly because of the technology involved, but also because they are probably nicer (read more predictable) to deal with when cycling in the city. More importantly though, i would expect them to unify the rental-car/car2go/uber/taxi part of my mobility mix at some point. That will probably be to the detriment of the taxi drivers (in the end they are robots replacing manual labour), but should make shared individual mobility more attractive (hopefully to more people outside of my early adopter demographic). In his column Hill suggests pretty much the same:

[…] Folding self-driving systems into car-sharing schemes, as part of a wider rethink about how we live together in cities, however? I could share that vision. So again, what is the real question that suggests self-driving cars are the solution?

Robots in the streets

20 Jan 2008 | 121 words | robots south africa traffic

We also do not have any robots left on our streets and little traffic so we don’t have the kind of traffic jams I saw in Jo’burg during a power cut. [Zimbabwean journalist writing on how to deal with frequent blackouts in the Sunday Independent]

No, this is not from the future, nor is not a status update from iraq and no, there are also no industrial assembly robots lining Jan Smits avenue in Jo’burg. I can also ensure you that the streets are not filled with aibo’s, roomba’s or other useless electronic pets. The robots mentioned in the above quote would simply be called traffic-lights in the rest of the world. No clue why, but i think it is cute.

Robot astrologers...

16 Dec 2005 | 310 words | india bombay technology robots

… is what time-out bombay calls the fortune telling robots that i had blogged a three weeks ago. They have a little piece on one of the robot operators in todays edition and their robot apparently does speak english or at least they were able to translate it:

It looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie. On Juhu Beach stands a small illuminated robot with four cables and headphones coming out of its base. Put on the illuminated headphones and the lights pulse as the robot tells you your fortune. “You are spending too much money on people who are not trustworthy,” gabbles the robot in a tinny accent. “You should rather save for a rainy day. You have also been eating recklessly. This will be harmfull for your health and your family. One more thing, whatever you wish to happen will happen this sunday. Don’t tell anybody.” Total charge: 5 rupees (€0,10).

“this life is not what i want,” sighs Anil Kumar Gupta from Bihar, who runs the robo-seer, pays off local thugs for the pitch and keeps the robot tugged up with battery power. “But my brother really needs help with this. He manages three such robots. Two in Girgaum and one here.” His brother Rajiv is the brains and has been adapting toy robots into beachfront astrologers for the last 12 years. The base contains four cassette-players so that up to four people can listen to different horoscopes simultaneously. Despite his disenchantment with robot astrology, Anil makes up to Rs. 1200 (€22) a day and likes and likes making people think he is doing them a good deed. “It would do them no good knowing that it is not true. SO let them believe what they hear and stay content. It is only good advice on family, health and money. Those are the important things.”

Hand-built fortune telling robot

21 Nov 2005 | 132 words | robots bangalore technology india

Every sunday there is a guy with fortune telling robot on the place opposite of the main entrance of russell market in Bangalore. Apparently (the guy does not really speak english) the robot is about 5 years old, was built by someone from ‘down south’ who also supplies the tapes with the fortunes on them. Against a small contribution the robot will tell fortunes in one of four 4 different languages (Hindi, Tamil, Kannada & Telgu) through headphones that are attached to its body.

I could not find out more about the function of the clock that is attached to the body of the robot. the owner just told me that it is a clock and ‘tells the time’ which makes it a truly multi purpose robot: telling both fortune and time)

User interface fail

23 Oct 2005 | 382 words | airtravel design technology robots labor

I am on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Sao Paulo. The 777 is equipped with KLM’s top of the line in flight entertainment system which is actually pretty good. Having access to more than 100 movies (in economy class) is rivaled only by bittorrent (note to self: try to download movies on my next connexion equipped lufthansa flight). The system also includes SMS/email capabilities (send SMS for just USD 2.50 apiece! w00t!). to compose SMS messages you have to move a cursor across an on screen keyboard with a four way controller on the remote thingy that is contained in your armrest. now this is the poorest user interface i have ever used. It took me about 10 times as long to send a SMS as it usually does (and i am ridiculously slow with my phone). The interface really sucks especially if u have to use the 4 way to move the cursor to the arrow keys on the virtual keyboard on screen in order to move the cursor in the text entry field. Extremely redundant interface layers. it becomes even more redundant (or should i say frustrating/idiotic) if one realizes that the back of the remote thingy actually is a phone complete with letters on the number keys. But of course they don’t work in the SMS section.

Of course there is nobody on the whole damn plane that you could even explain – let alone complain to about – this royal (dutch) interface fuck-up. And if you ask me this is part of a much wider problem that gets more serious as more and more transactions get automated. I have serious gripes with the interfaces of the dutch and german rail ticket vending machines that effectively keep me from using them and there is no one standing next to them to listen to my complaints. The only people you could possibly complain to are the people who are slowly getting replaced by the same machines (the agents at the counters at the railway station) and that makes it feel extremely awkward to address such issues to them (‘sorry sir i think the machine that will get you fired from your job could be made a bit more user friendly so you can loose you job a bit faster…’).

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: