Our robot future

What you thought you were getting:

What you’re actually getting:

Staffing a Japanese hotel with hundreds of robots didn’t work out quite as well as expected:

It turns out that even robots are having a tough time holding down a job. Japan’s Henn-na “Strange” Hotel has laid off half its 243 robots after they created more problems than they could solve, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

One of the layoffs included a doll-shaped assistant in each hotel room called Churi. Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa can answer questions about local businesses’ opening and closing times, but Churi couldn’t. When hotel guests asked Churi “What time does the theme park open?” it didn’t have a good answer. That was a problem because Churi was supposed to help ameliorate the Strange Hotel’s staff shortage by substituting in for human workers.

Others on the chopping block:

• Two velociraptor robots positioned at check-in were also decommissioned because human workers essentially had to do their jobs for them and photocopy guests’ passports manually.

• Two robot luggage carriers could only reach about 24 of the over 100 rooms in the hotel and failed in rain or snow. They would also often get stuck trying to pass by each other.

Remember this is Japan we’re talking about. If they haven’t figured this out yet, nobody can.

Still, there’s something gratifying about knowing that even robots can get laid off.

Important article on 5G

An article [PDF] by British philosopher Jeremy Naydler examines the global push to roll out 5G, and its staggering scope and implications:

In November this year (2018), the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized the rocket company SpaceX, owned by the entrepreneur Elon Musk, to launch a fleet of 7,518 satellites to complete SpaceX’s ambitious scheme to provide global satellite broadband services to every corner of the Earth. […]

Other companies, including Boeing, One Web and Spire Global are each launching their own smaller fleets, bringing the total number of projected new broadband satellites to around 20,000 – every one of them dedicated to irradiating the Earth at similar frequencies.

Why this sudden flurry of activity? The new satellite fleets are contributing to a concerted global effort to ‘upgrade’ the electromagnetic environment of the Earth. The upgrade is commonly referred to as 5G, or fifth generation wireless network. […] It amounts to geo-engineering on a scale never before attempted. While this is being sold to the public as an enhancement of the quality of video streaming for media and entertainment, what is really driving it is the creation of the conditions within which electronic or “artificial” intelligence will be able to assume an ever-greater presence in our lives.

[…] the introduction of 5G will also require hundreds of thousands of new mini mobile phone masts (also referred to as “micro-cells” or “base stations”) in urban centres throughout the UK, and literally millions of new masts in cities throughout the rest of the world, all emitting radiation at frequencies and at power levels far higher than those to which we are presently subjected. […] Not one inch of the globe will be free of radiation.

Given the scale of the project, it is surprising how few people are aware of the enormity of what is now just beginning to unfold all around us. […]

The question we should ask is whether we also want increasingly intense exposure of the natural environment and all living creatures, including ourselves, to more and more electromagnetic radiation. Is it likely that this does not entail any adverse health consequences, as both government and industry claim? […]

Is the general public even remotely aware of the scale of this effort? Has anyone outside the industry been sold on the benefits, nay the necessity, of blanketing the planet with 5G?

Does anyone seriously think that we need faster mobile internet, that this will somehow improve our lives? Are any politicians or public officials even trying to make this argument?

Have we conclusively established that constant, ubiquitous exposure to extremely high frequency electromagnetic radiation will not have adverse effects on human health?

Is the public (of any country) ever going to be asked what it thinks about this, or will the rollout be a fait accompli before anyone is even aware of what has happened?

Questions that urgently need asking, given the speed and apparent desperation with which our 5G future is being prepared.

Quelle surprise

Who would have thought that removing human contact from the process of checking out groceries would lead to anti-social and illegal behavior? Certainly, I never would have thought this:

Beneath the bland veneer of supermarket automation lurks an ugly truth: There’s a lot of shoplifting going on in the self-scanning checkout lane. But don’t call it shoplifting. The guys in loss prevention prefer “external shrinkage.”

For every problem, there is a handy euphemism.

