Whispers & Screams
And Other Things

If You Can't Beat Em Join Em

Yesterday evening (Pacific Time), while we in Europe were tucked up in our dreams, Elon Musk hosted a press conference for one of his most exciting ventures yet. The organisation is called Neuralink and its stated aim is to develop implantable brain-machine interfaces.

Those who are aware of Mr Musks previous statements in this field will know that he has been a vocal Cassandra when it comes to the fate of mankind against the rise of the machines. Indeed for the imaginative among us it doesn't take too much of a leap to envisage a future where hyper capable and mechanised super intelligences are able to see our flesh and blood existence as nothing more than a primitive curiosity to be regarded perhaps at the level of a pet.

So when I heard about the press conference and the hubbub that its announcement had aroused in the cognoscenti press my own curiosity was thoroughly piqued. You see, since I myself began to muse about this potentially existential threat to mankind I have always seen it as a distraction as I have felt that the process of human augmentation, who's origins can be traced as far back as Long John Silver, would be the future where any 'rise of the machines' would carry us with them. Indeed it is more likely that, if we are to seek out a dystopian slant on this discussion, the horror future would be one where augmented humanity (wealth) and vanilla humanity (poverty) were at odds with each other.

Notwithstanding the philosophical discussions however, the announcement last night, as is so often the case, has proven to be a lot less than the aficionados predicted and a lot more than the sceptics expected. The company (Neuralink) appears to be making solid progress albeit not in human bodies. Indeed Mr Musk himself appeared to blurt out to the chagrin of the scientists around him that they had successfully tested their tech in a monkey. Putting aside my own personal misgivings about trialling these things on unsuspecting lab rats or monkeys, this would appear to be pretty significant news. If we are to take the claims at face value, the technology has now been proven in principle and we should not underplay the significance of this revelation.

Science has been integrating tech with flesh and bone for decades but it is the incursion into the last bastion of the unexplored, the human brain that makes this so important. We need only look at the global attention that has been given to The Human Brain Project to understand the way this captures our attention. Neuroscientists have been studying for years to understand the workings of the supercomputers we all carry around with us and in connecting machines to our brains we would seem to be a whole lot closer to that day. Questions of the nature of consciousness and the existential nature of what we may call our identity or soul fly around the perimeters of this discussion but at its heart lies the notion that our bodies and indeed our brains are chemical machines and when we can understand the systems in action we can begin to harness them and make them work to our greater good (and bad).

Mr Musk has announced that he and his company of pioneering scientists intend to place their systems into a human in 2020 and this if accomplished will indeed be a day that will go down in history for the long term. So we wait and we watch. A world now used to the headlong nature of progress will perhaps be wowed once again as science takes us to new heights. The future is ours to shape and as with any new technology in the hands of us human apes it will not be a question of what the technology CAN do that will be the measure of the science but rather what we as a species CHOOSE to do with it. Lets hope we're up to the challenge.

Neuralink website here

Livestream of event here

Much more here

 

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The Joy Of Driving

As anyone who has driven on the UK's congested motorways will attest to, when the roads get beyond a critical threshold of overload, the sheer unpredictability of the drivers around you becomes the most important factor in your cognition. All it takes is for one driver to touch the brake pedal, lighting up the brake lights and a chain reaction of terror ensues in their wake. If an accident is luckily avoided then its almost a certainty that one of those frustratingly inexplicable causeless traffic jams will ensue. 

I have always believed in the power of computer network traffic engineering techniques to come to our aid in situations like this. Just like on a crowded pavement, the unpredictability of the individual has made such a solution frustratingly out of reach.

But it seems that automation and machine learning have brought this notion a step closer. By abdicating control to our machines, network traffic theory can be put into practice ensuring that optimal flow continues.

We have always lacked a way for vehicles to work together until recently and it is this collaborative effort overseen and perhaps controlled by a meta intelligence that can bring about the seismic change that has eluded us.

