Tag Archives: robots

March 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • Trump admires Andrew Jackson, who I consider a genocidal lunatic and the worst President in U.S. history.
  • Fluoridated drinking water could eventually be looked back on as a really stupid idea that damaged several generations of developing brains, like leaded gasoline. Or not…I’m not sure who to believe on the issue but caution is clearly warranted.

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
  • South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030.
  • Advanced power strips can reduce the so-called “vampire loads” of our modern electronic devices that are never really off.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • This long NASA article first gets you excited about the possibility of life on eight new planets it has just discovered, and then throws cold water (actually, make that lethal X-rays) all over your excitement.
  • Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • CRISPR could be used to create new crops out of the wild ancestors of our current crops.

Bill Gates’s Robot Tax

In this interview, Bill Gates proposes a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. Gates’s idea is to use the money to repurpose these workers to jobs that are not easily automated and are currently undervalued in the marketplace, such as teaching and childcare.

Roomba vs. weeds

There’s a new robot that can weed your garden.

The Tertill was designed to survive outdoors. The latest prototype uses four-wheel drive to navigate a variety of terrains unsupervised and inward-tilting wheels so the robot can grip surfaces and extricate itself when it drives onto rocks and into holes. The Tertill also relies on capacitive sensors, which help it avoid obstructions and understand when to activate its weed-whacker.

The mechanism functions without machine-vision software, which Franklin Robotics says is not yet robust enough to distinguish weeds from plants, at least not at an affordable price. When the Tertill rolls over a plant that is shorter than its one-inch-high bumper, it assumes the plant is a weed, activates its trimmer, and cuts it. It turns away from plants that are taller than its bumper, and from metal collars that should be installed to protect seedlings.

By the time the Tertill goes on sale—likely via a crowdfunding campaign—the robot will have two more garden-related capabilities. It will wirelessly transmit data about plant and soil health to owners’ smartphones, so they can improve their gardens, and it will repel foraging animals such as rabbits and squirrels by moving and making noise when they approach.

January 2016 in Review

I’m going to try picking the three most frightening posts, three most hopeful posts, and three most interesting posts (that are not particularly frightening or hopeful) from January.

3 most frightening posts

  • Paul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
  • Thomas Picketty (paraphrased by J. Bradford Delong) says inequality and slow growth are the norm for a capitalist society. Joseph Stiglitz has some politically difficult solutions: “Far-reaching redistribution of income would help, as would deep reform of our financial system – not just to prevent it from imposing harm on the rest of us, but also to get banks and other financial institutions to do what they are supposed to do: match long-term savings to long-term investment needs.”
  • Meanwhile, government for and by big business means the “Deep State” is really in control of the U.S. In our big cities, the enormous and enormously dysfunctional police-court-prison system holds sway over the poor.

3 most hopeful posts

3 most interesting posts

  • There are some arguments in favor of genetically modified food – they have increased yields of some grains, and there is promise they could increase fish yields. 88% of scientists responding to a Pew survey said they think genetically modified food is safe, but only 37% of the U.S. public thinks so. In other biotech news, Obama’s State of the Union announced a new initiative to try to cure cancer. In other food news, red meat is out.
  • Not only is cash becoming obsolete, any physical form of payment at all may become obsolete.
  • The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”


Strong AI

Here’s an article about “Strong AI“:

This is how computers interact with us. They don’t understand English or whatever language we speak, but they do understand binary code. A human programmer tells the computer how to respond to you based on your input. The same thing goes for chess. The computer does not at all understand that it’s playing chess or any other game – it doesn’t even know what a game is. It only knows that, if you make a move in chess, that equates to some machine code to which it should respond. It then references its giant chess book – put there by humans and written in machine code – to decide how to respond to you.

Over the years, these tomes have become enormous. Using the chess example again, it would take many years for a human to sift through one of these tomes, but a computer can do it in seconds. As a result, you now have computers that simulate the total sum of human knowledge with regards to chess and yet they don’t understand a lick of it. What they cando, however, is obey the instructions put there by a human to beat you, handily…

Once we have the technology to make an ambulatory, perceptive robot using pre-written instructions (i.e. the ‘tome’), the challenge will then be to ‘birth’ one that has no pre-written instructions and no prior knowledge of the world, forcing it to learn like a human child. This sort of self-learning robot is an example of what Searle calls ‘Strong AI[10]’.

2015 Year in Review

I’m going to try picking the most frightening, most hopeful, and most interesting post from each month. If the most interesting is also the most frightening or most hopeful, I’ll pick the next most interesting. Then I’ll have 12 nominees in each category and I’ll try to pick the most frightening, hopeful, and interesting posts of the year.


Most frightening: Johan Rockstrom and company have updated their 2009 planetary boundaries work. The news is not getting any better. 4 of the 9 boundaries are not in the “safe operating space”: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

Most hopeful: It is starting to seem politically possible for the U.S. to strengthen regulation of risk-taking by huge financial firms.

Most interesting: Taxi medallions have been called the “best investment in America”, but now ride-sharing services may destroy them.