Self-checkout theft has become so widespread that a whole lingo has sprung up to describe its tactics. Ringing up a T-bone ($13.99/lb) with a code for a cheap ($0.49/lb) variety of produce is “the banana trick.

I always wondered what safeguards were in place to prevent people from doing this. I guess the answer is: none.

If a can of Illy espresso leaves the conveyor belt without being scanned, that’s called “the pass around.” “The switcheroo” is more labor-intensive: Peel the sticker off something inexpensive and place it over the bar code of something pricey. Just make sure both items are about the same weight, to avoid triggering that pesky “unexpected item” alert in the bagging area. […]

The Leicester researchers concluded that the ease of theft is likely inspiring people who might not otherwise steal to do so. Rather than walk into a store intending to take something, a shopper might, at the end of a trip, decide that a discount is in order.

Especially if all of the checkout counters are closed, forcing the shopper to use a self-checkout machine… half of which are switched off.

As one retail employee told the researchers, “People who traditionally don’t intend to steal [might realize that] … when I buy 20, I can get five for free.” The authors further proposed that retailers bore some blame for the problem. In their zeal to cut labor costs, the study said, supermarkets could be seen as having created “a crime-generating environment” that promotes profit “above social responsibility.”

Meanwhile, the rule of law continues to decline:

In some places, meanwhile, the likelihood of being punished for petty shoplifting is decreasing. Even if a manager wants to press charges, many police departments can’t be bothered with supermarket theft. In 2012, for example, the Dallas Police Department enacted a new policy: Officers would no longer routinely respond to shoplifting calls for boosts amounting to less than $50. In 2015, the threshold was raised yet again, to $100.

The Huawei juggernaut

Huawei’s European Research Center in Munich (Source)

Disturbing article (depending on your perspective) about the growing superiority of telecom giant Huawei:

Huawei Technologies, the spearhead of China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), isn’t a Chinese company, but an imperial juggernaut that crushes its competition and employs their intellectual resources. By 2013 it employed 40,000 foreigners–mostly in R&D– out of a workforce of 150,000. I think it foolish to think that the Chinese can’t innovate, but it doesn’t matter whether they can or not, any more than the siege skills of Mongol horsemen mattered in 1258.

A minor but telling example of Huawei’s imperial reach is the announcement this month that Huawei will build a 400-person chip design facility in Cambridge. It will compete with ARM Holdings, the chip design firm sold in 2016 to Japan’s Softbank. Softbank is a major shareholder in China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba, another spearhead of BRI. The combination of mobile broadband and e-commerce allows China to “Sino-form” economies of the Global South, turning them into Chinese dependencies […]

The fact is that Huawei’s equipment is years a head of its competition’s. It spends $20 billion a year on R&D, double the combined spend of its largest competitors Ericsson and Nokia. A dirty little secret is that Ericsson and Nokia make most of their hardware in China, so that if the Chinese wanted to implant “back door” spy chips, they could do as easily for the Scandinavians as for Huawei.

The world order seems to be cracking up and dividing into different spheres of influence. Maybe we can refer to these emergent geopolitical regions as “the U.S.” and “Huawei-land.”

Hardening the US against an EMP attack

The Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses, issued on Tuesday, is a step in the right direction:

Section 1. Purpose. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has the potential to disrupt, degrade, and damage technology and critical infrastructure systems. Human-made or naturally occurring EMPs can affect large geographic areas, disrupting elements critical to the Nation’s security and economic prosperity, and could adversely affect global commerce and stability. The Federal Government must foster sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective approaches to improving the Nation’s resilience to the effects of EMPs.

This is a genuine threat. EMPs are not science fiction. The Soviet Union kept a reserve of steam-powered trains in case an EMP from a nuclear blast wiped out their electrical systems.

I wrote about EMPs in the context of North Korea back in 2017:

The North said in its statement Sunday that its H-bomb “is a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack according to strategic goals.”