For my own part I detest most driving. Its basically dead time where my brain has to be used for this one mind numbing task despite the fact that I'd much rather be reading a book, getting some work done or even just sleeping. The day when I can tell my car where I want it to go and then switch off until Im there will be a red letter day for me. I was therefore recently pleased to hear the results of some recent research confirming that in tests, a fleet of driverless cars collaborating with each other can improve overall traffic flow by at least 35%.

Michael He, one of the researchers was quoted thus, "Autonomous cars could fix a lot of different problems associated with driving into, within and between cities but there has to be a way for them to work together."

The key will lie in the adoption of standards and, just like during the development of the standards which now dominate the internet, we are in a period of competition where the standard which wins out may not be the best. (Think ATM vs Ethernet for transporting video and VHS vs Betamax for watching it.)

Much of the current testing and development is done using scale models and SBC such as Raspberry Pi or Orange Pi. This enables researchers to avoid the prohibitive costs associated with developing full scale test environments. Using such swarm systems where the component nodes within the network are each able to communicate at least with their neighbours, it became possible for the overarching 'intelligence' to manage the meta priority for optimal traffic flow in such a way as to achieve something approaching harmony in a ballet of competing priorities and near misses that would send most human drivers to the hard shoulder. Cars can now be packed more closely and yet continue to enjoy progress towards the destination in environments which were previously untenable if populated by unpredictable humans.

Interestingly these tests involved simulating a mix of human and automata with the overall network collaboration level set to either egocentric or cooperative. Improvements of 35% were observed during cooperative traffic but during egocentric driving the improvement was as much as 45%.

Machine learning and swarm software modelling is bringing this field of imagined utopia into reality with staggering speed and for this driver, the day when I can tell my car where I'm going and then put my feet up can't come a moment too soon.

 
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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Having recently finished reading Aldous Huxley's great prophetic masterpiece Brave New World, I thought I’d blog a little about the book and how it left me feeling. This book is no stranger to analysis being, as it is, a course book in many academic settings. That it is so, is no surprise. The book is one of the earliest mainstream examples of dystopian literature. First published in 1932 at the height of the great depression, the novel was written in Huxleys house in France. It was his fifth novel and first dystopian work. Huxley himself regarded the novel as a parody of the utopian novels of HG Wells which were extremely popular at the time, referring to it as a negative utopia.

The first thing which struck me about the book were the strong Shakespearian references throughout.

There are perceived allusions to both Hamlet and The Tempest among others however the most obvious nods are to these two plays. The Tempest has been often described as an allegory of imperialism since Prospero, the rightful Duke Of Milan decides to impose his values on the monstrous Caliban. The World State can be seen as the great civilising power sanctioning as it does, only English. The novel gives the impression that all other world cultures have been suppressed globally except for a few ‘reservations’. The character John further resemblees Caliban in that he becomes known as ‘The Savage” when he enters the mainstream world.

Furthermore, as the novel develops, the allusions to Hamlet become more apparent as John tries to balance his two weltanshauungen and their conflicting effects. He is an avid fan of Shakespeare and it seems Hamlet is his favourite play. In the novel there is no evidence of religion. The reader finds out that this is because God is incompatible with the automated mechanised society. The message is that society has eliminated suffering and therefore doesn't need God anymore.

It turns out that Huxleys Brave New World isn't just a portent about science, its also a warning about education and by extension, the media. The reality which becomes apparent is that it is possible to create any required reality in the minds of the citizens by constantly drip feeding them any truth as needed. In the novel, the mechanism used is called hypnopedia however the horrific parallels to modern life with its unabating indoctrinating media are clear. The warnings are stark. Question everything. Make up your own mind. Criticise. Doubt. Assume nothing. Every media agency in the world has its own agenda. Even the so called friendly ones. While were still in a position to seek out the truth its everybody responsibility to do so. Lets not mess things up.