Most frightening: There are some depressing new books out there about all the bad things that could happen to the world, from nuclear terrorism to pandemics. Also a “financial black hole”, a “major breakdown of the Internet”, “the underpopulation bomb”, the “death of death”, and more!

Most hopeful: A new study suggests a sudden, catastrophic climate tipping point may not be too likely.

Most interesting: Government fragmentation explains at least part of suburban sprawl and urban decline in U.S. states, with Pennsylvania among the worst.


Most frightening: The drought in California and the U.S. Southwest is the worst ever, including one that wiped out an earlier civilization in the same spot. At least it is being taken seriously and some policies are being put in place. Meanwhile Sao Paulo, Brazil is emerging as a cautionary tale of what happens when the political and professional leadership in a major urban area fail to take drought seriously. Some people are predicting that water shortages could spark serious social unrest in developing countries.

Most hopeful: If we want to design ecosystems or just do some wildlife-friendly gardening, there is plenty of information on plants, butterflies, and pollinators out there. There is also an emerging literature on spatial habitat fragmentation and how it can be purposely designed and controlled for maximum benefit.

Most interesting (I just couldn’t choose between these):

  • Innovation in synthetic drugs is quickly outpacing the ability of regulatory agencies to adapt. (I struggled whether to put this in the negative or positive column. Drugs certainly cause suffering and social problems. But that is true of legal tobacco and alcohol, and prescription drugs, as well as illegal drugs. The policy frameworks countries have used to deal with illegal drugs in the past half century or so, most conspicuously the U.S. “war” on drugs, have led to more harm than good, and it is a good thing that governments are starting to acknowledge this and consider new policies for the changing times.)
  • Germ-line engineering is much further along than anyone imagined.” This means basically editing the DNA of egg and sperm cells at will. I put this in the positive column because it can mean huge health advances. Obviously there are risks and ethical concerns too.


Most frightening: A group of well-known economists is concerned that the entire world has entered a period of persistently low economic growth, or “secular stagnation“.

Most hopeful: Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, is retiring. That might sound bad, but his ground-breaking ideas are continuing on and actually seem to be going mainstream.

Most interesting:

  • Biotechnology may soon bring us the tools to seriously monkey with photosynthesis. (This is one of those stories where I struggle between the positive and negative columns, but clearly there is a potential upside when we will have so many mouths to feed.)
  • Peter Thiel thinks we can live forever. (positive, but do see my earlier comment about mouths to feed…)


Most frightening: We’ve hit 400 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not just some places sometimes but pretty much everywhere, all the time.

Most hopeful: The rhetoric on renewable energy is really changing as it starts to seriously challenge fossil fuels on economic grounds. Following the Fukushima disaster, when all Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down, the gap was made up largely with liquid natural gas and with almost no disruption of consumer service. But renewables also grew explosively. Some are suggesting Saudi Arabia is supporting lower oil prices in part to stay competitive with renewables. Wind and solar capacity are growing quickly in many parts of the world.Lester Brown says the tide has turned and renewables are now unstoppable.

Most interesting: Human chemical use to combat diseases, bugs, and weeds is causing the diseases, bugs and weeds to evolve fast.


Most frightening: One estimate says that climate change may reduce global economic growth by 3% in 2050 and 7-8% by 2100. Climate change may also double the frequency of El Nino. The DICE model is available to look at climate-economy linkages. Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers describe what a coming long, slow decline might look like. Rising temperatures in the Arctic are drying things out, leading to more fires, which burns more carbon, which raises temperatures, in an accelerating feedback loop.

Most hopeful: Stock values of U.S. coal companies have collapsed.

Most interesting: According to Paul Romer, academic economics has lost its way and is bogged down in “mathiness”.


Most frightening: James Hansen is warning of much faster and greater sea level rise than current mainstream expectations.

Most hopeful: Edible Forest Gardens is a great two book set that lays out an agenda for productive and low-input ecological garden design in eastern North America. You can turn your lawn into a food forest today.

Most interesting:


Most frightening: Steven Hawking is worried about an artificial intelligence arms race starting “within years, not decades”.

Most hopeful: It may be possible to capture atmospheric carbon and turn it into high-strength, valuable carbon fiber. This sounds like a potential game-changer to me, because if carbon fiber were cheap it could be substituted for a lot of heavy, toxic and energy-intensive materials we use now, and open up possibilities for entirely new types of structures and vehicles.

Most interesting:

  • gene drive” technology helps make sure that genetically engineered traits are passed along to offspring.
  • Technology marches on – quantum computing is in early emergence, the “internet of things” is arriving at the “peak of inflated expectations”, big data is crashing into the “trough of disillusionment”, virtual reality is beginning its assent to the “plateau of productivity”, and speech recognition is arriving on the plateau. And super-intelligent rodents may be on the way.
  • Robotics may be on the verge of a Cambrian explosion, which will almost certainly be bad for some types of jobs, but will also bring us things like cars that avoid pedestrians and computer chips powered by sweat. I for one am excited to be alive at this moment in history.


Most frightening: Climate may be playing a role in the current refugee crisis, and the future may hold much more of this.