AI learns to write crappy text, and I fail to be alarmed (yet)

One wonders how much of this is media-friendly hype versus actual scary breakthroughs in artificial intelligence:

The creators of a revolutionary AI system that can write news stories and works of fiction – dubbed “deepfakes for text” – have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research publicly, for fear of potential misuse.

OpenAI, an nonprofit research company backed by Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, and others, says its new AI model, called GPT2 is so good and the risk of malicious use so high that it is breaking from its normal practice of releasing the full research to the public in order to allow more time to discuss the ramifications of the technological breakthrough.

At its core, GPT2 is a text generator. The AI system is fed text, anything from a few words to a whole page, and asked to write the next few sentences based on its predictions of what should come next. The system is pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible, both in terms of the quality of the output, and the wide variety of potential uses.

Here’s what the program wrote after being fed the first line of 1984:

 “I was in my car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of science.”


Reminds me of the alarmist and mostly fake stories about how Facebook panicked and “shut down” an experiment in which two bots started to talk to each other in an incomprehensible language. It wasn’t exactly Skynet becoming self-aware, but the headlines tended to make you think that.

Granted, I’m probably not doing the OpenAI research justice here. I’m just very skeptical of AI-related stories that contain words like “fear” and “dangerous” in the headline and lead.

Paralyzed people in Japan controlling robot waiters with their eyes

A brilliant and inventive use of robots gives disabled people a new form of gainful employment in Japan:

On 26 November, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held in the Nippon Foundation Building in Akasaka, Tokyo for a very special kind of cafe.

Called Dawn ver.β, it’s staffed entirely with robot waiters. While these days that’s hardly something new, these aren’t mere robots.

Developed by Ory, a startup that specializes in robotics for disabled people, the OriHime-D is a 120 cm (4-foot) tall robot that can be operated remotely from a paralyzed person’s home. Even if the operator only has control of their eyes, they can command OriHime-D to move, look around, speak with people, and handle objects.

Very cool. All we need now are remote-controlled robots that stand around all day drinking coffee and reminding their employees that they’re gonna need those TPS reports, mmmkay?

The Internet of Incredibly Scary Things

If you are thinking about getting one of those wifi-enabled home security cameras, you might want to think again. At the very least, if you do get one, please create a password for it that you have not used elsewhere.

Otherwise, your fancy “Internet of Things” device might get hijacked by a hacker and start barking nuclear missile warnings at you or talking to your children in a deep, scary voice – which are actual things that happened to families in California. The hackers might also mess with your thermostat while they’re at it.

I take a dim view of the “Internet of Things.” It seems like a total scam to me. I do not see how our lives are materially improved by connecting our devices to the Internet, especially when you factor in the time-wasting complexities of managing these devices and the opportunities for hacking and massive privacy violations that they create.

If you have to get one of these cheap security camera systems that require a stable internet connection to function, for Pete’s sake choose a unique login password:

Nest’s parent company, Google, said in a statement that Nest’s system was not breached. Google said the recent incidents stem from customers “using compromised passwords … exposed through breaches on other websites.”

I recommend using the open-source password manager KeePass – you can download it here. It will store all your passwords in a file that is controlled by a single master password. KeePass will even generate unique random passwords for you every time you create a new entry. Whenever you need to log in to an online account, just copy and paste the password from KeePass.

The ultimate road/rail trip

Trans-Siberian road map

Source: CNN

It would have be the fanciful, proposed railway and superhighway connecting New York to London via the Bering Strait. With high-speed rail, I reckon that you could hurtle from one city to the other in about three days (read to the end for how I calculate that).