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The Rise Of The Machines

One of the hot topics of the twenty teenies that was totally expected is the examination surrounding the ways in which AI or artificial intelligence will affect our lives and most specifically how AI will affect our jobs. For decades now, celebrated authors from Asimov to Zelazny have used robotics and AI as a key thread around which to weave a story.

That it is prominent in the public consciousness is in no doubt but in recent years as science fiction has slowly begun to become science fact, it is how this technology threatens to directly affect us that has become the core of the discussion. Unsurprisingly the kernel of that discussion has been how it will affect our bank balance and it is here that the real story lies in terms of how the fragile and unweildy human psyche copes against the agile and indefatigable machine.

To properly begin to understand this subject it is important to establish a rather obvious but sometimes surprising baseline. Ever since man discovered the flint and invented the wheel, technology has been changing our lives irrevocably. Its a track we have been travelling for millennia and, as the changes have affected our societies, we've adapted accordingly. Sure there's some tech we'd probably like to have not invented such as the nuke but even that thought is surrounded by controversy as it's by no means certain that we wouldn't still be embroiled in the Second World War if it hadn't been made. Its important therefore to accept that all of the tech in our world today has made the world what it is today and very few of us would seek to go back to a subsistence agrarian and feudal societal model with all its attendant drudgery and disease. Yes we have unemployment in modern society but it is rarely helpless unemployment and by learning new skills, the individual can once again find a foothold in the employment market.

This, in my opinion, is the key fact regarding AI and robots. It's manifest human nature to believe that everything that has gone before was somehow different but the crisis yet to come will change everything because of its uniqueness. The laughable fact that the British during the reign of Queen Victoria believed that they had invented everything testifies to that sentiment.

Looking at more contemporary disruption such as the invention of the tractor and the factory robot, its clear to see that whilst jobs have obviously disappeared, others have emerged. It is probably fair to expect that this model which has been the reality for millennia will continue to apply. As our economies develop increasingly technological foundations the need for unskilled human labour will continue to diminish however will not necessarily end. The slightly disturbing concept of meatware which is used to describe humans doing menial tasks that are not able to be done more economically by robots has come into the dictionary. Notwithstanding this unfortunate niche, society will continue to develop as its technology does. 

The key in all of this is the adaptability and indeed the ability of the individual to adapt and learn new and increasingly complex skills. This, if anywhere is where the drawbridge may be pulled up on certain sections of society. AI may well have already arrived. Of that there is no doubt however autonomous AI which can continue to operate with no intervention from humans for decades or indeed indefinitely is still a long way off. This is where the future human workforce will ply its trade and it was ever thus. 

Another interesting area which opens up as a result of this discussion topic is that of human robotic augmentation. It may well be the destiny of the human race to slowly mechanise using increasingly powerful technological assistance which will gradually find social acceptance in its integration into our bodies. This may present us with enough of an edge that we can continue to compete with advancing technology or to some it may be the thin end of a terrible wedge which will find us all as barely conscious semi automata, trapped in a body that is not really ours and connected to the hive mind forever. 

The future is coming whether we like it or not and we cannot uninvent that which we have invented. Even the heavily regulated field of human embryonic manipulation is never at a standstill but rather is always creeping forward as taboos slowly dissipate over time. The ratchet of progress can go only one way and it never really stops. As a species we are masters of this planet because of our enormous ability to adapt and overcome the most difficult of environments and it is this core human skill which will be our greatest asset in the decades to come. If we cannot then the social upheaval may well become the biggest influencer regarding our future. Discrepancies of wealth and opportunity in societies are rarely allowed to exist for long and usually end explosively and it may well be therefore that the surest way for humanity to survive is to assure a certain minimum living standard for all as we pivot to a new model where ones ability to earn a living becomes less important. There are many possible futures out there and, as has always been the case, many are terrible and many are not. The future's not ours to see. Que sera sera...

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Get in the back! The robot's driving.