Most hopeful: The right mix of variety and repetition might be the key to learning.

Most interesting: Edward Tufte does not like Infographics.


Most frightening: Corrupt Russian officials appear to be selling nuclear materials in Moldova.

Most hopeful: Elephants seem to have very low rates of cancer. Maybe we could learn their secrets.

Most interesting: Stephen Hawking is worried about inequality and technological unemployment.


Most frightening: I noticed that Robert Costanza in 2014 issued an update to his seminal 1997 paper on ecosystem services. He now estimates their value at $125 trillion per year, compared to a world economy of $77 trillion per year. Each year we are using up about $4-20 trillion in value more than the Earth is able to replenish. The correct conclusion here is that we can’t live without ecosystem services any time soon with our current level of knowledge and wealth, and yet we are depleting the natural capital that produces them. We were all lucky enough to inherit an enormous trust fund of natural capital at birth, and we are spending it down like the spoiled trust fund babies we are. We are living it up, and we measure our wealth based on that lifestyle, but we don’t have a bank statement so we don’t actually know when that nest egg is going to run out.

Most hopeful: There are plenty of ways to store intermittent solar and wind power so they can provide a constant, reliable electricity source.

Most interesting: Asimov’s yeast vats are finally here. This is good because it allows us to produce food without photosynthesis, but bad because it allows us to produce food without photosynthesis.


Most frightening: Cyberattacks or superflares could destroy the U.S. electric grid.

Most hopeful: We had the Paris agreement. It is possible to be cynical about this agreement but it is the best agreement we have had so far.

Most interesting: I mused about whether it is really possible the U.S. could go down a fascist path. I reviewed Robert Paxton’s five stages of fascism. I am a little worried, but some knowledgeable people say not to worry. After reading Alice Goffman’s book On the Runthough, one could conclude that a certain segment of our population is living in a fascist police state right now. There is some fairly strong evidence that financial crises have tended to favor the rise of the right wing in Europe.


Well, one thing that certainly jumps out on the technology front is biotechnology. We have a couple articles about the possibility of drastic increases in the human lifespan, and what that would mean. “Germ-line engineering”, “gene drive”, and “CRISPR” are all ways of monkeying with DNA directly, even in ways that get passed along to offspring. To produce more food, we may be able to monkey with the fundamentals of photosynthesis, and if that doesn’t work we can use genetically engineered yeast to bypass photosythesis entirely.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I am reproducing the “Gartner hype cycle” below, which was mentioned in one of the posts from August.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle

Government and corporate labs have been making huge advances in biotechnology in the last decade or so, so it is well beyond the “innovation trigger”. It has not yet reached the “peak of inflated expectations” where it would explode onto the commercial and media scene with a lot of fanfare. I expect that will happen. We will probably see a biotech boom, a biotech bubble, and a biotech bust similar to what we saw with the computers and the internet. And then it will quietly pervade every aspect of our daily lives similar to computers and the internet, and our children will shrug and assume it has always been that way.

Obviously there are dangers. A generation of people that refuse to die on time would be one. Bioterrorism is obviously one. Then there is the more subtle matter that as we raise the limit on the size our population and consumption level can attain, the footprint of our civilization will just grow to meet the new limit. When and how we come up against these limits, and what to do about it, is the subject of the updates to two seminal papers on these issues, by Rockstrom and Costanza. We have entered an “unsafe operating space” (Rockstrom), where we are depleting much more natural capital each year than the planet can replenish (Costanza), and there will be consequences. The Paris agreement is one hopeful sign that our civilization might be able to deal with these problems, but even if we deal with the carbon emission problem, it might be too late to prevent the worst consequences, and there are going to be “layers of limits” as the authors of Limits to Growth put it all those decades ago. If we take care of the global warming problem and figure out a way to grow food for 50 billion people, eventually we will grow to 50 billion people and have to think of something else.

So without further ado:

Most frightening: I can’t pick just one. In the relatively near term, it’s the stalling out of the world economy; the convergence of climate change, drought, and the challenge of feeding so many people; and the ongoing risks from nuclear and biological weapons.

Most hopeful: I see some hope on energy and land use issues. The Paris agreement, combined with renewable energy and energy storage breakthroughs, the potential for much more efficient use of space in cities rather than letting cars take up most of the space, are all hopeful. The possibility of making carbon fiber out of carbon emissions is a particularly intriguing one. At my personal scale, I am excited to do some sustainable gardening of native species that can feed both people and wildlife. I don’t expect my tiny garden to make a major difference in the world, but if we all had sustainable gardens, they were all connected, and we weren’t wasting so much space on roads and parking, it could start adding up to a much more sustainable land use pattern.

Most interesting: I’ve already mentioned a lot of stuff, so I will just pick something I haven’t already mentioned in the discussion above: the rise of synthetic drugs. It’s just an interesting article and makes you think about what it will mean to have advanced chemical, information, and biological technologies in the hands of the little guy, actually many, many little guys. It is a brave, new, dangerous, exciting world indeed. Happy new year!