From the article:

At a Russian Academy of Science meeting in March, Vladimir Yakunin, the 66-year-old head of Russian Railways, unveiled detailed plans for what may seem like an impossible infrastructure project. Yakunin proposed engineers could build a high-speed railway through the entirety of Siberia, dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR)—the final destination of which would be the mouth of an underwater tunnel crossing the Bering Strait. Highway, too, could be constructed adjacent to the tracks, effectively making ground transportation possible from Anchorage to Moscow—or for that matter, New York to Paris. Or, if we’re going to go there, Miami to Johannesburg.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” The Siberian Times reported Yakunin saying at the meeting. “It should be an alternative to the current [neo-liberal] model, which has caused a systemic crisis,” by which he means an economy based on investing in derivatives and stock buybacks and, in consulting engineer and infrastructure expert Dr. Hal Cooper’s words “things that are easy to do on your computer, but which don’t benefit the real world.” The idea is to instead focus on reviving economic forces that revolve around building something—and in this case a very big, maybe impossibly ambitious something—in the physical world.

Impossible? Of course not. But very, very expensive:

Of course, in order to do this, approximately 12,500 miles of road and new railway would have to be built starting at Russia’s eastern border—which would include the 520 miles between the frigid shores of Nome, Alaska, and Fairbanks, the northernmost point of the Alaskan Highway. And then there’s that 55-mile Bering Strait tunnel itself, which has been priced at somewhere between $25 billion and $50 billion. And what Dr. Hal Cooper calls the “Worldwide Railroad Network” in a 2007 report could range from between one and $1.5 trillion which, Cooper notes, “will be the equivalent of what the United States will spend in total on the Iraq War, for which there will be no measureable benefit to anyone.”

Estimated cost of the US “war on terror” through FY 2019: $5.9 trillion, or about four Worldwide Railroad Networks.

Interestingly, the idea has a long history:

Dreams of bridging the East and West across the Bering Strait have been percolating since the 19th century. Cooper told me that as early as 1846, then-Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin invested in a study to build railway up to northern Alaskan shores. And, it turns out, even decades after being ousted from office, Gilpin was still publishing plans for the “Cosmopolitan Railway” which would fuse together all continents chiefly via the Bering Strait.

The real problem is organizing the resources and manpower to get it done, which requires both political will and a population that is able and motivated to work together on difficult projects. This is becoming more rare. The last man walked on the Moon in 1972, and the Concorde supersonic flights that zipped passengers across the Atlantic in three and a half hours were discontinued in 2003.

The next question, then—which has been on the table now for 150 years—is whether anyone would be willing to invest in a project that could collectively cost trillions of dollars and whose anticipated economic yields would be a generation away.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations by CNN, the proposed superhighway from New York to London would stretch about 12,910 miles. Assuming high-speed rail could be built along this entire length, with trains running at the average speed of the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train service (181.4 mph), then we’re talking about a rail trip of 71.2 hours, or just under three days.

If the trains could run at the top speed of the Shanghai Maglev Train, or 268 mph, then you could expect to blast from New York to London in just over 48 hours. Now, would that not be the world’s most awesome trip?

UPDATE: China is also mulling a high-speed rail project across the Bering Strait. Of course!

The greatness of film

David Hmmings in Blow-Up

I mean film photography, not movies. (Although don’t get me wrong, movies are also great.) Photographer Graham Carruthers has a blog post concerning the merits of film photography versus its more-efficient digital replacement. That post is a response to this article in PetaPixal about the sudden trendiness of film cameras among the “nostalgic hipster” set.

While I’m hardly a photographer, my limited experience with film has given me an appreciation for the joys of analog shooting. Here’s my comment on the blog:

Speaking as a hobbyist, I always enjoyed using my Nikon film SLR. Film has a tangible existence, which makes it seem more “real” than a digital file, and there is something cool about handling film – loading it into the camera, snapping the back shut and hearing the whir of the take-up spool, dropping off the roll at the local pharmacy and getting back an envelope full of prints and negatives that can be displayed, passed around, stored in an album… It’s definitely less convenient than digital but there is something special about the process that can’t be replicated on a computer screen. By the way, a professional photographer once told me that the best way to learn photography skills is to start with a film camera, because digital cameras make everything too easy.

And, of course, you can make art even with a chintzy disposable camera.