The much vaunted phenomenon of automated cars has returned again to the news this week, Read this here. Events like the DARPA Grand Challenge and their ilk continue however to demonstrate that robots can and probably will develop into the way forward for general purpose motoring and transportation.

The storms in Scotland yesterday saw enormous numbers of vehicles struggling to cope with the adverse conditions and either blowing over or bashing into each other and it probably wont be the last time the winter weather presents challenges to the UK motorist with snow gently falling over our Ayrshire offices again this morning.

These two events show the stark contrast between human and robotic drivers. The simple fact is, well before the end of the next decade, humans will be relegated from the drivers seat into the passenger seats. Ok perhaps not all vehicles will conform to this model. Some vehicles will still allow a human to sit behind the wheel, but only with a vigilant robot “supervisor” who will watch their every move and silently fix the human mistakes whilst simoultaneously scanning for unforeseen hazards. Driving a car as we do today will become a risky hobby which will only be possible on specially designed closed courses.

You think this sounds far fetched? Its no less far fetched however than the notion that humans could be trusted behind the wheel of a vehicle in the first place. Henry Ford would look at todays vehicles with incredulity if he did so in the context of the annual death toll on our UK roads which stood at over 2000 last year. The simple fact is we are terrible drivers and getting steadily worse as technology inside and outside vehicles demands more and more from us. The modern car is probably comparable in complexity of systems to a fighter jet of only a few decades ago.

Couple this with the fact that we are often just plain stupid, our eyesight is poor, our hearing suspect even if we choose not to be blasting the latest hits on our car stereos and we lack any appreciation at all of Newtonian physics, blindly tailgating at 80mph in rush hour traffic. Theres no escaping the fact that judgment is evident on the roads only by its absence. In stark contrast, robot drivers can be programmed with the most vulcan style logic coupled with sensory powers that put the human driver to shame.

The robots in the DARPA Grand Challenge could be easily programmed with the full highway code and could sense distances to within a millimetre in the daylight, in fog or even in the dark They could see in the dark and through the sort of fog that would blind any human driver. These robots are but the first members of a class of devices that will advance along a steep curve like that traced by computers and the Internet over the last two decades and will ultimately seem as old hat as a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in a few short years.

Its important however to bear in mind that filling the UK's roads with robot controlled vehicles is about much more than road safety. The introduction of such capable vehicle control could enable the virtual elimination of traffic congestion by safely increasing the density of vehicles per mile by an order of magnitude. They could also eliminate the need for traffic lights, by having robot controlled vehicles safely nip through the gaps in the crossflow traffic rather than waste time waiting for green lights.

Robotic vehicles could also turn commutes into productive time enabling the human passengers to sit back and catch up on work, watch TV, access the net or even sleep. Indeed it would no longer be a necessity to be able to drive in the first place to make use of the road traffic networks enabling the very young or the very old to get from A to B. Imagine no more school runs or newly qualified driver deaths due to inexperience or worse. One thing is certain though. This prediction will seem ever so quaint in a few years as the whole model of how we move around will be rewritten in ways we cannot yet imagine by the introduction of automated transport. The advent of automated transport is as profound a change as the arrival of the horseless carriage 100 or more years ago and the impact on global society today is no less unpredictable.

Think about how our town centres will look in a world where no car parks are necessary. Nowadays, car parks need to be close to the places we need to get to such as workplaces, out of town shopping areas and town centres however in a world of automated transport, car parks could be anywhere, perhaps miles outside of the areas we needed to get to in the first place and can also store vehicles with far greater density since the whole system will be controlled by the system.

The most significant difference however is probably that in a world of automated transport, fewer people will need to own cars at all, relying instead on fleets of shared vehicles.

It certainly is strange to think of our great grandchildren marvelling at the 2009 KIA C'eed in a museum and looking with wonder at the old pictures of what used to be the M25 whilst listening to the Road to Hell by Chris Rea. They will probably wonder how we ever managed to cope with being trusted with a couple of tons of fuel injected steel.
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